The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937

The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937

by David Welky

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In the early days of 1937, the Ohio River, swollen by heavy winter rains, began rising. And rising. And rising. By the time the waters crested, the Ohio and Mississippi had climbed to record heights. Nearly four hundred people had died, while a million more had run from their homes. The deluge caused more than half a billion dollars of damage at a time when the

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In the early days of 1937, the Ohio River, swollen by heavy winter rains, began rising. And rising. And rising. By the time the waters crested, the Ohio and Mississippi had climbed to record heights. Nearly four hundred people had died, while a million more had run from their homes. The deluge caused more than half a billion dollars of damage at a time when the Great Depression still battered the nation.

Timed to coincide with the flood's seventy-fifth anniversary, The Thousand-Year Flood is the first comprehensive history of one of the most destructive disasters in American history. David Welky first shows how decades of settlement put Ohio valley farms and towns at risk and how politicians and planners repeatedly ignored the dangers. Then he tells the gripping story of the river's inexorable rise: residents fled to refugee camps and higher ground, towns imposed martial law, prisoners rioted, Red Cross nurses endured terrifying conditions, and FDR dispatched thousands of relief workers. In a landscape fraught with dangers—from unmoored gas tanks that became floating bombs to powerful currents of filthy floodwaters that swept away whole towns—people hastily raised sandbag barricades, piled into overloaded rowboats, and marveled at water that stretched as far as the eye could see. In the flood's aftermath, Welky explains, New Deal reformers, utopian dreamers, and hard-pressed locals restructured not only the flood-stricken valleys, but also the nation's relationship with its waterways, changes that continue to affect life along the rivers to this day.

A striking narrative of danger and adventure—and the mix of heroism and generosity, greed and pettiness that always accompany disaster—The Thousand-Year Flood breathes new life into a fascinating yet little-remembered American story.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this solid narrative, Welky (Everything Was Better in America: Print Culture in the Great Depression) leads the reader though the history of the 1937 Ohio River flood, discussing both the manmade and natural causes for the extreme flood. By the time the crest passed, the flood had killed hundreds of people, buried thousands of towns, and left a million people homeless.” Yet the devastation is identified by the author as a “catastrophe lost to historians” as it probably is to most Americans. Welky, a history professor at the University of Central Arkansas, examines the role of those involved in relief efforts and the politics of flood control: President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal reformers, the Red Cross, WPA, Army Corps of Engineers, and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. He delves into the troublesome race relations and problems encountered by African-Americans during the flood and deftly traces the flood’s lasting legacy upon the cities and towns in its path—some, like Paducah, Ky., rebuilt and prospered; others, like Shawneetown, Ill., a town that once laughed at a “request for credit from someplace called Chicago,” never regained its population or vibrancy. Welky’s remarkable narrative will be of particular interest to students of the New Deal and 1930s America as well as the general reader. (Oct.)

"A model of the disaster genre. . . . A comprehensive account, including political maneuvers over flood-control bills provoked by the deluge, this well-wrought history reflects thorough research and on-the-ground acquaintance with the Ohio River region."
Douglas Brinkley
"David Welky has done a prodigious job of reminding us about the horror inflicted by the Ohio-Mississippi flood of 1937. At its heart, The Thousand-Year Flood is a Great Depression story not unlike the Dust Bowl tragedy. His scholarship is impeccable. Highly recommended!"

Matthew Klingle
"A wonderfully written, engaging narrative about one of America’s greatest and often forgotten disasters. David Welky captures the people, places, and mood with apt turns of phrase, telling details, and careful attention to atmospherics."

Sarah Phillips
"A well-written and deeply imaginative account of the history of the Ohio valley and the eventful 1937 flood. The book gracefully intercuts a clear narrative of national politics and flood-control policy with engaging and evocative portraits of the Ohio valley's communities and its people—before, during, and after the deluge. It is always interesting, and often riveting."

