Community History – 1937 Flood Letter from Covington Resident

Community History - Covington - 1937 Flood Letter from Covington Resident

Letter from Charles F. Wolking, 1718 Garrard Street, Covington, Kentucky to his brother, Richard Wolking and family of Hamilton, Ohio.

Covington, Ky.
Sunday Jan 31st 1937

Dear Brother and Sis,

Last Sunday morning I sent you some pictures out of the papers with pencil notations on them telling about a flood we were having here. Well that was no flood‑‑it was just starting or rather got started last Sunday afternoon. About three hours after I sealed your envelope we were packing our clothes getting ready to leave and Sunday night I got the kids out to the Villa Madonna and Antoinette and I held fast to our little ark at 1718 Garrard wondering what would happen. That Sunday goes down in history along the Ohio as “Black Sunday” and what a Sunday it was. Well here’s the story as well as I can remember the nightmare for that’s what it seems to be now.

Saturday two weeks ago was the first talk of even a flood and the river had been falling, but then with rain up the river and here, flood stage of 54 was predicted; that is two feet above flood stage which is 52 ft. at Cincinnati. Then with more rain the crest predicted was revised and around 60 or 63 ft was predicted. And with the hard rain of Wednesday and Thursday it got serious until Friday it was getting to look like a real calamity with the stage at 70 ft. and still rising and more rain.

Friday the 22nd was a day I will never forget (along with Sunday). We had the biggest sale day of the year at the store and I started to work early as the store opened early that day for the sale. I got to the car barn and no cars running anymore, so I walked to work and, oh, the water under the bridges and coming up on the streets. After I got to work they said the bridges were to be closed at 10 o’clock and then at 12 o’clock. But I was told by the store superintendent that the L & N Bridge was closed but the Suspension would still be open for a long time, if closed at all. About 12 o’clock one of the men came up to me‑‑he also lives in Covington‑‑and said “Wolking, they are going to close the bridge in 8 minutes; if you want to get home, I am going.” ‑‑I told him he was foolish, but I decided to see for myself, so I got my hat and coat (we were to eat dinner at the store that day so as to cut down on lunch hour, on account of the sale) and went down to the bridge to see. Well, you had to squeeze between the traffic to get across 3rd street and there were about 4 rows of foot passengers going across the bridge and rain coming down. I found out from the bridge collector that the bridge would not close below a 78 ft. stage, so I went back to work; and then the report of lights being shut off (get original!!!)

You could not get a telephone line to call home. By 3 o’clock business was dead. So I went home about 4:30 walked the bridge and it began to snow hard. The river passed the all time flood record of 1884 of 71.1 Friday afternoon.

Saturday Jan 23rd walked to work, the ground was deep in snow and cold and the river started to slacken up a bit and I walked back home after 6 o’clock that night and the moon was shining on the snow, but on 2nd street in Cincinnati the water was just about a foot under the hanging ark lights, and in Covington they had built a dike of gravel and sand bags to keep the water off the entrance to Suspension Bridge across 2nd Street from Boro’s corner to Fenton Dry Cleaning corner. The water on Riverside Drive in Covington was up to the cross arms on the telegraph poles. Covington street lights were out, and on Greenup Street blockades and red lights to prevent any traffic east of Greenup were placed at every corner from 8th all the way out to 20th. Antoinette had laid in provisions of oats and peas and beans and cornmeal, flour and candles, to be ready for the worst in case the bridge was closed, and supplies in groceries were dwindling. But it looked like the worst was over and we sat listening to poor Louisville sending out reports over the radio. (They had been doing this all day Saturday and all Saturday night). But the flood, instead of being over (and mind you, some of our friends and Antoinette’s relatives had to get out of their homes in boats on Friday morning already around there where Grandma Wolking used to live) was just getting started.

