1884 Flood Story

“The Great Flood of 1884 in the Ohio Valley,” John L. Vance

Ironton has a population of about 10,000, and is a flourishing business place, largely engaged in making iron and manufacturing. The flood was particularly severe upon her. She had had her hands full for many weeks taking care of the destitute within her borders, who had been idle for want of employment, as, indeed, was the case in all the manufacturing towns and cities along the river, and the flood was like a second calamity. The people, however, of the well-to-do sort are very public spirited, have an exalted opinion of their town and their capacity to cope with the vicissitudes of this life, let them come in whatever shape they may, and though made to contribute about $200,000 to the rapacious Ohio River in the way of loss and damage, she has done it with as much grace as could be expected, and has gone to work with a hopeful energy to repair the loss. The water reached its greatest height here, the Ironton Busy Bee says, on Tuesday, February 12, at 10 A. M., measuring sixty-six feet one inch, against sixty feet last year. The Ironton Register of February 14 said:

“The events of the past week have been simply heartrending. Pen cannot describe the sorrowful scenes which this city has witnessed. We thought we had, a year ago, an experience so terrible that, in the nature of things, came but a time or two in a century, but now the calamity returns in proportions that are perfectly appalling. As we write, Monday morning, the waters cover more than half the town of Ironton. All West Ironton is deep in the flood. The entire business portion of the city has been invaded by the deluge, and in every store the waters are from a foot to eight feet deep. From Fourth Street to the river, the entire length of the town is a sheet of yellow water, and at the lower end of town the flood sweeps from the river to the hills. Not only the lowlands back of town are submerged, but the railroad track is covered as far along its way as Dupuy’s tannery, while the waters from the river have crept along Railroad Street clear to Fifth.

“On Hecla Street the flood reached to Wesley Chapel; on Buckhorn, to Dr. Moxley’s; on Railroad, to Fifth; on Centre, to the Centre House; on Olive, the water line runs beyond Dr. Livesay’s house; on Vernon, to Mrs. Raine’s house; on Adams, to the middle of Culbertson’s lot. Fourth Street is entirely covered, and skiffs ply up and down with perfect freedom.”

On Thursday the backwaters from Rachel began to appear on the cross streets, and to submerge the lower end of West Ironton. On Friday, the tide backed up over the culverts and invaded some of the stores. A continuous sheet of water held West Ironton in its cold grasp. The inhabitants of the one-story houses had long ago fled, and all others had taken themselves to the second stories. The court-house, engine houses, and all vacant rooms were filled with the unfortunates that had fled from desolated homes. By Friday night, Rachel reached the farther gutters of Third Street, and began creeping on Hayward’s floor. All the store rooms along Centre from Third to Fourth had been abandoned. Mrs. Gunn’s millinery store. Slater’s drug store, Jake Clark’s, H. Pancake’s, J. T. McNight, Miss H. Bowen, A. Wieler, were all caught by the advancing wave. Most of the goods were carried to second stories or raised on counters or shelves. At 8 o’clock, Friday night, the tide was within a foot of the mark of 1883. On Saturday, it began to sweep over Second street. It got on the pavements in front of Davey’s and Steece’s buildings, and came out beyond Second, on Lawrence.

Saturday was a day of great alarm. The flood had gone beyond the 1883 mark and still advancing. The rain added to the sorrowful scene. The water swept up Second Street as far as Lambert’s foundry, and on the cross streets below town the waters of Rachel and the river were meeting. In the afternoon, the waves lapped the door sill of the Sheridan House, and on Lawrence a swift current started through the street. The water began creeping into Keer’s and Murdock’s stores in Union Block. The flood had reached the door sills of nearly all the stores on the west side of Second Street. The only cross street passable was Railroad street, and the waters had reached the track in the afternoon. That little narrow strip was jammed with people all day. The Second Street pavements were crowded with people. The military was out, ostensibly for the protection of property, and yet no vandalism seemed imminent. Under the supervision of a large number of ladies, a soup house had been started at the Davey building, and many of the hungry went there and got a nice dish of soup, a piece of bread and cup of coffee. But by night the water had about closed all access in front, and the only way of getting it was by raised planks. By dark, only the T rail of the railroad across Rachel was visible, and over that narrow passage the crowd slowly wormed its way. The boats were plying along Third Street everywhere. The stores of Hay ward, Bickmore, Lewis, Henry, Peters & Ehriich had water from one to two feet on the floors. The approach to the Post-office was cut off, and by dark the water was half a foot deep there. Otten & Norton’s drug store showed a foot of water on the floor, and Alderman’s, opposite, was equally unfortunate.

