Clifford Townsend was born in Blackford County in 1884. After high school, he was a teamster in the oil fields during the tail end of the Indiana Gas Boom. Eventually he worked his way through school and became a teacher and superintendent. His work as an educator and with the Indiana Teacher’s Association caught the eye of Paul McNutt who chose him as his running mate. As part of the government reorganization legislation passed by McNutt and the Democrats, the responsibilities of the lieutenant governor’s position expanded. Among other things, the office became the head of the state’s agriculture department.
McNutt had an active interest in who the Democrats would nominate for the 1936 election. He wanted someone who would cement his legacy, and he wanted to demonstrate control of the state Democratic party in advance of an anticipated Presidential run in 1940. However, he had opposition. The conservative faction of the party, led by Senator Van Nuys, supported E. Kirk McKinney. Within his own faction, McNutt’s executive secretary, Pleas Greenlee was gaining support. (Sherman Minton, among others, was a supporter). He had been in charge of a lot of patronage during the McNutt administration and had made friends. McNutt did not think he was well qualified for the job but didn’t feel himself in a position to reject Greenlee outright initially, so he let the matter fester. Eventually, however, Greenlee made some indiscreet comments boasting about his power. This pushed McNutt to act, and he ultimately supported Townsend. McNutt’s clout was significant enough that he was able to push Townsend’s nomination through.
At one point during the convention, Lake County had cast its votes for a particular ballot but was considering throwing its 107 votes to McKinney. They were not allowed to do so until the current round of voting was complete. There was a delay while Marion County was considering its votes — and the potential support for McKinney was what had Lake County thinking about switching its votes. During the Marion County delay, J. Clynn Ellison (the Gary chairman of the Lake County delegation) approached the microphone. Fearing the psychological effect of any statement, supporters of Townsend stopped him. At which point, “Ellison delivered a terrific blow to the chin of Wayne Coy, state WPA director, before he was hustled out of the convention hall.” However, Townsend was eventually selected as the nominee by acclamation.
Townsend faced Raymond Springer (who had also been McNutt’s challenger) in the general election. Springer was game but he wasn’t quite up to the job. He tried to turn the election into a referendum on McNutt and criticized a jailbreak by John Dillinger, the Two Percent Club, the gross income tax, and tried to make inroads on labor by claiming that McNutt had used prison labor instead of union labor for some state functions. However, labor wasn’t that impressed, apparently, because Springer also campaigned against the new social security law. The result was a comfortable victory for Townsend: 55.4% to 44.3%.
Not long after Townsend took office, the Ohio River flood of 1937 struck. Parts of Ohio received 6 – 12 inches of rain between January 13 and January 25. January 1937 remains the wettest month ever recorded in Cincinnati. Some high power radio stations began broadcasting 24 hours per day, seven days per week, commercial free; serving as an important way of communicating messages to rescue crews. Vessels sent down the rivers to provide aid did not have enough clearance to get under bridges and, in some cases, were forced to “steam across farmland and bridge approaches, dodging telephone and power lines.” In Indiana, the river rose 19 feet above flood stage, sending water over the 6 month old riverfront plaza in Evansville. Shortly before the full impact of the flood hit, residents along the Ohio hoped it would not be as bad as the flood in 1913. It was much worse:
All news gave way to stories of the rushing waters which poured into basements, boiled from the sewers and wholly disrupted life as it is generally found in Evansville. Tell City was paralyzed. Cannelton was hard hit. Other communities along the Ohio sent out desperate pleas for aid.
. . .
On January 24 martial law was clamped down on Evansville. On that day the river stage reached 54 feet — far above the 1913 level.
Then slowly the swollen waters began to recede. Behind them they left a desolate scene of destruction. Flood damage in six Indiana counties from Leavenworth to Mount Vernon was estimated at nearly $13,000,000.
. . .
John K. Jennings [Indiana administrator of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)], who during this disaster has thrown all his efforts and the efforts of his workers towards flood relief. Now that the first phase is over, Mr. Jennings has asked that he be allowed to proceed with the biggest job he has ever done, a job that makes Hercules’ cleaning the Augean stables a piker’s job, and help make this fertile and beautiful region once more a fit place for human habitation.
The WPA, a federal program that put unemployed citizens to work with public works projects, apparently did heroic work mitigating the damage of the flood and cleaning it up. In the aftermath, the Army Corps of Engineers did extensive work along the Ohio, including the installation of numerous storage reservoirs to control flood height.