March 1913
Ohio Flood


by Frederick E. Drinker, 1918.
Transcribed by Anna Newell

Following closely the disastrous storms in the South, the first of a far worse series of death-dealing and destructive cyclones and floods occurred on Easter Sunday, March 23, when several tornadoes or cyclones with terrific force and speed swept over Nebraska and parts of Iowa, Indiana and Illinois. The city of Omaha (NE) was the worst sufferer. Snowstorms and cold rains added to the sufferings of the homeless and to the difficulties of the rescue work at Omaha and other places west.

For Dayton (OH) and other thriving cities and towns of Ohio and Indiana an even worse fate was in store at the very moment that the nation was filled with sympathy for the victims of the tornado disasters. For several days rain and sleet had fallen in torrents over the entire Mississippi Valley, and with special heaviness over the States of Indiana, Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.

And then another day of reckoning.
Aroused by the winds that wrought havoc in the territory to the north, off the range of the Great Lakes, the peaceful waters of the Miami River, the Mad River, the Little Miami and a score of tributaries in Ohio combined in one final onslaught upon humanity, wreaking a vengeance which is unparalleled in the history of inland cities and communities of the world.

A united country had not yet recovered from the shock it experienced on receiving the news of the awful loss of life and destruction of property in the fair city of Omaha and surrounding towns and villages. The great industrial centres of Ohio were straining their energies to render assistance to their suffering neighbors and rested in peace.

There had been storms in the surrounding territory and for days there had been rain. The streams were filled to their banks and the waters flowed in anger. But there was no cause for alarm. Had not men of ingenuity devised great stone dams and levees to protect their homes and manufacturing establishments from the angry waters.

True, there had been floods along the banks of the rivers in times past; in fact, it was spring time, and it was expected that here and there throughout the lowland the waters would find their way over the earth, bring a small portion of disaster and then recede to go their way peacefully. But there was no fear.

Men, women and children walked through the streets and pursued their daily vocations, thanking their stars that they were not in that country farther north and west where angry winds had brought desolation to thousands.

And then the water. Less than thirty-six hours after the tornado had swept out of sight over the bluffs from Omaha, Dayton, the "Gem City" of Ohio, was swept by turbulent streams that laughed at man-constructed barriers and carried all his possessions before them.

Death and destruction laid hand upon the communities of men. Pent up rivers let loose their energies and burst their banks, storms raged and desolation grew in a dozen cities in four States.

The whirling water of the Miami swished against the levees in Dayton on Tuesday, March 25,and marked it a memorable day in the year 1913 for all Ohio. Within the steel and concrete banks made by man the water welled higher and higher in its course. People stopped to look at the angry stream. It had seemed as angry before.

Alas, they were too sure of themselves and of man's prowess. The waters of the Stillwater River and Mad River joined forces with those of the great Miami, dashed against the protecting levees, found a weakened spot and bursting through the trusted bank swept over the busy city.

Houses were rended, mills washed, immense factories inundated, bridges swept away, men torn from the side of wives, children wrest from their mothers' arms and horses swept down in the made rush of water which found none ready to meet the emergency.

Sewers were ripped out by the torrents that entered their maws, electric light poles and wires were broken and torn from their anchorages, fires smothered and all the vaunted facilities and improvements for man's convenience were rendered useless.

Death stalked abroad, and with the swish of the waters through the town there was carried a warning against pestilence and disease. And the end was not yet, for in adjacent territory waters as turbulent as those of the Miami wrought havoc in Columbus, Hamilton, Brinkshaven, Piqua, Troy, Akron, Zanesville, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Ind., and many lesser points.

Flood Scenes at Dayton

Words cannot depict the horror of it all, nor can mind conceive the loss. In that one city of Dayton upward of 200 souls lost their lives and cities round about added a toll of deaths that totals more than 600. How many uncounted passed away in the torrents will probably never be known. Were there but one it would suffice. The loss of life, great though it be, is but an incident of this devastating calamity. The heart aches, the inconvenience of it all, the hardship, the suffering and the nation-wide damage are almost beyond comprehension.

They talk of the loss in dollars and cents, and some with a commercial sense of proportion place the monetary loss in the affected territory at something like $200,000,000. But these are empty figures. What estimate of value can be put upon the services of those lost in the floods, or calculate the curtailed earning capacity of those injured in the mad rush of water.

Over the major portion of the city of Dayton water flowed and rested at depths of from five to twenty feet. Neither person nor property was respected and in the early stages the peculiar geographical situation of the city caused those who sought to give relief much difficulty.