And still the waters kept on advancing at the rate of an inch an hour, and Saturday night the people went to bed discouraged and dismayed. By the scene was desolate indeed. All the previous night the flood kept gaining and sent the waters up at least a foot This covered the floor of every business house in town except the First National Bank. We took a skiff and rowed through town down Adams to Second, down Second to Railroad, out Railroad to Third, down Third to Buckhorn, out Buckhorn to Fourth, down Fourth to Hecla, and out Hecla nearly to Fifth, then back, and up Fourth to Railroad, in Railroad to Third, up Third to Centre, out Centre to Fourth, up Fourth to Adams. We describe this route simply to give to the oldest inhabitant of the future a little support if he finds any one to doubt his word. And this was Sunday morning, with the waters still coming up.

The people on the west side of Fourth had abandoned their homes or were till hanging on the second stories, hoping and praying that the waters would soon recede. Some were hoping, from the slender basis of the last inch, that the waters would not come up to rout them. Others who had piled their goods high in the first story were watching with hopeless eyes the encroaching waters, or were struggling in the yellow flood to get their goods higher up. The stores along Centre were an appalling sight; counters were upturned or floating, and goods drifted about on the surface. One could see everywhere, how weak were all human calculations compared to the awfulness of the flood Sunday afternoon, the waters rose to the show windows on Second Street. Many of the merchants had been contented to place their goods on the counters and now they were at work putting them up higher. Faith in the flood ever stopping began to be seriously fractured. The waters got into the Ironton House and drove the boarders to the second story. The Second National Bank was two feet deep in water, Sunday afternoon. A swift current reached from the river out Railroad. Front Street was hard to row up. Sunday night, at seven o’clock, we got in a skiff in front of R. Mather’s residence and rode through the streets; passing around in front of the Sheridan and Ironton Houses, and then up Second and Third to the rear of L. T. Dean’s, where we landed in the alley. The water was not then in Mr. Dean’s house but was within a few inches of it. It was raining at nine o’clock Sunday night, and the water still making its usual progress. In fact, it seemed to be advancing more rapidly after dark. Reports came that Sandy was running out heavily. Anyhow, the waters kept coming up all Sunday night, and on the tide had gained a foot, and was still going up slowly. The bad weather kept up. Still hard at it worked the merchants and housekeepers in the inundated districts. The channel on Second Street was five feet deep in many places. A big store boat had been brought around and was moved between Enterprise and Steece’s blocks, helping remove some of the store goods.

All day Monday boat building went on. At every cross street where the waters ebbed, was a miniature boat yard. Every little while the word went forth that the waters were at a standstill or raising slowly, but the counter reports were as numerous and decided. The merchants began to distrust high shelves and upper stories even, and many goods were sent ashore, but all more or less damaged.

The crossing of Railroad and Fifth was a favorite landing place. Crowds of people gathered there and at other crossings where the boats were constantly landing with goods or refugees from the flood. Some of the awning roofs on Centre Street were under water on Monday. In the afternoon, the waters strike the sill of the front door of the First National Bank. The tip of the iron fence in front stick out about four inches above the water. As we write, we observe a skiff has stuck on the post of the hitching rail in front of the bank, and is struggling to get off. The waters are within a couple of inches of the lower window sills in the freight office of the Iron Railroad.

Sunday night, Gooch & McQuigg were putting their goods on the high shelves, but to-day ( Monday ) they are boating many of them ashore. Kaufman is taking some of his goods in the second story of Ward’s building. Steece, both Neekamps, Weil, Mtttendorf, Aaron Winters, Butterfield, Davidson and Murdock are working hard, boosting their goods into second stories, and still, as one goes by the business houses, he can see within vast quantities of property going to ruin. The water works gave up the ghost Saturday night, and this added to the calamity of the situation, for the idea of drinking the water that swept over Rachel and through the gutters of Ironton was too repulsive to even think of.

