February 21, 2012

1937, The Great Flood remembered

By Josephine Lee–

In mid-January, 75 years ago, record rainfall drenched the city of Louisville and caused the Ohio River to rise to levels never reached before. This disaster, known as the “Great Flood of 1937,” not only affected Louisville and southern Indiana, but also places as far south as Arkansas, due to the influx of water in the Mississippi River. To commemorate this event, the Photographic Archives Gallery in Ekstrom Library presents a different perspective of the flood, with images from the Indiana National Guard and Margaret Bourke-White of Life magazine, Corwin Short, who accompanied Bourke-White when she took the photos.

The set of photos pulled for this 75th anniversary exhibit tell a very different story from the 50th anniversary exhibit.

Bill Carner, imaging manager for the photographic archives and curator of the exhibit, was aiming to tell a very focused story of the flood.

“For the 50th anniversary, we really went all out and had articles in the newspaper. We did a big exhibit covering all aspects of the flood,” said Carner.

The destruction of this flood is easy to forget, but one photo captures the force with which Louisville was hit – the power of the river water slamming on the bridge is an unforgettable scene that puts how bad the disaster was in perspective. One photo taken by Bourke-White is of a man in an improvised boat made out of washtubs and shows how unprepared the city was for this natural disaster.

An archive photo shows 3rd street, Grawmeyer Hall and what is now Reynold's lofts under several feet of water.

One of Bourke-White’s most iconic and ironic photos is also displayed. The photo displays flood survivors lined up in the bread line in front of a billboard that says Louisville has the “world’s highest standard of living.” This photo of Louisvillians appeared in Life Magazine and shows how a rapid turn of events can take away a comfortable lifestyle. The aerial photos from the Indiana National Guard serves as a reminder for how widespread the destruction was. In many photos, it is difficult to distinguish what is normal landscape and what are the floodwaters because the water is everywhere. Images of neighborhoods show homes that were almost completely submerged by water. It is easy to forget the destruction of this flood, but this exhibit gives new information to those unknowledgeable of the flood and rekindles memories of those who experienced it.

“The flood is probably the biggest thing that ever happened in Louisville. Anybody who lived through it would remember it very well. There was a local river historian who said the ’37 flood gets worse every year because people’s memories tend to magnify what they dealt with,” said Carner.

The exhibit of the 75th Anniversary of the 1937 Flood exhibit will run until March 9.

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Photos courtesy University Archives

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