June 2007 Issue
The flood of March 23–27, 1913, turned all of Ohio's lowlands into a veritable inland sea, causing hundreds of deaths and untold destruction. It also resulted in a legacy of charity.
Trudy E. Bell
Tiffin had no warning.
On Tuesday, March 25, 1913, amid a pre-dawn torrential downpour that had continued with tropical intensity since Easter Sunday two days earlier, a 24-foot-high wall of water roared down the Sandusky River. Tons of turbulent, muddy, icy water splintered bridges, swept away 500 buildings, inundated factories and homes, and drowned 19 people.
At virtually the same time, in the hilly Akron suburb of Kenmore, a young mother was wakened by the unnatural sound of water surging through her tiny one-story house. She swung her feet off the bed to investigate –– and found herself standing in frigid water, ankle-deep and rapidly rising. Her panicked husband loaded her and their infant into a rowboat and the young family swirled away into the vicious current, looking back just in time to see their house half submerged by rapidly rising Summit Lake.
A day later and 200 miles south, at 4 a.m., a wall of yellow water bore down the swollen Scioto River upon Chillicothe, strong enough to scour paving stones off the streets and excavate gullies up to 8 feet deep. In less than an hour, three-quarters of the town was under 20 feet of surging water.
The week after Easter 1913, portions of Ohio received up to 11 inches of rain –– the equivalent of three months of average rainfall. From Defiance, Sandusky, Cleveland and Youngstown in the north, down to Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus, Zanesville and Marietta, half a million frightened Ohioans simultaneously struggled to reach higher ground as their property, their livelihoods and their loved ones were swept away. At the flood's peak between March 25 and 28, some towns were inundated by water so deep that literally not a rooftop or chimney could be seen across water rushing through a river valley.
After the floodwaters receded, Ohio's official death toll was placed at 462, with another quarter-million rendered homeless or destitute. By mid-April 1913, the Ohio State Board of Health had counted some 20,000 Ohio homes destroyed and another 35,500 rendered uninhabitable by stinking yellow mud that coated the walls –– this in a day before widespread use of homeowner's insurance. Railroad yards, hundreds of miles of track, factories, and sewage treatment plants –– many of which were located near rivers for transportation and water supply –– had been submerged. Thousands of horses, cattle and other livestock had drowned; farm fields were robbed of fertile topsoil and left covered with stones. The Ohio and Erie Canal was in ruins, summarily ending Ohio's canal era.
The catastrophe extended far beyond Ohio's borders. At its peak, floodwaters stretched from Pittsburgh to St. Louis; in succeeding weeks, flood crests draining down the Mississippi River set record heights, bursting levees as far south as Arkansas. Altogether, the 1913 flood was the most widespread natural disaster the United States had ever suffered, dwarfing the areas destroyed by the Chicago Fire of 1871, the Johnstown flood of 1889, or the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.
Yet today, to the extent the 1913 flood is remembered at all, it is usually known as the Great Dayton Flood, for the Ohio city that put a human face on the tragedy in much the same way that the suffering of New Orleans became symbolic of the interstate devastation of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
Until the first news made it out of Dayton, the nation had no idea of Ohio's plight. The winter storm system swept in with a wicked one-two punch, the first punch knocking out much of the Midwest's communications.
On Good Friday, March 21, after days of sultry heat more characteristic of June than of March, an unusually strong arctic cold front moved down from Canada. Across Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, temperatures plummeted from 60 degrees to 23 degrees in hours, while accompanying gale force winds unroofed houses, tumbled carriages off roads and uprooted entire fences. In Toledo and elsewhere around Ohio, sustained winds topped 90 miles per hour, setting new records and splintering hundreds of telephone and telegraph poles and downing miles of wire. On the windstorm's heels came sleet that encased remaining wires with heavy ice, pulling down hundreds more poles. With power out and telegraph and telephone communications virtually stilled on Easter weekend, the U.S. Weather Service could neither gather timely information about the torrential downpours moving across Ohio, nor distribute warnings.
In 1913 as now, Dayton was at the confluence of three major rivers: the Mad, the Stillwater and the Miami. All three drain the Great Miami watershed, accounting for about 10 percent of Ohio's area, half of it above Dayton. The combined waters flow south as the Great Miami, which empties into the Ohio River. Half of Dayton was built on the rivers' floodplains, seemingly protected by levees 20 feet high.
Easter week, when the Great Miami watershed received nearly 10 inches of rain, some 4 million gallons –– about equal to a month's discharge over Niagara Falls –– was funneled down the three rivers and through the city in four days. Around 8 a.m. on Tuesday, March 25, the city's levees burst in several places like breaking dams, loosing 10-foot walls of water that roared through downtown streets, marooning people in the upper floors of office buildings.
