Surviving the Storms of Life: The 1937 Flood

Huntington, West Virginia, during the great flood of 1937

The severe weather we have been experiencing here reminds me to tell you about the Great Flood of 1937, known in these parts as simply the 1937 Flood.  While it was long ago, and obviously before my time, people in this area still talk about it, and there are old photos in many homes and businesses of the damage.  The water was so high in places that it even covered and washed away houses, and it completely wiped out entire towns along the Ohio River.

West Virginia has many, many large bodies of water.  We even have a lot of waterfalls, which is not well known to those who have not actually explored the more rural areas.  There is not only the mighty Ohio River, which is a mile across where Huntington meets Ohio, there is also the Guyandotte River, Big Sandy River, Monongahela River, Kanawha River, Greenbrier River, New River, and too many others to list.  Lots of the creeks here are so large that they are considered to be rivers as well.

Naming the rivers reminds me of an amusing story.  When I was in high school, I was very involved in 4-H and student government programs.  Through those programs, I came to know the late A. James Manchin, at that time Secretary of State.  Now, A. James was quite the character.  A tubby man with a loud booming voice, he was a real oldtime politician, and quite beloved throughout the state.  For some reason he took a shine to me, probably just because I was an awkward brainy kid from a poor family – salt of the earth, as he might say.  I actually liked A. James quite a bit, and he was always very nice to me, but even as a kid I realized he was a little on the wacky side.

When the hit song “Take Me Home Country Roads” (which was about West Virginia) came out, A. James wanted singer/songwriter John Denver to change the words, because the Blue Ridge Mountains are not even in West Virginia, and the Shenandoah River is mostly in Virginia.

So he came up with this brilliant (okay, not really so brilliant, LOL) plan to change the lyrics of the song.  He wanted to change the words “Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River” to “Appalachian Mountains, Monongahela River”.

Obviously those words would not fit into the song based upon the number of syllables alone, but he made quite a show of asking Mr. John Denver to change the lyrics to the song anyway.  That still cracks me up to this day, though it happened over thirty years ago.

But, I digress.

There are many streams and creeks in West Virginia which can also become deadly when it rains, and usually they are deadly because people try to either walk or drive through their floodwaters.  Now, one should think that people here would know better, but some do it anyway, and meet their demise that way.  What many people do not seem to understand is that if there is water on the road, even if it seems perfectly calm, there may be water rushing under the surface.  That rushing floodwater can easily pick up a car and toss it like a rag doll.  It can drag a person beneath the surface so fast, they have no chance of escaping.

If you learn nothing else from this blog, please remember to never, ever try to drive or walk through floodwater, even if it seems very calm and not very deep.  People actually die that way all the time.

We also have lots of flash floods in West Virginia, which is when a flood arises out of nowhere, many times from a seemingly benign creek, and it happens within minutes.  Those floods are particularly deadly, needless to say, and I have experienced that phenomena firsthand.

Mamaw in my kitchen, all gussied up for her 87th birthday party. 🙂

A few years ago I was sitting with my then-86-year-old grandmother at my aunts house, so my aunt could get out of the house for a while and attend a college graduation.  I used to go visit with Mamaw (pronounced mam-maw) there all the time, to give my aunt a break since she is up in years and Mamaw could be quite a handful at times, LOL.  Mamaw had raised me from the time I was a baby, so she was the only real mother I ever had, and I absolutely adored her.  She eventually came to live with me, because we spent most every day together anyway and it was getting far too hard on my aunt to keep her, so my presence there that day was not at all unusual.

My aunt lives in a country area just outside of town, and there is a lovely little creek which runs in front of her house, which is very calm and only less than a foot deep most of the time.  Her house is not far from the creek, it has a big inviting front porch and a big side yard filled with flowers, and the backyard (if you could call it that) is actually a hillside.  So it is a very peaceful and beautiful place to live, and my aunt and uncle have lived in that same house for nearly 50 years.  Bear in mind, that house was very old and broken-down when they bought it long ago, and they fixed it up themselves, at least as much as it could be fixed up given its age.  It is a very nice little place, very homey and inviting and decorated with lots of homemade crafts which they made themselves.  I just love it there.

That evening, while I was reading to Mamaw (she was blind and almost deaf, and crippled as well), it started raining.  Now, I did not think much of the rain at all, though I did get up and look outside, but all was fine and I just went back to reading to Mamaw.  A few minutes later I heard a strange rushing sound, so I got up to see what was going on.

What I saw shocked me to the core.  In less than ten minutes the creek had risen so high that the entire road was gone, the yard was gone almost up to the porch, and there was nothing but deep rushing water everywhere.  It was as if the house had suddenly landed in the middle of a river.

