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Our Rich History: The Flood of 1937 and flood control in Newport; a controversy over 79.99 ft. measurement

By Deborah Pitel
Special to NKyTribune

Part 28 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020”

In 1937, the population of the United States had reached 129 million, and the nation was deep in the throes of the Great Depression. In the early 20th century, continued immigration from Europe was accompanied by new migrants from Appalachia. They settled in cities like Newport, in search of jobs, housing, and social services.

Newport’s population — over 32,000 — was burgeoning, even though many wealthier citizens had escaped the flood-prone West End for the hillside suburbs. Nevertheless, the West End of Newport remained home to most of the city’s manufacturing, utilities, and transportation services, as well as residences for industrial workers, rivermen, and tradespeople (Donald R. Bauer “Floods to Floodwalls in Newport, Kentucky: 1884-1951,” p. 55. Electronic Thesis, Xavier University, 1988)

Depery Home, Keturah St., Newport, Ky.; 1937 Flood; (Courtesy of Jan Stanley and the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky Project.)

Many working-class families lived in rows of three- and four-room cottages of brick and wood, lining the streets leading to and from the industrial mills, workshops, and railroads. Concerned with feeding, clothing, and sheltering the unemployed during the Great Depression, city officials gave little thought to floods on the Ohio River. Unfortunately, for these residents, they were in the path of what would become the worst flood ever recorded in the Ohio River Valley.

The January 1937 flood caused widespread destruction and devastation. Over 10 days, the Ohio River reached a staggering 28 feet above flood stage and was the greatest natural disaster Newport has ever seen. At one point, the river’s entire 981-mile length was over its banks.

Between 6 and 12 inches of rain had fallen on the Ohio River Valley during the period of January 13-25. These heavy rains caused the Ohio River to surge and climb past flood stage of 52 feet on January 18th. The waters were raging as the river was rising at a rate of approximately 6 inches per hour. Relocation in the West End of Newport was already underway, as residents moved to upper floors or evacuated to safety.

In the early morning of January 20th, two additional inches of rain fell within a few hours and the river and nearby tributaries ballooned over their banks. By noon, the Ohio River was at 64 feet (George P. Stimson, “River on a Rampage: An Account of the Ohio River Flood of 1937,” Bulletin of Cincinnati Historical Society, vol. 22, no. 2, April 1964, p. 97).

Newport was suffering badly, as about 40 city blocks were already flooded. The Newport Rolling Mill had to lay off about 1,500 workers (John Boh, “Never Before or Since; Memories of the 1937 Flood,” Bulletin of the Kenton County Historical Society, March/April 2012, p. 3). Mother Nature handed the Tristate area another blow on January 23rd, as residents awoke to a 6-inch blanket of snow and sub-freezing temperatures. The Ohio River had passed the 1884 high water mark and showed no signs of stopping.

Buses were the only transportation between Ohio and Kentucky, as the flood caused three out of four bridges to close. Along the Ohio River’s entire 981-mile length, only the Roebling Suspension bridge between Covington and Cincinnati was open for crossing. Traffic on it was maintained by means of a temporary ramp built in Covington and sandbags at the Cincinnati end, with only authorized vehicles permitted to cross. Except for the 11th Street Bridge over the Licking River into Covington, Newport was completely isolated.

Wagner’s Complete Map of Cincinnati and the Kentucky Cities, 1937 Flood Area. Brown shading depicts the extent of flooding. Note the inundation of Newport’s West End, as well as the major flooding of the Sixth Street Fill between Newport and Bellevue.

Northern Kentucky became an emergency camp as families were forced to move out of the flood zone to safety. Over 2,000 families in Newport were made homeless, and 4,000 men had been laid off work (“2,000 Families Routed in Northern Kentucky by Ohio Flood Waters,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 22, 1937).

Newport police were using boats to transport food and fuel to an estimated 500 residents marooned on the upper floors of their homes. Rescue from the raging waters had become too dangerous, and the only hope was to try and supply the stranded with the bare necessities until the water receded (“Buses Afford Only Contact with Kentucky,” Cincinnati Post, January 22, 1937).

