A major natural disaster that tested, and proved, the courage, tenacity and foresight of the people of the Miami Valley
By Joe Aiello
© 2013, J.C. Aiello
I am a native Daytonian. As such, you might think it reasonable that I would know quite a bit about the Great 1913 Flood. And I do … now. But the first time I ever received any hard information about the flood was 1963, the year it celebrated its 50th anniversary. And I my twenty-third birthday.
I had recently graduated college and had started working for a company whose offices were located on the north side of Monument Avenue across the street from where Fifth Third Field presently stands. My particular office was on the second floor. One day, while on a long-distance call, I looked at the wall across from my desk, and something about it just didn’t look right. The wall was painted all one color, but the bottom two-thirds of the wall were pronouncedly darker than the top third.
When I had finished the call, I asked a fellow employee if he knew why the color varied.
“Sure,” he replied. “The 1913 flood.”
Then he explained. The building we were in had been in the flood, and the water had reached as high as the third floor and then some. It took a moment, but it finally hit me; if we had been standing in that office during the flood, we two would most likely have drowned. Over fifteen feet above street level!
That day sparked a curiosity in me about the Great Flood. However, it would be another 25 years before I would make a serious, focused effort to satisfy it.
1988 was the 75th anniversary of the flood. I spent a good part of that year researching and writing a script for a television documentary about it. What I learned in that process – about the flood itself, the effect it had on the people, the rescue and relief efforts and the steps undertaken to ensure that such a catastrophe would never again endanger the city or the valley in which it resides – is something that everyone living here today should know.
Employing the same research sources I used in 1988 plus some I have since uncovered, here is what I learned.
An Environmental Trap
Look at Dayton and the Miami Valley today, and the last thing you might ever imagine is that it had once been the scene of one of the greatest natural disasters North America has ever endured.
Water has always been with us. According to scientific estimates, 300 million years ago Ohio and most of North America existed beneath a saltwater sea. It took a series of lengthy geological stages before that sea gradually dried up and land rife with developmentally early plant and animal life emerged in Ohio.
But there was still water, in the form of a river geologists called Tayes, that started in the Appalachian plateau and flowed across Central Ohio, creating hills and a valley. The Miami Valley.
About 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, there came more water, but in the form of two glacier-like Ice Sheets (the Kansas and the Illinois) and the Wisconsin Glacier. Each in turn scraped its way through the area damning the Tayes with sand and gravel, cutting new streams through the valley and filling them with glacial drift. The result was the Miami Valley’s present river system, an environment just waiting for a natural disaster to happen.
And it had ample opportunities.
Since 1805, numerous floods had descended on the Miami Valley; the 1805 flood alone buried Dayton streets under eight feet of water. Communities abutting the Great Miami River built levees out of dirt to counter the flooding. Under normal circumstances that alone should have been enough to solve the problem. If only the way the streams joined one another around Dayton had been different ….
Picture this: you’re holding a large, clear-rubber tube in your hand. Other, smaller tubes connect with it in three different places. Pretend the large tube is the Great Miami River flowing through Dayton, and the smaller, connecting tubes are the Stillwater and Mad Rivers and Wolf Creek. Got the picture? Now try to visualize the large tube bent in the shape of the letter “S” with the lower half of it narrowing to a little more than half the size of the opening at the top.
That was the Great Miami River in March, 1913. Two rivers and a stream joined to a twisted, narrowing large river in a region with a long and well-documented history of floods, setting the stage for a disaster of monumental proportions.
A Time of Change
It was 1913. Jesse L. Lasky had founded the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company and later helped found Paramount Pictures. The Indian‑Head Nickel came into circulation. The Sixteenth Amendment established income taxes, and the Seventeenth regulated senatorial elections by popular vote. Woodrow Wilson of Virginia was inaugurated as the twenty‑eighth President. In Ohio, James M. Cox, who had been publisher of the major local newspaper, became the newly elected, staunchly pro-business Governor. And Dayton adopted the City Commission/City Manager form of government.
1913 Dayton’s neighborhoods were populated by African-Americans, Bavarians, Irish, New Englanders, Pennsylvanians, Slavs and Southerners. Neighbors all, they shared a love for parades – hardly needing much excuse for participating in, or watching – parades, many of which crossed in or out of downtown Dayton on bridges over the Miami River.
A Perfect Storm
The weather during the week of March 17, 1913 was dry and windy. Droppings from horses and horse-pulled buggies left city streets crying for a good washing. People were wishing for rain. And rain it did.
Huge air masses from Canada, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Plains converged on Ohio dropping between one and two inches of rain on Easter Sunday, March 23, and another two to five inches on Monday, March 24. The river began to rise … slowly … steadily.
An Apathetic Reaction
On River Street (today known as Riverview Avenue in the section of Dayton called Lower Riverdale) that Monday, the City of Dayton was having trouble at the storm sewer pumping station there and reported it to the Dayton Power and Light Company. Whenever the river was above the storm sewer outlet, the station’s function was to pump all the rain water that fell in Lower Riverdale directly into the river.
Two Dayton Power and Light Company service employees corrected the trouble, then walked back up the north levee to the Main Street Bridge. At that time the river was six to eight feet below the top of the levee and reportedly rising one foot an hour. Despite this, neither service employee thought that there was any danger of a flood.
Given the area’s flood history, most Daytonians were more curious than concerned; many gathered at the levees to watch the water rise. Few thought, or knew, they were actually risking their lives. They had seen high water before. They did what they had historically done; they returned home and waited for the water to subside.
However, this time was far different than anything that had gone before. Between nine and 11 inches of rain on ground saturated with melted ice and snow would become almost four trillion gallons of water, about the same amount as one month’s worth of water flow over Niagara Falls.
One reason why, perhaps, many people weren’t worried was that 1912 had seen the development of a flood control plan scheduled for implementation in 1913. The contract was completed, men hired, and equipment positioned. Had it been implemented, the plan would have controlled floods with a flow of up to 90,000 cubic‑feet‑per‑second. Had it been implemented ….
Elaine Pierce Nishwitz says
I was so surprised to see that Joe Aiello authored this history piece. My husband and I were classmates with him in early 60s at Sinclair College. I grew up in Dayton but my father was from Piqua and had help pull people off of the river at the Shawnee bridge. My husband was from a farm not far from Lockington Dam and we live a mile west of Lockington Dam. Last week we had minor flooding as we often do in spring. I remember to thank those people who raised the money to build these dams and to the Miami Conservancy for working to keep them in good shape.