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 62.7 feet in Point Pleasant, it claimed nearly 400 lives and caused almost $9 billion in damages. Thanks to the Corps of Engineers and the construction of hundreds of dams and impoundments, this was the last flood to crest over 60 feet, but it was by no means the first. In recorded history, that distinction goes to the flood of 1884.
In February of that year, record rainfall across the entire Ohio Basin resulted in an equally 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, and 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.
The Weekly Register, in its first edition after the flood, gives a full accounting of the county’s losses. Working downriver…
As would later be the case with the 1913 and ’37 floods, New Haven was spared due to its elevation above the river. Only the landing and a few of the riverfront farms above town were damaged, and even those damages were light.
At Hartford City, only four houses were spared the floodwaters, and many families fled to Sliding Hill for safety. The Pomeroy Telegraph reported that all three coal and salt companies in town were nearly destroyed by the floodwaters, with the Hartford Furnace suffering the worst due to its location on the riverbank. The Hartford was almost completely destroyed and its mine flooded, the Liverpool lost its fleet of barges all fully loaded with salt, and the California Coal Company lost its tipple and incline. The report also mentions that the Sliding Hill Creek bridge was washed out, and the Methodist Church organ (the first in the county) damaged beyond repair.
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 the ones in town, faced heavy losses. The typically “Unlucky” Hope Furnace had a stroke of good luck, only losing about 1,000 barrels of salt, but both lumber yards had their entire inventory float downriver and 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 lost everything and were forced to finally close. The Standard Iron & Nail Factory had $260,000 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, unfortunate enough to be at the mercy of two rivers, the majority of the town was underwater. The Register reported that every house was flooded except for the residence of Judge English, still standing in the 900-block of Main Street. Inside the courthouse, the waters reached a height of 4 feet, 2 inches, forcing the Circuit Court (in session at the time) to flee at the last moment and
destroying many of the law offices and libraries on the first floor. Businesses on Main Street, in many cases, lost all of their wares. Most, like the Weekly Register, had wrongly assumed that the flood couldn’t possibly be higher than the previous record in 1832 and simply moved their goods higher up on their shelves rather than to the second floor. The Register estimated the damages at $18,000,000 I today’s dollars.
At Leon, virtually every home and business was damaged. Many people lost everything that they owned, and the loss to the lumber industry was reportedly too high to estimate.
The farms in the area were also heavily impacted, as the water covered the entire valley. Many of the larger farms, including those of Peter Steenbergen Lewis at Old Town and James Couch at Southside, reported losses of over $5,000 (over $100,000 in today’s dollars) in fencing, buildings, hay, and stored grains.
Thankfully, despite the immense amount of damage, there wasn’t a single life lost in Mason County, and relief arrived to the region quickly in the form of money was sent by the War Department and boatloads of goods collected and donated by organizations in Charleston, Martinsburg, and Columbus. 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 and now, only our great-grandparents and the history books remember.
Information from the Weekly Register and the writings of Mildred Gibbs and Anna Lederer.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.