“Nothing was visible but ruin:” 1883 flood hammered Louisville

Published 1:44 am Saturday, March 10, 2018


Guest columnist

Recent flooding along the Ohio River near Louisville was the worst seen since 1997. From Oldham County to West Point, homes, businesses and farms across the region sustained damage. In Louisville alone, damages have been estimated to be more than $2.8 million.

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Communities are still working to remove debris, and local agencies are seeking donations and cleaning supplies to assist recovery efforts.

Although the recent damage was widespread, it pales in comparison to a flood that struck the Ohio River Valley in 1883. That flood submerged one-fifth of Louisville and displaced thousands of people. Today, the National Weather Service considers the 1883 episode to be among the top 10 flood events in Kentucky history.

In late January and early February 1883, the region experienced massive rainfall. Rivers, creeks and streams rose quickly. By February 11, the Courier-Journal reported that, “The Ohio is sweeping down with a majesty and a force that fills the spectator of the roaring torrent with awe.”

The newspaper breathed a sigh of relief that “there are miles of well-built levees to bear against the weight of the angry stream.” This faith, however, was misplaced.

Downtown Louisville soon began flooding. Areas along First and Fourth streets filled with water and some homes in Portland had 18 inches in their first floors. Witnesses saw three houses float down the river.

On the night of February 12, tragedy struck.

Rising waters began to lap over a dirt and stone floodwall at “The Point,” a neighborhood once located east of downtown. Built before the Civil War, the embankment was “forty feet thick, two thousand feet long and two hundred feet at the base,” the Courier-Journal reported. It protected more than 250 homes located near the present-day Waterfront Park and Slugger Field.

At 11p.m., the embankment burst. “In five minutes’ time the entire valley was covered by a raging sea of water, and in less than an hour not a house remained standing,” a correspondent wrote.

Hundreds of homes were submerged. The mass of water shoved buildings from their foundations and sent them colliding into other houses, hundreds of yards away. In some places, the water was from 10 to 30 feet deep.

Firemen and other volunteers rushed in to save residents from the frigid water. Panicked survivors climbed onto rooftops and lit fires to guide rescuers. Dozens of people clung to trees or floated on boards found in the water.

“The screams seemed to come from a hundred places at one time,” a reporter wrote.

Within 30 minutes, the water covered 35 blocks. The New York Times said that one-fifth of Louisville was flooded and that nearly 8,000 residents were made homeless.

The next morning, crowds gathered at the scene. “When the sun rose yesterday morning over the flooded districts it revealed a scene of desolation, the like of which has never been witnessed in the history of the city,” the Courier-Journal reported. “As far as the eye could reach nothing was visible but ruin.”

Chimneys, church steeples and treetops were the only things rising from the water. One witness saw a bridge float by, with a cow and two pigs on board, riding the current.

The water rose for several more days. Finally, on February 16, the river crested at 72.2 feet, one of the highest levels seen in the city’s history.

With thousands of people left homeless, churches and public buildings opened as shelters. Others clamored to “Letterle’s huge slaughter-house, which was thrown open as a refuge to the people driven from their homes,” a reporter noted. “In this filthy place no less than 500 women and children were huddled together in wet clothes, hungry, and crying piteously for relief.”

Volunteer rescuers had done good work. By February 15, it was estimated that only 10 people had drowned. Considering the cold temperatures, the rapidity with which the area flooded and the dangers of nighttime rescues, it is surprising that more people did not perish.

The flood, however, damaged at least $300,000 worth of property, or about $6.7 million today. Hundreds of pets and farm animals were also lost.

It also affected more than Louisville. In Kentucky, as other rivers rose from their banks, damage was extensive from Frankfort to Henderson. Cities in Ohio also suffered, with Cleveland and Cincinnati facing significant losses.

While modern floodwalls and other prevention techniques have mitigated damages in recent years, the bursting embankment of 1883 stands as a stark reminder that authorities must maintain this infrastructure. Moreover, we must remember that it cannot always be relied upon.

As this episode proves, sometimes Mother Nature can defeat our best efforts to keep her contained.

Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s history advocate.