Sunday Jan 24th I started out to 6 o’clock Mass and came near sliding out the gate for over the snow there was sleet or frozen rain. The Bishop ordered prayers for the flood sufferers and a collection. People had already moved furniture in the school basement and water started coming in the basement and they had to use the auditorium and school rooms. Well, after Mass it started to rain again on top of the snow and things were getting worse and the rain harder. The boats were going by Eastern Ave. in back of our house and water was creeping up to Maryland Ave.‑­that is that street just across the hollow in back of us. We took the kids’ bed down in their back room and Antoinette made up the davenport in front room for them, just to be prepared. I went down to 17th and Eastern to look over conditions and see what to do. The store you could go into in the morning was flooded then, and the water was clear across the street already; the water was coming up fast again. The streets were lined with trucks of all kinds moving people out and all was confusion and raining hard. We had been watching Maryland Ave. from our back window anxiously all day, and about 2 o’clock the water broke over with a roar and in one hour and a half the hollow was all filled and water was up to our back lot and in the peoples’ houses on 18th St. Well, we got the children’s clothes packed. Then Antoinette’s and mine, and getting things high on cupboard shelves, and our coal out of the cellar into the kids’ back bedroom and wood and the washing machine, etc. Our kids’ bed then went over to Hoppe’s, for their son’s family was flooded out on 18th Street a square below Klosterman’s and practically lost everything. The water kept rising in our back lot and getting higher on the houses on 18th Street, and Lou’s garage right in back of us was completely covered and auto trailer floated on top of an auto next to the garage, and auto and trailer both completely covered. Then that concrete wall two doors from us went over with a loud noise that shook the house with a thud. ( A big fire broke out at the Oil Co and Crosley refrigerator plant in Cincinnati in the flood waters Sunday morning‑‑about million and half damage, I believe five buildings burned.) Now the radios in Cincinnati were beginning to broadcast bulletins and calls for help like Louisville had been doing. By 4 o’clock the movie theaters were closing to conserve electricity, which might go out any time; cars in Cincinnati quit running and the mayor was issuing orders and proclamations (Cint, Cov. and Newpt Mayors) stores were to be closed, and water was to be shut off at 7 p.m. Sister Vincentia at the Villa had called the Hoppe’s early Sunday and told them when they saw us to tell us if we got in any trouble to send our children out there. Well, about 6 o’clock I decided to take her offer and called her and she said she would wait for us, so I got a taxi and rode the three little kids out. And Oh what a ride, pitch dark, raining, and lots of wet snow on the ground and traffic a lot, creeping up past Ben’s house on 19th St. over the hill to the Dixie. That was the only way you got out to Ft. Mitchell. All other ways were under water. And traffic is so heavy they had to divide up at the top of Ben’s hill (Highland) and send outbound out past Monte Casino (rear) and coming in down the hill through that new subdivision above Ben’s. And water was in the street at St. Augustine’s Church and you had to detour out to 21st and Howell and then back to Ben’s street. Well, I just got back and got my supper about 8:30 when the lights and radio went off, so for the past week at night we used candles and our front room grate fire for light. All night Sunday trucks were out in front of our house with peoples’ furniture on them moving from 17th St and 18th Sts, and Sunday night the water started coming in our cellar. And by Monday night we had about 2 feet in it and the water was just about a foot and half from the top of our hill and back gate. The river stage Monday midnight was 80 ft and then was stationary for 9 hours with a possible crest of 81 ft. predicted Wednesday from rain and a rise at Pittsburgh, but that didn’t materialize as the river started falling slowly Tuesday afternoon and now today Sunday is 73 and a little over, which is still about 2 ft. above the 1884 record. On last Sunday night this river was at 7 p.m. 75.8; at 8 p.m. 76.2 a rise of 4/10 ft an hour; at 9 p.m. 76.5; so you can see how things looked and rain falling. Just before the radio went off Sunday night they announced that these oil tanks across from the Villa Madonna toppled over and some broke away and floated down the river, and people should be careful of fire in that vicinity. That was the last we heard.

Monday 25th‑‑People still moving off of 17th and 18th St. and some on Garrard.

Tuesday 26‑‑People start smiling again, the sun was shining and the river falling a little, and people began to take hold again and to watch that they get water to drink and cook with at 6 to 8 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. No water for baths, cleaning, washing and scrubbing. (So today we are celebrating “Dirty Sunday.”

