A walk along Evansville’s Riverfront Esplanade — even on the most beautiful of days — evokes memories of the worst natural disaster in the history of the Ohio River: the Great Flood of 1937.
The levee is the most visible reminder — built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the city from a future catastrophe. For 17 miles, earth embankments and concrete floodwalls serve as a border between the people of Vanderburgh County and the river.
There’s a staff gauge on the pump house hash marked to 54 feet, the height where the 1937 floodwaters finally stopped rising after 22 days above flood level.
There are literal signs, too. Along the landscaped river walk on top of the levee, historic markers tell the story of the Evansville region, paying special attention to the role of the river in community life and the mechanics of the new and improved levee system.
“For the people who experienced the flood, this was the most dramatic experience of their life, other than World War II,” says historian Robert L. Reid. “The rains started in December and they kept coming and they kept coming and they kept coming until, by the middle of January, the Ohio was above flood stage virtually everywhere.”
The rain combined with sleet and snow to create a hazardous scene all along the Ohio, from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois. Water covered 70 percent of Louisville, 90 percent of Jeffersonville and most of New Albany. The flood killed 385 people in all, leaving 1 million homeless and causing $250 million in property damage ($3.4 billion today), according to one National Weather Service estimate.
Evansville residents had dealt with floods before, in 1907, 1913, 1927 and 1933. But when they awakened January 10, 1937 to a thick layer of ice on top of already soaked ground, they suspected this one might be worse. A week later, the heaviest rains fell, submerging more than half the city. On January 24, martial law was declared. On Jan. 31, the river crested at 54.74 feet.
Amazingly, though Evansville was among the hardest hit, no one drowned in Vanderburgh County. For more than a month, lives were on hold. Schools and businesses closed, travel stopped, and National Guardsmen patrolled the streets.
Once waters receded, residents faced a massive cleanup and repair period, similar to that of a war zone. There were muddy homes with buckled floors and ruined furniture, caved-in streets, broken levees and debris and excess water everywhere.
Even when those who lived through it are gone, the ’37 flood is something Evansville won’t forget. The photographs of a city underwater are just too extraordinary.
In 2012, to mark the flood’s 75th anniversary, the Willard Library published a photographic history of the flood, Over the Banks of the Ohio. Among the most graphic images: men in business suits standing in thigh-high water, residents paddling through streets in rowboats, relief crews stationed on rooftops, Bosse High School surrounded on all sides by rising water. In one picture at the intersection of Washington and Kentucky avenues, the water almost reaches the theater marquee.
In August of 1937, Congress passed the Flood Protection Act to ensure nothing like the Great Flood would happen again. Evansville’s $55 million project, begun in 1939 and not completed until 1994, features raised levees, 20 pumping stations and a system of closeable gates and sandbag structures that automatically activate when the river reaches a level that prevents normal drainage.
A 1.5-mile walkable riverfront trail starts at Sunrise Park at the intersection of Waterworks Road and Riverside Drive and goes by the Evansville Museum of Art, History and Science at 411 SE Riverside Drive.