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The Dayton Flood of 1913

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Muddy flood waters.

The Great Miami River is a tributary of the Ohio River, which in turn branches off from the Mississippi, which pours into the Gulf of Mexico. For centuries, the Miami has swelled, bulged and flooded with the coming of each spring, as the yearly snowmelt trickles into the system. When settlers came to the area in the 18th Century, Native Americans warned them of the floods. Since its settling in 1796, the city of Dayton, Ohio, which sits between the Great Miami and Little Miami Rivers (and is situated around the Mad River and Stillwater River, both tributaries of the Great Miami), had experienced floods about once every decade or two with remarkable regularity. Before 1913, significant flooding occurred in 1805, 1814, 1828, 1832, 1847, 1866, 1883 and 1898. It had been 15 years since the last one.

From the street, loud voices echoed up to the windows of sleeping families early on Tuesday morning. Shrill factory whistles, mournfully tolling church bells and the glaring lights of nearby houses awoke families and neighbourhoods throughout Dayton, Ohio. As the hurried whispers of the men in the street progressed into shouts, people peered out of their windows to see what the commotion was. As the shouts progressed into cries, prudent families moved their belongings from the cellar or the ground floor into higher, safer places. When the cries became screams, the women halted their work and looked out the windows to see a yellowish trickle gliding down the street. It had been raining for four days now.

When the Levee Breaks...

The old men in the streets assured the gathering masses that they had seen many floods, and, even if the levees failed, the water would never reach this part of town.

The rain began on 21 March, 1913, which happened to be Good Friday. It rained through the cold weekend. By Easter Sunday, frozen ground was saturated by water, and the run-off caused by the unrelenting rain caused the Great Miami to rise steadily. On Monday, a deep darkness fell over the city. While Dayton slept, the Miami beat against its banks, then against the levees, before topping them early in the morning.

The yellow trickle evened out until a thin sheet of water covered the pavement and spread into the interior parts of the city. Men and women noticing its approach wondered if the glassy look in the pavement was a trick of the light, or perhaps a fire hydrant had burst. Once they grasped the reality of the situation, they rushed for their homes with the wind of terror at their backs and with water at their ankles, now about their knees, until their progress was slowed by the effort of wading through waist-deep water. Many were immediately swallowed up and drowned by the deluge.

Downtown, the exteriors of the businesses, hotels, courthouse and banks became the walls of a canyon, astride a rushing river which swept up the former livelihoods of thousands of Daytonians. Crates, barrels, lumber, porches and small houses were tossed around the river like corks. When the front window of a music store broke, a row of pianos drifted out one by one, like a parade. Residents stranded near shopping centres tried to rescue bodies floating atop the river, only to discover that they were store mannequins. A few observers noted a dining room table, set for breakfast complete with tablecloth, four place settings and chairs, drifting through the downtown.

Once the flood broke the levees, little could be done. Water galloped into all parts of town at about 25 miles per hour (40km per hour). North Dayton was swallowed up first, and downtown totally engulfed. The Dayton Public Library experienced water 16ft (about five metres) deep and lost 40,000 books. Churches were reduced to rubble, and the tall arches for stained glass windows emptied.

Horses were caught in the torrent and most drowned in the eddies and whirlpools which formed in the middle of the street. Some took refuge alongside humans, and at least one horse found itself in someone's bedroom on the building's third floor.

A trolleybus full of passengers was carried by the water until it was wedged against a large pole. Death seemed imminent to the people inside, until a young man jumped into the icy water to help with a rope around his waist. He struggled against the current, but eventually ran out of strength and gave up. Three more young men repeated his actions, until the fifth person finally reached the trolleybus and helped the trapped passengers to safety.

The efforts of families to bring their furniture to the first floor was futile in many cases, as the floodwater climbed up two storeys in some places and people had to escape to their exposed roofs. On higher ground, families could hear their remaining possessions beating up against the ground-floor ceiling. Even those who survived the initial impact of the flood were concerned for their lives. Terrified onlookers watched as houses collapsed or were ripped from their foundations into the current. Fires caused by natural gas leaks burned in the distance, and kept stranded citizens vigilant and watchful of the wind's direction through the night. It was a sleepless night.

...Mama, You Got to Move

A prominent local businessman named John Patterson opened up his company's warehouses and factories to refugees. He had food prepared, people treated for injury, gave the stranded a place to sleep, and had wooden rescue canoes constructed - all paid for out of his own pocket. He even went out in a boat and helped rescue people, despite being nearly 70 years old. He understandably became a hero to local citizens, and throughout the country.

Rescue boats plucked those who were most exposed and took them to safety. Some people were left hanging onto a pole for days before anyone could help. A sense of isolation settled over each building, as if they were each marooned in the middle of a vast ocean, left to fend for themselves. Most folks had little food, and ate what they could scrounge out of crates floating in the floodwater. The city's water was undrinkable and the floodwater was even worse, so basins and pans were set out to collect precipitation.