Monday afternoon, we took a voyage down Second Street to the Belfont mill. Thos. Griffith’s brick building on Second Street, below Buckhorn, caved in under the force of the water. The lower wall is left standing, but the entire roof, floors and middle walls tumbled right in. The wreck is a desolate one. No one was hurt, for at the time all had fled from the house. At Belfont, hundreds of cords of keg timber were floating about. The water is five feet deep in all the mills. This catches immense quantities of iron and nails. The Belfont Company had transferred their nails from the warehouse to the platforms in the factory, on which the machines rest, but the waters have got there, and ruined a great many nails. Lawrence and Iron & Steel Companies are similarly situated. The river is nearly to the tops of the doors at the gas-works and hoe factory. It covers the new Storms Creek bridge, except the tops of the railing.

The havoc in West Ironton is indescribable. As we rode through, strong currents from the river were rushing out the streets. Hugh Mahafty’s house, with all there was in it, had floated off. Many people were still holding the fort in the second stories of their houses, but they seemed terribly anxious about the rising water, for up it was still going. The top of a gas-post was here and there visible.

From West Ironton we went straight across to Fifth Street, or the “Green,” and then back to Fourth, down which the current was very swift. The water on Hecla was just meeting the water on Fifth, and on Buckhorn it had caught Dr. Moxley’s residence and was creeping to Fifth Street there. The market space was entirely covered, and on Railroad, the waters extended beyond Fifth, so that Fifth Street was not passable. Through the gutters on the side of the Railroad, the waters from the river and from the backwater of Storms Creek mingled. Back of town, the water had enveloped everything, and was within five or six feet of the Children’s Home. The road to the Cory tunnel was, however, high and dry.

The waters sweep up Fourth Street toward the Mission Church, and all in between that and the river is covered by water. The flood nearly reaches the ceiling of Bester’s store. I. A. [Ironton Austin] Kelly flees from his residence, near the Kelly Nail Mill, which the waters have begun to invade. Belfont furnace is in the waves but not damaged. Most of East Ironton has followed the example of their unfortunate neighbors in the west end, and fled to the heights back of Fourth Street. The school houses have been opened to the sufferers, and dim lights flicker from those buildings, the engine houses and other public places, as the reporter walks about at midnight. The town is very quiet at night. The silence is weird and solemn. An occasional militiaman is met, quietly walking his beat. Here and there a boat slowly creeps across the waters. At the shore, on any of the cross streets, two or three persons linger and quietly talk of the prospect. We ask if the river is still coming up, and the response is invariably “yes.” The moon shines dull in the mists, and in the quiet the people are trying to catch a few hours of rest from the terrible anxieties and labors of the day.


It raised six inches last night and is still advancing slowly. The waters have met at Fifth and Buckhorn opposite H. Campbell’s. They have driven D. Nixon from his house on Lawrence and have got beyond the Centre Street steps of the Court House Square. Looking down on Centre, we see the tide has reached the top of the doors in Slater’s drug store and is half way up the front door of Dr. Morris’ residence. The portion of the town which is now out of the water is from a line running between Fourth and Fifth, beginning about Washington Street, and hence straight across to the intersection of Fifth and Buckhorn, down Fifth to Etna, out Etna to Eighth, and then around on the high banks of Storms toward Dupuy’s tannery, and along to the east of Eighth Street, up into the Kelly addition; and still as we write this territory is being encroached upon. The sun is shining to-day, and the watery avenues of Ironton are lively with flying craft. The moving is about all done, except in stray cases. Many people are voyaging around to see the universal havoc. Notwithstanding the ruin everywhere, those who have been visited severely are ready to look upon the ways of Providence with serene contemplation, while many others are throwing jokes above their own dark misfortunes. The shore line above town starts between the Railroad Round House and [Big] Etna Furnace; thence north-east, through Willard’s orchard, below Thos. Kemp’s, and below Bud McDaniels; thence between the Holt residence and H. Dettmar, and over toward Mrs. Miller’s green house, but missing that. All below this line is in the water. Kelly’s mill is surrounded and the water is about an inch within the packing floor. The platform where the nail machines are located is crowded with refugees from the flood. The water is not in the mill, but fills the fly wheel pit. The Belfont lime piles are utilized by the skiffmakers. The water is away up in W. D. Kelly’s front yard.

