The Great 1937 Flood

Big Four Bridge in Background

On This Date In History: If you remember the photo associated with this post, you are probably collecting Social Security. Those photos are from the 1937 flood in Louisville except for the one above from post Katrina New Orleans in 2005 posted to show the similarity of Louisville in 1937.  There are so many more than I can post but you can find a number of shots from the Mitchell Collection of 1937 photos made available through the National Weather Service.  The top photo is from the Confederate Monument near U of L looking back toward downtown. The lower photo is from 1st and Breckenridge. The 1937 flood is by far the greatest flood event in recorded history on the Ohio River. There really wasn’t much snow but there was bunch of rain in the Ohio Valley basin. As an example, Louisville got 15 inches of rain from the 12th to the 24th of January and 19 inches for the month. The entire Ohio Valley basin received an over abundance of rain. The Ohio River in Louisville crested on January 27, 1937.

L&N Railroad Depot at 1st Street

On this date in 1937, the water finally began to recede from record levels of over 85 feet on the lower gauge of the McAlpine Lock and just over 52 feet on the upper gauge. The flood stage is 55 feet and 23 feet respectively.

The Falls of the Ohio is the result of a geological rise. There is a fall in the elevation of some 26.5 feet over 2 miles. The rapids were said to be spectacular with one observer in 1811 saying it was “more spectacular than Niagara.” It was said you could hear the roar of the water from miles away. Trouble with this was that when the river was low, it was not navigatable. If you were going down stream, you took your cargo and unloaded it at Louisville and then reloaded on another vessel at Portland. The falls are part of the reason for Louisville’s existence. It was either at the end of 1830 or 1831 that the Louisville and Portland Canal opened up as a way to circumnavigate the falls in times of low water. Later, in 1870, the US Army Corps of Engineers embarked on a canalization of the Ohio River project. It would create over 50 locks and dams along the river to ensure consistent navigation. The final dam was the one at Louisville in 1925, though it has been updated many times. The last was in the 1960’s when they went from a wicker dam to a permanent structure across the entire river.


I wonder how high the river crested?

It was the greatest flood of 175 years of civilization; greater than the floods of 1773 and 1884.  I got some flack for previously posting the photo of the horse in the tree to the right, but it sure shows how high the water was, though I admit it is rather gruesome.  Seventy-Five percent of Louisville was under water and across the river in Indiana, 90% of Jeffersonville was submerged.  In 1937 dollars, the damage was pegged at $250 Million.  Today that would be about $3.5 Billion and remember 1937 was the deepest days of the Great Depression.  A calamity such as the flooding in 1937 not only brought a burden to the economy as a whole, but also it just piled on the personal tragedy that had happened to millions of Americans.  From January 13 to January 24 1937, Louisville received 15 inches of rain.  The heavy rain fell all across the Ohio Valley basin.  Over the entire month, 19 inches of rain fell in the city with zero snowfall.   According to the 1937  Monthly Weather Review, the scenario began in December 1936 when heavy rains fell across the Ohio Valley watershed and then continued into January.  Curiously, it states that there was very little snowcover over the region and the river at the outset was at relatively low levels.  As the rain continued, the ground became saturated and the runoff became extreme.    Evidence suggests that it was the greatest in geologial history. But…there wasn’t a series of dams on the river for all time.

Churchill Downs January 1937

By 1937, the canalization was complete.  I want to know if the canalization of the Ohio had any effect on the flood of 1937.  The role of the Corps of Engineers, even today, is not for flood control but strictly navigation. The absence of any mention in the NWS report is curious. Would the flood of 1937 been less if the river had been allowed to flow freely and is that the reason why in geologic time there has not been a bigger flood?   This history of the Ohio River Flood of 1937  suggests that in reaction the flood, the Corps of Engineers was charged with creating over 70 storage resevoirs.  I suppose one might take that as a stealth suggestion that maybe the dams had something to do with the severity of the flooding.  In this USGS Review of the 1997 Flood in Southern Ohio, the report makes comparisons to the 1937 flood and talks of “backwater caused by the Ohio River” but does not address whether that backwater would have existed and, if so, to what degree had the system of dams not been in place.  I dunno and in pragmatic terms I suppose it doesn’t matter.  For all intents and purposes, the condition of the modified river is in fact the condition we live with and no one will go around tearing down the navigation controls.  But, it doesn’t mean that I’m not curious.