Library Journal
The immediacy of news coverage of contemporary national disasters has distracted us from their long-lasting effects. Welky (history, Univ. of Central Arkansas; Everything Was Better in America: Print Culture in the Great Depression) details the story of the catastrophic flooding of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in 1937. The flood caused millions of dollars in damage and took almost 400 lives as the river crested, in some places at nearly 60 feet. Welky's scholarship provides a timely (75th anniversary) examination of the flood's impact and of the New Deal responses to it, both the successful and the failed, during a time of tension between a still-conservative nation and an activist administration. Welky not only examines the events themselves but seeks to understand why the flood happened and "why it happened as it did." He also ably explores the legacy of the flood and the changing nature of Americans' connection with nature. VERDICT All readers with an interest in the impact of natural disasters in American history or in 20th-century American studies will find this to be a worthwhile read.—Nancy Richey, Western Kentucky Univ. Lib., Bowling Green
Kirkus Reviews

The story of the worst flood in American history and how it overwhelmed the Ohio river valley and much of the lower Mississippi in January and February 1937.

Writing that "the 1937 flood is a catastrophe lost to historians," Welky (Univ. of Central Arkansas; The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II,2008, etc.) exposes the weaknesses in the Army Corps of Engineers' approach to river management, many of which were known at the time. Had lessons been learned then, perhaps later disasters might have been avoided or had less-catastrophic results. The entire 981-mile length of the Ohio River was above flood stage at one point, along with tributaries from Pennsylvania to Illinois. Water surged 15 feet above previous records, covered 15,000 miles of highway and disrupted rail traffic across the eastern United States. Nearly 400 people died, and more than 1 million were forced to evacuate their homes. By the time of FDR's second inauguration, the flood was in full swing and was mentioned briefly in a radio address January 30th, when the President called for a "national effort on a national decrease the probability of future floods and disasters." Welky reviews the history of the process by which the Army Corps of Engineers institutionalized its role as the lead agency in river management. He argues that the Corps' insistence on building levees and floodways contributed to the scale of the disaster by channeling and accelerating the flood waters which easily over-topped the levees of towns across valley. Unfortunately, nothing ever came of FDR's vision of a national-resources council to coordinate all aspects of river-basin management.

An eye-opening account of a national disaster that has been all but forgotten, as well as a shameful spotlight on the short-sightedness of humans in the face of the awesome powers of nature.

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Product Details

University of Chicago Press
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New Edition
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6.28(w) x 9.24(h) x 1.04(d)

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The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-88716-6

Chapter One


THE MISSISSIPPI, NOT THE Ohio, seems the quintessential American river. It is the Father of Waters, the Muddy Mississip, Old Man River. It is the Delta Blues, Memphis barbecue, the Gateway Arch. The Ohio is a tributary, a feeder, an eternal second fiddle that will never achieve mythic status. Compared with the rowdy Mississippi, known for devouring towns overnight and for shifting its channel at a whim despite engineers' concerted efforts to hold it in check, the placid Ohio lacks sufficient ambition, or power, or panache, or whatever transforms long rivers—which at 981 miles it clearly is—into iconic rivers. Rather than trickling down from mysterious mountain springs, it enters the world in straightforward fashion at the Allegheny's confluence with the Monongahela. Rather than pouring triumphant into the ocean, the ultimate destination for all the earth's water, it yields before completing the journey, as if handing off a baton to the anchor leg of a relay team. When it meets the Mississippi at Cairo, it concludes its run with a whimper. A demarcation line extends from shore to shore where the Ohio's blue-green current merges with the Mississippi's brackish brown flow. The Mississippi regains its muddy color within a few miles of the union, barreling toward New Orleans with no indication of the stream it has just subsumed.

The rivers' names further diminish the Ohio. Mississippi derives from the Algonquin word misi-sipi, or "great water." Ohio comes from the Seneca word oheeyo, meaning "beautiful water." It is an apt though modest moniker, for the Ohio was a beautiful stream. Henri Joutel, a member of the Sieur de La Salle's 1681 expedition that claimed the valley for France, noted its "extraordinarily clear" water and gentle current. Subsequent generations of Frenchmen dubbed it La Belle Rivière. Thomas Jefferson, the first great American naturalist, concurred with their assessment. He called the Ohio "the most beautiful river on earth."

