Guest Post: The Hundred Year Flood
Anyone who lived in Pike County in 1957 can tell you a story about the great flood of that year. We lived just a few miles north of town, but all of Pikeville resides in what is know as the Levisa River Basin. In fact, the whole river basin includes most of the Southeastern Kentucky area, together with Pike, Floyd, and Johnson County. The Levisa river, along the the nearby Tug Fork River, are tributaries of the Big Sandy River, which is a tributary of the Ohio River.
My six year old brain didn't perceive any of this in 1957, but I heard a lot of talk when the river began to rise. Our house was just off of Route 23 North that led into town, and there was one house and one trailer between us and the highway. We would occasionally hear guitar and banjo music coming from the trailer. In later years I found out that it was none other than Ralph Stanley along with his brother Carter and friends practicing their Bluegrass music. They would head to Huntington, West Virginia each weekend to play the Saturday Night Jamboree on television. At this point in time, though, I think they had already moved on to another residence. It was late January and we had been experiencing heavy rain for over a week. I was starting to think that we may never see the sun again because the overcast sky and dank air were becoming the new norm. The river was just behind our house, and usually you had to walk a fair distance down the hill before you came to its bank. Now, however, you could look out from the back door and see that the muddy water was almost level with the house. I overheard mom and dad talking a lot to the relatives and neighbors about the river "cresting," and I wondered what that meant. Mom was a natural worrier, but I never saw her so worried as she seemed about the rising waters. Dad spent a lot of time reassuring her that everything would be OK, although I could hear the obvious concern in his voice too. It didn't seem possible to me that the dirty river water could actually come into your house. Of course I didn't have any concept of a river basin either. It was about this time that dad decided, as a precaution, to move our car across the highway and up the hillside a little, right along the entrance of a small hollow that faced us on the opposite side of the road. As it turned out it was a good move because it saved the car, and there were several in the area that were lost.
Monday, January 28th was the official date of the riverbanks overflowing. I suppose that mom and dad were counting on the water to stop rising soon, but when it began creeping up the steps they knew that they had to get everybody out while we had the chance. The house just in front of our home was a two story structure on higher ground, so we all went over and up to the apartment on the second floor with mom's brother Bobby Little and his family. The rising waters gradually covered the ground below.
There were nine of us taking refuge in the apartment. Mom, dad, my older sister and me, as well as my Aunt Audrey and Uncle Bobby with their three small children. We didn't know at the time that the rainfall of previous days had averaged 5 inches in the already saturated Levisa Fork Basin, and as much as 7 inches of rain fell in the upper parts of the basin.
Now I thought that it would be fun to stay on the second floor of the house while the water surrounded us, because it would be kind of like camping out in a house boat. But dad knew the real danger. We had no idea how long it would take before the water started to recede, and we could be facing a long time without access to fresh water or food. Besides, if the water kept rising the whole house might get swept away with all of us inside. Dad's main focus at this point was to keep track of how quickly the water was rising. The easiest way to do that was to make a mark on the front steps and check the difference in the level every few minutes. It didn't take him and my uncle long to decide that it was time to get out of the house, and the quicker the better. The plan was to carry each of us kids and the women, one by one, through the waters to safety across the highway, which was now covered in water, and up to the nearby hillside where he had parked the car earlier. Me sister and I went first, riding dad's shoulders and trying to keep our feet dry. My infant twin cousins were next, carried overhead like loaves of bread held up to the heavens. Looking back, I can see now how dangerous it was for them to carry us through that muddy, cold, and trashy water, not knowing what was floating underneath or what that next step could do to their balance. Dad was over six feet tall, and the water was up to his chest. One by one we were carried to safety, and then we all headed up the hollow to seek shelter. There was a small home about two or three hundred feet up the hillside that came to be a refuge for many of the families in the area. To say it was small was an understatement. It maybe had three rooms and an outhouse, but the kind owners welcomed anyone who needed shelter. I think I may have sat in mom's lap for the next two days because I don't remember running aroung anywhere, since there was really no place to go. That first night seemed extremely long. There were the constant low murmurs of voices, and with no electricity there was only a faint glow of candlelight throughout the house. An occasional flashlight would beam through the front door briefly whenever one of the men would come in from the pitch dark. There was only one bed in the entire place, so my little infant cousins were allowed claim to it. Dad and my uncle actually climbed over the mountain that night, searching for a store or a place they could get milk for the babies. There were several families that sought shelter at the little house, and the place certainly had all the appearance of a refugee camp. I remember the smell. No, the people didn't smell. Not to the point that you could blame them anyway, but the whole week had a distinct odor of mud, silt, mold, and musty gloom that seemed to permeate the community. Wherever you saw flood water, you saw trash.
By Wednesday, January 30th the water finally began to recede, and by February 1st some people began to return to their homes to assess damages. Through the use of a few ham radios, word of the disaster had only begun to reach outside areas, since most electrical power and all telephones were completely out. Nearly every city and town along the basin sustained major damage. The waters had quickly devastated areas of Pike, Floyd, and Johnson Counties. Water levels of nine feet were reported in downtown Prestonsburg, and the Big Sandy crested at 45.9 feet, which was the highest ever recorded in Paintsville. The flood registered 52.7 feet at the Pikeville gauge, which turned out to be .8 feet higher than the last record flood....in 1862.
After a couple of days and nights in the hillside home, my sister and I were picked up by dad's younger brother, my uncle J.D. Compton, who lived in Virgie with his family. He took us to Long Fork in the Southern part of the county to stay with my Great Aunt Ida and her family while he, mom and dad cleaned up the house. We had a wonderful time at Aunt Ida'a house for about a week. She got her water from a real well, and also had pigs, a cow, and chickens. That was the only time in my life I ate truly fresh chicken. But we were glad to get back home, and we were even glad to get back to school. I remember that the watermark on the walls at home was only a few inches from the ceiling. I also remember that dirt from the flood was still on the floors in the classrooms at school, and we had to arrange our own desks back in the proper rows.
It was said that Eastern Kentucky underwent the biggest reconstruction effort since the Civil War. The National Guard, Red Cross, Salvation Army and other organizations converged on the area to offer aid and provide security where needed, including water purification and the distribution of typhoid vaccine. Governor A.B. "Happy" Chandler declared martial law in Floyd County due to reports of looting. In Pikeville, men with the 242nd Tank Battalion patrolled streets and highways, and stood guard on bridges and roads leading to town. Over 10,500 families were affected by the flood, with almost as many homes damaged or destroyed. President Eisenhower declared 28 Appalachian counties disaster areas, and a week after the waters receded the estimated amount of damage in Eastern Kentucky was well into the millions.
I mentioned earlier that Ralph Stanley and his brother Carter once lived in a trailer in front of our home. During the flood they were stranded for two days in the western part of Virginia. In those two days Carter wrote a song that he called "The Flood of 57", and the group recorded it just a week later. A couple of verses read:
Many were prayin’ as never before,
As the high muddy water came in through the door
Little babies were cryin’ and others were sad,
For in all of our lives we'd seen nothin’ so bad
In retrospect, I think we were among the lucky families. We lost most of our possessions, but were still able to return to our rented home and piece together enough of our belongings to get on with our lives. And of course we had each other, safe and unharmed, which was the only goal that mom and dad ever had.
Guest post by Paul C.