January 24th came to be known as “Black Sunday.” In Cincinnati, an electric cable from the streetcar lines broke, sparking a massive fire in the Camp Washington area. The fire was almost impossible to control, due to gasoline floating on the surface of the water from broken fuel tanks at the Standard Oil storage plant (Jennifer Gregory, “Flood of 1937,” in The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, ed. Paul A. Tenkotte and James C. Claypool, p. 346). Businesses were closed, church services canceled, water mains were shut off, and electricity was partially knocked out. Mildred Thomas, a lifelong resident of Newport relates how her family escaped the rising waters on that day:

“We all went to bed that night and thought nothing was going to happen. When I lived on Second Street and Front Street that is where the water came over the top. So, when we woke up, the water was already in our yard. We had a metal fence, and the boat could not get in. So, I can remember I was in grade school. I can remember that they had to get an ironing board from the house to get on the boat. We had a dog named Jake and he had to go on the boat too” (Mildred Thomas, in an interview with Jeff Whitaker, March 2014).

On Monday, January 25th, Newport Mayor Joseph G. Herrmann declared a state of emergency. The city now had 105 city blocks and 2,532 homes underwater (Boh, p. 4). Finally, the Ohio River crested at 79.99 feet, approximately 28 feet above flood stage, on January 26, 1937, leaving 55% of Newport underwater (Gregory, “Flood of 1937,” p. 347).

The Sixth Street Fill, 1937 Flood. Courtesy of Jan D. Stanley.

As the water began to recede, a landscape of horrors became apparent: houses and other buildings upturned, overturned, jammed, uprooted, caved in and demolished by floodwaters. Thankfully, there were no deaths from drowning, but a few perished from indirect causes such as exposure, colds, pneumonia and extreme fatigue (Boh, p. 7). Aid to the homeless was an urgent matter, as Kentucky Governor Chandler met with President Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945) to seek financial assistance. Delegations from Covington, Newport, and Dayton met with Chandler in Washington to discuss how to care for the number of homeless citizens. After declaring a state of emergency, President Roosevelt ordered federal agencies to respond on a “war-time” basis to the flooded areas (Gregory, “Flood of 1937,” p. 346.)

Newport in February 1937 was not only facing the reconstruction of flood damage, it was still caught within the grips of the Great Depression. Destruction in Newport was estimated to be $3,500,000, with 105 blocks flooded and 15,000 people left homeless. Approximately 250 buildings had either collapsed or floated away (“North Kentucky Loss Estimated at $8,500,000,” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 28, 1937).

Industry in Newport was dormant, and the city was forced to borrow $50,000 for cleanup, while many residents desired to leave the West End and move to the hillsides for protection from future floods. US Congressman Brent Spence assured quick aid from the government for rehabilitation, as the recovery shifted from local to federal agencies.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) played the first role in the redevelopment of Newport after the flood. They equipped hundreds of workers with brooms to sweep debris away as the river receded (“Northern Kentucky’s Loss from Flood Set at Six Million,” Cincinnati Post, January 27, 1937). The WPA helped to restore order in the city by cleaning streets, rebuilding walls, tearing down buildings, and removing debris.

The great flood of 1937 reinforced the idea that something needed to be done as soon as possible to prevent future flooding. The City of Newport witnessed a number of plans for the West End, including the Greenbelt Town Program and the McDermott Airport Plan. The Greenbelt Town Program called for the resettlement of West End residents to an area between Fort Thomas and Alexandria, then tearing down all of the homes in the West End after floodwalls were built. As envisioned by Rexford G. Tugwell, the new communities were to have adequate housing and a high level of social and educational services. Tugwell’s idea was, “to go just outside centers of population, pick up cheap land, build a whole community, and entice people into them. Then go back into the cities and tear down whole slums and make parks of them.” (Bauer, p. 57). The lack of funds, however, resulted in the annexing of 400 acres south of Newport, but no Greenbelt city. Eventually, the land would be used for the private construction of homes.

