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Set the watermark: Billings flood of 1937 remembered as major disaster

Posted at 6:34 PM, Jun 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-12 11:10:47-04

When it comes to disasters in Billings, the flood of 1937 set the watermark.

The black and white photographs below were taken by my grandmother 84 years ago of downtown Billings streets, streaming with floodwaters and looking more like a river in some places.

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Billings flood of 1937

There aren’t too many people left who remember what happened that June, but George Wallis does.

Wallis was 16 years old at the time. He’s 100 now and still lives in the historic Victorian house that his grandfather built on the 100 block of Clark Avenue in Billings.

“In the middle of the night, I heard our dog crying and that was very unusual because she never cried, she never barked,“ he tells me. “So, I went down to see what was going on and I opened the basement door and she is up on the top landing and there’s a water mark in the basement about two steps down. The basement was full of water—so I look outside, and the water is about two feet deep."

The flood of 1937 has the dubious honor of being one of the worst disasters in Billings history. The Billings Gazette reported that nearly three inches of rain and hail fell in less than two hours.

Q2 Chief Meteorologist Ed McIntosh says that it had been a very dry spring and summer that year until then, but in a space of just 48 hours, Billings got close to 30% of the rain that it typically gets in an entire year.

On the night of June 11, 1937, a series of irrigation ditches—engorged with water and filled with debris—broke around town, including the main canal of the Billings Bench water association ditch.

While that is one of the main events that the flood is remembered for, Wallis says it wasn’t the cause of majority of the flooding in the city.

“The Big Ditch was a very secondary component of the flood,” he says. “Canyon Creek dumped most of the water into Billings that flowed downtown.” Alkali Creek also flooded.

The Billings Gazette reported property damage upwards of $2 million—which may not seem like much now but was a fortune in 1937 when you could purchase a home for a few thousand dollars.

Along with the flood, Wallis says he also remembers the cleanup which in some places would take weeks.

PHOTO GALLERY: The 1937 Billings flood