Dayton is divided into six sections-Central Dayton, comprising the down town business district; West Dayton, the territory extending several miles west of the Big Miami; Riverdale, the northeast, across the river from the Central District; Dayton View, the extreme northeast; Central Dayton, the manufacturing district;, in which the National Cash Register Company's plant is located, and separated from the Central District by lowlands, which were deep in flood waters, and North Dayton, northwest of the business district, across the river from the business section.

The river forms a horseshoe around the business district, which made it impossible to reach that part until the torrents pouring down the valley had receded.

Dayton View, West Dayton and Riverdale are the only sections between which communication was possible.

In this interlaced city of streams is it any wonder that with the widely recognized horror of the flood found little detailed description before the public in the early hours following the rising of the waters?

Destruction at Zanesville, Ohio

"Practically half of Dayton is under water from thirty to forty feet," said the meagre dispatches and round-about messages. "At the lowest estimate 200 lives have been lost. The city is without electric lights, street car service or water service. It is impossible to estimate the damage.

There is much suffering and the people are in need of food and clothing. All bridges have been swept away. There is no communication with the outside world.

Many persons were caught in their homes with all avenues of escape cut off. The water still is rising and a heavy rain falling."

Such were the fragmentary details which first came to the world after the flood through Phoneton, a telephone relay station six miles north of Dayton, by a singe telephone wire, which was the only link with the outside world.

In truth, all Edgemont, North Dayton, Riverdale and Dayton View were inundated, and thousands were marooned in buildings, on house tops and in trees, where they watched the muddy waters swirl by, carrying furniture, human bodies and all manner of debris.

For many days none was able to tell just what the situation really was or what the ultimate outcome, even Governor Cox, of Ohio, being unable to obtain exact information with all the facilities of the State at his command, as is indicated by his descriptive statement of the general conditions two days after the flood began.

Scenes of Devastation at Dayton, Ohio

Scene in a Railroad Freight Yard

Appealing to the world, the Governor said:
"The exact extent of the appalling flood in Ohio is still unknown. Every hour impresses us with the uncertainty of the situation. The waters have assumed such known heights in many parts of the State that it will be hardly less than a miracle if villages and towns are not wiped out of existence in the southern and south-western parts of Ohio. The storm is moving south of east.

Please give great publicity to an appeal for help. My judgment is that there has never been such a tragedy in the history of the republic. Columbus was the centre of all activities in behalf of the stricken cities. Every hour has apparently been filled with an accumulation of dramatic circumstances.

Piteous appeals have been made by men who were surrounded by water and confronted by approaching conflagration in the city of Dayton. Every human energy has been exerted to give relief and yet the measure of assistance has been comparatively small. It is my belief, however, that by daylight tomorrow those imprisoned in the business section of Dayton can be relieved.
The day began by a storm signal from the weather bureau, advising that there would be a dangerous rise in the waters of the Muskingum river. All the towns along its source, including Zanesville and Marietta, were advised. Before noon the situation assumed a critical aspect at Zanesville and the historic "Y" bridge was blown up with dynamite.

The loss of life in Zanesville is uncertain because all telephone communication ceased. Marietta cannot be reached, but it is safe to assume that the same devastating results at Zanesville were carried on to Marietta.

A flood situation developed in the Maumee and Sandusky Valleys in Northwestern Ohio, but the damage to life and property was nothing compared with that in the south...

The Miami River enters Dayton directly north and south, separating North Dayton from Riverdale. It then names a complete turn west and runs about three-fourths of a miles before it turns directly at right angles to the south. These bends have been the undoing of the city and caused the breaks in the levee.

The Columbus Fire Department to the Rescue

Fire broke out in the square bounded by St. Clair, Jefferson, Second and Third streets soon after noon. The blaze was noticed first in a drug store. It swept north and destroyed the St. Paul Evangelical Church. The flames then shot to the south through the wholesale district, consuming two wholesale liquor houses.

The fire is still burning tonight. We were advised by telephone that people could be seen on the roofs of the buildings of the imperilled square and that they were jumping from one structure to another, keeping safely away from the flames. The water at this time had dropped to about five feet in that part of the city.

The appeal came over the telephone to the State House that unless boats were sent at once from some part of the stricken district the human loss would be tremendous. The evening it develops that the rescue from this square was complete. The Beckel Hotel, immediately across the street, was on fire at noon, but the flames were put out.