It is impossible to give many names. It would take columns to describe the individual misfortunes. All the houses in the district which we have described are more or less in the water. We should say that two-thirds of the houses in town have from one to ten feet on the floor. The personal losses will be inestimable. Many abandoned their houses last Saturday with the idea that the flood could not raise much more but found next morning their goods floating through the houses. There are hundreds of instances of this kind. But the serious damage, after all, will be to the merchants’ stocks and the houses themselves. The havoc to the wall paper and plaster is tremendous. Fences have popped up all over town. The course of Rachel Creek is a tumbled-up mass of stables and out-buildings. Gutter crossings have floated everywhere.

Today (Tuesday) the sun is out and the air is warm and genial. There is noise on the waters. We should reckon a thousand boats are plying the streets of Ironton. Collisions are numerous, and loud laughter and oft -repeated jokes burden the air. Ladies are out in jo-boats and skiffs to see the waste of waters, and their cruel desolation. There is often a shade of merriment to all things sad.

We ascended the Presbyterian spire last Sunday, to view the flood. From that point, it could best be seen in Ironton and the region between Sarah furnace and the Rock, though the hill tops, perhaps, afforded a better view for a wider range. It was a dreadful scene. Two-thirds of the expanse before us seemed under water. West Ironton, the Storms Creek Valley, the region of the old fair grounds [now Beechwood Park], the lowlands back of town on either side of the I. R. R. [Iron Railroad] track and up the Tenth Street valley as far as the Kelly Building Association lots [now Muth Lumber area], beside the immense territory washed by the River itself from between Fourth and Fifth Streets, to the Kentucky shore. Russell was a peninsula, tapering from a point opposite the saw-mills to the bend above the Rock. At our feet crowds of people walked the streets and gazed with wonderment at the edge of the flood. Boats and rafts floated everywhere. People in the submerged districts looked out from their porch roofs and balconies with a weary attitude and a disconsolate look, which the imagination could see. Teams struggled to navigate Railroad Street, and an occasional horse and buggy went along Second and Third with the driver’s feet elevated to keep out of the wet. These were the higher portions of ground, and along the cross streets the water marked its depth high up on the first stories and touched the eaves of very many houses on still lower lands.

The Ironton Bee of the I2th said:

We took soundings at quite a number of points in this city, and found the following depths of water: Two squares below the bridge, on Second Street, W. I. [West Ironton], ten feet; on the new Storms Creek bridge [below the overpass on second street], supposed to be above high water mark, there was six feet four inches; on the corner of Second and Vesuvius, the approach to the bridge, ten feet; on the drag-out bed of Belfont Mills, nine feet; opposite door of Belfont office, six feet six inches; corner Hecla and Second Streets, six feet three inches ; Etna and Second, five feet six inches Etna and Third, nine feet; Etna over Rachel, twelve feet; Etna and Fourth, seven feet six inches; Fourth and Hecla, eight feet; Fourth and Mill, thirteen feet; Fourth and Vesuvius, eight feet ; Fourth and Buckhorn, eight feet ; Fourth and Lawrence, eight feet six inches; Chronacher’s corner, on pavement, six feet six inches; Fourth and Railroad, five feet six inches; Fourth and Center, seven feet six inches; Fourth and Olive, eight feet six inches. The water was more than half way from the gate to the court-house steps; Fourth and Vernon, seven feet six inches; E. II. Jones’ stable, eleven feet; Third and Vernon, eight feet ; Third and Olive. Mayor’s office, seven feet nine inches; Third and Center, eight feet ; Second and Center, six feet; Third Street in front of Post office, seven feet; Third and Railroad, six feet; Second and Railroad, five feet four inches; foot of Dee office stairs, five feet; Second and Buckhorn, six feet eight inches; Second and Lawrence, six feet six inches; Third and Buckhorn, seven feet four inches; Lawrence and Second, seven feet two inches; Railroad Street, over Rachel, six feet eight inches. These measurements are as accurate as could be secured and will be found just about the correct depth at the various crossings mentioned, at ten o’clock this morning.

