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30 Years After The Flood

This article first appeared in issue 14, and was written by 1937 Louisville account.

"Hero" finally talks about what he saw

Hagan saw people washed away by water

Today a new State Highway, number 80, is just being finished past the little village of Gradyville. The name is unfamiliar to most Kentuckians, except for those who can remember back to 1907. But then it was on every lip for days.

For a summer night in that year, a cloudburst took 20 lives out of 150 in the village. It is 30 years since that night, and the population has not even now reached the same figure.

Great flood of 1937 crept like a disease;

Gradyville flood rushed like a locomotive

The floods of the past week in east and west didn't compare with it. Even the great flood of 1937 was less terrifying; it crept like a disease, whereas the one at Gradyville rushed with the massiveness and speed of a locomotive.

This terror had its outstanding hero Until the other day he had never - except for a single visit - returned to the scene.

Oddly enough, he turned down a $5,000 reward at the end of the disaster. Now he seldom talks about it. But on his recent trip there, L.P. Hagan, now a Tompkinsville veterinarian and merchant, told his story.

I had expected to find an elderly man. Laughing at this, he asked me to guess his age, and my estimate of 45 was eleven years low.

Looking at his well-built body and strong arms, I could easily imagine him plunging into the fierce flood waters.

Oppressively hot day brought storms that night

Up the creek above Gradyville and just below the fork of the stream, we retraced the course of the devastating wall of water. Let's have him go on:

It had been an oppressively hot and sultry day, and as the mill which I had been building was completed we joined the rest of the countryside in more or less taking it easy.

At 8:30 that night, after I had retired in my room at the hotel operated by Willie Wilmore for the convenience of occasional traveling men who remained overnight in Gradyville, the rain began. And when I say rain, I don't mean a measly little drizzle. The heavens just naturally opened up, and rain, accompanied by continuous lightning and thunder of the wildest sort, fell in torrents.

Sleepy little Big Creek lived up to its name;

area became an island surrounded by water

Thinking merely that it was another summer weather-breaker, I turned over and went to sleep. While I slept, however, the rain developed into a cloudburst and sleepy little Big Creek for once lived up to its name.

The piercing screams of Mrs. Cal Wilmore, mother of the hotel keeper, awakened me at 9:45 p.m. and I dashed out of the house and ran the 150 yards to the road near Mrs. Wilmore's home. I found the road a rushing torrent past fording. With Mrs. Wilmore in the house on the high ground which had now become an island were daughter and granddaughter, Mrs. Ada Williams and Mary Beauchamp. Shouting to them to remain where they were until the water ran down and I came back to get them, I returned to the hotel to wake Mr. Wilmore and get a lantern.

Lightning enabled him to watch a huge

wall of water wipe out buildings and families

Returning at once to the road, I looked upstream, and the almost-constant flashes of lightening enabled me to see a mighty wall of water eight or nine feet high, bearing on its crest the store building belong to the late Strong Hill. I barely had time to jump back to safety and from there, watched the onrushing waters carry away the house occupied by the three women, and thirteen other buildings on the island. Mr. Diddle's mill and its adjacent scale building were the only structures remaining on the island."

Feverish rescue efforts began

to save all who could be reached

It was then that he began, single-handed, his work of rescuing whole families from their homes left in the wake of the wall of water. Numberless times, he plunged into water over his head and battled to higher ground, but never in that whole terrifying night did he let go his hold on his precious lantern. In every house he reached to lead or carry families to safety, his first concern was to get dry matches with which to relight the kerosene lantern. Once, when the racing current caught him, he was saved by being swept against a barn door which had blown open.

The worst rain stopped about 11 o'clock," he went on to say, "and by 1 a.m., Saturday, the creek had run down, so that it could be forded. At 3 o'clock in the morning I started down the creek with a horse and wagon to recover as many bodies as possible and didn't get back to Gradyville until 1 o'clock Saturday afternoon. By noon, Saturday, 13 of the bodies had been found-most of them as much as four miles downstream. A great many of the bodies were found in deep drifts, and the majority were in their nightclothes or had had their garments stripped off by the water and brush. The last body was not found until two weeks and two days after the downpour."

Hagan says he came very close to having been

inside flooded home where his friend drowned

Still spurning a bed with so much needed work to be done, Mr. Hagan and another man drove to Columbia for coffins. It was Monday night before he found time to go to bed, and even then, he had to rise at midnight to sit up with the corpses.

"Something-I don't know whether it was a kind Providence or what-saved me from sharing the same fate as Paul Wilson, the 18-year-old son of a Methodist Minister, the Rev. A.Y. Wilson, who now lives at Scottsville. Wilson's parents had gone that day to a meeting in Greensburg, and the youth invited me to spend the night with him at his home on the island. For some reason, I was late getting home that Friday evening, so I concluded that he had already gone to bed and did not go to visit him. He, like the others on the island, was lost."

Although other parts of Adair County were not visited by a similar cloudburst, hard rains were reported everywhere. All streams were out of their banks that Saturday morning and it was some time before people at Columbia could reach the stricken village after word reached there by telephone that Gradyville had been washed away.

Scarcely a home in Gradyville did not

mourn the loss of at least one kinsman

There was scarcely a home in that isolated village six miles from Columbia that did not mourn the loss of at least one kinsman; one man lost his wife, mother and five children. Dr. L.C. Nell, then a State Senator and still prominent in Republican politics, was bereft of his wife and three children while out on a professional call.

It was a desolate scene that greeted the eyes of the thousands of visitors who converged upon Gradyville on the Sunday following the deluge.

In that day before automobiles, these spectators came from as far away as Louisville, by horseback, spring wagon, buggy, stage and foot, to see for themselves the wreckage wrought by the flood which had been chronicled by newspapers throughout the nation.

Four branches of Big Creek coming together

had never before caused much reason to fear

Strung along both sides of peaceful Big Creek with houses, stores and mills built hard by the waters' edge, Gradyville had previously experienced big water, with no more serious results than a temporary abandonment of homes. The lazy country creek most of the time served as a road. But Gradyville is less than a mile below the confluence of four branches of Big Creek.

Gradyville's growth since then has been away from the creek. Until this summer, it has been more or less cut off from other towns.

Man who'd been called "hero" told strangers,

"I've talked water until it doesn't even taste good"

What of recognition for the man who rescued so many in the flood? I asked him directly.

One day about two weeks after the flood, while I was busy cleaning up the wreckage in and around the mill, two well-dressed strangers driving a good team stopped at the mill and inquired for me. 'Are you the Hagan who was in the flood'?" they asked.

When I replied in the affirmative, one of them said, 'We have here some papers which we want you to sign that will entitle you to a $5,000 reward and a medal for heroism'."

The young miller refused. He replied, "H-, fellows, I've talked water until it doesn't even taste good. I did no more than any other citizen should have done."

After that polite rebuff, the strangers rode away.

This story was posted on 1997-06-15 12:01:01
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