Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Great Dayton Flood of 1913

~Dayton View Bridge from Grafton Avenue~


~Dayton City Flood Zone~
The winter of 1913 was unseasonably warm across the Eastern half of the United States, particularly in the Ohio River Valley region where temperatures rarely dipped below freezing and spring-like conditions prevailed.[1]  Temperatures averaged 6-8 degrees above normal that year, even reaching a balmy 70 degrees in Cobden, Illinois on January 17. The unusually warm weather brought with it a line of severe storms which sent a torrent of rain through the Ohio River Valley area, soaking the ground and flooding its regional contributories. In many communities, particularly those on and around the Ohio River, the flood waters did not begin to recede until early February.[2]

~Stranded - view across Burbank Park from Summit Street~
By contrast, the month of February experienced significantly less precipitation than in January.[3] However, the previously flooded areas of the Ohio River Valley region maintained ground moisture levels higher than usual despite the lack of rain that month. During the second week of March 1913, just a few weeks after the flood waters had receded from January’s heavy rains, an area of deep low pressure emerged from the Rocky Mountains and began to move its way across the Central Plain states. As it headed east, the front’s southern winds whipped up warm air and moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and swiftly deluged the Ohio River Valley with monsoon rains and tornadic activity in six regional states.[4] Six days later, on March 19, a new and greater storm system emerged from the Pacific Northwest and barreled its way east. 

~Walking the wires to dry ground - Main and Apple Streets~
By the time the second system reached the Midwestern and Lake Regions of the United States on Good Friday, March 21, 1913, winds were at tropical storm force, reaching sustained speeds of 40 mph and gusts up to 90 mph. Rain fell at one half inch to an inch per hour for 12 continuous hours, saturating the ground and setting the conditions for the flooding to come.[5] On Saturday, March 22, a high pressure system from Canada pushed the storm temporarily south, allowing the upper Ohio River Valley area to experience a brief and deceptive reprieve – a day of sunshine and temperatures between 60-80 degrees. But just a few hours later on Easter morning, March 23, the storm system out of the Pacific had rebounded and suddenly returned to the Ohio River Valley were it stalled over the region and incessantly dumped rained for more than three days. No other area in the Ohio River Valley region suffered greater property damage, more lives displaced, and more lives lost as a result of the Great Flood of 1913 than Dayton, Ohio.[6]

~Ludlow and Fourth Streets~
The Miami Valley’s unique topography and Dayton’s geographical location within the valley has made the city susceptible to major flooding since before its founding by the federal surveyor, Israel Ludlow, in 1796. Despite warnings of frequent and catastrophic flooding from the native Shawnee, who mainly used the valley as a game and hunting reserve, Ludlow plotted Dayton squarely around the Great Miami River and its four major contributories (Stillwater River, Mad River, Wolf Creek, and Twin Creek) with intent on making it a thriving riverport city and an economic and commercial tributary to Cincinnati.[7] But, in 1805, just nine years after Dayton was founded, the bustling city lay decimated and submerged under 6-8 feet of water. [8] Subsequently, the city built earthen levies, which historically offered some protection against its five converging rivers, but not nearly enough given that Dayton experienced a major flood once every decade until the Great Flood of 1913 and the passing of the Vonderheide Act shortly after.[9]

~Collecting the dead~
Although it rained steady throughout Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, Dayton city residents celebrated the holiday as usual, packing local churches, sending greetings and well-wishes to friends and neighbors, and hosting egg hunts and dinners. The following morning on Monday, March 24, as children in the lower lying areas of the city walked to school in ankle deep water, the levees had reached their high stage, and by the following morning, the city’s engineer discovered water flowing over the levees at an unprecedented rate – more than 100,000 cubic feet of water per second, equivalent to the water shed of Niagara Falls.[10] Mary Oliver, director of collections at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, said, “[people] weren’t really expecting the devastation that came in 1913. In previous flooding, there had been 4 to 6 feet of water, but in 1913 the average was 10-12 feet, with up to 20 feet in the lowest-lying parts of the city.”[11]

~Dead horses covered in silt~
By Wednesday, March 26, the floodwaters in Dayton had crested by mid-afternoon, resting just below the bulbs of the street lamps downtown. Earlier in the day, a gas leak on the corners of Fifth and Wilkinson Streets sparked an explosion which set two square city blocks of downtown ablaze.[12] That same day, Governor James M. Cox declared a state of emergency and placed the city of Dayton under martial law, calling in the Ohio National Guard.[13] Although reports of crime were few and Dayton citizens worked relentlessly in their efforts to rescue others, some resorted to bribery. Geoff Williams, in his book Washed Away describes a particular incident:

One such hooligan demanded a hundred dollars, a hug sum, in exchange for providing an escape for a stranded victim. The intended victim refused to pay and was left behind. A little while later that enterprising thug drifted by again in his boat, he was dead.”[14] 

~Couple waiting to be rescued~
When the floodwaters began to recede from the city on Thursday, March 27, 360 residents had lost their lives, 1400 horses and 2000 domestic animals lay dead, 20,000 properties were destroyed, and  property damage exceed $100 million ($2 billion today).[15] Houses and businesses lay piled together in giant heaps, whole neighborhoods and business districts were washed away by the violent currents, and buildings that had raged with fire the day before were shouldering in ruins. Immediately, the Dayton community banded together and began cleaning up, neighbor helping neighbor, and many citizens opening their homes and hearts to those who had lost everything.[16]