Even though the Ohio is not the Mississippi, dismissing it as nothing more than beautiful overlooks its importance. Its drainage basin draws waters from fourteen states and encompasses almost 204,000 square miles, roughly equivalent to the combined territories of Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Belgium. The valley has long been one of the nation's primary breadbaskets. Its fertile soil nurtured vast fields of corn and oats and supported meadows teeming with cattle, pigs, and chickens. The river's gentle, predictable current allowed industrialists to float coal, steel, and gravel to markets around the country, fusing the eastern half of the United States into a single economic unit.

Native tribes such as the Shawnees viewed the Ohio as a unifying force fostering transportation and communication between faraway clans. Eighteenth-century colonial conflicts transformed it into more of a dividing line than a shared space. Both the French and British Crowns coveted the territory's rich resources. Great Britain established a nominal claim in 1744 when the Iroquois League sold George II's agents most of the upper valley for a pittance. The British government chartered the Ohio Company of Virginia to exploit its new possession, charging the directors, who included future revolutionary George Mason and George Washington's half-brothers Augustine and Lawrence, with the task of settling several hundred thousand riverside acres.

King Louis XV of France had no intention of letting this land grab go unchallenged. In 1749 he dispatched Pierre Joseph Céloron de Bienville to establish a French presence in the valley. Céloron was an old military hand who had commanded forts at Detroit and elsewhere in France's New World colonies. In the 1730s he participated in a punitive mission against Chickasaws who were disrupting trade routes near present-day Memphis. By all accounts a man of deadly seriousness, Céloron believed his new mission would extend the glory of France and was determined to infuse his actions with an aura of ceremony and dignity suitable to that noble goal. Clad in his parade best, he marched two hundred infantrymen and a team of guides from Montreal to the Ohio's headwaters at present-day Pittsburgh, where he supervised the construction of sturdy rafts that conveyed the expedition downstream. At every junction with another river, his men disembarked to perform a rite of conquest. As banners waved and soldiers in dress uniforms stood at attention, Céloron buried a small lead plate that declared Louis's ownership of the surrounding property and warned area natives, few of whom could read, to renounce their alliances with the British. A trooper nailed an announcement calling attention to the hidden plate to a tree, a priest said a prayer, the company fired a salute, and the squad reboarded their boats to push farther west.

France reinforced Céloron's symbolic claims with a hardheaded campaign to propagandize local tribes and strengthen its military force. Britain countered with its own cordon of forts and employed a combination of bribery and threats to woo the natives. The French and Indian War resolved the dispute in Britain's favor, as France abandoned its North American settlements under the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Britain's hold on the region proved short-lived. A new American republic wrested the river away in 1783, although the British maintained a shadow presence until the War of 1812 finally pushed them out for good.

With ownership of the territory decided, at least on paper, a slow trickle of pioneers penetrated the valley in the late eighteenth century. Land speculators staked out plots, hunters roamed the woods, and missionaries searched for souls to save. The river became the new republic's first east-west superhighway as it carried people and goods from established areas near the Atlantic coast into the untrammeled territory beyond the Alleghenies. Opportunities seemed limitless for anyone with the guts to journey into a wilderness teeming with dangers ranging from hostile natives to disease-bearing mosquitoes. "The land it is good my boys you need not to fear," declared the 1810 poem "Banks of Ohio." "'Tis a garden of Eden in North America: / Come along my lads and we'll altogether go / And we'll settle on the banks of the pleasant Ohio."

In its demography the valley replicated the diversity seen back east. Sons of patrician tidewater planters, doughty New Englanders, Dutch exiles from New York, Irish transplants, German immigrants, and descendants of French colonizers peppered the region. Pockets of free and enslaved African Americans occupied the bottom rung of the emerging social hierarchy. Settlers represented a mix of the legitimate and the shady. Shakers, Owenites, Rappites, and other utopianists set up near ramshackle communities. Homesteaders and artisans shared space with shysters and squatters. Industrious businessmen coexisted with drunken down-and-outers. Together they carved out a new world that boasted commercial and cultural links with both New England and the South. A string of towns sprang from the forests and bottomlands, most of them founded by profiteers intent on grabbing a piece of the fortune passing by them on rafts, flatboats, and steamboats.