The John McDermott Airport Plan called for a major redevelopment of the West End with the construction of an airport, recreation center, restaurants, and hotels. The airport was to be similar to the Lunken Airport in Cincinnati, Ohio. This plan did not have a floodwall and sought the destruction of most of the housing in the West End (Bauer, p. 58). Both plans were eventually abandoned as too costly to the city in lost tax revenues and population.

By 1938, the city leaders had decided that a floodwall needed to be built. Newport turned to the federal government for flood control solutions, since the necessary laws, regulations, and programs were already in place. They looked upon the Flood Control Act of 1936, which allowed the Army Corps of Engineers to construct and maintain flood control walls and levees, but didn’t allow for the acquisition of land for construction (Bauer, p. 59). Total estimated cost of the floodwall was $2,415,000, with the federal government paying $1,800,000 and the city contributing $515,000 for acquisition of the land. Newport City Manager, J.B. Morlidge, was able to reduce the land cost to $350,000 by arranging for a million cubic yards of the fill needed, at no cost to the city (“Flood Wall History Told by Morlidge,” The Kentucky Post, June 5, 1948).

Aerial view of the West End of Newport, 1937 Flood, showing the Fourth Street bridge between Newport and Covington, and the massive Newport Rolling Mill of Andrews Steel. (Courtesy of Jim Resing and Paul A. Tenkotte.)

Newport decided to launch a campaign to pass a bond issue for the $350,000 needed for the rest of the land. The bond issue failed in the elections of November 1938 and 1939. Then, in 1940, the floodwall supporters were reorganized and this time received financial support from the business community, including the Andrews Steel Company. The city’s steel interests not only supported the floodwall bond issue with money, but requested that all of its employees support the issue as well (Bauer, p. 60). Newport’s $350,000 Floodwall Bond Issue passed by a margin of just 39 votes in a recount. It was a win for Newport, but the city was to wait, once again, as the nation was pulled into war (Bauer, p. 62).

Once World War II was over, the Newport floodwall was at the top of the list of projects to complete, in an address delivered by City Manager, J.B. Morlidge. The West End, which made up 25% of Newport, had only been producing 8% of the tax revenue, while the remainder of the city produced 92% of the revenue (“Newport Advancing Plans for West End as Wall is Started,” The Kentucky Post, April 3, 1946). Moorlidge believed that the rehabilitation of the West End of Newport, which had been devastated by floods, would ultimately result in financial benefits for all citizens. Other projects included a new city building, municipal swimming pool, playground facilities, and extensive street and sewer construction. Morlidge called for courage in tackling the improvements needed for the community and that these changes would “start Newport on a new epoch of life, a better place in which to live” (“Guiding Newport to Better Days,” The Kentucky Post, March 13, 1945).

The construction of the floodwall finally began on April 2, 1946. After years of delays and disappointments, Newport could finally breathe a sigh of relief and begin to develop itself without fear of future flooding. Together, the Public Works Administration, the Federal Housing Authority, and the Army Corps of Engineers united with the people of Newport to change the city.

Completed in 1951, the floodwall would protect the city of Newport against an 83-foot flood, 3 feet higher than the 1937 flood crest. The floodwall consisted of both an earthen levee and a concrete wall. Measuring 1.5 miles long, the levee was made with more than 700,000 cubic yards of earth. The 2,300-foot-long concrete wall was constructed of 13,000 cubic yards of concrete and 12,800 tons of steel. There were also three pumping stations built, with a total capacity of 315,000 gallons per minute, able to carry surface and sewage waters away from the city. At a total cost of about $8,000,000, Newport was the first city in the Greater Cincinnati area to attain complete flood protection (“Newport Wins 13-year Battle against Floods,” The Kentucky Post, September 6, 1951).

