By Hillary Delaney
One early January morning, in 1918, B.T. Kelly beheld a most unusual sight in the sky over his East Bend home. He described it as “a collection of red and light stripes” on the horizon. He watched until they gradually faded from view, oblivious of the winter’s chill. What must he have thought of this uncommon event? Perhaps, as farmers often do, he considered the recent weather patterns, with an eye on what impact this could have on his ability to have a successful planting, come Spring.
The phenomenon witnessed by Kelly was likely the Northern Lights, which are prompted by solar flare activity, unrelated to temperature. Though it's unusual for this phenomenon to be visible this far south, it's not unheard of. As remarkable as Kelly’s report was to the readers of the local news, it was quickly eclipsed by the record-breaking cold continuing to cripple the area for weeks.
The Armour Farmer’s Almanac for 1918 had predicted “rough winter weather” occurring mid-January, and rough it would prove to be. The area was hit with a blizzard, bringing all regular activity to a near stand-still. The Boone County Recorder reported the efforts of many to clear roads and snow banks, in one case relying on a ten-horse team and forty men armed with shovels. The paper even had a section titled “Snowdrifts” with neighborhood reports on the progress to clear paths, roads and bridges throughout the county.
The temperature warmed and plummeted, melting piles of snow, then freezing the excess runoff. The already frozen river became very, very solid. Though this enabled river crossing on foot or by sled, it also began to dam up the river, all along the Ohio Valley. Riverfront communities had had some experience with ice gorges, but none so far-reaching and solid as this. River commerce came to a halt and many river crafts were disabled or destroyed. As citizens along the banks watched and waited, the ice continued to pile up, and the river remained seemingly immobile. The end of January brought a brief warming, and gorges began to give way upriver from Cincinnati; one by one, causing the level of the Ohio to begin to rise. Flood relief centers that had been set up in Maysville, Newport and downtown Cincinnati began to meet and exceed demand as the ice gave way and the river breeched its banks. After weeks of waiting, the great ice gorge at North Bend gave way, lifted off its banks by the pressure of 100 miles of backwater. The river at Cincinnati had reached 62 feet, but began to drop as quickly as two feet per hour. Though some damage occurred along our banks during the “ice flood of 1918,” it was not as catastrophic as it could have been. Perhaps a century later we should pay special attention to the almanac, and look for lights in the sky.
Northern Kentucky Views has rare footage of the ice on the river in 1918. Watch it here