I was born and raised in Western Kentucky in counties that border the Ohio River. In Crittenden County where I was born across the river from Cave-in-Rock, Illinois and in Henderson County, across the river from Evansville, Indiana. From the time, I was big enough to walk it was always, don’t go near the water, stay away from the river, etc. from my Momma. We never lived real close to the river, but would go for picnics and such nearby. My Mamaw had told me stories about the floods of 1937 when she was a young woman and how bad it had been then; whole towns were under water and lots of people lost their lives, homes and businesses. All my grandparents, had at one time or another, told stories about someone they had known or stories they had heard about someone drowning in the river or the floods that hit hard, especially after early spring rains. So, all us kids were always cautioned to be careful anytime we were near water and especially near the river. The currents on the Ohio can take even a strong swimmer down quickly.
The floods of 1937 along the Ohio River took place in late January and February of 1937, when over 16 inches of rain fell in just a 3 to 4 day time period. There was death and destruction stretching from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania all the way to to Cairo, Illinois. Over one million people were left homeless, with approximately 385 people dead and property losses reaching at least $500 million and that was in 1937. I am not sure what the total monetary value would be in today’s standards. 70% of the city of Louisville, Kentucky was submerged, 35,000 people in Paducah, Kentucky were evacuated. The flood stage in Evansville, Indiana is 35 feet but in 1937 it rose to 53.8 feet, the previous high flood stage in Evansville had been 48.4 feet in 1884. The Ohio River floods of 1937 surpassed all other recorded floods for the previously recorded 175 years before that time.
My great-grandmother, Amy, lost her first love, Lafe, and the father to her oldest child when he was tying up a boat during a storm at the Cave-in-Rock docks in 1913. He had been knocked overboard and was caught up underneath the plying’s of the dock where they found him the next day. I wrote about him and his untimely death for my blog back on March 26, 2017 if anyone wants to go back and read about that. I have seen the ferry crossing closed between Marion, Kentucky and Cave-in-Rock when the river has been over flood stage and there is no way I would want to be on the river during that time anyway. There is always lots of debris and logs floating during floods that could take out a small boat and even larger boats if they were to hit just right.
One of the people who has made the most comments about my blog posts is a distant cousin and we never had a chance to meet, even though we had been corresponding since 2012, but I feel like I really knew her. She especially liked the story about Lafe and Amy and his drowning there at Cave-in-Rock, as that is where she had grown up as a child. She had even known the McConnell family whose boat, Lafe had been on that fateful night. After reading my story, she started telling me about different accidents that she remembered and some that had happened to her as well on the river. I had told her that her stories would make a great short blog post and I ask if she could write them down for me to add to my blog. She said that I could write about these and she would be honored to know that they were out there for others to read. I was busy and didn’t get a chance to write the stories down at that time, but had saved her messages, so that when I got the chance I could do that. I had posted a couple of more stories on my blog and realized I had not heard anything from Pat, on my last couple of post which was unusual for her. So, I sent her a message in June and she said she had been busy, but I think she had been sick and just didn’t want to worry me.
On July 2nd, Pat’s niece Jackie, sent me a message and said that Pat had ask her to let me know that she was sick and 3 days later Pat was gone, she was only 83. Barely three months after telling me some of these river stories, Pat died and I just didn’t feel like writing about the river at that time. Now feels like the right time to write about the stories Pat told me, as well as others I have run across through the years.
I googled Pat’s name just to see if I could find an obituary and ran across a blog post one of her granddaughters had written about her after her death. If anyone wants to read about Pat you can go to this link: https://onmogul.com/stories/to-my-grandmama-patricia-walker-mcdowell her granddaughter did an amazing job.
Now on too Pat’s stories, some funny and some sad, I wish Pat was here to tell them herself though. This is probably the first one she told me. “One time a cattle truck from St. Louis drove into the river. My brother, Charles worked on the ferry while in high school. Ferry was on the other side, when Charles saw the accident and tried to wake up the captain, but the captain was drunk. Charles was 17 or 18 years old and piloted the ferry across the river. Two men had gotten out, one was still in the truck. Charles took off his shoes and went under the water and got the other one out. So many stories he told me, I had never heard about growing up. Funny, funny and sad too.”