I moved Mamaw to the kitchen in the back of the house and kept an eye on the water, thinking I would have to somehow carry her up the extremely steep hillside out back, if the water got to the porch.  A flash flood can easily wash a house right off its foundation, and that is a very, very old house, kind of rickety and not particularly stable.  I seriously doubt it even has a foundation like we think of foundations today.  So if the rushing water got up to that house, it could actually collapse the entire house and kill everyone inside.

I will never forget that day, because I knew we were both in extremely serious danger – flash floods are one of the most deadly situations in nature – but we were trapped by the floodwater and the only possible escape was up that hillside out back.  Problem is, that hillside is so steep that it is not easy to walk up it even under optimum conditions, including for people like me who grew up on a very steep hill, and am very used to hiking in the mountains.  Obviously the heavy rain had made the hillside extremely slick, on top of the other problems involved in getting up it with a crippled and blind 87-year-old lady in tow.

That was the most frightening thing which has ever happened to me because I had to save Mamaw, and not just myself.  If it was just me, I am sure I could have gotten far enough up the hill to avoid the water with no problem, since I am used to climbing very steep hills and mountains, and have been doing it since I was a little kid.  I know without even thinking where to put my footing (and more importantly, where not to put it), I know how to dig my feet into the ground to secure myself, I know how to use my center of gravity to my advantage, I instinctively know what I can grab which can (and more importantly, cannot) support my weight if I start to slip, and my normal footwear (which I was wearing that day as well) is a pair of sneakers with a hiking sole.  So I could have done it by myself, that was never even in question.

However, I was not sure exactly how I was going to physically manage to do it with Mamaw as well, since I am a very small woman and have severe arthritis in my upper spine, as well as an injury to my T1 spinal nerve which causes my upper body to be weak.  Yet I was fully prepared to do whatever I had to do, in order to get her to safety.  I actually had it worked out in my mind how I was going to get her over my shoulder, to free my hands in case I started to slip due to the wet ground and the extra weight.

I was not the least bit worried about hurting myself, and that was never even a consideration to me, strangely enough considering my physical limitations.  That was literally a life and death situation if the water got any higher, because my instinct told me that the house would collapse.  However, I loved Mamaw very dearly and would do anything to save her without a second thought, just as she had saved me when I was an infant, so I never even thought about myself, though in retrospect, perhaps I should have done so.

Luckily the waters stopped just short of the porch, so I did not have to find out the hard way whether my adrenalin would kick in sufficiently to overcome my disabilities and thus help me actually get her up the hillside, or whether I was just going to end up hurting or even killing us both.

That was nothing, however, compared to the 1937 flood.  Mamaw had lived through that too, and had quite an interesting story to tell.

At the time of the flood, she was 14 years old and already married.  Now, Mamaw was a small woman as well, and her husband (my biological grandfather) picked her up and carried her through the rushing water to high ground and thus safety.  Along the way, she was hit in the face by a heavy tree limb, and it broke her nose.  She told me that her nose bled so profusely, it looked like she was bleeding to death, and she said they were both drenched in her blood.

Her nose had a slight sideways crook in it for the rest of her life from being broken while escaping the flood, but at least she survived.  Others were not so lucky.

The 1937 Flood caused the Ohio River to crest at about 65 feet, which is 19 feet above flood level, so all the sandbags in the world were not going to hold back that river.  Thousands in the Huntington area were displaced, as the flood waters washed away some houses and covered others.  The entire downtown district was flooded to the first floor ceilings, and all the roads and railroads in and out of the city were blocked by floodwater.

Luckily the flood was foreseen, since there was record rainfall along the Ohio and it had first hit other states, so there was at least some warning, and loss of life was minimal compared to what it could have been.  However, overall damages from that flood were estimated at $500 Million, which translates to over $8 Billion today.  Damages in Huntington alone were $18 Million, which translates to about $300 Million today.

Following the 1937 flood, the US Army Corp of Engineers surrounded the historical town of Guyandotte (part of Huntington now), as well as the areas of Huntington along the river, with floodwalls.  I grew up around those floodwalls, which were specifically designed to withstand another flood like the one in 1937.  At 20 feet tall and almost 12 miles long, and several feet thick, they are massive.  They have gates which can be closed in the event of anticipated flooding, and people who live here are so used to seeing them, we really do not even notice them or think about the reason they are there, unless the gates are being closed.  Those gates are closed whenever the river rises above a certain level, and the Corp of Engineers estimates that the floodwalls have saved Huntington from massive flooding at least twelve times since its construction, including as recently as 1997, when the river crested at 57.5 feet.

