January 26th, 2015
Blog post by Jane Metters LaBarbara, Assistant Curator, WVRHC.
On January 26, 1937, the Ohio River’s floodwater in Parkersburg, WV reached a peak of 55.4 feet, which was 19.4 feet above flood stage. Two days later, the floodwaters at Huntington, WV would also peak at more than 19 feet above flood stage. Thankfully, the flood was not an overnight surprise, but it was also not without cost.
How it all began
The WV Encyclopedia article on the flood gives us benefit of hindsight, crediting the rising river water to “Melting snow and 19 straight days of rain.” The Parkersburg News front page article from Sunday morning, January 24, 1937 (pictured below), gives us a more vivid picture: “Two inches of snow which blanketed the valley Saturday melted away rapidly during the afternoon. Hundreds of persons, sight seeing on the fringes of inundated districts, sloshed about in boots and galoshes. Two more days of rain for the Ohio river basin were predicted last night by the government forecasters in Washington.”
Floodwaters can be hard to predict; as we see from the January 24 headline, the crest was expected earlier than it actually arrived. The headline of the Parkersburg Sentinel on January 19 read “RIVER RISE TO STOP AT 39 FEET.” In the January 24 article above, that prediction was revised to 51 feet, still short of the actual crest of the flood.
Flood Rescue Boat near the Wood County Jail, Parkersburg, WV
According to the Charleston Gazette, the property damage caused by the flood was estimated at $400 million, a total that would rise in the following days to $500 million (more than $8 billion in 2014 dollars). That was a huge drain on disaster relief resources, especially considering that this flood occurred during the Great Depression. As the map in the newspaper below shows, the damage was not confined to West Virginia.
Charleston Gazette front page, January 28, 1937
This wasn’t the first time
Unfortunately, the Ohio River had flooded the communities on its West Virginia border many times before; the page below shows us the heights that floodwaters reached in previous floods in Wheeling, WV. Prior to the 1937 flood, the flood of March 1936 was considered Wheeling’s worst disaster.
First page of the “WWVA Radio [a Wheeling, WV station] Souvenir of the 1936 Wheeling Flood” (from A&M 3470, Wheeling Steel Radio Program. Sound Recordings and Records).
Cover of a booklet containing images of the flooding in many of the affected areas–the “Greatest Flood” title would be surpassed in some areas by the 1937 flood. The record for highest floodwaters in Parkersburg is still held by the 1913 flood, at 58.9 feet.
After the flood
While the flooding left many homeless, communities rallied, dried out, and rebuilt. Some communities, like Huntington, WV, responded to the disaster by building flood walls right away.
Huntington Flood Wall, 1938
For reasons I have not yet discovered, Parkersburg took longer to get started on its flood wall. The newspaper clipping below, from the papers of Harley M. Kilgore, U.S. Senator from WV (A&M 967), shows the difficulty Parkersburg had getting funding for the wall in 1947; construction had begun the previous year.
Senator Kilgore was prevailed upon by local businessmen and others to rectify the situation and advocate for the needs of the people of Parkersburg. In the letter below, the Division General Manager of Imperial Ice Cream in Parkersburg thanks Senator Kilgore for securing the requested $1.5 million needed to complete the flood wall.
A view of Blennerhassett Island through a gate in the flood wall, Parkersburg, WV
Casto, James E. “Flood of 1937.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 21 December 2012. Web. Accessed 24 January 2015. http://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/2372
“Wall protects city from flood.” Parkersburg News and Sentinel. 20 November 2007. Web. Accessed 24 January 2015. http://www.newsandsentinel.com/page/content.detail/id/500106.html?nav=5112
All images are from the holdings at the West Virginia and Regional History Center.
For more on Parkersburg’s floods, check out the Parkersburg News and Sentinel’s historical front pages here: http://extras.newsandsentinel.com/frontpages.asp.
For more on how other states were affected by the 1937 flood, you can start with Wikipedia’s article, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ohio_River_flood_of_1937. They don’t have a section devoted to the effects of the flood in WV yet.
If you’re interested in historical floods, check out Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910 by Jeffrey H. Jackson (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010—available from WVU Libraries as an ebook!). Full disclosure: I enjoy this book because it tells a fascinating story, a former professor of mine wrote it, and he utilized archival records in his research!