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Morehead remembers ‘Kentucky’s worst flash flood’ on 75th anniversary of deadly event

This bridge over the river was part of U.S. 60 and was destroyed in the 1939 flash flood to hit Rowan County. (Photo provided)

This bridge over the river was part of U.S. 60 and was destroyed in the 1939 flash flood to hit Rowan County. (Photo provided)

At least twice in its 158-year history, events in Morehead have resulted in widespread national publicity.

The final battle of the Rowan County War on June 22, 1887, brought an end to a bloody feud in which at least 20 people were killed in just under three years and nearly resulted in the political dismemberment of Rowan County.

Then, on July 4, 1939, as the town was caught up in an elaborate Independence Day celebration, a raging fire destroyed a Main Street hotel and several businesses, and a flash flood along the East Fork of Triplett Creek resulted in 25 deaths, all within the span of 24 hours, changing the lives of the people of Morehead and the surrounding area forever.

   (Photo provided)

(Photo provided)

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the flood, a memorial bronze plaque containing the names of the flood victims will be unveiled at the Chamber of Commerce office (formerly the C&O passenger depot) on First Street. The plaque will be placed on the east wall of the building next to a small brass plate, which shows the high water mark from the 1939 flood.

A memorial observance will also honor the 25 people who died, as their names are read and a bell is tolled. The public is invited, and flood survivors and descendants of flood victims are especially encouraged to attend.

In addition, at 2 and 4 p.m., at the Rowan County Arts Center on the historic Old Courthouse Square, actors from the Morehead Theatre Guild will present a 30-minute drama based on the story of the flood, written by J. D. Reeder, a great-grandson of flood victim Emma Tolliver. His mother and grandmother were flood survivors.

“As a child, I learned firsthand about the flood from people who lived through it. I was fascinated and terrified at the same time. This memorial observance is an appropriate way to remember the tragedy,” he said.

Reeder emphasized that the dramatization is not a “complete telling” of the flood story.

“No 30-minute presentation could possibly do that,” he said. “Not every name will be mentioned, and not every incident will be included, but I believe audience members will experience something of the emotional impact of that terrible day.”

(Photo provided)

(Photo provided)

Admission will be $5 per person, and proceeds will benefit the Rowan County Arts Center.

Reeder’s dramatization is part of his “Back in Time: Remembering Rowan’s Past” series and is based on family recollections, newspaper accounts from the period, as well as Dr. Jack Ellis’s research for his 2001 publication, Morehead Memories: True Stories from Eastern Kentucky.

“Dr. Ellis’s account, based on his own memories of the flood, interviews with survivors, newspapers and other documents, is an invaluable resource,” Reeder said. “In his book, Dr. Ellis expressed the hope that someday there would be a memorial to honor those who died; that dream will become a beality on July 5,” Reeder added.

Following each performance, Dr. Gary Agee will read parts of his book, Will in Frozen Country: A Novel Recalling Kentucky’s Worst Flash Flood July 5, 1939, which also documents the flood.
A photo gallery below of newspaper clippings and other archived photos show ambulance drivers unloading the body of an unidentified woman found in a field, people cleaning up, houses moved off their foundations and onto railroad tracks, and a postmistress trying to rehabilitate the mail in wall slots, among other images. The photos were collected by Dr. Jack Ellis and the Rowan County Public Library.

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From Downtown Morehead Inc.

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