The Great Flood – 1937

I grew up hearing snippets about the flood of 1937. At first, when I saw two photos of flooding in Mama’s album, I thought they might have been taken during the ’37 flood. Then I realized she would have only been six, and on the back, she had recorded the year “1950”.

Since the amount of flooding reminded me of images I had seen of the 1937 flood, I became very curious and have spent time over the past week researching these floods. There’s much more to discover about these natural disasters that completely altered the landscape of my hometown. You see, in my hometown, these floods didn’t result in building or improving flood walls and gates. In my hometown, these floods caused the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers to build a dam on the lower Cumberland River, impound land/homes/businesses, and relocate the entire town.

This video is of flood scenes on January 29, 1937, near 29th Street and Broadway in Paducah, a town about 40 miles from my hometown. The original film was created by the United States Engineer Department, Nashville District.

In Paducah, floodwalls were built and provided sufficient future protection for Paducah because of the dams that were built on the Ohio, Cumberland, and Kentucky Rivers. The dams could control the flow of water, but the cost of the dams was the loss of family properties – some of which had been in the family for years.

These photos of my hometown were taken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and show the devastation.

The photos in my mother’s collection were from 1950, capturing similar destruction.

Until I found these photos in my mother’s album, I hadn’t realized the frequency of flooding in west Kentucky. I had heard about the loss of personal property when the TVA and Corps of Engineers build the dams that created the lakes but I was unaware of how often the Cumberland River overflowed its banks and flooded the area – until I found these two photos in Mama’s album which ignited my curiosity and sent me to the internet to learn more.

I discovered a fascinating article written by the National Guard. The Guard was deployed to several towns in Kentucky and their account is a sobering reminder of the fear, the looting, the dangers created during these floods.

Kentucky Dam was completed in 1944, Barkley Dam in 1966. It was the construction of Barkley Dam on the Cumberland River that created the “Land Between the Lakes” and permanently flooded my hometown. The red dot in this before/after animation is where my family’s home and business was – a property impounded, the home and business demolished, and yet the lake has never risen to a level to touch the property.

I understand much more about the flooding, the impact the uncontrollable water had on the lives of the people who lived there, as well as the impact of the construction of the dam and relocating entire towns.

This is a fascinating part of my hometown’s history – a part of history I would have continued to gloss over had it not been for those two 1950’s snapshots in my mother’s photo album.

More Info

Lost Places of the Western Waterland“, Kentucky Monthly, Sept 2021, Jayne Moore Waldrip
Exploring the Ruins of Old Kuttawa“, Four Rivers Explorer, Oct 2016
Photos from 50th Anniversary of Barkley Dam, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nashville, Flickr

Vintage Photos of Lyon County, “Porch Dog”, Flickr

(I will continue to add resources to this page.)