Tuesday, October 25, 2011

David Welky's "The Thousand-Year Flood"

David Welky was born and raised in St. Louis, the consummate Midwestern river town. He received a BA in history from Truman State University in Missouri and a MA and PhD, both in history, from Purdue University. He has written widely on American culture and society in the interwar era and is the author of Everything Was Better in America: Print Culture in the Great Depression and The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II. He is currently associate professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937, and reported the following:
The Thousand-Year Flood traces a largely forgotten disaster that rocked the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys in 1937. That Depression-era crisis—the greatest river flood in American history—killed hundreds, affected thousands of towns, and sent a million Americans running for their lives. It also exposed class and racial divisions throughout the region while changing the course of the New Deal. The flood’s aftereffects resonate throughout the area to this day.

I had two main goals in writing The Thousand-Year Flood. First, I wanted humanize a massive catastrophe by taking readers inside various locations along the flood’s path. Each affected city had its own unique story, and I hoped to share their tales of heroism and cowardice, fortitude and greed.

Second, I felt that to truly understand the flood, and the responses to it, I needed to situate the crisis within a long-term perspective. Decisions made as far back as the 1700s laid the foundations for the horrors of January 1937. Only by starting at the beginning can we understand why people settled in such dangerous locations and why no one had provided adequate flood protection in the two hundred years since Americans began building towns along the river.

The Thousand-Year Flood is a cautionary tale about how past failures can haunt us. It sounds a warning that man must learn to live with nature rather than ignore it or try to dominate it.

By a stroke of luck, page 99 touches on both of my goals. It takes place in Shawneetown, Illinois, a small community established on a floodplain in the early 1800s with support from the federal government, which wanted to exploit nearby saline springs. In 1937 the Ohio River put Shawneetown under twenty feet of water. The page opens with Cap Lambert ferrying residents to safety as the waters rise:
Lambert…was amused one night when he discovered a goat splashing alongside the Margaret J. The captain hauled the goat up by its horns. With temperatures hovering just above zero, its coat almost instantly froze into solid ice. Lambert brought the unfortunate beast into the engine room and pushed it near the stove to thaw it out. He kept his new friend on board two or three days before depositing it on high ground. One observer swore the goat offered a bleat of thanks as it stepped off the gangplank….

Almost everyone was gone. A few dozen people huddled in the upper stories of the Riverside Hotel, the third floor of the bank, and a handful of private homes. They knew a repeat of the 1898 levee collapse would wipe the town off the map, to say nothing of the buildings sheltering them. Without any public discussion, without taking any votes, the town’s elite decided to dynamite the wall and let the water ease in.
This moment of decision connects 1937 to several local and national narratives: misguided settlement patterns, a refusal to accommodate the river, the nature of Shawneetown’s class system. Once again, the past has defined the present.

To find out what happened to Shawneetown and other imperiled communities…well, you’ll just have to go on to page 100.
Learn more about The Thousand-Year Flood at the the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue