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Our Rich History: Two brothers — who lived it — recount dark memories of the Great Flood of 1937

A view looking south from Devou Park toward the flooded areas of Willow Run and Lewisburg. The steeple of St. John’s Church can be seen at center right. (Courtesy of Paul Tenkotte.)

By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to the NKyTribune

Thursday — January 26, 2017 — marks a special day of remembrance in the history of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. It was on that day 80 years ago, when the Ohio River crested at 79.9 feet after a seemingly endless rise above the already high 52 foot flood stage. No one who lived through it had ever seen anything like it before.

It became known as the Great Flood of 1937, the most physically destructive and psychologically disruptive natural disaster in our history. According to the weather service, the flood of 1937 “surpassed all previous floods during the 175 years of civilized occupancy of the lower Ohio Valley.”

It all began inauspiciously enough. Area residents could expect a little rain to come in January; so when it began to fall on the first Tuesday of that month, few thought anything about it. But the rains never let up.

Aerial view of the devastation. Covington can be seen in the foreground with Newport and Bellevue beyond. The Fifth Street bridge over the Licking River can be seen in upper right. (Courtesy of Jim Resing and Paul Tenkotte.)

For weeks, residents gazed out their windows at the darkened skies and watched as the downpours continued day after day. From January 13-25, six to twelve inches fell, the largest total ever recorded in Ohio. Like a wild beast on a rampage, the waters of the Ohio River hungrily consumed large parts of the cities of Cincinnati, Covington and Newport, along with every river city and town from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois. Few who experienced it firsthand ever forgot it.

For Art Pranger, 91, and his brother Ralph, 88, the memories of living through those three awful weeks are still as fresh and vivid as if they had happened only yesterday.

At the time, they were 11 and 8 years old respectively and lived with their parents on West 13th Street above Willow Run in Covington. When the rain began, they were coming off Christmas vacation and had just started back to school at St. John Catholic Church in the city’s Lewisburg neighborhood.

“We had three ballfields in that valley,” Ralph Pranger remembered fondly. “We had the Goldenrod ball field and the Covington ball park, which was semi-pro. That was a big ball park over there past Pike Street where the highway is now. And the Goldenrod was the same way — big stands, and they even had prize fights there. But every January or February, those yards down by Bullock and Watkins Street — the yards were sunken — and the water would always come up. We’d come home from school down Bullock and everybody’s tossing stones in people’s flooded yards, and the owners are out hollering at us to stop that!”

Art Pranger, younger sister Mary Jo and brother Ralph at waters’ edge on West 13th Street not far from their home. (Courtesy of Larry Pranger.)

Running the length of Willow Run was the main sewer line, built in 1906 to serve Lewisburg residents. It emptied into the Ohio River at the spot where the Brent Spence Bridge is today. Every winter, the sewer could be expected to back up if the river rose substantially, pushing its raw, brackish contents back up into the homes and businesses through the drains. And so it was in the first weeks of January 1937 that many homes in the lower-lying areas became flooded, forcing people to move out and businesses to close. And as the waters continued to rise, it became obvious to everyone that something greater was beginning to happen.

The first thing that happened for most schoolchildren was like manna from Heaven. “We were off school for three weeks!” Ralph Pranger remembered with a broad smile, recounting that particular happiness of boyhood. “We were cut off from the western side of Lewisburg. The flood was over Pike Street and I said, ‘Yippee! No school!’”

His brother Art remembered one particular night walking down into the valley with his father to investigate the rising tide.

“It was a Friday night,” he began. “I went down with my dad to the bottom of the hill, and you could see the water starting to come up. When it started to cross the road, we decided to walk back. It was just a little stream going across the bottom of the road then.” That night as he went to bed, he forgot all about the little stream of water. “I remember waking up next morning,” he said. “I guess it was eight or nine o’clock, and I looked outside, and it looked like somebody put an ocean down there!”

Art Pranger and his brother Ralph Pranger recount tales of surviving the Great Flood of 1937. (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.)

Brother Ralph continued: “Gosh, I remember how we used to stand down there and watch a particular house until you couldn’t see the chimney anymore. The whole house was covered except for the chimney! Schneider’s down there – they were covered completely, and Volpenhein’s – they got it up to their first floor; then Chessie Craig – they were wiped out.” The two men described with some amazement how it was possible to stand there and watch the water actually rising before your very eyes.

