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By VINCE LUECKE
As murky floodwater enveloped Perry County in the final weeks of January 1937, veteran Ohio River prognosticators found themselves eating humble pie. For just as the great flood of 77 years ago destroyed much in its wake, it damaged the reputations of those who had long promised waters would never surpass the crests set in previous fights with the river.
But the mighty Ohio kept rising in the final days of the month, smashing records set in 1913 and 1884. Fast-flowing water inundated large areas of Tell City, Cannelton and Troy. In Derby, entire homes were torn from foundations and livestock simply disappeared.
But amid the fear and vulnerability, residents joined hands with one another, relied on neighbors, friends and strangers for help – sheer survival in some cases – and would eventually begin the work of cleaning up.
As the Ohio River neared a crest, low-lying Water Street in Troy was no longer visible. It was the same in Tell City, Cannelton and outlying towns. Many Perry Countians were cut off from the rest of the world. As one resident said at the time, “It was like traveling back half a century. We began using horses and wagons again and the only news came by boat. We gathered around the homes and businesses of the lucky few who had battery-powered radios.”
By Jan. 21, the Ohio River was nearing 46.6 feet in Tell City, already near the then all-time flood record set in 1913. River veterans had long vowed that crest would stand forever. But the river rose more than 2 feet that very night, erasing with ease the then 24-year-old mark.
The Ohio River Power Co. discontinued service at 9:13 p.m. that night, cutting off power to Tell City and Cannelton. The loss of electricity robbed water lines of their pressure. By Saturday, Jan. 23, the river was nearing levels never before imagined, almost 53 feet.
Rescue efforts were mobilized as everyone finally realized this flood would be like none other. Lives, not just property, were in peril.
Rescuers in boats removed 10 elderly or infirmed residents from the upper floors of their homes in Tell City, lowering them from windows in bed sheets tied together. In all, more than 30 people were rescued from their homes and property worth more than $100,000 at the time was moved by workers, many of them from the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The U.S. Forest Service became another crucial partner in relief efforts. Twenty government trucks hauled in much-needed food, bedding and medical supplies. Red Cross food shipments in the county during the first week of the flood alone totaled more than 300,000 pounds.
Business activities were crippled and factories closed. At the Tell City Furniture Co., water covered the first floor of the factory. Tell City Chair Co. had also suspended work.
Even the banks suffered. At Citizens National Bank in Tell City, nearly all of the institution’s records were lost, as was much of the equipment. Water entered the vault and most of the safety-deposit boxes were soaked. Temporary bank quarters were established inside City Hall.
Regular phone service was severed, but a single phone line operated by the Forest Service and running to Paoli was kept in service but was reserved for emergency calls only.
In Cannelton, some families seeking shelter from the rising water moved as many as four times. Mayor W.C. Livers’ committee of local leaders organized relief efforts.
With the dramatic rise of the river the night of Jan. 21-22, Cannelton was virtually cut off. People made wild rushes to buy lamps, coal oil and candles. The handful of cisterns safe from the flood provided much of the drinking water.
Records tallied after the flood showed 184 families driven from their homes in Cannelton, leaving more than 800 people homeless. Water in some areas of the city reached 16 feet in depth, reaching to the Cotton Mill and beyond in other areas.
Coast Guard cutters were anchored at the mill office on Washington Street with St. Louis Avenue so covered motorboats replaced cars and trucks. Up to two-thirds of Cannelton was standing in water at the flood’s peak.
The late William H. Waldschmidt recalled how the flood isolated communities such as his Cannelton had become. “Stores could not get supplies. Mail service stopped. People living in the lower land had to move out and salvage what they could – the river took what was left behind,” he said.
“Electricity was cut off so we had to use coal oil lamps and candles for light. W.J. Gerber had a battery radio in his furniture store on Washington Street and I would stop in there to hear the news. There was nothing to do except to hope and wait for the water to go down.”
Water Street in Troy Under at Least 10 Feet of Water
The flood forced about 30 Troy families from their homes. As in other towns, many residents didn’t expect the river to reach levels set by previous floods. That mistake cost many their belongings as the water eventually reached the second floors of homes nearest the river. Water even covered the street in front of St. Pius Catholic Church.
But Troy, unlike some other towns in the county, had a road leading to higher ground. Troy Ridge Road was never cut off and provided an outlet for fleeing residents and an inlet for aid.
