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Did You Know? The 1937 Flood

By Audrey Schiesser | Local Happenings

Stories Inspired From "The Story of Portsmouth" by Elmer Sword

In our eighth edition of “Did You Know?” with local tales from our county’s history, we are taking a look at the 1937 flood. Many of you are very familiar with the events surrounding this haunting time in our community. Read with us as we discuss some of those details.

At 3:15 am on Friday, January 22, 1937, the city officials opened the seven flood valves in the outlet sewers. This kept the water at bay for several days.

Things took a turn when the water was finding its way into the city’s streets through the underground passages. The local factory whistles were blown and the police radio car made several visits to lower streets several hours before the valves were opened.

City Manager Frank Sheehan was trying to hold off as long as he could in order to give families as much time as possible to find safety. If they did not open the valves at this point, they could not be opened later to allow the water to fall back once the flooding was done.

The numbers were around 10,000 for the number of people that were temporarily homeless after these unexpected edits.

Prisoners Freed To Help In Moving

Just prior to the flooding, 20 out of 54 prisoners in the county jail were released to permit these men to help assist the people in the danger zones after there was a shortage of help. The men released were in there on minor charges.

Supply of Drinking Water Dwindles

That Sunday, everyone was asked to start conserving their water usage because the supply was dwindling down. This warning was not taken and on Monday it became necessary to ration out the water supply.

The city officials and citizens committee decided to only turn the water on three times a day for one hour. This was after they had found out that half of the water supply had been used in the previous two days.

This ration order brought out the crowds. They gathered on the hilltop of Kinney’s lane spring near Waller street. Long lines of men and women waited to get water from the spring.

As the floodwaters reached their crest and began to recede slightly on that Thursday, water restrictions were somewhat loosened.

Boatmen Help River to Extinguish Blaze

Three Carey’s Run men, Joe Beaumont, Cary Grumme, and Herbert Millison, who had spent the three previous days almost constantly acting as rescuers in their 22-foot motorboat, became foreman during their rescue operations.

Jake Pfau’s bakery on 11th and John streets that was partially submerged coughed fire. When the men were passing the bakery they noticed the flames emerging from under the roof. All three men hacked a hole in the side of the building and allowed the river to extinguish the fire.

Refugees Evacuated From City

In order to relieve some of the congestion on the refugee crowded hill, 515 people were transported to Columbus. A special 12 car train left Five Mile church on the Scioto Trail.

The next day 1,500 people were evacuated in three trainloads, with 200 going to Chillicothe and the other 1,300 joining the other group in Columbus.

The final train took a load of 146 passengers to Chillicothe where they were fed and taken in private cars to the National Guard Armory at Washington Court House.

Police Called to Unsnarl Boat Traffic Jam

As Ralph Baker of the Bake Shop passed out free baked goods, a traffic jam of boats occurred downtown. Before he was forced to quit working, his bakers made 5,000 loaves of bread and 1,500 dozen donuts.

The entire slew was given out to people in boats who had happened to pass by. The police had to show up in order to relieve built up traffic from boats.

Expectant Mother Drowns As The Boat Tips Over

An expectant mother was Portsmouth’s first victim of the raging flood waters at 11th and Waller streets. The boat capsized and she gave her life to save her 18-month old daughter.

The last sighting of her was her holding her baby out of the water as a rescuer came near. She disappeared beneath the surface as the infant was lifted from her hands.

Downtown Businesses Open

The “Open for Business” sign was popular in downtown Portsmouth by Monday, February 9, as a new week began with many of the city’s merchants ready to resume business.

Plenty of goods were available and crowds surrounded the businesses to stock up on supplies that they had been shy on during the two week lapse in business.

Many establishments in the West end planned remodeling and redecorating following the flood cleanup. In the final counts they estimated that Portsmouth had suffered a little more than 16 million dollars losses in cost of flood and its cleanup.

The numbers also reflected that 500 buildings were destroyed, 5,734 were partially lost with private property damage nearly four million dollars, and 36 churches were affected.

Today this flood is still talked about all the time. Markers are still hanging on the buildings indicating the level that the water had reached. It amazes me every time to see just how high it had gotten. If you visit the Portsmouth Flood Wall Murals, you will see the mural depicting the mother that gave her life to save her child. 84 years have gone by, yet we still remember the devastating effects the flood had on our community.


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