The Radio Scene During the 1937 Ohio River Flood

The 1937 water flooding in the city of Cincinnati Ohio is described as the worst natural disaster ever in the lengthy 175 year history of the city.  On January 5, 1937 water levels along the Ohio River began to rise, and local populations were becoming alarmed.  Five days later, numerous flood warnings were issued, and three days later again, one foot of stormy rain fell.

On January 18 (1937), numerous houses were flooded as the Ohio River began to crest above its already high flood levels.  In addition, a million gallons of gasoline poured into the valley from ruptured storage tanks and caught fire, a fire on top of the flood waters, one square mile wide.

In all, a total of 12 square miles of Cincinnati was covered in that disastrous 1937 flood; the bridges were too low, and the rescue boats sped across flooded fields.  The Crosley Sports Ground was flooded 15 feet deep.

Aerial View of Flooding Along the Ohio River and lower Licking Rivers, including Newport, Covington and Cincinnati. Photo: US National Weather Service website.

On January 23 (1937), Evansville in Indiana declared Martial Law, with a record 54 feet, that is 19 feet above flood level.  Local citizens described the sound of the flooding waters as equal to the noise emitted by the huge Niagara Waterfalls over there between the United States and Canada.  A total of 97% of Jeffersonville was under water, and several small towns nearby never recovered from the onslush; they lie abandoned to this day.

Harrisburg in Illinois, 30 miles from the river, lay underwater; and at Paducah in Kentucky, swiftly flowing sheets of ice sped down the river on the surface of the flood waters.  In fact, the Cache River at the Great Lakes in Illinois began to flow backwards.

The massive flooding along the Ohio River valley was spread from Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania to

Cairo in Illinois, a distance of 600 miles.  The total damage throughout the widespread area was estimated at uncounted billions of dollars, with some 385 flood related deaths.

As would be expected in a massive disaster of this nature, the local radio stations rose to the occasion, and they suspended all advertising as they concentrated on the broadcast of emergency information.   Radio station WLW in Cincinnati with its 50 kW on 700 kHz quickly took up the challenge, and they were on the air locally until the mile wide fire burning on top of the flood waters destroyed their program link to the transmitter.  They then returned to their old and damaged studio facility which was quickly reactivated for the occasion.

Letterhead detail from a 1936 verification letter from WLW. © Hazel Edwards (nee Nicholls) Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.

Station WHAS in Louisville Kentucky with its 50 kW on 820 kHz quickly took to the air with emergency programming, and when the suddenly rising flood waters cut the program link to their transmitter, the programming was transferred by landline and rebroadcast by WSM in Nashville Tennessee.  At the time, WSM was on the air with 50 kW on 650 kHz.

It should also be stated that many other mediumwave broadcasting stations throughout the hard hit areas performed in a similar style, by rebroadcasting emergency information from one station to another. 

On January 18 (1937) for example, station WSAZ at Huntington West Virginia with its 1 kW on 1190 kHz began the broadcast of hourly emergency messages from its studios and offices in the Keith-Albee Theatre Building, and their location became the regional headquarters for local emergency communications.

Around about February 5 (1937), one month into the tragedy, the waters in the Ohio River began to subside, and slowly the local populations began to sought out what was left.  The radio stations began to return to normal programming, and life returned to an alternated state, never to what it was before.

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX program of July 17, 2022

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