So that is the story as I can tell it. By Thursday the water was going down in our cellar and I started cleaning out the corners Thursday afternoon. Just as the water would go down, I would use the water to sweep out the mud and I got my furnace fire started again. By Friday afternoon I had it all out and cleaned. You are not allowed to use a hose or city water on it as they will cut off your water if you do. All water must be boiled for 10 minutes, at least. We have had some more light rains but they don’t amount to anything. We received a letter from you last Monday,
that I didn’t get to read until Tuesday evening. Too much to look after. Everybody for squares around were helping each other and seeing if anything was needed in the way of beds or lodging or coal or food. And now it all seems like a nightmare that it is practically over. We were very, very fortunate, but some of our neighbors and friends lost a plenty and some practically everything. And who would have thought a flood would come so close to us. About the family picture, it is a good thing we did not have it, for if we would have had to move, look what danger it would have been in. I checked on Bert Rich’s place and it is safe; the water was up in his first floor, but not near the second. And I always told you the picture would be in danger with small children in the house, for no matter how well behaved a child is, accidents can happen and then I would have been blamed for it. When I was able to care for it, I did. When Ben bought his home in Price Hill, I took it to our place on Trevor St. and Antoinette sewed it up in bed sheets and we stood it behind an old fashioned wardrobe where it was safe from breakage, and when I moved to Garrard St. we had it standing behind our bed until Mama moved to 21st St. For the present I will have to forget about the picture. Later on, maybe we can talk about it. Had a letter from Dick, or rather Ag wrote Wednesday, wanting to know if we were safe, for he had heard about the flood. Her brother was in it deep as the water on 13th St was almost up to Greenup St. Aunt Annie and Lil and Mayme, I understand, went to Ft. Thomas and Mayme’s husband and boy were living at St. Joseph’s School; that is a Red Cross Headquarters in charge of the Daughters of Isabella. All Catholic schools are Relief Stations for food and shelter and, of course, Protestant Churches.

Please excuse my writing as I can’t see so good and the light is bad. We did not hear from our little ones all week as the phones to Villa Madonna are still out of order due to the flood. So today Antoinette and I went up to 19th and Madison to wait for a bus to go to Ft. Mitchell. You know that is the only way out there now. A young man in a new DeSoto asked me the way to Georgetown, so I asked him if we could ride out with him and then we walked from the Dixie to the Villa to see how the kids are. They all had a shot in the arm for typhoid; the whole community of nuns also. Anne said her motor was all right but she had a bum wing. Peg has a stubborn carbuncle on the back of her neck. Otherwise they are all right. Sister wants the kids to stay until St. Benedict’s school opens, but that will be about two more weeks, I guess, the way it looks. All schools are closed indefinitely. They are taking care of more small children and about 80 refugees out there. The Red Cross has established a relief station out there now for Constance Ky and part of Bromley. See, they can come right up the hill from the river. I will probably get our kids in when I can get a machine to take me out for them. This week autos had to have a permit to buy gasoline, only for relief work or necessary trucks and autos could buy gas. Stores in Cincinnati have been closed tight for one whole week now, and I don’t think they will open before Wednesday. Covington and Newport stores were allowed to open Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and of course, they had to use gasoline, light or candles, but people needed sox and underwear and lamps and boots and such things. I will send you some pictures from the flood later as there has not been many run so far; it was hard enough to get out a paper, let alone, a lot of pictures, I guess, under present conditions. I was able to buy a gas mantle yesterday for our kitchen fixture, the only gas light outlet we have, and so we would have little light better than candles. We tried for a week for one, and I just got it fixed about 4 o’clock yesterday when the electric current came back on, but we are allowed to use only one light at a time and it is rather dim. You see they are getting power from cities like Dayton and Indianapolis and parceling it out as best they can, and if the load gets too heavy now, why they will have to shut sections off again until their dynamos are out of the water and dried out again. One good thing the gas supply was plentiful as long as the water did not hit your meter. The gas men would go through the water in your cellar with boots on and as long as they could get through they left your meter. He was in ours late Monday and said it could go until Tuesday morning at least. So Tuesday it did not raise anymore, and our gas was left on. We thank God we came through in such good shape.

With love to all,
Chas. Antoinette, and kiddies


Believe it or not‑‑

‑‑Water was on the lower church step at St. Benedict’s

‑‑Boats were tied up four doors above the church towards Garrard St.

