City Views: The 1937 Cincinnati Flood

by mc

Vintage photo of the 1937 Cincinnati flood, when the water was at a level of 72.8 feet

Cincinnati flood waters just short of their maximum height, January 1937

In what has been called the “worst natural disaster ever to strike Cincinnati–and the Ohio River Valley,” the Ohio River flooded (from about Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois) for ten days in 1937, causing a loss of almost 400 lives (though only one in Cincinnati itself) – as well as, in today’s dollars, $7.8 billion of property damage. published an absorbing article on the event in January of this year – the flood’s 75th anniversary. The piece recounts the local library’s request for photos of the disaster, and says that they expected about 200 photos, but ended up receiving more than 700.

“Families that weathered this disaster squirreled away images of the rampaging river, of houses upturned, of people waiting in line for hours for some safe water to drink. They preserved these memories in their mind’s eye and on film. Some could only save the mental images. Not everyone could afford a camera in the middle of the Great Depression. But, they could remember. And, as these stories have been passed down from generation to generation, they have not been forgotten.”

Inscription on rear of vintage snapshot detailing how far the Cincinnati flood waters had risen

The inscription on the rear; the water would eventually reach 79.99 feet

Indeed, the article contains several eye-witness accounts from people still alive who retain vivid memories of the ice-cold water (it even snowed during the flood), months spent living elsewhere while homes and businesses dried out, and the fire that occurred on what is called “Black Sunday,” when gasoline storage tanks were knocked over by rushing water and a fire was ignited by a spark from a short circuit.

“Black, toxic smoke choked the air. Factories and houses in the beleaguered neighborhood burned to the water level. Telephone service and electricity stopped. The water works shut down. Natural gas lines were turned off. The city want dark, except for the flames burning into the night. More than 100,000 Greater Cincinnatians were homeless.”

As 79-year-old Lou Jacobs recalled, “It was miserable in Northside during the flood. The water was a filthy mix of oil and sewage and dead carcasses. It stunk. But that did not stop people from coming down to get their feet wet to take pictures.”

98-year-old Dan Henry lives in California and is another who remembers the flood – and may have had a better view of it than just about anybody. He was a pilot who took to the air to capture images for the Cincinnati Enquirer, and was shocked at the devastation he saw. He took the photo below of Crosley Field, the baseball stadium of the Reds at the time. The field had had sand placed on it before the waters came, and was rather amazingly ready for the start of the season a little over two months later.

Crosley Field, home of the Cincinnati Reds, during the 1937 flood

Crosley Field filled with water during the 1937 flood (Photo: Dan Henry)

Lou Jacobs remembered his parents returning to their clothing store some time after the waters receded. The shop would stay open for another fifty years, and “from time to time we tried painting the walls…But every time we did, the paint would peel off. Those walls got so wet in The Flood, they never dried.”

And in a reminder of how times have changed, Jacobs also recalls that drinking water was rationed for months afterwards, so he and other kids were sent down to the river each day to collect water in bottles to use to flush the toilet. “Nobody worried about us little kids being kidnapped…It was the Great Depression. People had too many kids of their own.”