Soon, the ballfields where the two boys often played lay beneath 20-30 feet of water. Only the peaks of houses could be seen poking up around St. John’s Church. Fr. Goebel, the pastor there, had by then converted the school into a shelter, filling it to capacity with displaced families who had been flooded out of their homes. Telephone poles, second-story windows and peaks of houses became the only measuring sticks to track the water’s hungry progress.

“We actually did see a house floating by down where we were, just floating by where I-75 is now,” Ralph recalled in amazement.

Rowboats began to appear in great numbers – simple, wooden things rowed by neighbors or friends who set out into the swirling waters to help others get around. Ralph Pranger remembers: “You had people ferrying people in rowboats from the other side to this side to get groceries.” Boats with police, firemen or members of the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC) also appeared, ceaselessly patrolling flooded areas, rescuing people from second-story windows and transporting them to safety.

Small boats were critical for transporting residents to get food and supplies during the hardest times of the flood. Here, a woman is transported at waters’ edge at Watkins Street just behind 13th Street. St John’s can be seen in the upper right. (Courtesy of Larry Pranger.)

At the Pranger home on West 13th Street, there was no electricity, no gas, and no water at the height of the flood.

“We had to boil water,” Ralph remembered. “You were cautioned to get a reserve of water that would last you for so many days, and they said to make sure you boiled it.”

The entire area was without electricity for three days. A kerosene lamp served as the only light to illumine their home on the dark nights as the swirling, muddy waters of the Ohio threatened at the foot of 13th Street. Art still remembered the kerosene lamp they used, with its long, round wick and tall glass chimney, and how his dad had to go up to the Shell station on 20th Street to get kerosene.

Neighborhood kids, off school and with little else to keep them occupied, found creative and sometimes questionable ways to amuse themselves. According to Art, one particular distraction was flying kites.

“You could fly your kite over the flood,” he remembered pleasantly. “The big deal then was to be able to fly it out of sight. We got #8 sewing thread, and you made your own kite out of tissue paper and a few sticks. Three cents would buy you enough to make a kite that worked.”

“It looked real funny from the suspension bridge, seeing the river just 20 feet below you,” Art Pranger remembered. “There’s 80 feet of water under there!” (Courtesy of Kenton County Public Library.)

Another obsession for a lot of boys was to gather empty oil drums, lash them together and sail them Huck Finn-style across the floodwaters. Art continues: “You had crazy kids building rafts! Kids used to find them oil drums and tie them together, three or four of them, and they’d make a raft. They’d be out there and, man! – that was dangerous, ‘cause if you fell off of one of them, it isn’t like a swimming pool, there’s all kinds of debris and stuff down there!”

Finally, on Tuesday, January 26, the Ohio River reached its crest at 79.9 feet, the highest level in the Tri-State’s history. As if by providence, the rising tide stopped several houses short of the property boundary of St John the Evangelist, sparing the church and school.

As the waters receded further in the following weeks, the full impact of the disaster became fully revealed. Telephone poles were left suspended from the wires they supported. Water and gas mains were shorn off or disappeared completely beneath the shifting earth. Roadways that had been submerged simply fell away or collapsed. Landslides were everywhere, homes were destroyed beyond repair. Tens of thousands were homeless. Many homes had to be razed and families relocated. Many people did not have flood insurance.

As for Art and Ralph Pranger, it was back to school, walking through Willow Run with its deep mud and tangled debris. Ralph Pranger remembers: “One of the effects of the flood was the mud. Down where the ball diamond was, you would sink into the mud way up here,” he said, his hand drawn up to his knee. “It was at least a good foot and a half. And if you got in there, the suction was so bad, you were in real trouble. I did that once, because foolishly you thought you could cut through that stuff, you know. But you had to really fight your way out! And how they ever cleaned those churches of the mud and debris I’ll never know.”

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer and journalist. He has been a columnist for the Kentucky Enquirer, the Oxford Citizen, and was a senior editor at Y’all Magazine. He is the author of “Oxford in the Civil War: Battle for a Vanquished Land (2010).

Pike and West 11th Streets, looking west down flooded Pike Street in the direction of the Willow Run. (Courtesy of Larry Pranger.)

Featured photo courtesy of Larry Pranger.

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One Comment

  1. Jon Grove says:

    Captivating article! The interviews with the Pranger brothers gives the narrative a personal perspective that plays well with the abundance of facts and history presented. Well done!

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