The thumbnail to the left illustrates the amount of rain that fell over the Ohio Valley.  Notice the deepest part of the bullet point is over Louisville but really the excessive rain really fell all over the Ohio Valley.  It affected all cities along the Ohio but was probably more pronounced in Louisville due to the geography with the rise and the bend.  In essence, what happens is that when the river rises, it wants to go straight across what is more or less a peninsula on which Louisville is located.  The reason why all of Louisville was not submerged is because the river valley rises reasonably abruptly and by 1937, the city had expanded into the higher areas, referred to as the Highlands.   

Fisher Letter Page 2

Fisher Letter page 1

Like any disaster, a call for aid was sent out across the nation, and as is the case today, Americans responded.  For a time, the only way to get to Louisville was by boat and by the river.  That was also probably the most expeditious way to get here.  Now, in history, first hand accounts of a particular situation can be extremely valuable.    Brian Plain shared a letter he found from a sailor named Albert Fisher who came to Louisville after he heard the call for help.  It is very very interesting to read of the observations of someone who was actually there and hear what he was feeling.  While it is really a cool document, let us hope that in the future, there will be no need for accounts to be written about another flood.  Unfortunately,  that is probably wishful thinking.  With the buildup of urban areas along the river, it seems inevitable that it will happen again. 

NWS Fearless Snow Forecast as of midday Thursday-pretty reasonable outlook at this point

12Z Thu NAM snow total through Saturday Evening

Weather Bottom Line:   Okay…a few days ago I had guess about 4 inches of snow but I reiterated that it was strictly a guess.  This is a real close but the trend has been all along to run the low a bit farther south than earlier runs.  That has been the case for the past several days.  Yet, someone out there is spreading the idea of 10 inches or more of snow.  I know, I’ve heard that from people on the street.  Is that possible?  Yes, if the track of the storm were to be a shade farther north.  The Canadian model was the one model that seemed to be advertising that.  But, on the other hand, there were some models  indicating zero snow for Louisville.   For some reason though, tv foofs want to grab the one extreme and run with it but ignore the opposite extreme which is just as likely (or unlikely).  The truth is most likely somewhere in between.  My old pal Jay Cardosi had a typically responsible outlook on Wednesday night which illustrated 1-3 inches in Louisville with more well south and less than an inch north of Louisville.  But, he pointed out that the event was 36 hours away and that there were many variables at play.  Well, one variable is timing and it seems pretty clear to me that this thing gets started around midday on Friday and carries on to midday on Saturday.  The NAM is rather bullish with 4.3 inches of snow from its 12Z Thursday run.  The 12Z GFS Thursday run calls for 2.3 inches.    That is the supportive data for 1-3 to 2-4 inches of snow. 

12Z Thu GFS Snow Total Through Saturday Evening

Now, the European model seems to be in concert with the general scenario of the GFS and NAM.  The UK Met also seems to be in some agreement though the timing is shifted by about 12 hours and it has the heaviest snow on Saturday morning and carries snowfall until sunset.  The US Navy’s NOGAPS models is designed for tropical weather but it seems to be most similar to the UK Met.  The one guy out there that is still stubbornly holding on to a heavier scenario is the Canadian model. I can’t quantify it but it does still run the low farther north and has our area in a heavier snow fall for a longer period than any of the others.  So..what to do?  I am personally anticipating light snow perhaps by Friday afternoon and by early afternoon Saturday about 4 inches of snow in Louisville.  If I am wrong about that, in all liklihood, the total will be less.  If my guess, which for this specific micro snow forecast is all anyone can do, is wrong and we get more…then I will be happy. I like snow.  Oh..BTW…I don’t see how we get above freezing on Sunday.  So, just sit back and see how it shakes out.  It’s going to do what it’s going to do regardless of what anyone or any computer says. 


4 Responses

  1. How can I get permission to use a photo or two on this site for a book I am working on? I would like to include at least one of your photo’s in the book.

  2. I will try to help you find the original sources. Thanx for your interest

  3. I would like to leave a reply

  4. Feel Free to do so

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