Flood of 1997
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1903 flood photo
This 1903 flood swamped the tracks to the Grand Central depot. Union Station, in the western basin, was typically abandoned when the river hit 53.5 feet.

The lowest recorded depth of the Ohio was on Sept. 17, 1881, when it was only 1 foot 9 inches deep. But the floods came again, reaching 58.7 feet in 1882 and hitting 66 feet 4 inches on Feb. 15, 1883. One year later the waters rose on Feb. 14 to 71.1 feet, the record flood on the Ohio until 1937.

Rivers commanded respect

BY OWEN FINDSEN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Three brothers from Virginia -- John, James and George Medfee -- rowed their canoe down the Ohio River past the mouth of the Licking River in 1773. As the three men recorded their experiences in their journals, they were the first to leave a written record of a flood at the site of Cincinnati.

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Fifteen years later, the area's first settlers landed at the mouth of the Little Miami and began to build cabins in November 1788 at a place they called Columbia. When John Cleves Symmes and his company passed Columbia in late January 1789, on the way to North Bend, the river was too high and fast for the Symmes company to stop. Every cabin but one at Columbia was under water.
A squad of soldiers, sent to guard the Columbia settlers, was forced to evacuate their blockhouse at what now is the foot of Delta Avenue by cutting a hole in the roof and leaving by boat.
That flood was the reason the city of Cincinnati was built opposite the mouth of the Licking, where there was a series of terraces above the flood plain, rather than on the Little Miami River.
When the lower plain of the town was inundated in 1793, settlers became concerned with how high the river could rise and consulted the Indians. They were shown a mark on a tree on the site of Fort Washington. The mark indicated a 76-foot depth of the river during the 1773 flood.
The Ohio was tame in the early 19th century, but returned with a fury in 1832, when Cincinnati attorney Salmon P. Chase recorded a flood in his journal. It reached 64 feet 93/4 inches on Feb. 18.
The next serious flood came Dec. 17, 1847, when the river reached 63 feet 4 inches, followed by a 57-foot 21/2-inch flood in 1862.
The lowest recorded depth of the Ohio was on Sept. 17, 1881, when it was only 1 foot 9 inches deep. But the floods came again, reaching 58.7 feet in 1882 and hitting 66 feet 5 inches on Feb. 15, 1883. One year later the waters rose on Feb. 14 to 71.1 feet, the record flood on the Ohio until 1937.
Tragic as floods are today, they were more damaging in the 19th century, and they happened more frequently. Between 1862 and 1900, the river reached flood stage once a year, on average. Although most floods were modest, they frequently covered the riverside railroad tracks. Union Station, in the western basin, was abandoned when the river reached 53.5 feet.
By 1883 the city relied on trains rather than steamboats to bring food and other supplies to the city. When trains could not get through, famine was possible.
Floods also brought the threat of disease. Smallpox became a threat and cholera epidemics sometimes began with floods. The city's reservoirs were overtaxed, so water use was rationed in case it was needed to fight the inevitable fires.
Without clean water, laundries closed. ''Young men's shirts are in a state of much dirtiness,'' The Enquirer reported during the 1884 flood.
Most of the factories and warehouses were in the flood plain, as were the homes of most factory workers, so work stopped and many were homeless. And because houses and streets were lit with gas, the closing of the riverside gas plants meant that the city was dark at night.
To discourage looting, soldiers patroled the streets, and home owners put oil lamps in their windows to light dark streets.
Even the fortunate Cincinnatians who had hilltop homes were stranded when the hills were turned into islands by surrounding water in the lowlands. As waters receded in 1884, The Enquirer said that ''a million people praise God.''

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