SALINE COUNTY – John Molinarolo of Muddy can tell you what life was like 80 years ago in Saline County with ease.
That"s because at this time in 1937, the village he calls home was covered with one of the worst U.S. floods in modern recorded history. The Ohio River flood of 1937, often referred to simply as the "Flood of "37" or ""37 Flood," occurred in late January and February of that year.
Damage from the flood was widespread. Pittsburgh, Ohio, saw the northernmost damage, which reached all the way down to Cairo. The flood left about 1 million without homes, and 385 people died. Damage was estimated to be about $500 million in 1937 currency, which would amount to about $8.7 billion in today"s rates.
It may be hard to imagine today, but for Molinarolo, the scenes from that time remain as vivid as if they happened a few days ago.
"There was a lot of snow up in the valley in Eastern Ohio," Molinarolo, who was 10 years old at the time, said. "It started melting, which caused the river to rise, and then it started raining. There wasn"t any other place for the water to go."
According to "Reflections of the 1937 Flood," a local history of the natural disaster published by the Saline County Genealogical Society of Harrisburg, the area surrounding Harrisburg and Muddy received 15 inches of rainfall that January. Normal rainfall for the region is 2.3 inches in January, according to the published history.
Molinarolo said his family was invited to stay with friends, the Joe Girot family. Molinarolo"s father, John Molinarolo Sr., owned the general store in Muddy, the scene of a close call with flood waters for his younger brother Bill.
"He was saved by a fellow named Raymond Dardeen when he was in the flood. He was at the water"s edge by the post office, and Billy was playing around in the water. His shoe came off, and he went into the water to get it. He probably would have drowned, but this man saw him and saved him, for at least a year," Molinarolo said.
Unrelated to the flood, Billy passed away due to illness the following year, he said.
Coal mining was the driving force in the local economy, and Molinarolo said he remembers workers trying to save mines by sandbagging around mine shafts and pumping water. Even so, some mines were flooded out and never resumed production, he said.
He said a man named Otis Hickey, who was both a close friend of his father"s and a high-ranking employee of the power company, worked with his father to try to preserve as much of Muddy as possible. The local health department also worked with the village, and efforts of private citizens and companies, along with local, state and federal workers kept panic to a minimum. He said he recalls the Pankey Bread company floating in a load of bread by boat to help feed displaced residents.
A great deal of the story of the "37 Flood is the story of local cooperation. While Shawneetown was completely flooded and Ridgway and Equality also had significant flooding, the city of Eldorado was able to provide relief efforts to those communities, along with Muddy and Harrisburg. Eldorado considered itself a "relief city" according to news clippings at the time. The Red Cross, with Eldorado"s help, had bedding for those fleeing the flood at its city hall, Masonic temple and offering food at the Calvary Baptist Church. If flood refugees had no boat to travel to Eldorado, the city offered to send boats.
Local media also aided. Radio station WEBQ began broadcasting 24 hours daily to provide flood relief information, and the Daily Register began publishing seven days a week.
Another longtime Saline County resident, H.B. Tanner, said he also recalls the effect of the flood on the area in and around Harrisburg. Tanner, a high school freshman at the time, lived in Carrier Mills, which was not affected by the flood. However, his father Earl was a mine boss at Wasson 1, which was between Muddy and Eldorado.
"He had to go out through the country up to Galatia and then over to get there," Tanner, who served as Saline County Sheriff from 1958 to 1962 and state representative for the region from 1964 to 1966, said.
Earl would recount to his family the sights he observed in flood-stricken areas.
"He talked about going to Muddy, to a mine down there, and he had to go in a boat. The water was almost as tall as the telephone poles, which were about 10 to 12 feet tall. He said you could see them sticking out of the water, barely, and see the wire on them," Tanner said.