Jackson’s Forgotten Flood

By Stephen D. Bowling

February 4, 1939 – On Friday, July 22, 2022, the water of the North Fork of the Kentucky River reached a new record high.  The National Weather Service reported that a hand reading by the United States Geologic Survey measured 43.47 feet at the South Jackson Bridge.  The new high water mark surpassed the old record of 43.10 set in 1939. 

On May 30, 1927, the North Fork rose to 42.90 feet before it started to recede.  Many older Jackson residents always said that the 1939 flood was the worst since the 1927 high water destroyed many of the homes in the lower sections of the town. 

The Jackson Times reported the status of Jackson during the February 1939 flood on its front page. The paper’s office on Mian Street was used at the Red Cross headquarters.

Weather observers reported that heavy rains fell non-stop over most of eastern Kentucky for “two days and two nights.”  These heavy rains upstream in Knott, Letcher, and Perry Counties swelled troublesome Creek and the North Fork.  Hoy H. Miller reported that the waters of Quicksand Creek rose at 4 feet per hour during the heaviest rain.  Homeowners on Lost Creek and Troublesome reported that water levels were at least 5 feet higher than anyone could remember.  These tributaries combined to swell the river as it headed downstream toward the Ohio River.  The waters rose quickly in the City of Jackson, and more than 200 families were forced from their homes.

Residents of South Jackson stood on the railroad tracks and watched as the flood waters destroyed much of the Franklin, Sewell, and Ice Street sections of the city. Source- The Lexington Herald, Tuesday, February 7, 1939, page 1.

The workers established relief centers where displaced families could go for shelter and food.  Under the direction of local Red Cross Chairman Ollie J. Cockrell, the basement of the Baptist Church and the Methodist Church were opened as shelters.  Helen Hogg and Cora Drake took charge of the two centers as they prepared food and provided cots for sleeping.  The Jackson Times office was used as the Red Cross Response Center for the county and the city. 

Flood victims and officials were powerless to stop the rush of the water.  They stood on the streets of Jackson and watched as the water inundated home after home.  Several structures were washed off their foundation and crumbled as they slammed into trees and the Jackson Bridge.  Local officials eventually estimated the damage and loss for the residents of Jackson at more than $255,000 ($5,323,848 in 2023).  No estimate could be made for the county due to the nature of the roadways being flooded or washed away.  

Crews in boats checked houses in the lower sections of Jackson in this photo from The Lexington Herald published on February 7, 1939.

Many areas in Breathitt County reported record-breaking water levels.  Patsy Turner of Canoe told officials that her mission at Joe Little’s Fork had more than 7 feet of water in the main buildings.  “The water came up so rapidly,” Turner said, “and with no boats on the creek, the people in this vicinity were unable to protect their personal property and other belongings against the high waters.”     

Newspapers reported that hundreds of boats were used for “hours after hours” as crews rescued marooned homeowners in the residential section of Jackson. many said they did not leave their homes because “it had never gotten this high before.” This image of a crew making a rescue appeared on page 2 of the February 7, 1939 edition of The Lexington Herald.

Rising waters destroyed the organ, seats, hymnals, and everything in the Brooks Memorial Chapel on Cane Creek.  South Fork residents reported the loss of homes, vehicles, livestock, and all phone service with Jackson.  The state highway bridge at Lost creek was swept off its foundation and destroyed.  The Haddix Bridge lost only one section near the railroad but was covered with tons of debris.  The county judge estimated that more than 80 swinging bridges were destroyed in the deluge.      

The home of George W. Campbell on Troublesome Creek was surrounded by water in February 1939.
Flood waters trapped George W. “Wolly Wash” Campbell in his home on Troublesome Creek. He was found dead in his bed when searchers reached his home.

No one died in the flooding at Jackson.  One death was reported in the county when searchers made their way to the home of George W.  “Wooly Wash” Campbell’s house on Troublesome Creek.  When they entered his log cabin, they found the 94-year-old man in his bed dead.  Officials believed that he was unable to escape his home when flood waters rose.  He died as the result of a heart condition that the coroner believed was dropsy but recorded the death as flood-related.    

Significant damage was reported at Prestonsburg, Hazard, Paintsville, Salyersville, and later Beattyville.  The American Red Cross reported severe damage in thirty counties along the Kentucky, Licking, and Big Sandy Rivers in eastern Kentucky.

According to The Jackson Times, the most significant loss was “food, crops, household furnishings, and clothing.”  The ice plant, railroad, and many other local businesses were damaged in the flooding and were forced to close.  Damage to lines forced the Jackson Waterworks to cease operations until February 8.  Sections of Jackson went dark briefly when the Kentucky and West Virginia Power Company then its power distribution center at Lothair was shut down due to flooding.  Service was restored when officials “rerouted” electricity to Jackson from its plant in Logan, West Virginia, a few hours later.   

In the weeks that followed, the American Red Cross took in hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and registered more than 310 families for assistance.  The water supply was restored in Jackson, and the boil water advisory was lifted.  State Senator Ervine Turner, Mayor William Bailey, Representative J. Everett Bach, and others traveled to Washington to ask Congress for assistance.  Their top priority was a proposed project that had been debated since the 1927 flood to reroute the riverbed to avoid the Panbowl area, which would lower the river level at Jackson by several feet.    

Reporters from the Lexington and Louisville newspapers came to Jackson when the roads were again passable. They also visited Beattyville which was severely damaged by the high water.

In Jackson, families cleaned out their homes, moved back in with what they had left, and went on with their lives.  Since 1939, Jackson had recorded four floods that reached at least 40 feet, but not until 2022 was the old record of Jackson’s worst flood broken.  Preliminary estimates of damage and loss for the 2022 record-breaking flood are currently in excess of $1 billion dollars and growing.

Slowly the flood of February 1939 sank into memory, and only the record of 40.10 feet remained as a mark most believed would never be broken and long remembered.  Less than five months later, a flash flood, caused by more than 12 inches of rain in about 8 hours, on Frozen Creek and across six other counties claimed the lives of 72 people and left records of destruction that overshadowed the February 1939 flood.

We hope the record level of the July 2023 flood will stand forever and that flood waters never again find their way into Jackson.  We can hope, but so much relies on natural weather patterns and the choices we make in our love-hate relationship with the Kentucky River.

© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Breathitt County, Flood, Frozen Creek, Jackson, Kentucky River and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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