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February 16, 2022

20 Historic Photographs Captured the Aftermath of the Great Ohio River Flood of 1937

In 1937, the worst Ohio River flood in history covered 60 percent of the City of Louisville and 65 square miles of Jefferson County outside the old city. About 23,000 people were evacuated. Damages totaled more than $1 billion in today’s dollars. 

In January of 1937, rains began to fall throughout the Ohio River Valley; eventually triggering what is known today as the “Great Flood of 1937”. Overall, total precipitation for January was four times its normal amount in the areas surrounding the river. In fact, there were only eight days in January when the Louisville station recorded no rain. These heavy rains, coupled with an already swollen river, caused a rapid rise in the river’s level. 

The morning of January 24 the entire Ohio River was above flood stage. In Louisville, the river rose 6.3 feet from January 21-22. As a result, the river reached nearly 30 feet above flood stage. Louisville, where light and water services had failed, was the hardest hit city along the Ohio River. On January 27, the river reached its crest at 460 feet above sea level or 40 feet above its normal level, which is well over a 100-year event. Almost 70 percent of the city was under water, and 175,000 people were forced to leave their homes. The U.S. Weather Bureau reported that total flood damage for the entire state of Kentucky was $250 million, an incredible sum in 1937. The number of flood-related deaths rose to 190. The flood completely disrupted the life of Louisville, inundating 60% of the city and 65 square miles. 

The 1937 flood prompted the construction of the Ohio River Flood Protection System. Started in 1948, it took nearly 40 years to complete. The floodwall stretches for 29 miles from northeastern Louisville Metro to the southwest, protecting about 110 square miles from Ohio River flooding. Sixteen pumping stations move stormwater from the protected area into the river.

These vintage photographs by Margaret Bourke-White captured just how dramatic the flood was, and how much was changed by the rising river.

The Great Ohio River Flood, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937.

The Great Ohio River Flood, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937.

The Great Ohio River Flood, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937.

The Great Ohio River Flood, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937.

Flood waters cover the track and infield at Louisville’s famous Churchill Downs racetrack, 1937.

The Great Ohio River Flood, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937.

During the Great Ohio River Flood of 1937, men and women in Louisville, Kentucky, line up seeking food and clothing from a relief station, in front of a billboard proclaiming, “World’s Highest Standard of Living.”

African Americans in Louisville, Kentucky, seek food and clothing from a relief station in the aftermath of flooding that devastated the city in 1937. The billboard in Margaret Bourke-White's famous “American Way” photograph is visible in the background.

The Great Ohio River Flood, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937.

This man built a makeshift boat made from four metal washtubs and some wooden slats.

Ninety-year-old Jim Lawhorn, one of the displaced, found shelter at the clubhouse of the Churchill Downs race track.

Boiled water was the only safe water for drinking in the flooded city. Editor Wilbur Cogshall of the Louisville Courier-Journal slept, ate and drank at his desk.

Nurse Clara Stull prepares typhoid inoculations for flood victims at an aid station in a Louisville, Kentucky, grade school, 1937.

A newspaper editor, Tom Wallace, slept while he used a lamp under a bucket to heat water for next morning’s sponge bath.

Churchill Downs, home to the Kentucky Derby, provided temporary housing to many.

A scene from Louisville, Kentucky, at the time of the Great Ohio River Flood of 1937.

A young child displaced in Louisville, Kentucky, at the time of the Great Ohio River Flood of 1937.

The staffs of the Louisville Courier-Journal and Times get out a joint edition by lamplight.

God provided this relief station in Louisville. It is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, with cans of food stacked in the pews.

Homeless in Louisville, Kentucky, during the Great Ohio River Flood, 1937.

(Photos: Margaret Bourke-White—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)


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