Many pieces of Portsmouth’s history revolve around the city’s relationship to water. Trade routes, travel and agriculture all stemmed from the proximity to the Ohio River. But in 1937, a natural disaster occurred, which shaped the towns history forever.
Local historian and film maker John Lorentz discussed the flood with members of the Portsmouth Rotary on Jan. 23 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the flood.
In his talk, Lorentz recapped the events that lead to the flood and how it shaped the history of the town, he also aired clips from his documentary, River Voices, which centers on the flood and its survivors.
The rains began on Jan. 5, 1937 and continued for 22 days. On Jan. 27, the Ohio River crested at 74.23 feet, exceeding the flood stage by more than 12 feet. As a result, more than 35,000 residents were left homeless.
In 1937, Mike Deaterla, a Daily Times reporter wrote, “When the Ohio River finally crested on Jan. 27, water and gasoline were rationed. Motor vehicles were at a standstill unless on official business. Schools were turned into refugee centers and hilltop churches into emergency medical facilities. In the aftermath, the flood affected 2,794 homes and 6,930 tenant families, damaged 2,463 buildings and destroyed 78 buildings and 372 other structures.”
Despite warnings, many did not leave their homes, assuming that the rains would relent. Rescue teams took to canoes to rescue citizens from their rooftops and moved them to higher ground. Nearly all those affected by the waters made it to safety, with the exception of Bessie Tomlin, the only local fatality.
According to Scioto Historical, “Tomlin, like others in the city’s African-American neighborhood, first found safety on the second floor of the Booker T. Washington School. But soon she and the other refugees at the Washington School would run out of food and water, and heat, and would need to be evacuated by boat to the other refugee centers in the dry Hilltop neighborhoods.”
As the story goes, Tomlin and her family were in the boat on the journey to higher ground, when suddenly, the boat capsized. Everyone was pulled to safety, except Bessie. Bessie held her 18-month old daughter Alberta above the waters, where Fireman Walter Chick pulled the infant to safety. Chick was unable to save Bessie and her story has become forever linked with the history of the flood.
The story has inspired many, including Rob Black, a local musician with the Boneyfiddle Project. Black wrote and recorded a song titled, “Bessie Lift Your Baby Up,” which tells the story in song. This image is also featured in the 1937 flood mural, located along the floodwall on Front Street completed in 2001 by artist Robert Dafford.
Lorentz and his son were also inspired by the resilience of the people of Portsmouth and their ability to rebuild and continue on despite the disastrous flooding. In his documentary, River Voices, Lorentz compiled photographs of the flooding and affected homes, along with stories from those who experienced the flood first-hand or lived its legacy through familial stories.
As child, Lorentz grew up surrounded by stories of the flood, as his own family was affected. Lorentz was not yet born when the flood occurred, but his parents and two year old sister lived in a cottage on 4th Street during the time. Their home flooded, forcing them to higher ground.
The film was remastered in 2012 and has since been aired on stations like WOSU, PBS and many venues locally. It is available for purchase at the Scioto County Welcome Center, Market Street Cafe, the Shawnee State Bookstore and Smith’s Drug Store.
River Voices will be featured on WOSU at 8 p.m. on Jan. 25 at 8 p.m. the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center, 825 Gallia Street will also be hosting a viewing of the film, Feb. 2 at 7 p.m.
Reach Ciara Conley at 740-91-6977, Facebook “Ciara Conley - Daily Times,” and Twitter @PDT_Ciara.