Could Lawrence County capitalize on its history?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 18, 2004

Bessie Tomlin never planned to be a hero. She was just a normal mother. And like any mother, she would do anything to protect the life of her daughter, Alberta.

Yet, Tomlin has emerged as an unsung hero in southeast Ohio.

Tomlin's story was one of several related last week by Dr. Jerry Holt, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth.

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Holt spoke to members of the Ironton Rotary Club about the flood of 1937 and its effect on Portsmouth, and in doing so, related the wonderful story of Tomlin.

For those of you who, like me, were not familiar with Tomlin's name, here's a little background.

"She was in the Washington School part of town," Holt said, explaining Tomlin's location as the waters of the already flooded Ohio River kept rising. On Jan. 25, 1937, the pregnant 26-year-old and her baby, Alberta, were put into a small boat for transportation to higher ground.

"Her boat turned over," Holt said. "In the roiling water, you saw her holding up the baby."

Firefighter Walter Chick reached out to save the baby as Tomlin spoke.

"Her last words, 'Save my baby,'" Holt said.

When rescuer Chick reached back to save Tomlin, it was too late.

Holt said Tomlin was the lone death caused by the flood in the Portsmouth area.

But until recent years, Tomlin's motherly devotion and heroism largely went unnoticed in most history circles.

"Without that emblematic story, there was no African-American presence in the 1937 flood, yet there were hundreds (of black people) there," Holt said.

Tomlin's story was one of several that Holt discussed on Wednesday.

A fascination with the history of the region is what helped bring Holt to southeast Ohio.

"I realized that I'd landed in a place filled with magic and mystery," he said. "Everybody passed by here. Lewis passed by her on his way to pick up Clark in Cincinnati. I'd read about this area all my life."

Holt's words stirred my interest in history as well and got me thinking about how important and precious a place's history is.

Ironton and Lawrence County have an amazing history to tell. Wouldn't it be great if we could use our past to become part of our future?

Could we find a way to preserve some of the beautiful, yet tarnished, buildings of our past such as Memorial Hall?

It seems like using such a building to house the knowledge and history of our past could only be positive for both residents and visitors alike.

Our region is filled with wonderful stories such as the story of Bessie Tomlin. Those stories, when collected together, weave the fabric of what makes our corner of the world so special.

Why couldn't Memorial Hall be used to house a southeastern Ohio, or even Tri-State wide, museum of history?

Imagine if, as we continue economic efforts for bringing new businesses into our region, we also worked hard to preserve our past and hold it up high, just out of reach of the floodwaters of the current economy.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Ironton Tribune. He can be reached at (740) 532-1445 ext. 12 or by e-mail to