The following article by Charles Hartley was published on 21 Feb 2016.
While some retain vivid memories of the devastation wrought by the 1937 flood, for most of us it is a story handed down, and we can only imagine how it must have been. Today, I want to share with you excerpts of a letter written at the time of the flood, along with some pictures that show a bit of what it was like.
The letter was written at six in the morning on January 24, 1937, by Annie Laura Jenkins, likely to her parents John and Liza Lawton in Central City.
I am alone. Russ has gone to the City Hall with Mr. Lindsay Ridgway. ... There are almost 200 people in the second floor of the Masonic hall in Shepherdsville, several of whom are seriously ill. There are 70 people in the Wathen house ... in Bardstown Junction. There was eight feet of water in the first floor at 10 o'clock last night, the last report. All communications have stopped, and there is no possible chance for them unless boats can reach them soon. The currents are so bad that they may drown like rats in a trap. There is only one possible approach.
The water is up to the second floor in the Bullitt County Bank and many of the one story houses are completely covered. You can see nothing but water from the Gap In The Knob hill. You can't possibly realize the situation unless you see it.
Russ and I got to bed at 2:30 a.m. this morning, but I couldn't sleep and got up again at 4:30. We had been in Louisville trying to help, but the traffic problem is so serious that it is difficult to do much. It took Mary Morgan one hour and twenty-five minutes to go seven blocks yesterday afternoon, and it is getting worse all of the time. We moved some [people] early in the evening and an hour later they could use only boats where we had been. The sewers have backed up in many places. You cross a street and 15 minutes later you try to get back and have to drive blocks out of the way.
I tried to get Uncle John's family to come home with us last night, but they wouldn't leave. The water was in the street in front of the house at 10 o'clock last night. I have heard a number of distress calls for boats from their neighborhood during the last hour; so I'm almost sure it is now impossible to reach them by truck. There is such a crying need for boats that they sometimes have to wait 12 hours before their turn comes.
I'm not afraid the water will get upstairs at Uncle John's, but if the heating system is inundated there will be grave danger of pneumonia. Typhoid and scarlet fever are spreading in spite of intense efforts on the part of the Health Dept.
It began raining about 1:30 a.m. This has now turned to sleet. The river is still rising and if the rain continues, I shudder to think of what may happen.
Last night a man tried to commit suicide by shooting himself, but didn't succeed. A young cop was rushing frantically from place to place, trying to find his mother, who is seriously ill. Families are separated, not knowing whether their loved ones are alive or dead. As yet no casualties have been reported, but many are feared. It is almost certain that a number of families on the Point in the Salt River Valley were swept away in their homes Friday night. The rise was unexpected, coming in the middle of the night, and it is very probable they didn't have a chance.
The loss of the stock is pathetic to me. We know one man who watched his 300 hogs drown; another lost 35 registered cows; another with 250 steers; and on, and on. The stock is floating around in the water. They were able to save scarcely any. Horses and mules drowning like rats. May God forgive me if I ever complain again. My little griefs are so unimportant.
I'm staying here, keeping the fire going today. I'm sure we will have refugees here today.
I am so glad you are safe and I don't have you to worry about. I wonder what is going to happen when this water gets to the Purchase. Evidently it is already getting very bad there."
Her letter is unfinished, perhaps it never was.
The flood waters reached 23 feet above flood stage that day; it would crest three days later at nearly 30 feet above. The pictures shown below provide just a sample of what it was like as the flood waters began receding. The first picture shows a boat rescuing folks stranded in the McAhron home. The next two pictures show some of the livestock lost to the flood. The final picture reminds us that people weren't the only victims.
I'd like to be able to say that, for Russ and Annie, this was the worst of it; but sadly it wasn't. On February 5, Russ's parents were in their automobile passing over the bridge that crossed the swollen waters of Brooks Run when, somehow the car ended upside down in the water and all four passengers drowned. An article written by Ida Holsclaw about this tragedy may be read here.
Disasters have a way of striking us without warning. Perhaps one good thing we can take from a tragedy like this is the kindness and generosity of friends, neighbors, and even strangers, good folks like Russ and Annie, in our times of greatest need.
Copyright 2016 by Charles Hartley, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.