Everyone in the Ohio Valley grows up hearing stories from the Great Flood of 1937. Tearing through the valley, and cresting at a height of 79.9 feet in Cincinnati, it destroyed hundreds of lives and left only destruction in its wake. But less known is that 53 years prior, there was another flood which hit our region particularly hard.
In February of 1884, record rainfall across the entire Ohio Basin resulted in a record-breaking flood on the 11th. At Wheeling, this flood reached a height of 53.4 feet, the second highest in the city’s history. At Mason City, the waters hit 64.6 feet. At Point Pleasant, the river crested at 60.7 feet. At Cincinnati, it reached a staggering 71.1 feet. In 1900, it was decided that this was the highest flood of the century.
Like various other times throughout our history, New Haven was spared due to its elevation above the river.
At Hartford City, only four houses were spared the floodwaters, and many families fled to Sliding Hill for safety. The Pomeroy Telegraph reported that the Hartford Coal & Salt Company had suffered an estimated $100,000 of damage. Not only were the salt furnace and saw mill ruined, the coal mine was entirely flooded and would take four months to pump dry. The Liverpool Furnace lost an entire barge load of salt, but the Furnace itself suffered little, and reopened quickly.
At Adamsville, the German Furnace lost 5,000 barrels of salt.
At Mason City, the citizens first thought that they were safe from the raising water. They were to be proven wrong. At its highest point, even Route 62 was underwater. Every business on Front Street, which included most of the ones in town, faced heavy losses. The “unlucky” Hope Furnace had a stroke of good luck, only losing about 1,000 barrels of salt. Both lumber yards had their entire inventory float downriver. Many homes were also destroyed. Sadly, the Mason City Furnace, Young Boatyard, and Lerner Bromine Factory were all forced to close. Anna Lederer, teacher and local historian, provides this information as an eyewitness.
At Clifton, both the Quaker and Virginian Furnaces were forced to finally close. The Standard Iron & Nail Factory had $10,000 in damages.
At West Columbia, which is the lowest spot in the Bend, the entire town was submerged. Anna Lederer wrote that many residents “have taken refuge in the caves under the hills.”
At Point Pleasant, the majority of the town was underwater. Inside the courthouse, the waters reached a height of 4 feet, 2 inches. Circuit Court happened to be in session during this flood, and was forced to flee at the last moment.
At Leon, virtually every home and business was damaged. Many people lost everything that they owned.
The farms in the area were also heavily impacted, as the water covered the entire valley. As reported in the Point Pleasant Gazette, James H. Couch lost $6,000 of property near Southside. Many of the farmers throughout Mercer’s Bottom reported $2,000 or more of damage.
Relief arrived to the region quickly, as money was sent by the War Department and local organizations. For the next few months, constant supply shipments arrived by steamboats such as the Nora Belle and Katie Stockton, two of the first on the scene.
For many in the Ohio Valley, it seemed impossible that a flood could be worse, but those fears would come true in 1913 and 1937. For many of us, it is impossible to even imagine how destructive these floods were. Thanks to the protective floodwalls and dams, it has been 80 years since we experienced anything close to this kind of destruction, and now, only our great-grandparents and the history books remember.
(Editor’s note: Information for this story found in local newspapers; writings of Mildred Gibbs/Anna Lederer; “The Great Flood of 1884 in the Ohio Valley,” by John Vance; the National Weather Service records.)
Chris Rizer directs the Mason County Historic Preservation Society which can be found on Facebook.