Had those floodwalls been in place in 1937, the water would have crested three feet below the top of the wall, and the city would have been saved.  It is not as if the flood and its damage was completely unpredictable, since Huntington had been flooded an unbelievable twenty-three times in the fifty-five year period between 1882 and 1937.  We do still get severe flooding in this area from time to time, especially in low-lying regions near creeks and streams, but hopefully will never again experience a flood that massive.

West Virginians are a very hardy people, though, so we move on from disasters like that but never forget, and we pass the stories down through the generations as a cautionary tale.  The 1937 flood was even voted the most significant news story of the last 100 years, in a poll by the Huntington Herald-Dispatch just a few years ago.

There have been a few news stories in recent years about how the floodwalls are deteriorating, which is not at all surprising considering that they are so old and made of concrete, and that they need to be either repaired or replaced.  Obviously,  that needs to be done, because it will be a lot cheaper than the damages (not to mention potential loss of life) from another flood like the one in 1937, especially if we are lulled into a false sense of security by the mere existence of those floodwalls.

By the way, speaking of the 1937 flood, there is a very talented local bluegrass band in this area called The 1937 Flood.  Though I am not a huge fan of bluegrass music, I do very much appreciate the musicianship since I used to play violin (albeit badly) when I was a kid.  I also have to admit that I cannot help but smile and tap my toe when I hear bluegrass, so I also do not avoid it like I do some types of music (I am looking at you, rap).

The gentleman playing the fiddle in the video below, who looks just like Santa Claus, LOL, is founder Joe Dobbs, who also owns a really cool and extremely unusual old music store in St. Albans called the Fret & Fiddle, which has vintage instruments of every imaginable description.  If you are ever in the Huntington or Charleston areas and you are a musician or music lover, it is well worth the short drive to visit the Fret & Fiddle.

This video is of The 1937 Flood performing a little ditty called Jug Band Music, on the riverfront in downtown Huntington (so you can get a very good look at the floodwall too).  Hopefully this will give you a little taste of West Virginia wherever you may live.  Enjoy!

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14 thoughts on “Surviving the Storms of Life: The 1937 Flood

  1. I really enjoyed your story…When I was 12 years old I was babysitting my 1 yr old cousin when a flash flood hit in rural Oregon…I watched the water raise across the road to the farm house…watched the water rush down the whole hill near the house. I grabbed that baby…put her on a high patch…walked in rushing water to undo the gates for the horse…than went back grabbed that baby & hightailed to the closest highway. An Indian woman was driving up & down the highway looking to help anyone that needed it. Whew..she drove me & that little baby soaked to the skin to the nearest safe farm that wasn’t being flooded.I’m almost 60 now, but that will be a day I will always remember. Unless you have been there, done that, it’s hard to explain how it sticks with you.

    • Oh my goodness, how scary! I am glad you and the baby made it through the flash flood, and God bless that Indian woman who was helping others.

      You are absolutely correct, once you go through something like that, it is something you never, ever forget.

      • Hi Ma’am. I have been reading your blog for about two days. I am a sicilian, adopted into a family from the foothills of SC in 1974. As a southerner I identify with many things folks here say. As a survivor of Iraq, I can vouch that traumatic stress leaves you a different person. From your blogs of the flood to the feuds we can see, thru you, that hill folk are hard working, resourceful, and for the most part goodhearted.
        I also see that we are pretty fair minded and usually leave well enough alone. Thanks for all you do and I will continue to follow your blog, as it helps me connect my own dots. Thank you so much

  2. Awesome story & I enjoyed the music in the video. Thanks for sharing. I am heading down that way at the end of the month – where can I find a waterfall or two?

    • Thanks, glad you enjoyed it! Which area will you be in? There are hundreds of waterfalls in West Virginia but most are not mapped, because they are pretty remote. However, here is a site with a map of some of the more major waterfalls, and if you hover over the name of the falls in bold, a picture will come up so you can choose which one to visit. http://www.gowaterfalling.com/waterfalls/maps/statewestvirginia.shtml

      This is actually a great time to visit the falls, because we have had a lot more rainfall than usual.

      There are some spectacular falls in the Monongahela National Forest, which is in the eastern part of the state (green on the map) – in fact, that is a place you must go to camp sometime, because it is unbelievably beautiful, and you can hike through the wilderness with ease. I actually thought about building a home in that area, I love it there so much.

      There are lots and lots of smaller falls in a place called Kanawha Falls, most of which are not on any map, and I like to climb up the hillside and explore them. It is right off Route 60 not far outside Charleston, and when you spot one (there are many, so they are easy to find), you can just pull over the side of the road and climb the hill to look for others. Just be careful doing that if it has been raining, because those hillsides are rock and can be extremely slick. Make sure you have on shoes with a hiking sole, to help you with your footing.