The Irontonian of the 16th said:

The City Council met Wednesday evening in the County Clerk’s office, at the court-house, and appointed the Mayor, Township Trustees and City Engineer J. R. C. Brown as an Executive Relief Committee, to receive and distribute supplies to destitute sufferers. Owing to the Township Trustees being engaged at the soup-house at Dupuy’s tannery, and the death of Mayor Corn’s son, which occurred Thursday after- noon, another meeting of the City Council was held, in the Sheriff’s office, at the court-house, Thursday evening, and the following named gentlemen were added to the Relief Committee: J. F. Rodarmor, H. B. Wilson, II. S. Neal, Ralph Leete, John Campbell, E. Bixby, Geo. N. Gray and E. Nigh. The Relief Committee met and organized by electing J. F. Rodarmor, Chairman ; J. R. C. Brown, Secretary; F. C. Tomlinson, Assistant Secretary, and H. B. Wilson, Treasurer. The committee then appointed the following sub-committees, upon whose orders relief is furnished: First Ward Peter Rogers, Jas. Kitmey,. Col. J. Weddle. Second Ward S. B. Steece, Henry J. Brady and T. J. Hayes. Third Ward Geo. Lampman, Rev. J. F. Brie and F. A. Dupuy. Fourth Ward Levi Henry, John Culkins and T. R. Butler. Fifth Ward D. C. McConn, T. R. Hall and J. C. Evans. Upper Township John A. Jones, M. J. Cullen. Jno. Wro, Sol Wood and John Morgan. The Relief Committee appointed Col. E. Nigh Chief Commissary, and W. S. Kirker and Charles T. McKnight, Assistants, to take charge of the stores and supplies, and see that they are properly distributed. Thursday, the soup-house at Dupuy’s distributed 1.746 rations. Friday forenoon, the Relief Committee, with headquarters in the Sheriff’s office, distributed 1,000 bushels of coal, which they purchased from the Kelly Nail & Iron Co.

The Irontonian of the 23d of February said:

But for the great heart of the people whose voluntary tribute poured in from Jackson, Coalton, Oak Mill, Winchester, Berlin, Chillicothe, Fayette Court House. Lebanon, Dayton, Springfield, Bellefontaine, Cleveland, Xenia, and though last, not least, Columbus, many of our people would have perished from hunger and cold. The people of Ironton and this county should always remember, and never forget the untiring zeal and efficient aid procured through the efforts of E. McMillen and Chief Justice Johnson.

The Busy Bee of February 19 said:

Never did we appreciate the true nobility of the American people as now. Theirs’s is a character which shines brightest when the darkest hours have come. A week ago, the people of the Ohio Valley were in the midst of calamity and desolation. Our own city was but a sample of hundreds. The relentless flood had driven thousands from their comfortable homes. Women and children, in the pitiless rain, were crying on our streets for shelter and food. Our local relief committees, backed by the hearts of generous citizens, were energetically providing all possible relief. But such supplies as had not been destroyed would soon be exhausted. It was a dark and terrible outlook. The tautest hearted looked upon the still encroaching flood with feelings of despair. Yet, trusting in God, the good work of relief went manfully on. We could get no word from the outside world. Would the rising waters, already far beyond any former height, ever be satisfied? At last they began to go back, and their slow departure only made more apparent the sad wreck they had wrought. Many a poor man sought his little home to find that the fierce current had swept away the last vestige of his habitation. The hard earnings of a frugal life were gone forever. The last week has been a sad and dreary one. It has planted on many a brow the wrinkles of care, which time cannot efface. But the first beam of sunlight breaking in from the world brings the glad tidings, that the people of the Ohio Valley are not forgotten.

The story of Hanging Rock, just below Ironton, is but a repetition of the sad tale told of Ironton, except on a lesser scale. A large number of houses have been moved from their foundations. The long, brick row, facing the river at Hanging Rock, fell with a terrible crash. There were thirty persons in the house at the time, but none were injured. The front of the house fell outward, and the inmates rushed to the rear and escaped by boats before the balance of the structure fell. This building contained the office of Means. Kyle & Co., telephone exchange, a ware-house, J. B. McKee’s two stores, mid a carpenter shop, on the first floor, while the second was occupied by residences.

The following correspondence from that place to the Ironton Bee describes the situation:

The ruin to this town cannot be fully described and will have to be seen to be realized. The flood of last year and the damage done was nothing in comparison to that inflicted on us this time Taking everything into consideration, we got along pretty well, when we remember that but three houses were above water, and they entirely surrounded. Through the untiring efforts of Means, Kyle & Co . and other good people, the houseless ones were well fed, and no one was allowed to suffer for food. Some of the refugees are moving back into their homes, and a gleam of hope and sunshine comes back to us.