When raging floodwaters threatened to overwhelm Paducah, Ky., a group of construction workers from Guntersville Dam boarded a steamer and set out to offer aid. Along the way, they rescued a cocky rooster who would become Guntersville's mascot.
The heroic rescue of “Paducah Bill” should be a folk song recorded by Pete Seeger. Instead it is an unsung tale of a rooster saved from a watery grave by Guntersville Dam’s construction supervisor, George Penny Jessup.
For nearly a month, from January 21 through February 15, 1937, Paducah, Ky., suffered the most devastating flood in its history. Coming on the heels of a sleet storm, the record flood struck the community when it was least prepared. The all-time high water mark of 60.8 feet was recorded on February 2. The river was seven miles wide and, at its peak, government authorities estimated 2 million cubic feet of water was passing a given point every second. Private homes, including all contents, suffered damage of approximately $12 million; damage to retail stores, including losses of merchandise and food items, was estimated at $6.5 million. With the temperature below freezing, thousands of inhabitants made a hurried exit. However, thousands more were stranded, stuck in the chilling, rising waters. Rescue efforts were quickly organized.
Colonel Perry from the District Office of the Army Corps of Engineers in Nashville phoned TVA stating that assistance was badly needed in handling the flood victims at Paducah. He suggested that TVA send whatever boats were available at Pickwick Landing Dam. After a brief discussion, TVA management decided that the most effective strategy would be to send the TVA steamer, Hiwassee, along with a fleet of auxiliary boats. The steamboat could carry supplies such as drums of gasoline and provide food and shelter for the operating personnel, and the relief organizers desperately needed small boats that could go into the streets and rescue people from their houses.
George Jessup, who was managing the construction of Guntersville Dam, was instructed to get the Hiwassee ready to move to Paducah with extra boats and staff. Jessup, a veteran dam builder, had hired on with TVA in its early days. A graduate in mechanical engineering from Cornell, Jessup was described as a “great organizer.” He established a feeling of mutual respect with laborers, electricians, carpenters and almost everyone else. While Jessup was a highly regarded gentleman in both his personal and private life, he was also known to be a bit of a character.
The Hiwassee left Wheeler Dam with its little fleet and Jessup in charge on Saturday, January 23. Jessup picked up an additional 23 motorboats (TVA boats built for malaria control) at Wilson Dam. At 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, January 24, the steamer passed through Pickwick Landing Lock.
On Jan. 25, the Hiwassee and fleet arrived at Paducah and immediately went to work helping to rescue people—and, as it turns out, one rooster.
When the roaring floodwaters descended on Paducah and residents fled for high ground, one rooster flapped his wings and gained a slippery perch on a rooftop. With the river inching up and threatening his position, he arched his neck and crowed loudly for help. At this point a motorboat carrying TVA employees—including George Jessup—came into sight. They spied the stranded rooster and rescued him.
As they drew up beside the Hiwassee, the rooster again flapped his wings and hopped aboard the steamboat. It wasn’t long before he found a warm, cozy spot by one of the boilers. All efforts to move him were to no avail.
Finally Jessup abandoned his attempts to oust the rooster. Instead he adopted him, christened him “Paducah Bill”, took him back to Guntersville Dam and built a cage for him near the administration building. So happy and grateful was the survivor that he showered attentions on the rescuer. He even let Jessup pick him up and hold him. Jessup, in turn, became quite attached to “Paducah Bill”—so much so that he found him a mate. According to the Guntersville paper, Jessup became the proud “stepfather of Paducah Bill’s many descendants.”