In mid January of 1937, it began to rain here in Louisville and beyond, and it rained a lot. Record rainfalls were recorded between Jan. 13-24, and the Ohio River began to overflow from Cairo, Ill., to Pittsburgh. Nearly 1 million people were left homeless, 385 died, and property losses reached $500 million, which would be $8.7 billion today.
The Great Flood, as some called it, was documented for local and national publications, and some of those images are now on display at Wayside Expressions Gallery during January, marking the event’s 80th anniversary. An opening reception is planned for Friday, Jan. 6, from 5-8 p.m., as well as Sunday, Jan. 15, from 2-4 p.m.
There are 34 photos in “The 1937 Ohio River Flood: Eightieth Anniversary Retrospective,” according to curator Randall Webber, development director of Wayside Christian Mission. He culled the images from several sources, including the Filson Historical Society, UofL’s Photographic Archives, the Leavenworth, Ind., library and even an individual in Knoxville who sold him a Life magazine with the famous “Bread Line at Broadway Liquors” photo by Margaret Bourke-White.
Webber believes the images are shocking and compelling, even 80 years later.
“The flood and the area’s recovery tell a powerful story,” he tells Insider. “This may be one of the last anniversaries during which flood survivors can tell the story from a firsthand perspective, so how long the flood will touch a raw nerve locally remains to be seen.”
The exhibit includes photos by Courier-Journal photographer George Bailey, Bourke-White, Sallie Rawson and others. There’s also a photo essay about the making of the iconic “Bread Line” image, which shows a group of black residents standing in line at Broadway Liquors awaiting assistance, with a billboard situated directly behind them showing a happy, well-to-do white family riding in a luxury vehicle with the tagline “World’s highest standard of living: There’s no way like the American way.”
“The 1937 Ohio River Flood” opens Friday, Jan. 6, and continues through Jan. 31. Wayside Expressions Gallery is located at 120 W. Broadway.