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. Cincinnati.com 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.”
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.
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.”
Another in the “background” series, I love how this baby’s head seems both to be surrounded by a halo and to have a bottle sticking out of it. This was found in the Bay Area and was likely taken somewhere in San Francisco or the East Bay. I wonder if any trace of the sign remains. There is something appealing about the old signs that were hand-painted on buildings (as this was one was; you can see the lines of the siding running through it), and there are several websites devoted to ones that remain, sometimes called “ghost signs.”
Here is a close-up of Coke baby.
This photo is dated Sept. 1913 and is labeled “Fashion Show” at bottom right – and the streets do appear to have been decorated for an event. What I find intriguing, though – apart from the horse and buggy/automobile combination I talked about previously – are the signs you can just about make out. At far left there is a blurry one for “Shoes,” while the next door down is “Bar,” and across the street you find “Eat.” Nice and simple.
This is a circa 1940s shot of the premises of KFQD Radio in Anchorage. KFQD still exists, and was, according to its website, the first radio station in Alaska, having begun broadcasting in 1924. Funnily enough, they actually have a similar photo on their “About Us” page, part of which I have reproduced below. In case you are dying to know, the window to the left sports a sign for Ed Coffey Insurance, and the one on the right says “Airways Office.”
This shot is dated February 11, 1930, notes the streets on the back and also mentions “Bay in background” – and you can indeed see it if you enlarge the photo enough. A quick check online reveals that unfortunately nothing in this photo seems to exist today. The block in the middle is open space, and the surrounding streets are occupied by the typical contemporary mishmash of larger buildings. Another step “forward” in American urban planning.
This photo shows the Madison Theatre – part of what was then Detroit’s theater district, Grand Circus Park – at right. The theater itself no longer exists, but the office building that it was part of is still there. (Apparently many theaters of the 1910s and ’20s were built attached to office structures in case motion pictures turned out to be a passing fad.) Constructed in 1916, the theater sat just over 1800 people and was, as historicdetroit.org says, “a key link between the small Detroit theaters of the turn of the century and the extravagant movie palaces that would rise in the 1920s.” The Madison would go on to be the first theater in Michigan to screen a feature-length talking picture when it showed “The Jazz Singer” at the end of 1927. It closed in 1984. The last movie shown was “The Dead Zone,” and the title remained on the marquee for years.
Here is a shot of the remains of the lobby taken by David Kohrman of the excellent forgottendetroit.com, just before the space was razed in 2000.
It’s a little blurry, but here is a view of the lobby in its heyday.
Lastly, here is a fuller view of the exterior around the time the snapshot would have been taken, although the marquee is slightly different.
The building that housed the theater seems to be doing well. According to a story on CBS Detroit from earlier this year, “the 1917-vintage Madison Theatre Building — now rechristened The M@dison by its new owner, Dan Gilbert and his Rock Ventures LLC — has been given a spectacular $12 million makeover into some of the coolest work space anywhere.” Coincidentally, the same year the theater space was demolished, the Detroit Tigers’ new stadium, Comerica Park, opened up nearby, and they say there is a great view of the ballpark from the upper floors. That sounds pretty good, but I can’t help envying the women in the snapshot, who could have gone to see Ty Cobb at the old Tiger Stadium (known as Navin Field in that era) – perhaps that very afternoon.
This photo is dated August 1937 on the stamp on the rear – the year the Great Depression deepened after actually having eased somewhat in the previous few years. By the following year unemployment would hit 19%. I don’t know if five cents was a great deal back then for what they were offering, but I would imagine it must have been a pretty good price or they would not have featured it so prominently. In any case I like the directness of the sign: what else, really, did you need to know?
Apart from that, though, the photo is just pretty stunning for a snapshot, I think: the lines, the angle, the light, the lone automobile, the hulking building looming over the hamburger stand, and where the 5-cent sign ended up being placed compositionally. But was the photographer perhaps actually making a photo of the large building, and the corner of the diner just ended up getting in the way?