Thursday, March 13, 1997
Lucky break
as levee holds

BY CAMERON McWHIRTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

OLD SHAWNEETOWN, Ill. - For more than a century, this historic town was just called Shawneetown. But after the disastrous 1937 flood, when the Ohio River poured over the 60-foot levee and swamped the entire burg, most of the townspeople had it.

With the help of the federal government, they packed and moved three miles north to found a new Shawneetown on higher ground.

Today, about 325 people live in this depressed hamlet, while about 1,700 people live up the hill. Those who stayed, many unemployed and all of them poor, laugh and refer to themselves as ''river rats.'' They say they will never move out of their town.

''Just about everybody's pitching in to help protect the town,'' said John ''J.R.'' Smith, 55, a volunteer fireman who spent Wednesday manning the telephones at the town's command post - a school bus parked next to the cinder block City Hall.

Most of the town's other men were out on the levee, putting sandbags wherever leaks sprouted. The men included Mayor Freeman Oldham, 41.

''I think we're not going to have any problems this time around,'' he smiled. ''The levee is holding just fine.''

This time, they were lucky. The river crested at 54.4 feet Wednesday, more than 5 feet short of the levee top, according to the Gallatin County Emergency Services Disaster Agency.

''I had a lot of worry,'' Mr. Oldham said.

Tuesday night, Mr. Oldham issued a voluntary evacuation order and asked the town's residents to sleep somewhere else in case the levee broke. Many complied, driving to stay with relatives or at a motel. Others loaded up mobile homes to head for higher ground.

On Monroe Street, Donna Barton, 49, helped her daughter, Betty Hazel, 32, and her family move books, photographs, a television and other belongings into a car to drive to a safe house.

''Every time we have bad water, my daughter's house gets wet,'' she said. ''Why don't we leave? I don't know really, I guess it's just home. I'll always live by the river.''

Off Jefferson Street, William Wells, 23, and family members from Uniontown, Ky., tried to get a mobile home up on wheels and out of the spongy, soaked earth into which it was sinking.

''I'm real worried about this house,'' he said. ''I just bought it.''

His father-in-law, Tom Vaughn, 62, rested on a rusty lawn tractor and watched the progress, or lack of it.

Meanwhile, tired volunteers bagged sand throughout the night to plug leaks. They ran pumps over the levee into parts of town where water seeped into homes.

A walk through Old Shawneetown reveals the community doesn't have much to defend these days. The only merchants in the town are a handful of package stores and the Riverfront Cafe.

Most of the buildings are mobile homes, defended by packs of dogs.

The largest church in town, a Catholic church built in 1931, is vacant. The few remaining brick buildings, vestiges of the community's 19th century wealth, are now abandoned.

Trash, rusting bicycles and soda cans are strewn through many of the yards. Most of the streets are not paved.

The reason for Old Shawneetown's current, and perhaps terminal, state of dilapidation is the brown leviathan on the other side of the levee. The town has rarely had good fortune when it comes to flooding.

Founded in 1810 as Illinois' first town, it became a commercial river center and saw the founding of the state's first bank. Famous personages, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, Abe Lincoln and Civil War generals, visited the town.

But the real history of the community always has been marked by the river's succession of floods.

Beginning in 1832, floods continually hit the until-then prosperous town. In 1859, residents constructed their first levee, upon which the current one is based. That held until 1867, when a breakthrough destroyed many homes. A series of floods in the 1880s forced the town to spend $200,000 to raise the levee another foot to once and for all keep the river out.

It didn't work. On April 3, 1898, the levee broke, sending the Ohio gushing through Shawneetown's streets. Twenty-five people drowned, and almost 200 homes were swept off their foundations, causing $500,000 in damages.

Another flood in 1913 forced the beleaguered city fathers to spend money to raise the levee again. In 1932, they spent more money to raise the level to an impenetrable 60 feet.

Then came '37.

The town was bitterly divided by the move afterward, and the two communities formally split in 1956. Many in Shawneetown see the river dwellers as fools, risking their lives and property behind a weak and ancient levee. Many river folk see those who moved away as weaklings who couldn't take the bad the river has to offer with the good.

''We're used to high water,'' Mayor Oldham said. ''It's just part of life here. Water in town just goes with being a river town.''

While Old Shawneetown residents relaxed Wednesday night after anxiously watching the levee hold, people in other small river communities - places such as Equality, Junction, New Haven, Cave in Rock and Elizabethtown - spent Wednesday sandbagging to fend off the flood with varying degrees of success but no major disasters.

The disaster agency reported 52 county roads were closed because of the flood.

Downriver, Metropolis in Illinois and Smithland and Paducah on the Kentucky side already were flooded even though the river isn't expected to crest there until Friday. Thunderstorms, with heavy rain, are expected today to make matters worse.

Mr. Vaughn, waiting on his son-in-law to bring a truck that may or may not be able to haul the mobile home out of the muck, said ''river rats'' like him weren't going to let the flood and all its accompanying problems scare them off.

''Floods ain't that hard to handle once you know them,'' he said. ''Just keep watching the water rise and keep moving back.''

FLOOD STORIES
FLOOD PHOTOS