“One time Charles said a car load of people drove down the hill and broke the chain on the ferry and went into the water. No one was saved. I think he said one or two had jumped into the river. They were way out in the middle. Raised on the river, it's a miracle nothing happened to any of us.”
“The Ohio almost got me 3 times. When I was 5 and Charles was 11, Dad and Mom’s boat turned over in the river. Dad thought it would be fun for us to ride the waves from a paddle wheel boat on the Kentucky side. We crossed over, we were in a rowboat and of course, the boat turned over. We were in the water for hours. Dad put me in the limb of a tree, and Dad and Charles could not turn the boat over. A man way back in the flood water heard Mom calling for help. He was gathering drift wood. He took Mom and me to the Illinois side, then went back for Dad and Charles. They told me later I was so traumatized, they had to pry one finger at a time from the tree limb! I was screaming and could not stop. Needless to say, I never learned to swim. Two other times I fell in. What a life. 😫 Crossing even 18 years ago, (for a reunion) I could barely breathe.”
“The day of this accident when I was 5, we had gone down to Elizabethtown to do our weekly shopping. We lost all that in the accident. When the river went down, Dad went back to the scene and dug the canned goods from the mud. The labels were gone from the cans and we never knew what we were going to have for supper. Dad even found my little red purse in the mud. The dime was still in there. Now, isn’t that the funniest thing.”
“There is a story from long ago, of a man and wife (she was pregnant) crossing the Ohio in a rowboat. They both lost their lives. I read it years ago. It told their names, but I never knew them. There was a drowning years ago. A man was fishing at the Lock and Dam 50, up river from the cave. My Dad, was a commercial fisherman, he found the body, I was about 6 or 7. I ran down to the river, slipped thru the crowds and saw the body as Dad and another man pulled him from the river. "It was a sight I should not have seen!" He had been in the water for days.”
I wish Pat had, had the time to tell me more of her stories, she told me she had lots more, but unfortunately, she never got the chance. I have really missed her comments on my blog posts and the stories she would sometimes tell me. She was a special lady.
I have a couple of different newspaper subscriptions and so I thought it would be a cool idea to go through and pick out some articles of different people who drowned or nearly drowned either on the river or elsewhere or in accidents on the river that seemed interesting, as well as telling the stories that Pat told me. Here are just a few that I have run across.
From the Crittenden Press in Marion, Kentucky in the issue dated Thursday, May 4, 1893
A 2-year-old and 10 year, children of Mr. & Mrs. Godfrey accidentally drowns.
From the Crittenden Press in Marion, Kentucky in the issue dated Thursday, June 15, 1899
W. J. Hill and Lewis Horning almost drown, saved by Ernest Hill and W. B, Crider.
From the Crittenden Press in Marion, Kentucky issue dated Thursday, Nov 16, 1899
Boy by the last name of O’Neal drowns.
From the Crittenden Press in Marion, Kentucky issue dated Thursday, Apr 28, 1904
Mrs. Mary Perry & her baby, and her sister, Eliza Deboe, narrowly escape drowning.
From the Crittenden Record-Press in Marion, Kentucky issue dated Friday, Jan 5, 1906
W. B. Stembridge narrowly escapes drowning.
From the Crittenden Record-Press in Marion, Kentucky issue dated Thursday, Apr 4, 1907
Mrs. Aiken and her 6-year-old son, rescued by her 12 year old daughter.
From the Crittenden Record-Press in Marion, Kentucky issue dated Thursday, May 23, 1907
Jack McElmurry almost drowns.
From the Crittenden Record-Press in Marion, Kentucky issue dated Thursday, Apr 14, 1910
Lon Simmons falls in river, rescued by 7-year-old Virgil Cooksey.
From the Crittenden Record-Press in Marion, Kentucky issue dated Thursday, Sep 23, 1915
Clyde Green, son of Dan Green, fell from bridge and drowned near Nashville.
From the Crittenden Record-Press in Marion, Kentucky issue dated Thu, Aug 29, 1918
Virgil Binkley drowns, son of Jess Binkley
There are so many more stories from old newspapers that I could be here for the next year looking them up and telling you about them, but I just wanted to give some examples of the tragedy’s waiting when people live near rivers and streams.