‑‑Water was in the St. Benedict School basement up to the cellar windows and right up to the front fence in school yard, and the Sisters’ house had their basements half full.

‑‑ Relief workers and police had their fires in the street nights at the school entrance and the church had about 3 or 4 ft in the basement.

–Mrs. Hagedorn’s house and all those houses had water in their basements and side yards half way to the front sidewalks

‑‑Garrard Street was flooded from the upper side of the C & O bridge at 16th Street to about near 15th, and even an auto in the street was half covered

‑‑18th Street was covered up to the doors our side of Millie Klosterman’s

‑‑People across the street from us had water in their cellars

–19th Street was flooded across Garrard towards Greenup and, of course, all the way to Newport.

‑‑St. Elizabeth Hospital was in a pitiful plight. They have 4 steam rollers in front of the building and pipes running from them through the first floor windows to shoot steam into the building for heating. The firemen were pumping their boiler room for a week. I guess, to keep heat, until finally the water drove them away. Then they got them the steam rollers.

‑‑Five homes back of the hospital were up to porch roofs in water and cottages had water up over the roofs.

‑‑Farrells, where Moma used to live across from the hospital, the water was up on the porch floor ready to go in the first floor, also Axers and John Berger (Mayme Tombrogel) were in it a plenty. Also Oscar Burns and down around where Moma lived on 21st Street people got out Friday a week ago already. Antoinette’s cousin, Ted Nielander, who had that cottage across from Moma there, has 6 inches just below the ceiling of the first floor. All those people up that way are deep in it.

‑‑You know I wrote you the water was up in front of where you lived on Pleasant St., well, it went clean across Greenup, so half way over to Scott St. Ben Adams’ home on Greenup, for instance, was in it; they moved from their first floor.

‑‑Seventh St. was flooded from the Post Office next to Coppins to near LaSallette Academy’s entrance on 7th St. People on Greenup across from LaSallette had water in their first floors; it was almost to 8th St.

‑‑Scott St. was flooded from above 7th to below 5th and from above Park Place to the river. They had a pontoon bridge across 5th & Scott as that was the only way people living on Greenup from 7th to river and all East of them could get to Madison Ave or out at all for Madison was flooded from the Kentucky Post to river shutting off 4th St., for the only other outlet was an alley between Scott and Madison between 4th and 5th, and that was used for trucks and autos which went down Scott to 4th over 4th to Greenup to the jail and there they built a high wide dike of gravel and cement‑filled sacks to the bridge pier and covered it with planks so trucks and autos could get to Cincinnati for supplies. The bridge office, the new building at 2nd St. and Bridge was about 5th ft. in water.

‑‑And here is one you won’t believe but Mrs. Pate told me this herself. Our house on 6th St. had water in the cellar and the water was in the street up to Mrs. Froelich’s gate and the people in that little cottage across from where Boyson’s lived had to move out. I saw water yesterday yet in Lowes’ back yard up to about the 3rd step from the alley. It had been almost up to the top step. It was still just a few feet from the alley in the Old Brewery lot & stable. Now what do you think of that one.

‑‑The streets are black as pitch at night; only a little candle was burning in people’s houses and last night Antoinette and I went to Church with a lantern.

‑‑Mary told us today she saw four people rescued from a house floating down the river just at the Villa and that was in the papers too. And she told of other houses she saw go down the river.

-‑Cleveland, Ohio has sent down Street flushers to haul water and do pumping in Cincinnati.

‑‑There were 16 coast guard boats and crews here from New Jersey and Illinois. Ten now have gone to Louisville. Today I saw a truckload of supplies from the Veterans of Foreign Wars from Detroit going through to Louisville, I guess; and last Wednesday there were buses full of Baltimore police that went through.

‑‑Many more I could write‑‑maybe later‑‑but the cities are coming through in fine shape and it won’t be long and it will all be forgotten.

I didn’t write this to make you feel bad; don’t worry over us, but I just wanted to give you some idea of where the water hit that you would think impossible for it to reach, and I thought you would like to know a little about it. Later I will send pictures and papers. Was too busy this, week.

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