Drowning In Work

The New York Times called it a “super-flood” when, in 1937, the Ohio and Mississippi rivers swelled to record levels after heavy rains and melting snow in the mountains bordering the Ohio Valley combined in a bitter brew.  Though perched safely atop the hills of Burnet Woods, UC was spared but still had to close on Jan. 21 right in the middle of exams that day.  Students from Kentucky literally fled from their examination classrooms to make it home before the entrances to the Suspension Bridge sank under the Ohio River that afternoon.  Soon enough, dislodged trees and uprooted houses were floating down the river and before the flood waters receded in early February, Cincinnatians resigned themselves to brushing their teeth with Coca-Cola.

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How bad did things get?  Hundreds died and hundreds of thousands were made homeless by the rising tide of misery.  Fifty thousand Cincinnatians had to flee their homes as 60 billion tons of water assailed the Ohio Valley in the space of 25 days, as the Ohio River  reared to a nearly unimaginable 80 feet.  Privation as well as typhoid and other diseases threatened to carry off new victims along the creeping 1800-mile corridor of bloated yellow water and backed-up sewers that stretched from Ohio to Arkansas. 

UC president emeritus Henry Winkler recalled that while the city was flooded, “we certainly weren’t flooded with too many people for the work.”  Thus, UC’s co-ops were mobilized to provide guard and fire protection at Music Hall, sandbag bridges and levees, help aid agencies and distribute provisions throughout the city in addition to serving as a city communications hub. 

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Electrical engineering co-ops in UC's amateur radio club – born of Herman Schneider’s mandated noon-time Hobby Hour – worked atop Swift Hall to operate the campus volunteer radio station, 8CAU.  Working around the clock, eating and sleeping in shifts at Professor William Osterbrock’s house for two weeks straight, the students were the city’s communications lifeline, the only means the city had to reach out during the worst stages of the flood.  

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The students not only maintained contact with other communities when city phone lines failed, but served as a vital link within the city as well.  The co-ops not only let worried relatives from afar know that their Cincinnati friends and family were safe but also notified the Red Cross of marooned individuals and saw to it that the Red Cross sent badly needed inoculation serums.  The students also related up-river weather and flood conditions to commercial radio stations.  The Federal Radio Commission recognized their  important role, giving them new call letters – W8YX – and granting them the authority to order interfering amateur radio operators off the air. 

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