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Local author outlines tragedy of 1937 flood
By Dave Lavender   - 02/25/2009

The Herald-Dispatch

Retired newspaperman and prolific author James E. Casto jokes that his publishing profits merely fund and fuel his love of collecting rare, history-rich regional postcards -- and thankfully, we all know what that leads to.

Casto's 10th book and his fifth straight "Images of America" book for Arcadia Publishing, "The Great Ohio River Flood of 1937" has just been released.

The celebrated historian and author will be at Borders at the Huntington Mall from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday along with his longtime The Herald-Dispatch co-worker, historian and author Bob Withers.

Casto will be signing his new book "The Great Ohio River Flood of 1937" while Withers will be signing his book "The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in W.Va."

Honored in 2006 when the Cabell County Public Library unveiled the James E. Casto Local History Room, Casto has spent decades collecting photographs and historical postcards depicting the 1937 Flood.

In the past year, the veteran historian has culled through thousands of photos in cities around the region to create the 128-page book.

Casto gathered many of the photos and postcards from his own personal collection, added quite a few more from online scouring of eBay, then also turned to many regional newspapers, libraries and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He also found a wealth of photos from the Lower Ohio River from the Library of Congress collection housing historic Farm Security Administration photographers such as Russell Lee, who took many photos in Indiana and Illinois.

He picked 200 vintage photographs, some photo postcards and found some early sketches as well, including one first published in Harper's Weekly in 1862 that depicted the ravages of floodwaters in Maysville, Ky.

The book starts off with these drama-filled images of the early Ohio River floods (including a photo of the Feb. 12, 1884, Huntington flood) and subsequent Ohio River floods in 1901, 1907 and 1913 that swamped burgeoning cities such as Wheeling, Parkersburg, Huntington and Louisville.

Chapter two chronicles the 1936 flood, and the remaining seven chapters follow the 1937 flood's devastation state-by-state (Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois) before ending up with a chapter called "Taming the River."

A Huntington native who grew up in downtown listening to his mom and stepdad talk about how the angry waters in '37 swallowed downtown, Casto said he has always been fascinated with what is the region's greatest natural disaster.

"It was our (Hurricane) Katrina," Casto said. "There were one million people driven out of their homes. The C&O had special trains taking people from Huntington to Charleston, and the N&W ran trains north from Ironton and Portsmouth to Columbus. When passenger cars were filled, people crowded in cattle cars and box cars to escape, most with nothing more than the clothes on our back."

Other floods did their damage on river cities and the people, and Casto shows the accumulated devastation.

In fact, the 1884 Ohio River flood washed away 2,000 homes, and the 1913 flood was worse, but Casto said there was nothing like the 1937 Flood.

The cold and angry winter waters inundated thousands of houses, businesses, factories and farms in a half dozen states, drove 1 million people from their homes, claimed nearly 400 lives and recorded $500 million in damages.

Casto's book shows how Louisville was hit harder than any other city along the river; how Cincinnati battled fire and flood; how Paducah, Ky., saw more than 27,000 of its 33,000 residents carried to safety by makeshift flotillas of rescue boats.

And how Portsmouth, though protected by a floodwall, had officials open the sewers, which let the floodwaters slowly creep into the city.

Casto said the flood's timing could not have been worse or rescues of neighbors, strangers and friends more heroic.

"It was in January, and it was right smack in the middle of the Great Depression," Casto said. "People had nothing to start with, and countless families were struggling to put food on the table. Then, here comes the water -- just disaster upon disaster."




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