Newport Mayor James F. Deckert cordially invited the community to attend the dedication of the Newport Floodwall on September 29, 1951. The Mayor stated that, “The dedication of the completion of our great flood protection project should be made a noteworthy event in the city of Newport, for every man and woman, boy or girl more than 14 years of age well remembers the 1937 flood” (“Plans Pushed for Dedication of Flood Wall,” The Kentucky Post, August 20, 1951). Three of the officials who played a leading role in the project were the principal speakers: J.B. Morlidge, former City Manager; U.S. Representative Brent Spence; and Vice President Alben W. Barkley, who was a former U.S. Senator from Kentucky during the floodwall construction. It was through the efforts of these three men that President Roosevelt and other federal government officials were shown how vital Newport’s flood protection project was to the nation (“Newport Wins 13-year Battle against Floods,” The Kentucky Post, September 6, 1951).

The dedication event was full of ceremony and celebration. Most of the city businesses were closed, as neighborhoods decorated their houses and lawns for the motorcade of Vice President Barkley (“City Dons Holiday Garb as Dignitaries Arrive for Occasion,” The Kentucky Post, September 29, 1951). A luncheon occurred at the Glenn Schmidt Playtorium, followed by a motorcade to the dedication ceremony, held at the Newport High School Stadium (“Historic Dedication of Flood Project Near,” The Kentucky Post, September 28, 1951).

Many groups participated in the event, including the American Legion Color Guard, various Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, and the Ft. Knox Armored Unit Band (“Address by Barkley Will be Top Feature of Wall Dedication,” The Kentucky Post, September 25, 1951). It was a day of celebration for Newport residents, as they no longer had to fear future flooding. Human strength and ingenuity had succeeded in restraining the rivers so that the West End of Newport could have an opportunity to grow and prosper.

View from the roof of the Taylor Mansion on Third Street looking towards the West End of Newport, 1937 Flood. (Courtesy of Jan D. Stanley)

Throughout the years, the floods of the Ohio River have devastated rural areas, demolished urban infrastructures, and destroyed industries. Those who have lived through any of these floods never forgot them. Residents’ memories are kept for a lifetime and passed down through generations as stories. These hard times, however, created opportunities for extraordinary transformation. Transformation occurred when Mildred Thomas’s family had the courage to walk to safety, across an ironing board, to a rescue boat. For every person who helped another through donating money or time, their life was never the same. Throughout each and every flood, the people of Newport survived and grew stronger. And, finally, the West End was free from the fear and devastation of future flooding.

W.C. Devereaux and the 79.99 Feet Controversy

The unfortunate lack of ability to predict weather patterns tormented the citizens of the Ohio Valley during the 1937 flood. Meteorologists knew little of what tomorrow would bring and revised their weather forecasts daily, and sometimes, hourly. Residents, not knowing whether they should stay or leave their homes, were frustrated and became cynical toward weather forecasters. Many alleged that the predictions were nothing more than guesswork. However, weather forecasters in 1937 did not have the satellites and computer models that allow current forecasters to observe forthcoming conditions. Although the Weather Bureau received reports from approximately a thousand precipitation stations, they were incapable of providing sufficient data on potential floods. Contact between substations and district headquarters was erratic, at best. Also, financial limitations prevented employees from recording information between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., while other budget cuts closed dozens of branches (Welky, The Thousand-Year Flood).

Weather Bureau meteorologist W. C. Devereaux spent 20 of his 30 years in the profession at Cincinnati and had forecasted many floods, including 1913 and 1937. A particular man with meticulous grooming habits, Devereaux was regarded by colleagues as an excellent observer of river conditions. Many residents in the Tristate region, however, felt that the Devereaux’s weather predictions were nonsensical and even comical. The Volksblatt, a German language newspaper in Cincinnati, also carried weather forecasts, with their predictions rarely agreeing with those of Devereaux. However, the Volksblatt’s forecasts seemed to be more accurate than those of the Weather Bureau. Devereaux, who was constantly trying to improve his forecasting methods, decided to visit the Volksblatt office to compliment the editor on their weather forecasts and to discuss techniques. “Simple,” replied the editor, who didn’t know what Devereaux looked like, “I wait to see what that damn fool Devereaux is forecasting and I just predict the exact opposite.” (“The System,” Cincinnati Enquirer, February 27, 1956).