In the afternoon of the second day, temperatures plunged well below freezing and snow began to fall. Later that night, a violent storm came overhead, complete with lightning and thunder. Great bullets of rain pelted those who were still exposed and the storm stirred the floodwater. For those holed up indoors, the sounds that night were unbearable. They heard people screaming for help, knowing that they could not do anything. They frequently heard the bang of debris hitting the side of the house, and with each hit they wondered if the building's foundations would finally collapse under the strain. They heard people cutting through roofs to get to higher ground. They heard other buildings cracking and falling into the waters. The bumps in the night were especially ominous because no candles or matches could be lit, for fear of an explosion from a gas leak. People groped through the darkness, with only light from distant fires and the occasional flash of lightning.

The religious prayed and the unreligious quickly converted and bargained with the deity. Some swore that if they survived they'd never play cards again, or would go to church every Sunday - once the hollow churches were rebuilt of course. When the storm did not abate, they pictured a second coming of Noah and his Ark.

At the same time, dozens of towns throughout Ohio were experiencing similar flooding (although Dayton's was arguably the worst). Cities along the Ohio River, the Scioto, Muskingum, Cuyahoga, Licking, Auglaize, and both the Miamis, experienced heavy flooding. The famous Ohio canals, including the Miami and Erie Canal (which ran through Dayton), were destroyed beyond repair in the floods of 1913. In some places, the locks were dynamited to alleviate flood conditions. The canal system of transportation would never recover in Ohio. The rail network, which had replaced canals as the dominant form of transportation, also had major setbacks as a result of the floods. Railway yards were flooded, tracks damaged and engines drowned.

The newest form of transportation - pioneered by two Dayton residents named Orville and Wilbur Wright - was the aeroplane. The invaluable original plans to the 'Wright Flyer' sat unharmed in a factory for the duration of the flood. A building just next to the warehouse containing the Flyer caught fire during the flood, but fortunately the factory remained intact. Afterwards, Orville light-heartedly told reporters he regretted he could not have flown away from the fire 'on one of my own machines'.

By Thursday, the third day, the water began to slowly recede. People had long since figured out ways to mark the water level - either with a crudely fashioned tool or by keeping an eye on certain landmarks. They charted the fall of the water level eagerly. By early Friday it was possible to see the ground in the higher parts of town. By afternoon on the fourth day people milled about the streets, exchanging harrowing tales of suffering and heroism. They began the process of embellishing and shaping their tales for future generations - to whom they would tell the story of when the waters went wild in 1913.

Mud Behind the Wallpaper

Every account of the aftermath of the flood mentions one thing: the mud. Slimy, thick mud covered every surface of the city. Every house, business and establishment had to wipe it away. Debris was everywhere. What was once inside was now outside. One reporter saw an intact mirror caught in the heights of a tree. In the middle of Sycamore Street, a full-sized barn had been deposited by the water. Under the rubble, the streets and sidewalks were seriously damaged. Yet the mood in Dayton was defiantly optimistic.

Most Daytonians rose to the challenge and immediately began the job of getting their community and lives in order. By order of the governor of Ohio, James Cox (who came from a town not far south of Dayton), the city was placed under martial law. Patterson took charge and essentially served as dictator for a period1. He competently oversaw reconstruction until civil order could be resumed.

All in all, about 350 people lost their lives, and tens of thousands found themselves homeless. Adjusting for inflation, billions of dollars-worth of damage was done. To keep this from happening again, Patterson urged the state government to approve a plan to create a way to manage the waters of the Miami Valley watershed. Since its inception, the Miami Conservancy District has protected the area from flooding hundreds of times.

As the city started afresh, a citizen named Clement Leo Staudt wrote a letter...

Three days before, Dayton, the Beautiful City, had stood proud in her prestige and wealth. Her citizens happy, prosperous, aggressive - virile representatives of ideal American citizenship; deeply engrossed in competition for financial and social pre-eminence. Now, a weeping city shorn of its beautiful homes, its magnificent drives and parkways; robbed of its claim to charm and beauty - a city of destitute people, crying for bread - the beautiful city which the sun had set on three days before was now a city ravaged by fire and flood - a city of wreckage and ashes - a city of mourning and grief. But through all this pall of sorrow could be heard her people saying: 'Thank God we're all alive.' They had forgotten their suffering, had forgotten their privation; forgotten their sorrow in gratitude to their Creator for sparing their lives. Now the merchant worked in rescue with pauper; the lawyer with the labourer; the fortunate with the unfortunate. Dayton the city was now forgotten. It was now Dayton the family
The process of re-inhabitation began; merchants stocked their stores; and her citizens set to work at rebuilding with an ardour never before witnessed. And now, just three weeks after that awful catastrophe, Dayton the Gem City of Ohio by right of charity; constancy; unflinching suffering; and dauntless determination rears her head above the ruins; queenlier, nobler and better than ever before.
1Oddly, Patterson was not a military officer, but seemed to take charge merely through force of personality.

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