One of the people trapped by waters rising up the stairwells was John A. Bell, district plant chief for Central Union Telephone Company. All but a single telephone line in Dayton was dead. Through a test telephone Bell jury-rigged, he managed to get a call patched through to Columbus to Ohio Governor James M. Cox, a former newspaperman who had founded the Dayton Daily News. Day and night, Bell sat at one end of that telephone wire, telling Cox all that went on around him: the fires he could see raging in the business district from burst gas lines; the rescues by boats in the flooded streets; the cold and sleet that complicated rescue and increased suffering; and the waters that were rising up the phone company's stairwells, forcing Bell and several mechanics to carry his equipment to higher stories.
Cox coordinated rescue trains with supplies and room for refugees. He allowed reporters from Ohio newspapers and the Associated Press to camp in his governor's offices, turning Columbus into the flood's news center. The reporters, realizing that Bell was the voice of Dayton out to the world, made much of his eyewitness accounts. Thus newspapers across the land carried banner headlines at week's end when Bell reported to Cox: “The sun is shining in Dayton!”
newspapers to the rescue
With telephone, telegraph and electrical wires downed, highways and roads now seas of mud, hundreds of bridges destroyed, ports turbulent with wreckage, and trains halted by submerged or washed-out track, virtually every town and major city in Ohio felt itself to be terrifyingly alone during the last week of March 1913 –– in many cases, literally an island surrounded by an impassable moat of roiling, frigid floodwaters.
Suddenly, newspapers were the only means of communication. They printed essential notices, such as warnings from the Ohio State Board of Health instructing citizens to boil all drinking water to prevent the spread of disease. They also published appeals for money, food, blankets and other goods for the suddenly homeless, and kept tallies of donations from openhearted individuals, organizations and cities from around the nation. They published progress reports of local rescue efforts. Indeed, on the strength of the newspaper coverage, newly inaugurated President Woodrow Wilson dispatched the head of the Red Cross as well as U.S. Army communications and medical personnel to Ohio, hours before the telephone company was able to patch a circuit from Columbus to the White House to convey Governor Cox's appeal for federal assistance.
In Cleveland, The Plain Dealer set itself up as a clearinghouse for frantic inquiries from friends and relations about victims in flooded areas, publishing column after column about deaths and rescues. Enterprising reporters rode with relief trains into Dayton, taking photographs and propelling themselves in telephone-cable–riding “breeches buoys” across raging rivers right into the heart of the very flood zones that exhausted refugees were fleeing.
And as soon as each issue of The Plain Dealer, ink still damp, ran off the presses, they were wheeled into the mail room, wrapped in waterproof bundles and rushed into waiting special trains. At the edge of the floodwaters, the papers were transferred into motorboats and rowboats, which newsboys paddled up to the second-floor windows of homes to sell issues to marooned flood victims as far west as Toledo, as far east as Ashtabula, and as far south as Columbus.
remembering and forgetting
For a solid week, newspapers in Boston, New York, Chicago and New Orleans blared Dayton's plight in front page headlines. But Ohio's flood was competing with front-page European news about the fall of besieged Adrianople on March 28 that ended the Ottoman Empire. On April 2, the flood story was shoved off the front pages with coverage of the death and funeral of famous financier J. P. Morgan.
But the end of coverage in no way marked the end of recovery. Parts of southern Ohio remained under martial law for weeks. It was late May before the Pennsylvania Railroad finish reconstructing all its track and trestles and Bell Telephone and Western Union replaced downed poles and wires and refurbished inundated exchanges. The Red Cross headquarters established in Columbus continued its relief work until late August.
The Easter flood of 1913 also left nationwide legacies. The catastrophe triggered revolutions in flood-control technology. The vulnerability of the electrical, telephone and telegraph wires sparked a movement to establish nationwide emergency radio. The procedures the Red Cross improvised for meeting the urgent needs of families throughout the vast area of Ohio became codified as standard procedures for battlefield disaster relief in World War I.
Meanwhile, armed with experience in the efficient soliciting and dispensing of donations of money and goods from thousands of contributors nationwide, Cleveland millionaires and leading citizens formed the first Community Chest - a pioneer in a form of philanthropy called federated giving that inspired Community Chests in scores of cities around the nation. In the 1940s, the Community Chests merged with other groups to form the nationwide United Way, which continued to pattern its operations on the model established in Ohio in 1913.
Science journalist Trudy E. Bell is currently writing a book on the 1913 flood in Dayton for Arcadia Press.