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The flood of 1937 is recorded as the worst flood of the Ohio River Valley ever. There are people who still remember the flood and they can tell you it was a terrible experience.
Hardly a day went by that January that didn’t bring rain, and lots of it. On the thirteenth of January the river stood at 36.7 feet. Two days later it had risen to 45.7 feet. It receded slightly for a few days then again began to rise as rain continued to fall. On the twentieth of January Vaughn Drive was covered with water. In the next twenty-four hours the river would rise an unprecedented ten feet and another five feet was added in two more days. On Sunday morning, January 24, 1937 the rain began to slack off and people became hopeful the worst was over but later that day a deluge fell from the sky and brought on a big rise. This was known as “Black Sunday”. The water was now above seventy-one feet.
Crooked Creek was also flooding and with the swollen Ohio to the south and Crooked Creek to the north Madison became a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. West Madison was in even worse shape. The backwaters from Crooked Creek converged near the West Street Bridge, leaving West Madison a virtual island with the bridge (which looked like it was floating on the water) the only connection to the rest of the town. The railroad tracks that descended the hill from North Madison were covered and all train traffic ceased.
By January twenty-second water and gas supplies were threatened. Telephone communication outside of the town proper had already been cut. The town cast about for an alternative water source as its wells were now contaminated. The state hospital and the Madison Power and Light Company had wells still above the flood line and these were quickly tapped into for an emergency supply. The gas company began to prepare a Rube Goldberg setup to leapfrog gas lines and keep the gas running.
Emergency crews in boats were working twenty-four hours a day rescuing people from roof tops and from places isolated by the flood waters. Many people had been forced from their homes and many homes simply broke away and floated downstream. Still others were inundated with water and some were crushed by the weight of the water.
The armory had been set up as a shelter and desperate people settled in where it was at least warm and dry. The local Red Cross passed out food and supplies to the poor wretches huddled on cots and sitting on the floors.
The destruction cannot be sufficiently described but it should be noted that the people of the town performed heroic feats on behalf of their fellow man. On January twenty second the newspaper announced that Madison appeared to be the only flooded town in Indiana that hadn’t yet been forced to ask for outside assistance. The local CCC (the Civilian Conservation Corps) stationed in Clifty Falls, the highway department and the local WPA (Works Progress Administration) had united with citizens to handle the situation. People opened up their homes to others who had lost theirs. Housewives cooked and brewed gallons of coffee to pass out to rescue teams and those they rescued. Large numbers of people were fed meals at Eggleston and Lydia Middleton schools. Madison took care of her own.
The river crested at Madison on January twenty seventh. The flood stage here was 72.3 feet and the river was over flood stage for 18 days. As the waters receded and the town assessed the damage it was clear that Madison would be forever changed. The businesses along the river were, for the most part, gone or damaged beyond repair. Trow’s Flour Mill, the catsup factory, the old warehouses and many more buildings were never to open their doors again. There would be less employment due to the flood. And the very face of the riverfront would change. Much of Madison’s history was erased from the levee that January in 1937.
MJCPL: Historical Files
MJCPL: Newspapers on microfilm
MJCPL: Madison, an overview of the Ohio River Valley
RoundAbout, February 2005, Remembering the ’37 Flood
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