Antebellum city builders gave little thought to the consequences of developing acreage the jealous Ohio claimed as its own. Money-minded developers exacerbated the natural process of flooding when they denuded the land of water-retaining forests, drained swamps, and plowed up grasslands to plant farms, stores, and cabins. Topographical realities added to the potential for severe high waters. Hills crowding the Ohio's shores confine overflows to a narrow channel. With few escape routes, water piles up on itself until it climbs high above normal levels. An Ohio flood is like pouring water into a glass, where it rises high but leaves the surrounding area dry. In contrast, a flood on the Mississippi's broad plains acts like water spilled on the kitchen floor: it spreads far but stays low.

Residents endured seven major overflows before the Civil War, one during the war, and many more in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These floods did little damage because the preindustrial valley offered few substantial targets. With local economies dependent on the free flow of commodities, removing physical obstacles to trade took precedence over protecting residents from inundation. Summers often saw the Ohio drop low enough to bring commerce to a standstill. A depth of one foot was not unknown. Highwater seasons brought other risks as captains foundered on unmarked shoals and pierced their hulls on driftwood or the submerged trees known as sawyers.

In 1824 Congress appropriated $75,000 to clear snags on the Ohio and Mississippi. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun badgered Speaker of the House Henry Clay into amending the act so as to place the Army Corps of Engineers in charge of the project. Clay's assent initiated a long history of military control over interior waterways. Calhoun claimed the assignment would keep the Corps in fighting trim. He further insisted that his men could do the job more efficiently than private operators, a curious contention because the Corps promptly contracted out the work.

Improving the channel demanded ceaseless labor. The Ohio's current constantly threw up new obstructions. Every rise dragged more driftwood and sawyers into the river. Work ebbed and flowed according to the mood in Washington. Sarcastic boatmen referred to snags as "Polkstalks" in the 1840s because President James Polk vetoed every waterways bill that reached his desk. Millard Fillmore, on the other hand, lobbied for channel funds, a policy his successor Franklin Pierce reversed. Scores of Ohio River steamboats sank as a result of this on-again, off-again approach to internal improvements. Removing obstructions did nothing to insulate vulnerable communities from high water. Congress cited the Constitution's interstate commerce clause as a legal justification for navigation improvements. Responsibility for flood control fell squarely on states and localities.

It took until 1850, almost seventy years after the United States claimed the Ohio valley, for the government to sponsor a far-reaching survey of the crucial waterway. The man who conducted it, the respected engineer Charles Ellet Jr., suggested imaginative ways to improve navigation and combat floods. Future studies disproved some of Ellet's conclusions and exposed gross simplifications in others. Even so, had experts analyzed, modified, and implemented the outline he proposed in The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, it is possible that the 1937 flood might never have happened, or at least would have been far milder. Critics instead dismissed Ellet. It took another eighty years, a revolution in environmental attitudes, and a political sea change to give credence in the halls of power to his vision of a national program that treated land and water as an intertwined ecosystem subject to human manipulation.

Ellet was an energetic jack-of-all-trades who at various points in his life became an expert in bridges, canals, railroads, hydraulics, weaponry, and economics. With his brilliance came a profound impatience that made him quick to attack contrary opinions and bitter that he never found greater fame. Frequent bouts of ill health exacerbated his harsher tendencies. He was above all an individualist, reluctant to work as part of a team or follow a logical career path. Ellet went where his interests took him, bouncing from job to job in search of better things. In many ways he reflected the United States at midcentury—mechanically inclined, committed to self-betterment, obsessed with wealth, and eager to weave the Union's disparate threads into a cohesive economic unit.

Ellet's abrasive personality came from his father, a foul-tempered former hardware salesman who exchanged his business in Philadelphia for a run-down farm after his three-year-old son died. Charles's mother, Mary, was a more admirable character whose poise tempered some of her husband's gruffness. Farm life did not come naturally to Mary, an educated woman from a middle-class Jewish family. Charles Jr., her eldest surviving child, also despised the countryside. His innate aptitude for math inspired dreams of escaping the farm to become an engineer.

