A Look Back
By Jackie Lewis, Communications Office summer intern
Water is one of the most useful things on Earth. We drink it, bathe in it, clean with it and use it to cook food. Most of the time, it is completely gentle. But in large enough quantities, the very same water we use to rinse a toothbrush can overturn cars, demolish houses and even cause death. A mighty flood can create unsanitary conditions because waste products mix with the water and pollute the entire clean water supply.
The Great Ohio River Flood of 1937 claimed roughly 400 lives, more than any other Ohio Valley flood . The flood affected the city of Cincinnati from Jan. 18 to Feb. 5. The river reached its peak on Jan. 26 – at 79.9 feet. The city’s power was shut down and emergency power brought in from Dayton, Ohio. According to many news reports, the flooding drove more than 100,000 people from their Cincinnati homes. The river washed over an entire one-fifth of the city and much of Covington, Ky., and Newport, Ky., as well.
On its anniversary, we thought it would be interesting to see how the Great Ohio River Flood of 1937 affected some of the Sisters who experienced the devastation.
S. Patricia Dempsey remembers there was no school. “Most of us didn’t know much about the topography of the downtown area or anything beyond walking distance from our homes,” she said. “However, we soon felt the effects of the flood.” Sister’s mother was a long distance telephone operator and had to stay with her sister during the flood so she could get to work. Her grandmother lost her home to the flood and she came to care for S. Patricia and her siblings.
During the flood telephone service was almost non-existent for most private citizens. According to some of the Sisters interviewed, the only link with the rest of the city was by radio. For about an hour each evening personal messages were broadcast to help families stay in touch. This also was the way news of the flood was passed along.
According to most reports, 10 percent of the city’s land was flooded; the water supply was cut; and streetcar service was stopped. There was no electricity for most private homes in the city and travel from one side of the city to the other was cut off. Many could not get to their jobs and traveled in the downtown area by boat.
The water reached many second story levels. S. Eileen Therese Breslin remembered her mother being rescued from the attic of their family home in Maysville, Ky., by boat. S. Eileen Therese was an intermediate teacher at Resurrection Grade School in Price Hill (Cincinnati) in 1937. The school was closed to accommodate flood refugees. She lived in the convent at the time and remembered that the pastor of her parish traveled all the way to Norwood once a week to a spring to get fresh water for the parish and convent.
S. Benedicta Mahoney writes in her book, “We Are Many… A History of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, 1898-1971,” the Sisters at St. Rose Convent on Eastern Avenue evacuated on Thursday, Jan. 21 when the river reached 65 feet. According to S. Benedicta, the Sisters moved to the Motherhouse until the flood waters receded. She writes, “On Sunday, Jan. 24, ‘Black Sunday’ as it was called, Sisters in all parts of Cincinnati listened to radio reports of rising water, up to 75 feet and still rising, heroic rescue efforts, and devastating fire that was to burn for two days, gutting a three and a half mile area along Mill Creek.”
S. Martha Ann Conley was a sophomore at the College of Mount St. Joseph during the flood. A native of Middletown, Ohio, she lived on campus during the week, and was unable to travel home on the weekends. “I remember my father calling the president of the college, telling them to keep me at the college,” she said. “It was much too dangerous for me to travel home.” Later, as the flood waters rose, the college closed and S. Martha Ann was bussed to a train which she took to Middletown. She stayed there about two weeks while the college classes were cancelled.
Most of the Sisters I spoke with were not displaced by the actual flood waters; however, S. Teresa Stadtmiller was. Sister lived on River Road. Her father owned a big farm just across the road from their house. The flood waters engulfed the farm and reached the second floor of their home. She and her younger sister had to be relocated to her older brother’s house in Fairmount ( Cincinnati). They remained there for more than two weeks.
There were many acts of kindness during these troubled times. S. Rosemary Robers remembers her father’s garage being a sanctuary for one automobile dealer whose car lot was in the path of the flood. Her father allowed the dealer to park his car inventory on the sight of his garage in Northside ( Cincinnati), a neighborhood not terribly affected by the flood waters.
All in all most of the Sisters I spoke with believe the flood had devastating effects on the city of Cincinnati. It took years for the city to get back to normal and many Cincinnatians were left homeless. All of the Sisters believe the city pulled together during that time of crisis. Floodwalls were put into place to help ensure that this kind of massive destruction would not overtake our city again.
A special thank you to Sisters Eileen Therese Breslin, Martha Ann Conley, Patricia Dempsey, Miriam Clare Glandorf, Betty Jane Lillie, Joseph Ellen Noppenberger, Rosemary Robers and Teresa Stadtmiller who were kind enough to share there memories. I would also like to thank S. Grace Ann Schmersal, CDP, who took time out of her busy schedule to introduce me to the many wonderful Sisters I met while doing this story.