Louisville Weather History

We have been through a long winter, and whether you are willing to believe that it is finally over or not, you have to concede that weather plays a large role in our lives. It affects our economic lives, our educational system, and even our emotional experiences. Since one of Archives and Special Collections’ central goals is to document the history and life of the Louisville area, it isn’t surprising that we hold a variety of weather-related materials.

One of our biggest weather-related collections is the National Weather Service, Louisville Station records.

Report of smoke and "noxious stench" in Louisville

Report of smoke and “noxious stench” in Louisville

These logbooks of daily observations chronicle Louisville’s weather (and the goings-on in the Weather Service office) from its earliest days in 1871 through 1983. They provide interesting, if sometimes minute, details that connect with our lives (“what was the weather like on my birthday in 1883?”), but they also tell a broader story about how we have engaged with our environment. For several years, Louisville’s observers were asked to report whether they could see the aurora borealis. However unlikely it seems that they would ever be able to give a positive report, these observations were intended to provide data to aid in our understanding of this phenomenon. There are also frequent reports of “fog” that limited visibility downtown in the 19th century – what we would probably call “smog.”

The logbooks and other collections also tell the stories of more dramatic weather events, including tornadoes and floods. For example, on March 27, 1890, a particularly deadly tornado – part of a larger outbreak in the region — swept through Louisville, causing millions of dollars in damages and killing 76 people. While this was noted in the Weather Service’s logbooks, like many catastrophic events, it was also of interest to people outside the region. This being the case, stereographs were produced showing the damage in 3-D (this was state-of-the-art in the late 19th century).

Tobacco Warehouse after 1890 Tornado

Stereograph of Tobacco Warehouse after 1890 Tornado

 

The “whirling tiger of the air” was also documented by other photographers. The much more recent – and similarly catastrophic – tornado outbreak of 1974 is not as well documented outside of the Weather Service logbooks, although we do have photographs and newspaper accounts.

 

 

In addition to tornadoes, life on the banks of the Ohio brings with it the constant threat of flooding, so it is not surprising that various floods are well-documented in ASC’s holdings. While the scope of the 1937 flood puts it in a different category, our collections reveal that floods were a recurring theme.

A search for “floods” in our Digital Collections pulls up nearly 1000 items, including..

German Catholic church, Jeffersonville, Ind 1883…stereographs from an 1883 flood in Jeffersonville…

Postcard of 1907 Flood

Postcard of 1907 Flood

…a postcard from a 1907 flood…

Fourth Street, 1924 Flood

Fourth Street, 1924 Flood

…Caufield and Shook photographs from 1924…

1933 Flood, Louisville

1933 Flood, Louisville

…Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) photographs from 1933…

Southern Parkway, 2009 Flood

Southern Parkway, 2009 Flood

…and images from the 2009 flash flood.

Given the devastation it caused, it is not surprising that the flood of 1937 is particularly well documented. Newspaper articles, photographs, postcards and maps were produced in the wake of the destruction. Some of this material – including maps of the floodwaters – is available in our Digital Collections. In addition, we have recently accessioned a series of 13 oral history interviews with flood survivors that were recorded in the early 1990s. These interviews tell the stories of people who ranged in age from ten to thirty-nine at the time of flood. Some of them had to flee the rising waters, moving in with family or friends, while others were able to stay and assist in the recovery efforts – or at least welcome friends and family into their homes. They all tell a personal story of life during the flood of 1937.

There is an old adage, “everyone complains about the weather but no one does anything about it.” While we can’t help you do anything to change the weather, we can help you put it in historical context.



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