~Catherine Street, looking northwest from the fairgrounds~
The first course of action mandated by the city was to locate, remove, and incinerate the dead, people and animals, to prevent the spread of disease. Many homes, particularly those in the poorer districts, did not have modern sewage disposal or garbage removal; consequently, “the floodwaters had distributed the contents of outhouses, cesspools and garbage pits, creating a health hazard, which made the collection of mud and debris a priority for health reasons.” Residents were ordered by the city to boil water for drinking and dig cesspools in their yards for all waste, including garbage – no refuse was to be left in the open - until the city could restore sewage, water, and natural gas services. [17]

~Banner in downtown Dayton~
It took the citizens of Dayton a year to remove the silt, debris, and wreckage and another nine years for the city to economically recover.[18] During this period of restoration, the City Commission hired civil engineer Arthur E. Morgan, whose innovative flood control and drainage systems gave him national recognition, to devise a strategy for flood prevention. Of the 8 alternative conservation projects Morgan presented to the city of Dayton in October 1913, the Commission chose a system which used a combination of earthen dams, channel dredging and expansion, and dry reservoirs (flood storage area which would be used as farmland between periods of flooding).[19] The conservation project took nearly ten years and $30 million to complete. 

Since 1922, the flood prevention systems put in place by Morgan have contained backwater on more than 100 occasions, the most recent being the rains of 2004, never reaching more than 60 percent capacity.[20]

A special thank you is extended to the Dayton Metropolitan Library for the use of their digital archive and for making this invaluable resource available to the public

(Proper citation when referencing this article: Thornhill, Angela. "The Great Dayton Flood of 1913." The Merry Dressmaker. Blogspot, 21 MAR 2013. <> (Accessed [Date]).

[1] The Ohio River Valley includes the states of eastern Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, western Pennsylvania and New York, Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and northern Alabama and Georgia (respectively).
[2] “January Floods.” Floods of 1913 (April 2010). <> (Accessed 18 MAR 2013).
[3] “Ohio Precipitation: January-March 1913.” National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) (Feb 2013). <> (Accessed 18 MAR 3013). Precipitation in Ohio averaged 7.14 inches in January, 1.9 inches in February (levels of precipitation considered normal), and 8.2 inches in March 1913.
[4] “Central and Southern Region Storms: March 13-15.” Midwestern Regional Climate Center (2013). <> (Accessed 18 MAR 2013).
[5] “Severe Windstorms: March 20-22.” Midwestern Regional Climate Center (2013). <> (Accessed 18 MAR 2013).
[6] “Great Dayton Flood.” Wikipedia (March 2013). <> (Accessed 18 MAR 2013).
[7] Bambakidis, Elli. “Floods of Dayton: 1913 and Others” (PDF). Dayton Metropolitan Library (September 2004), 6.
[8] “And the Rains Came: Dayton and the 1913 Flood.” Dayton History. <> (Accessed 18 MAR 2013).
[9] “Vonderheide Act (1914).” Ohio History Central (July 2005). <> (Accessed 18 MAR 2013). The Vonderheide Act, passed by the Ohio State Legislature in 1914, allowed the Ohio State government to establish watershed districts around major contributories as a first step in catastrophic flood prevention.
[10] Rogers, J. David. “The 1913 Dayton Flood and the Birth of Modern Flood Control Engineering in the United States” (PDF). National Hazards Mitigation Institute, University of Missouri-Rolla (2004), 5-6. In total, 4 trillion gallons of water flowed through Dayton and the Miami Valley, equal to a 30-day water shed over Niagara Falls.
[11] Moss, Meredith. “Carillon Park Unveils ‘Great 1913 Flood’.” Dayton Daily News (Sunday 17 MAR 2013), D1.
[12] Rogers, “The 1913 Dayton Flood”, 7-8; Moss, “Carillon Park Unveils”.
[13] Bambakidis, “Floods of Dayton”, 8.
[14] Mickunas, Vicky. ‘”Washed Away’ Captures Flood Memories.” Dayton Daily News (Sunday, 17 MAR 2013), D4.
[15] Rogers, “The 1913 Dayton Flood”, 10; Moss, “Carillon Park Unveils”. The Great Flood of 1913 claimed 700 lives, 467 of those were in Ohio, and 360 of those were in Dayton and its surrounding villages.
[16] Moss, “Carillon Park Unveils”.
[17] Bambakidis, “Floods of Dayton”, 8.
[18] Rogers, “The 1913 Dayton Flood”, 14.
[19] Ibid, 17-20.
[20] Bambakidis, “Floods of Dayton”, 10.


  1. It hit the Great Miami River Valley, in fact, the entire state pretty hard. I know Hamilton (where I grew up) is STILL talking about it as well.

    1. Jennilee, there is a wonderful article in the Hamilton Journal published on Saturday, March 16, 2013 by Richard Jones - "'Time of Terror' tells personal stories of the 1913 Flood". He includes excerpts from letters written by two Hamilton residents during the Great flood. Truly fascinating! I posted a link to the story below: