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The Ohio River Flood of 1937

Michael Pitt
University High School, Urbana

In January 1937 there was a great flood. The Ohio River, which was usually high in the winter, spilled over, causing more than $75 million worth of damages. The river had seemed harmless, but conditions of unusually high water, snow melting in the mountains, eighteen straight days of precipitation, and the low level of the towns of Shawneetown and Cairo combined so that these two small towns were almost completely covered by water.

The Ohio River flows from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cairo, Illinois, where it merges with the Mississippi, a distance of fifteen hundred kilometers. It drains nearly 526,000 square kilometers of water per year, half the discharge of the Mississippi River. The Ohio is three hundred to five hundred meters wide and three to six meters deep. It borders Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, and Kentucky. In Illinois, it runs along the state's southeastern border.

The town of Cairo (pronounced Care-oh) is a small town located on the Ohio River where it merges with the Mississippi near the tip of southern Illinois. Established in 1818 by Meriwether Lewis, it was a major port and served many river travelers and traders when the rivers were used for transportation. Its worth decreased gready in the early 1900s when railroads became far more important in business and transportation. Today, it has a population of about five thousand people and contains houses and commercial buildings that were built as far back as 1872. Cairo is also known as "Egypt" because its relationship with the Ohio and Mississippi resembles Cairo, Egypt's, relationship with the Nile. The average rainfall in Cairo is four and a half inches per year.

Shawneetown is significantly larger than Cairo. Born of an ancient feud between two Native American tribes, Shawneetown is also located in the extreme southern portion of Illinois. The feud is said to have begun when a little boy from the Shawnee tribe got into a fight with a little boy from a Delaware tribe over who would have a large grasshopper. The mothers got involved in this argument, and then both members from tribes began to bicker and some left Cairo to establish a new town. Eventually, the Shawnee were forced out of Pennsylvania, where they resided, and moved to Illinois. Whites moved into Shawneetown in 1800, and it was home to the first bank built in Illinois, originally built of logs. This bank, when in business, earned Shawneetown the title of Illinois' financial capital. Shawneetown is also the place where Tom Sawyer, apparently a real person, grew up and met Mark Twain.

The Ohio River began rising on January 5, 1937, but it was not a flood at first. On January 20, experts predicted that the river would reach fifty-two feet in average depth. However, the seawalls (wooden or metal walls constructed along the shoreline to prevent erosion) were sixty feet high. This, coupled with the fact that the river was generally very high (around forty-five feet) at this time of year did not cause people to worry. Even experts were not worried. They were quoted as saying that neither Cairo nor Shawneetown, cities that would be in serious trouble if there were a flood, were in danger.

The experts, however, were very wrong. On January 22, rain began falling all along the river. It rained, hailed, and sleeted for eighteen days straight. Unusually high temperatures of about fifty degrees in the mountains that feed the Ohio caused the snow to melt, and a torrent surged down the river. These two conditions caused the average


In an effort to control the Ohio River, engineers constructed this dam in 1926.
Still, the Ohio overran Us banks in 1937, leaving devastation in its wake.

water level in the river to increase two feet per day. On the third day, people who watched the banks of the river in Shawneetown and Cairo said that they could see the sand within ten feet of the seawall literally boiling from the water pressing under it. Shawneetown and Cairo were evacuated.

On January 31 the water was ten feet over the seawalls in Cairo and Shawneetown. That day, an especially large surge of water from the mountains came in. The river raged, and Cairo and Shawneetown were nearly covered in water.

Rescue boats were sent out in the rain to help victims. The nearby Illinois towns of Rosiclare, Elizabethtown, and Golconda were isolated by water. Over three hundred bridges were smashed, six schools were ruined, and twelve hundred submerged homes left more than a thousand people homeless.

Flooding was not a new thing to these lowland Ohio River towns. Between 1901 and 1937, eight accounts of flooding had been recorded in Shawneetown and Cairo. The first flood crested at forty-three feet in Cairo, and only caused minor problems, the worst being the flooding of the river's bottomlands. Each flood's crest thereafter raised a few feet. The fifth event, in 1912, crested at fifty-four feet, with water surrounding all of Cairo. Most of these floods caused crop loss and minor property damage. However, no one was prepared for the crest of sixty-five feet in 1937, which caused fifty-six - communities to be evacuated.

The flood finally subsided on February 9, 1937. Seventy-five million dollars in damages had been caused, and that was in 1937 when one dollar was equivalent to twelve dollars now. The damages would be equal to nearly one billion dollars today.

In fact, there was so much damage caused to Shawneetown that it actually had to be relocated to a higher area three miles away from the river.

The significance of the 1937 flood is that it was so much worse than the other flooding that civic and industrial groups forced authorities to create a comprehensive plan for flood control. The plan involved reducing Ohio River flood heights by creating more than seventy storage reservoirs. The plan was not fully completed by the Army Corps of Engineers until the early 1940s, but it has drastically reduced flood damages ever since.

The Illinois state song begins, "By thy rivers gently flowing, Illinois." However, as seen earlier, at some times the rivers do not flow so gently. Hopefully, the reservoirs will continue to take care of these problems, so such a tragedy will not happen again.[From R. E. Banta, The Ohio; Derek Bowling, "Shawneetown: The Town That Grew From An Insect War," (Dec. 4, 2001); Ray Long, "Cairo, Illinois," Country/2717/raylong2.html (Nov. 18, 2001); Richard Chaney, "1937 Flood,"!B9!48!A40C840EFOBB/richard chaney/37flood (Dec. 4, 2001); Coal Grove Community, "The Ohio River," www.dbweb. (Dec. 4, 2001); Illinois State Planning Commission; Report on the Ohio River Basin in Illinois; River Web, "By Thy Rivers Gently Flowing, Illinois," projects/Ambot/Archives/vingnettes/people/By %2OThy%20Rivers%20Gently%20Flowing% 20FIBD1.html (Dec. 4, 2001).]


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