In 1937, The Sutcliffe Co. received a large shipment of rubber boots. This was such a big deal at the time that the company took out an ad in the local paper.
It was during the Ohio River flood of 1937, and those who were able could go over to 225 S. 4th Street and pick up a pair of boots. The shoes were lined on the inside and went all the way up to the hips. This hot commodity went for $6.50.
This week marks the 80th anniversary of the 1937 flood. In late January to early February of that year, parts of Louisville such as The Point and the West End were under water. The Highlands and parts of the Central Business District were safer areas.
More than 30,000 homes were damaged. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that property damage in Jefferson County was nearly $55,000,000 (in 1937 dollars, not accounting for inflation today). It was the Ohio River Valley’s deepest flood ever recorded.
Not quite business as usual
Rubber boots weren’t the only heroes during the deluge.
On a recent Friday morning, Lewis Shuckman walks into his office in a plaid shirt, jeans and a hairnet. He’s just finished taking inventory at Shuckman’s Gourmet Smoked Fish and Caviar on 30th and Main streets. But before the shop specialized in gourmet goods in Portland, it was a grocery store on 16th and Kentucky streets in California.
His granddad, Isia Shuckman, owned the store and provided an important service during the ‘37 Flood.
“My grandfather got the idea — ‘let’s move everything upstairs,’” he says. “Which he did and he had it all itemized. He had the green beans and the corn, just like it was downstairs but it was in rooms.”
Word got around and Louisvillians rowed their boats up to the second floor window of Shuckman’s. Isia Shuckman wrote down what they got and shoppers paid him back when they could.
Everyone has a Story
Stories like this weren’t uncommon during the flood and may have even saved the city from a high number of deaths. “How High the Water Was: The Flood of ‘37,” an exhibit at the Ekstrom Library at the University of Louisville, looks back at that time. It features scrapbooks, photos, letters and other rare mementos.
“I think it’s important to exhibit materials from the ‘37 Flood,” says Elizabeth Reilly, curator of the Photographic Archives at U of L. “It reminds everybody here in Louisville that Louisville has been struck by disasters in the past and gotten through it better on the other side.”
Deaths during the flood were hard to keep track of says Carrie Daniels, director of Archives and Special Collections.
“It’s a very surprising slippery number but it’s remarkably low,” she says. “And I think that’s because families pitched in, neighbors took care of each other. People from other states came to help us out.”
There were other saviors during the flood. An 1,800 foot pontoon bridge — made out of empty whiskey barrels in less than a day — connected downtown to Baxter Avenue in the Highlands.
Because of lower lying land, many rescue attempts were made in the West End. And the Boys Scouts, during a time of segregation, played a significant role. Scouts in the West End had their own headquarters. “The Colored Division’ as they were called, moved their base because of the high water in the neighborhood. Scouts in this division rescued 73 families —about 300 people.
“Every family, every person who went through the flood has some unique story to tell,” says Carrie Daniels, director of archives at U of L. Even 80 years later, she says, the flood remains a rich trove of wonderful stories.