The Great Flood of 1912



PHOTO BY J.C. COOVERT

The Mississippi River Flood of 2011 will certainly go down in history, and in recent weeks people have compared it to the devastating floods of 1927 and 1937.

For some reason, the great flood of 1912 is rarely mentioned, though plenty of dramatic photos were taken of it. In fact, my pal Dan Spector sent me this excellent photo (hanging on the wall of a business on Broad) that was taken by the noted Memphis photographer John C. Coovert, who captured many of the great events of the day. The view is looking north along Second Street, at the intersection of Mill Street, just a few blocks north of St. Joseph Hospital.

It's an amazing scene, and do you know what's really remarkable about it? See the people gathered in the boats outside Knox's Drug Store? Despite the flood waters, that sturdy two-story brick building managed to survive, and is in fact still standing today, looking almost the same is it did 99 years ago.

I've seen other images from 1912 that show badly flooded areas of North Memphis (including St. Joseph Hospital itself), after the Wolf River and the Gayoso Bayou overflowed their banks following week after week of rain storms here and parts farther north. As we learned this month, the Wolf can still be a problem, but the Gayoso has been reduced to a massive storm drain that still travels underneath our city (mainly in the area of Danny Thomas Blvd.). The flood of 1912, though it didn't claim as many lives as later ones, still damaged and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

Thanks, Dan, for sharing this great image with us. (And thank you, Mr. Coovert, wherever you are, for taking it!)

Reader Comments:
May 17, 2011 05:38 pm
 Posted by  nancy

Thank you for not forgetting the great River Flood of 1912. I owe my birth directly to that event.
My paternal grandmother's family was flooded in 1912. They sent their nine children to various family members to live as poor families did often in that era. My grandmother was 12 years old when she alone was sent to New Orleans to live with her uncle Michel, a baker. Michel had sent to Paris (his native home) for a pastry chef. My grandmother had an opportunity to work at the family bakery and learn from the master pastry chef. She decided to stay in New Orleans and not move back to New Iberia after the flood. This decision eventually lead to her meeting and marrying my grandfather and the rest is history.

May 18, 2011 11:01 am
 Posted by  warbirdali

Also interesting are those old poles... presumably for telephones rather than electricity? One "pot" per line on them? I bet the reporters of today that breezed in would have given their teeth to be wading on a street in an actual downtown setting like this instead of having to "frame" it

Jun 20, 2011 08:59 pm
 Posted by  SHarper

I recently ran across 7 negatives that seem to have been taken during the period of the 1912 flood in Memphis. In fact, one of them is of the same drug store that is pictured above.
I am interested in trying to determine the location of the other 6 photos. Do you have any suggestions on how to proceed? Do you know if there are any maps with street names of the north Memphis area of that period?

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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