About 3 o'clock the flames leaped across Third street and attacked the square bounded by Third, Fourth, Jefferson and St. Clair streets. Lowe Brothers' paint store was destroyed and another tremendous sacrifice in human life was imminent. Fifteen men in the Home Telephone Building succeeded, however, in rescuing the women and children by the aid of a block and tackle, getting them into the Beaver Power Building, a fireproof structure.

Instructions have been given from Columbus to the militia in the southern part of Dayton to give vigilant eye to the fire district and if the flames start in the direction of the Home Telephone Building and the Beaver Power Building to risk passage through the turbulent river, which is now running through the city, with boats.

The naval militia, with 100 boats, leaves Toledo at midnight. The Federal life savings crew, with equipment, will arrive at Dayton from Cleveland by way of Toledo at daylight.

We are disquieted by the report from the Lewistown reservoir that the wind has changed to the north and the water is beating against the banks of the south shore, which has been standing the pressure of the waves for ten days. If the reservoir should give way, then the wildest imagination could probably not bring an accurate impression of what will happen in Dayton.

From all over the United States responses have come from individuals, corporations, trade bodies and municipalities. The appalling nature of the tragedy is now understood. Railroad communication is seriously interfered with all through Ohio, and it is imperative that assistance be given by telegraph remittance. The American Red Cross will have complete organizations at Columbus, Dayton and other affected points.

Serious trouble is reported late tonight from Fremont and Chillicothe. Dams have broken at both places. Troops have been asked for, and the loss of life is reported. We are unable to get any accurate idea of the loss of life at Hamilton. Both that place and Middletown are so completely isolated that we fear the worst.

In Columbus the situation has improved. The Scioto is receding. It is feared that when the waters have left the western part of the city a considerable loss of life will be revealed. Almost with sight of the Capitol Building three men have been clinging to a tree for over twenty-four hours and yet the waters are too swift to make their rescue possible.

Every effort has been made by us to aid the sufferers with supplies and such other help as we could.

There is a school building said to contain 600 persons and indications were that it would collapse in a short time...Many buildings in a portion of the down town section were destroyed by fire...A relief committee which met on the north side of Dayton reported 500 dead and 10,000 homeless...There is great danger of the spread of disease."

Such was the broad view of this situation obtained in the most conservative official sources.

To stretch of imagination, save possibly that regarding the loss of life in the early hours of the flood, has depicted a scene more terrible and yet more awe inspiring than that which maintained in Dayton.

A graphic tale is that of Edsy Vincent, a member of the Dayton Fire Department. His engine house was within a few doors of Taylor street, where the break in the levee occurred. The department watchers, fearing being flood bound, sounded the fire call simultaneously with the break in the levee.

"When the horses, which were hitched in record time, reached the street, " said Vincent, "we were met by a wall of water which must have been ten feet high. The driver was forced to turn and flee in the opposite direction to save the team and the apparatus. The water poured into Third street and fifteen minutes later Main street was under ten feet of water.

"Many of the buildings on the right side of the river were so insecure that they left their foundations within an hour. What were blocks of thickly populated one and two-story residences, occupied mostly by foreigners, are not only shattered lumber."

The horror of the flooded district was heightened by more than a dozen fires which could be seen, but were out of the reach of fire fighters.

A fire which started from an explosion in the Meyers Ice Cream Company place, near Wyoming Street, spread and burned the block on South Park, a block from Wyoming street.

Flames, starting at Vine and Main streets, jumped Main street and the houses on the other side were soon aflame. In the middle of the street were a few frame houses that had been washed from their foundations. These were swirled about for a time, and, as though to aid in the passing of the section of fire, they were cast into the path of the flames...

Lieutenant Leatherman, surgeon of the Third Regiment, Ohio National Guard, who went through the flood in West Dayton, said that he saw scores of dead bodies floating down the Miami River and many people swimming, but there was not one chance in ten thousand that these were saved, he said.

The water was icy cold and the current terrific.

Among the organizations engaged in rescue work was a company of naval reserves from the United States ship Essex at Toledo, under command of Captain A. F. Nicklett. The company reached Dayton on a special relief train from Toledo and immediately launched a number of boats in the raging torrents which were sweeping the city from end to end. Up to 6 o'clock Sunday the sailors had been constantly on duty and had to their credit a total of 979 lives saved and they were not thinking of sleep when darkness fell.

One crew in command of Ensign E. E. Diebald, with two boats, rescued 375 person from the business section and that district immediately east of Main street and west of Eagle street. Many of the people were taken from their homes only after the sailors had mounted to the tops of partially overturned houses and chopped their way through to the attics where the inmates were huddled together waiting for death to enter.

