Henderson County, Kentucky


It brought devastation and status to the city

The old farmer's death certificate no doubt listed a medical circumstance as the reason for his passing, but those who knew him had another explanation. He'd grieved himself to death, they said, over the senseless destruction of his Henderson County livestock and property.

It wasn't a band of determined and particularly vicious vandals who'd delivered the blows to everything the elderly man owned. It was the unleashed fury of a river swollen far beyond its banks and covering all but the highest land.

History had given it a simple name: The '37 Flood.

There was nothing simple, however, about the devastation it brought. Two million acres of land in 196 counties in 12 states were inundated by 165 billion tons of water - enough to cover nearly 204,000 square miles to a depth of 11.2 inches.

That deluge would cause 500 deaths overall and damages totaling $400 million. It also would force 300,000 people to abandon their homes and seek refuge.

In this area, 6,000 residents would be evacuated from 1,200 homes, and almost half of them would wind up in one of the 16 refugee camps in the city or three in the county.

Not all the refugees to Henderson were human. During the crisis and its aftermath, 6,197 animals would be sheltered here.

Unfortunately, that old Henderson County farmer couldn't save his livestock, and by grim coincidence as his funeral was taking place, a huge pit was being dug on his mud-smothered farm to bury the carcasses of the drowned animals.

Files at the local library don't tell much about that man, but it's apparent that after having lived so many years with the cycles of bounty and despair that farming brings, he at last had encountered a loss so overwhelming recovery seemed almost impossible.

Such dejection must have been prevalent considering the stark sights that were revealed when at last the floodwaters receded.

Farmers came home to find barns washed half a mile or more down the road. Housewives faced rooms filled with slim and broken furniture.

In this vicinity, a million pounds of tobacco had been damaged; 4,500 tons of hay had been lost, and only 20,000 of 200,000 bushels of cribbed corn had been saved. About 6,000 farm animals had perished in the flood.

Six county schools, including the year-old Reed School, suffered heavy damages, and roads appeared to have been scooped out and battered by an angry giant. On this side of the bridge that linked Henderson and Evansville, there was a 210-foot washout.

In addition to the elderly farmer whose death was said to be related to the flood, an apparent drowning victim was found when the waters crept back toward the river, and a Reed man died of pneumonia.

But optimists could find a positive side to the flood. Generosity was at an all-time high, with virtually everyone adopting an "I can do without" attitude and sharing everything from foods-tuffs to blankets and medicines with flood victims.

Hallie LINDSAY, who was the county's brand new Red Cross director at that time, later reflected on that period and explained why so many people were moved to help the less fortunate.

"You never saw a more pitiful bunch in your life," she said of the influx of refugees. "Here were people clutching everything they'd managed to save, and it was so little. Many of them carried pillowcases with just a few hastily wadded clothes stuffed in them. Others just had bandanas with maybe one change of clothing in them. It was enough to break your heart."

When the rains started in that early January 55 years ago, no one could have predicted the disaster they would bring.

Looking back, some scientists have said the rain that fell almost every day of that month was the result of a North Atlantic "dead calm" that had flowed into the U.S. interior. Whatever the reason, by January 31 the Ohio reached the gauge of 53.909 feet - nearly 19 feet above flood stage. The previous high had been 48.2 feet in 1913.

It would give the city of Henderson a claim to fame. As radio broadcaster Walter WINCHELL told the nation on February 2, 1937, only one city along the flooded length of the Ohio Valley had managed to sit high and dry during the worst of the watery onslaught, and that was Henderson.

So amazing was its unflooded status that Ripley's "Believe It or Not" requested an aerial photograph of the town showing how it was surrounded by the Green and Ohio rivers.

And when one reporter dared challenge Henderson's secure status, Gleaner Publisher Leigh HARRIS, also a major player in flood relief efforts, wrote a sizzling rebuke which appeared in the New York Times.

"The one city whose pioneers had the prescient wisdom to build their house on a hill is a modern Mount Ararat and a glorious refuge for the stricken," he wrote, "and yet we are forced to stand by and listen broadcasts that we are under water."

Reprinted with permission.
Bicentennial Edition, The Gleaner, March 28, 1992
Written by Judy Jenkins, HCH&GS Lifetime Member

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS