’37 flood still holds records

Ohio River flooding in 1937

The ’37 flood reached the second floor of the Chilo Lock 34 powerhouse.

More than 80 years ago, residents of cities and towns along the Ohio River faced the destructive power of an angry river. The damage that ensued left a lasting impact on the region, including thousands left homeless and millions of dollars in property damages. The fabled flood of January 1937 showed residents along the river just how destructive the Ohio could be.

Floods in the Ohio River Valley were nothing new. Melting snow and heavy rains in February and March of 1884 deluged Cincinnati and other communities with a then-record high-water mark of 71.1 feet. Heavy rains in the spring of 1913 caused the river to swell once again, with the river cresting at 69.9 feet and claiming an estimated 600 lives, making it the deadliest flood on record.

Unusually high temperatures at the start of 1937 – along with record levels of precipitation – made a recipe for disaster unlike anything before or since on the Ohio River. Temperature never fell below freezing at the start of a year marked by heavy rains. Between Jan. 13 and 24, more than 13 inches of rain fell in and around Cincinnati. By Jan. 18 the river roared past its 52-foot flood stage and peaked at 79.9 feet in Cincinnati on Jan. 26.

Further east, Chilo Lock 34 in Clermont County experienced similar water levels. The Ohio peaked at 73 feet there, well into the second floor of the power station that now houses the visitors center and museum.

The river extended through the entirety of what is now Chilo Lock 34 Park and across the roadway where U.S. 52 runs.

The schoolhouse in Chilo never reopened after the ’37 flood. Children of the village started trekking up the hill into Felicity for their education thereafter.

Down river in Cincinnati, flood waters covered 15 percent of a city noted for its hills. Crosley Field sat 21 feet under water. The Mill Creek – backed up by the flooded Ohio – caught fire after flood waters ruptured fuel tanks in the industrial area, destroying 32 buildings in the process.

The river stayed at flood stage until Feb. 6, forcing more than 100,000 Cincinnati residents from their homes. The flood caused more than $25 million in damage in the Queen City alone and $500 million in damages along the entire river, the equivalent of $8.7 billion today.

Officials took measures to help prevent future flood disasters. During the 1940s and ’50s, Army engineers built floodwalls and flood control reservoirs in tributaries connected to the Ohio to keep floodwaters at bay. The establishment of the Ohio River Forecast Center led to continuous monitoring of water levels. Major floods occurred along the Ohio River in 1964 and 1997, but nothing like ’37.

Interested floods and other river history? Visit the Chilo Lock 34 Visitor Center and Museum to learn more. The museum is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

New Richmond City Hall, a flood victim in 1937.