Ellet's goal fit the times. The 1820s saw a boom in canal construction soon matched by a flurry of railroad building. Transportation companies needed bright young men who could perform complex calculations as they tramped through the wilderness. The work required no formal education—Ellet had received some informal tutoring but never attended school. Instead, it demanded a capacity for learning on the fly. No American university other than West Point even offered a degree in civil engineering when the precocious seventeen-year-old signed on in 1827 as an assistant engineer for a Pennsylvania canal builder. His primary qualification was that he was strong enough to schlep equipment through the undergrowth as he marked a path for the diggers following behind.

The budding engineer honed his surveying, mathematical, and mapmaking skills during a two-year stint with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company, a venture intended to link the Ohio River with the Atlantic Ocean. When legal difficulties bogged down the ambitious project, Ellet left for an extended tour of Europe. With its fantastic structures and intellectual cachet, the Old World was a popular destination for American mechanics hungry for inspiration and prestige. Ellet gaped at magnificent French cities, canals, suspension bridges, railroads, and reservoirs. It was all so unlike the rudimentary towns and primitive infrastructure he knew from home. His fieldwork matured him as an engineer. He came home with an awareness of new trends in the profession and a burning desire to surpass European achievements.

Ellet spent the next decade building canals and railroads while searching for an opportunity to introduce America to his new love, the suspension bridge. Marriage did nothing to blunt his determination to succeed. If anything, his thirst for fame grew as he labored to support his bride. Ellie Ellet was in many ways her husband's opposite. A patient, good-natured woman, she endured innumerable separations over their twenty-five-year union as Charles pursued his career and his dreams. She viewed his frequent leave-takings as part of the burden of marrying an up-and-comer. He spent more time in the wilderness than at home during these busy years and always kept one eye on the glorious destiny he imagined for himself. Imposing order on the American backwoods was not enough to fulfill him. Hurried meals in secluded taverns offered snatches of time to sketch out future projects that might push him into the national spotlight. After absentmindedly shoveling food into his mouth, the young man with a mission would store his dreams, stuff his notes into his saddlebags, and ride off down the line to renew the more prosaic task of surveying.

A propensity for rubbing employers the wrong way kept Ellet on the cusp of unemployment even after his Essay on the Laws of Trade (1838), an attempt to establish scientific principles for setting freight rates, gained him a measure of recognition in professional circles. Frequent bouts of dizziness, weakness, and indigestion further soured him. His impressive six-foot-two stature combined with his narrow features and prominent nose to produce an awkwardness many found off-putting, especially in conjunction with his arrogance. In photographs he looks not at the camera but into some undefined middle distance, as if contemplating his next venture rather than interacting with the person standing before him.

Ellet craved the attention that came from a bold engineering statement. He spent months trying to literally sell a bridge to towns along the Ohio before finally winning a contract to build a suspension bridge over the Schuylkill, not far from Philadelphia. Following a successful job there he signed a high-profile contract to span the Niagara near its famous falls.

The engineer's first challenge at Niagara was to extend a wire across the gorge, a puzzle he solved with a showman's flair. Ellet promised a five- dollar bounty to any boy who flew a kite over the falls. Young Homer Walsh cost him five dollars and gave him a significant prize; he used the kite string to drag a series of progressively thicker cords across the gap. Eventually he had in place a wire capable of serving as a foundation for the rest of the bridge. His thirst for publicity shone throughout the building. Ellet's journey across the falls in an iron basket dangling from the bridge cable silenced critics who questioned the strength of his construction. "The trip was a very interesting one to me—perched up as I was two hundred and forty feet above the Rapids, and viewing from the center of the river one of the sublimest prospects which nature had prepared on this globe of ours," he wrote with undisguised glee. A few weeks later he steered a speeding horse-drawn buggy across the temporary wooden catwalk connecting the two shores.

Between foolish displays of bravado, Ellet quarreled with his suppliers and his clients at the New York Railroad Company. Ellet's hatred of his employers grew so intense that he rolled cannons to either side of the chasm and threatened to pulverize anyone approaching "his" property. Then he simply walked away, leaving behind a half-finished bridge. John Roebling, who had bid against him for the original contract and later oversaw initial construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, finished the job several years later. Roebling used Ellet's structure as a scaffolding for his own span before dismantling the earlier work.


Excerpted from THE THOUSAND-YEAR FLOOD by DAVID WELKY Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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