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With the possible exception of the flood of 1937 the winter of 1917-1918 was without a doubt the worst citizens of Madison were ever forced to endure. The war raged in Europe and much of the country’s bounty was being diverted to the war effort. Railroads, through mismanagement, war contracts and pure avarice had made the delivery of goods, and more importantly coal, sporadic and unreliable. In an era when coal ran business and industry and warmed homes and institutions, this was no small matter.
River shipment of coal had become a thing of the past as railroads now held a virtual monopoly on the shipment of what was known as the black diamond trade. As coal came into shorter supply, in desperation, people turned to the river to help supply the country. When the largest and most sever blizzard in memory struck in the first week of December, and below zero temperatures invaded the country from the Rockies to the Atlantic Seaboard, hope for relief dwindled as the Ohio River, reacting to the extreme and continuous cold temperatures, froze nearly solid from above Cincinnati to the Mississippi and even southward. All tributaries were locked up tight and Madison was caught in the grip of the most severe winter on record.
Recurrent blizzards, along with the persistent low temperatures challenged people like no other winter ever had. Industries and schools were closed, utilities were rationed, mail delivery became sporadic and citizens took steps to merely survive. People doubled and tripled up in homes to conserve coal and they burned backyard fences and wooden crates for the small modicum of heat they afforded. Many of the stately trees of the town were chopped down and hauled away leaving only black stumps to mark their former presence. In the countryside the wild animals were being decimated and it would take years for their numbers to recover.
Were the weather and shortages not enough to cope with, citizens along the river knew more was to come. The gorge (the build-up of ice) that had been deepening and expanding would have to be dealt with and when the thaw finally came so did the destruction. Fields of ice careened down the now charging river, scouring the banks and snapping trees as it raced downward. Huge blocks slammed into banks and crushed anything it encountered. Everything in or near the river was ground and chewed and carried away with an extraordinary force which produced such a sound as the “booming of canon”. Then the flood arrived, invading businesses and homes, and the people scrambled for higher ground, fleeing with what they could carry— and then calm. As always, after its mad rampage is spent, the river returned to its benevolent self, meandering westward and then south, quietly searching for the sea.
No one disputes the ravages the flood during the winter of 1937 brought, but for sheer, enduring misery the winter of 1917-1918 was never again equaled.
MJCPL: Historical Files
Newspapers on microfilm
MJCPL: Historical Files
Google Books: History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Chap. XIII, by John Stover
Google Books: The United States in the First World War, by Anne Ciprian Venzon
Google Books: AP United States History Exam by Jerome McDuffie & others, Chap. 10
Google Books: Thunder in the Heartland by Thomas W. Schmidlin
Our local history-genealogy specialist is
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