In comparison, the river town of Magnet was cut off from the world for 12 days. Water literally surrounded its homes and businesses. But the town didn’t see the surging flows of water that ravaged other towns. Residents knew they were lucky.
“Practically everyone lost something but few buildings were washed away, though many were rendered unfit for future use,” the burg’s correspondent wrote in the first post-flood issue of the Tell City News published March 5.
A large warehouse owned by Mrs. William Cassidy was washed away in Magnet, as was the houseboat lived in by Mr. and Mrs. Shorty Miller. The gas station owned by Lewis James was completely under water.
After nearly two weeks of isolation, a Forest Service employee finally brought a shortwave radio into town. Soon after, other boats brought in nurses who administered typhoid shots to everyone they could find.
Rome Waits for Help
Rome suffered less damage but its residents were equally alarmed when backwater crossed the roads leading into the town. At times, the river climbed 3 inches an hour. Families living in the lowest lying areas of the town moved in with neighbors.
By Jan. 22, water had reached and surpassed the 1913 crest and hours later, topped the slightly higher 1884 flood stage. The radio was the only means of communication with the outside world. By the time the water stopped rising, the old record had been beaten by more than 8 feet.
On the day the flood reached its crest, the H&C Ferry boat brought much needed supplies to Rome. The steamer Ottawa brought more Red Cross supplies and later, doctors and nurses. Although farmhouses situated on higher ground around Rome were spared, nearly every house in town took on water. The only exceptions were the church and school building and the John A. Huff residence.
Derby Responds Late as Flood Tears at Hard-Hit Town
Derby was among the hardest hit of rural communities in 1937, with several homes and stores destroyed or heavily damaged. Two homes were torn from their foundations.
James Morgan’s house was carried about a mile downstream and deposited on Louis Alexander’s farm. Charles Harris’ home floated away, too, before it parked itself on the Martin farm, another mile-long journey.
Its residents familiar with the river, few in Derby felt much apprehension, the town correspondent reported in hindsight. In fact, one resident was laughed at and jeered when he began hauling his family’s personal belongings to higher ground a couple of days before the river crossed the first streets.
When the river kept climbing, panic replaced bravado. Derby folk began moving items before dawn Thursday as water reached the front doors of several homes and stores.
At Morgan’s store, articles on floors or under counters were moved to a store on higher ground and gasoline tanks were pumped out and sealed.
Matters were even more dire at the nearby J.B. Cunningham store, where water reached 8 inches in depth – in the second story where the family lived.
Farm animals were among the losses. Many farmers lost chickens. Earl Mogan lost more than 400 birds while Frank Sandage lost five head of cattle. Dozens of barns, corn cribs and other outbuildings in and around town were washed away.
The late Max York, writing years later, commented on the damage in the town. “Derby was almost destroyed. Several houses were gone and more were torn up so badly they were not ever used again. Never has Derby recovered its prominence and importance to surrounding residents.”
Residents Rally to Aid of One Another
Throughout the flood, mutual aid helped ease the pain of the disaster. Dozens of families opened up their doors to not only friends and relatives, but to strangers.
The late Lucile Schergens recalled how her and husband Edgar’s home was used to store canned goods hastily pulled from the shelves at the A&P grocery.
“They shoveled (canned goods) into the basement through the coal chute, just like it might have been coal,” she said.
The Lorch farmhouse in Troy housed several families and in most communities, those with extra rooms lent beds to others.
The work of CCC men was praised by everyone as men who had been busy planting trees and battling soil erosion helped remove valuables from the water’s reach. The flood claimed no lives directly but one CCC man who fell into the backwater, contracted pneumonia and later died.
Members of local veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, answered the call for volunteers.
Other communities provided help. The city of Huntingburg sent water in large trucks and Western Union provided courier service for telegrams after its lines went under water.
A local dairy untouched by the flood pasteurized milk around the clock, serving not only its own customers but those of local competitors who were forced to close. The monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey sent several hundred loaves of freshly baked bread one day.
Churches rallied to the cause, with volunteers keeping church kitchens open around the clock to feed the displaced and hungry volunteers. Lucile Schergens summarized the community spirit half a century later.
“These were extremely hard days for everyone, but local citizens rallied to the cause. It seemed to bring out the best in everyone. There were many sad events, but happy and proud ones, too.”