Devereaux announced on January 17, 1937 that the river might hit flood stage of 52 feet. He then predicted a mild flood, but the river broke flood stage the next day. He soon jumped his crest prediction to 60 feet, which was 8 feet higher than he had announced just the day before. On January 19th, Devereaux told the Cincinnati Post that light rains were expected and wouldn’t affect the predicted river stage. In fact, it might not rain at all, or might just be some snow flurries (“Flood Crest Not Expected to Pass 60 Ft,” Cincinnati Post, January 19, 1937).

The forecaster upped his prediction once more when the Ohio pushed above 60 feet on January 21st. Then, the normally secure forecaster admitted, “It is impossible to say how high the river will go because we do not know how much more rain to expect” (Welky, The Thousand-Year Flood).

Devereaux modified his flood crest prediction five additional times over the next 24 hours, as intense rain hit the Ohio Valley. On January 23rd, with the river over its banks and cities inundated with water, Devereaux predicted that the weather would now get better. However, over 2½ inches of rain fell on the area that Sunday, and Devereaux concluded the additional precipitation was “most unusual” (Welky, The Thousand-Year Flood).

Construction of Newport’s floodwall was proceeding when the April 1948 Flood occurred. The new flood control provided needed protection, however the permanent pumping stations to remove backed-up floodwaters from the city’s sewer system were not yet ready. So, the US Army Corps of Engineers set up a temporary pump, as seen here over the earthen levee. Courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.)

The Ohio River rose 4 feet on January 24th, the day known as “Black Sunday.” Offering any type of forecast was now difficult since his teletype machine had broken, and only sporadic telephone and telegraph service was available in his office. Using the incomplete data on hand, he called for a 77 foot crest and declared “the damage has been done” (Welky, The Thousand-Year Flood). Devereaux again increased his forecast the next day to a crest of 81 feet. The Ohio River finally crested on January 26th at 79.99 feet, 28 feet above his forecast a week earlier.

Why was the measurement of the Ohio River crest at such an odd figure of 79.99 feet, instead of a nice round number of 80 feet? Cincinnati has measured the Ohio River on four different gauges throughout the years. From 1859 to 1907, the official gauge was at the old waterworks on Front Street, which is where Sawyer Point is today. From 1908 to 1934, the Broadway gauge, painted on the Public Landing on a stake at the foot of Broadway, was the official measure. While the Broadway gauge was used in the 1937 flood, it constantly had to be extended further up the street as the waters rose. Instead, the official measurements were made at the West End Power Plant of the Cincinnati Gas and Electric Company. The gauge was connected electrically with a recorder in the offices of the Weather Bureau, located in the Federal Building (Stimson, p. 92).

At 2 a.m. on Tuesday, January 26th, the Ohio River stage at Cincinnati was 79.99 feet, estimated by sight on the West End plant gauge. It then slowly began to fall. Unfamiliar with such high floodwaters, the electric recording river gauge of the Weather Bureau stopped working at 70 feet, and readings had to be made by sight on the West End Power Plant Gauge (Stimson, pp. 102-105).

Since 79.99 is barely 1/8 inch below 80 feet, how it was set as the official crest, particularly when it was read by sight on a painted gauge, and not recorded by delicate instruments, remains a mystery. Was there a reason to purposely keep the flood crest below 80 feet? Rumor was that double indemnity clauses in certain insurance contracts would have become effective at 80 feet, and that the companies might go bankrupt. For practical purposes, the Weather Bureau now accepts 80 feet. The Weather Bureau explained that the 80-foot mark was never quite covered with water, at least when the gauge was being read, so 79.99 feet was the best estimate. George Stimson, a reporter at the Cincinnati Times-Star newspaper during the flood tried to find the answer. He concluded, “A diligent search of the records, and talks with newsmen who tried to track it down, produce no confirmation of the rumor that the official crest was deliberately kept below 80 feet’” (Stimson, p. 107)

Deborah Pitel is a graduate of the MA in Public History program at Northern Kentucky University. She is the author of Marketing on a Shoestring Budget: A Guide for Small Museums and Historic Sites, published in conjunction with the American Association for State and Local History.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at NKU (Northern Kentucky University) and the author of many books and articles.

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