Another crew under Junior Lieutenant Ross Willoh, succeeded in saving 360, while three boats in command of Senior Lieuteant Theodore Schmidt rescued 244 persons. The majority of these latter were taken from box cars, warehouses, freight sheds and grain elevators in the railroad yards. It was here that the water attained its greatest violence, rushing in whirlpools between the irregular buildings on either side of the tracks. Navigation was extremely perilous on account of many submerged box cars, flat cars and overturned sheds.

While the sailors worked incessantly to save lives, Lieutenant Walter Gayhart, also of the ship's company, succeeded in establishing a supply station on East Fifth street, where many refugees congregated, and issued rations to the suffering.

The flood came when the Miami broke at Webster street at about 8 o'clock. An hour later the water was through in a dozen places and a wall of water ten feet deep swept through the main street just above the juncture of the Big Miami and the Mad River.

Where the water of Stillwater River poured into the Miami the flood reached its height and rolled into the business section. The Dayton "News" was soon under twenty feet of water. The flood rose to the second floor of the Algonqin Hotel and all along Main street occupants were driven to the third floors.

And the scenes and incidents of Dayton were repeated again and again in other towns and cities until all Ohio seemed to be under water.

John Hadkins and James Hosay, privates of the Ohio National Guard, were drowned while in acts of recue.


...While the city of Dayton was a raging torrent-its centre a river more than three miles wide in which none could say whether any would live-there came a cry that the Lewistown reservoir, holding back millions of gallons of water, had broken and added its contents to the waters of the already overflowed streams.

First alarms of the breaking of the reservoir were spread by a policeman who was posted on the edge of the flood district. There were others quick to take up the cry and thousands of men and women crowded the streets. Many of them fled straight for the hills, but hundreds hurled themselves past guards and into the main office building of the National Cash Register Company, a haven on high ground. Not until John H. Patterson had addressed the frightened throng, was any semblance of order restored. Mr. Patterson has been appointed military aide in the southeast district of the city with full control under martial law. He at once ordered every available motor car and truck to scour the farmhouses south of the city and confiscate all available food supplies. While the farmers in this vicinity have contributed so heavily and their bins are believed to be nearly empty, it is hoped to obtain enough potatoes and vegetables to prevent immediate starvation here.

George F. Burba, representing Governor Cox, telegraphed the Governor in an early report that special emphasis be given the great need of immediate supplies of provisions. There is not a full day's food supply in the city, and before night it is likely that 1000 persons who have been held down town without food or water since Tuesday will be released and there will be no provisions for them nor place to care for them.

"Horrible as this is," said Governor Cox, "the real suffering will grow worse for days. There are 40,000 homeless. The refugees are being fed from hand to mouth with less than a day's food supply ahead of them. There is no water and there is not light. Probably within a day there will be the bodies of thousands of horses decomposing in the muddy streets, and it will be impossible even to care for the bodies of the humans." So the report continued:

"The crowded north side of the river, where there may be thousands of foreigners dead and dying, lay far beyond reach. No one speaks of it, the immediate needs of the known survivors calling for every attention. If the down town section is relieved it may permit the city authorities to get together with the militia and the relief committees and make some organized attempt to give aid to the north side tomorrow.

"Except for a solitary branch of the Dayton, Lebanon and Cincinnati, the railroad over which a single train can creep cautiously at a time, railroad communication has not been restored. It takes twelve hours for a train to come up over this line from Cincinnati, a distance of only a little over fifty miles.

"Mayor Hunt, of Cincinnati, has been urged to see that a trainload of supplies be kept constantly on the move on this road. An effort has also been made to induce all who are able and who can find outside places of refuge to leave the city as fast as the train service will permit.

"Snow added to the terrors of the elements. Hundred of refugees are being taken out of the Hickory street school. The weather is bitter cold, adding to the suffering of those who have been trapped on the top of their homes since the levees broke...."

Mayor Edward Phillipps, who was reported drowned with his family, was marooned more than sixty hours in his home on Mound street. He said: "The water caught us early Tuesday morning. During Tuesday the water was fourteen feet deep around the house and that night I chopped a hole through the ceiling of a second floor room and we spent the night in a little attic. The big West Side fire was just two blocks from us and when the wind began to carry burning embers in our direction it looked serious. I watched the roof nearly all night. Late Thursday afternoon my wife, daughter, son and myself were taken out by boats."


 ©Genealogy Trails