      Of course there are falls at the New River, and that is another place you must visit – if you like kayaking or rafting, you should really take a guided whitewater trip (though I do not suggest doing it alone, unless you are VERY familiar with whitewater rafting, because alone it can be extremely dangerous). Still, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and well worth doing!

      Have fun, and let us know how your trip went when you get back! 🙂

  3. Your blog is very nice! Interesting read.

    (P.S. A note for your social media accounts: Next time you try to “defend” Appalachians via the internet, make sure the person you attack isn’t also from Appalachia. Oops! The logo you were upset about is not a picture of a bobcat, it was a picture of the word “Ohio” in green. People who attend Ohio University are referred to as Bobcats, FYI)

    • Glad you like the blog. However, you are otherwise rather rude, so I will not mince words.

      A note for your social media accounts: Next time you decide to insult the intelligence of someone who did not recognize the logo of your college group, you might not want to be so obvious about it by mentioning that he pushes buggies at the grocery store for a living. Oops!

      Being from Appalachia does not mean that you do not insult people from Appalachia, and it is silly to think otherwise because it is actually very common. I know lots of pretty young college students like you, who consider themselves better and smarter than young men who work pushing buggies at the grocery store, so I know exactly what you meant. Otherwise, as I already pointed out, you would not have made it a point to say what he did for a living.

      What you should do, instead of insulting me for daring to point out that what you said is not okay, is to think about why you felt it important to note that he was performing low-wage manual labor. Maybe that is something you will not understand for many years to come, as you mature and come to understand the real world, but one day you will know that I am absolutely right about what you really meant. I suspect you know it is true even now, since you made it a point to come to my blog to argue with me about it. In other words, Methinks you doth protest too much.

      In the meantime, as we say in these parts, it’s your lie, so you can tell it any way you want.

  4. Yes I am way behind catching up on your posts… sorry about that. I enjoyed reading your story about this great flood. My mom got me a dvd called “River Voices – 1937 Ohio River Flood” which is about this flood and it contains a lot of pictures and stories from the people that survived that flood. It was amazing how all of those people came together to help each other and did were not depending on the government to step in and help them. Neighbors helped neighbors and took in families where they could. I really enjoyed watching it and learning about the 1937 flood. If you ever get a chance to find it and see it I think you would enjoy watching it.

  5. I just finished watching the mini series on dvd. Immediately I wanted to do a little research, knowing how Hollywood may have put their own spin on things. So I Googled Rosanna and Johnse and came across your blog. Thank you so much for sharing your family history. I will continue to follow your blog. It reminds me of my beloved Mammaw and the stories she would tell.

  6. People still posting here about the feud? They actually showed all 3 episodes back to back on the History Channel on Thanksgivng day.However, before the marathon started, they aired a 2 hour documentary titled “America’s Greatest Feud: The History of the Hatfields and McCoys”. It filled in a lot of blanks. For instances Perry Cline(A McCoy cousin through marraige, sister was married to Asa Harmon McCoy) played a big part in the feud. Not only did he lose 5,000 acres of land to Devil Anse Hatfield by illegally logging in Hatfield property, he hired the private decectives and bounty hunters to arrest Hatfield and Hatfield supporters for the murder of the Tolbert, Pharmer, and Bud McCoy. So it might have been more of a Cline-Hatfield feud. As far as Rosanna McCoy, it stated that she later moved into Perry’s home later and worked for him as a governess, and after Randall house burned down, he moved into the Cline home as well. For the Hatfields, they did show Preacher Anse prisiding over the pig trail, as well as Bill Stanton being a eyewitness on the side of Floyd Hatfield and Serkirk McCoy being the deciding vote in favor of Floyd. However, it showed Jim Vance and Devil Anse killed Asa Harmon McCoy. It also makes no mention of Jefferson or Paris McCoys’ deaths during the feud. Another thing that was cleared up was why Devel Anse and Jim Vance were fighting on the Confederate side. Even though they returned to what was West Virginia, a Union state, when they entered the war, that area was still part of the Confederate state of Virginia. West Virginia didn’t exist until 1863. Cleared up how Bad Frank Phillips died, too. He got into a argument over a woman he and another man were pursuing, and the other guy shot him dead.

  7. I stumbled across your blog post about the Hatfield/McCoy feud. I work at a public library in Virginia and I wondered if anyone in either of the two families offers to present programs on the history of the feud. You can reach me at elisa.rollins@lynchburgva.gov. Thank you.

  8. I am not sure if you are monitoring this page anymore, but do you have any comments on the Hatfield & McCoy:White Lightning show?

    • Hi, Jim! Yes, I actually do still monitor it, I just haven’t written anything since our friend passed away (we were taking care of him, he had lung cancer). I actually do have an opinion on that show, but it would take longer to explain than I could do in a comment. I’ll update the blog today. 🙂

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