In January 1937, Louisville was the site of one of the largest floods in American history.
With only brief interruptions, it rained for two weeks, from January 9 to 23, with the second week bringing wintry conditions to accompany the rain. At its peak, the Ohio River reached a crest of 57.1 feet—nearly 30 feet above flood stage, and 11 feet higher than the previous record high-water mark.
For days Louisville was without power. Water use was restricted, and food and fuel were rationed.
Thousands of people were stranded as an estimated 75% of the city disappeared under the waters. Downtown Louisville looked like an island, with the water filled with boats and debris.
Kentucky Governor Albert B. “Happy” Chandler declared martial law and sent troops to help evacuate 230,000 of the city’s 350,000 residents to higher ground. Flood waters are reported to have reached as far south as Churchill Downs.
The river stayed above flood stage for 23 days. According to the book The Great Flood of 1937, Rising Waters—Soaring Spirits, 90 people died as a direct result of the flood in Louisville, and the city suffered $52 million in damages.
But it seems that the Great Flood couldn’t wash away Louisville’s fighting spirit. After a major cleanup, things were back on track by Derby Day in May.
Though Louisville was the hardest hit, communities all along the Ohio River were devastated by the flood of ’37. The entire city of Paducah was evacuated, and for a time Covington’s Roebling suspension bridge was the only bridge open along the river’s entire 800-mile length.
Damages in Kentucky were estimated at $250 million. The disaster led to a boom in floodwall construction and a greater role in flood protection for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Great Flood of 1937, Rising Waters—Soaring Spirits, available from Butler Books, chronicles the flood in more than 150 photos. Many were drawn from the extensive local history collection at the University of Louisville Photo Archives.
- Program 112
- The restoration of a Louisville landmark, the Barney Bright clock; local Girl Scouts; the Louisville Slugger museum and factory; and a retrospective on the 1937 Ohio River flood. (#112)