Easy access to both the Muskingum and Ohio rivers made downtown Marietta a prosperous place for businesses to grow and flourish.
But that same proximity also meant that Marietta businesses were often first to take a battering when the waters started to rise. Never was that more evident than during the March 1913 flood.
Several area businesses had no choice but to close for the duration of the flood and several weeks thereafter while the community worked to piece buildings back together. The flood, in effect, was responsible with shaping how many downtown businesses operated, and how they coped with the many floods that would come later.
Photo courtesy of Marietta College Special Collections
Workers prepare to repair the B&O Railroad Bridge in Marietta.
"Have you ever wondered why none of the downtown businesses have carpet?" asked Marietta resident Gretchen Otto, 74.
The reason, said Otto, is that business owners knew that carpet would not have a very long life expectancy in the flood plain.
Otto's grandfather, John Wesley Otto, founded the department store Otto Bros. in 1886 on Front Street in Marietta. By the time John Wesley moved the business in 1893, he had seen his fair share of floods, said Gretchen.
Flood impact on area businesses and industry
Otto Bros. on Putnam Street: Water reached to the second floor of the department store, which reopened after weeks of laborious cleanup.
Richard's Brothers Pharmacy on Front Street: Managed to move all but a few items to the third floor.
Bellevue Hotel on Front Street: Housed and fed flood sufferers on the second floor of the hotel, which housed the restaurant and rooms with fire places.
Marietta Post Office on Front Street: Under eight feet and two
inches of water.
The Marietta Chair Company on Sacra Via: Lost new sawmill
and large quantities of lumber.
"People forget that Marietta flooded almost every year until the flood controls were put in down the Muskingum River. But it wasn't a major flood. It only maybe came into the basements," she said.
With potential flooding in mind, John himself oversaw the design of the new building, located at 118, 120 and 122 Putnam St., said Gretchen Otto.
"There were double doors so you could get a row boat through them. He wanted wide aisles and he wanted wide stairways because the rowboat had to float up there to the second floor," she said.
The wide aisles also gave plenty of breadth to the glass top display cases, which did not stay firmly put during the flood.
"Sometimes a display case bolted to the floor would come loose and spring to the surface like a whale," said Gretchen.
Otto Bros. did not suffer any merchandise loss during the 1913 disaster because waters in the low lying basement gave them a good warning that it was time to begin moving merchandise high on the second floor.
But cleanup after the fact was a slow and laborious process. Because no clean water was available downtown, John and his brothers would take a row boat to his Fifth Street home and transport clean water back to the store, two buckets at a time, said Gretchen. The slow process meant the store lost quite a lot of business, she said.
For many downtown businesses, the flood became the mark by which everything else was measured.
Sue Rose Davis, 75, whose uncle John Rose owned Richard's Brothers Pharmacy on Front Street, can remember helping clean up during floods during her youth.
"When I was old enough to help clean up, I can remember my dad and Uncle John standing around in feet of muck and they would say 'Boy this isn't anything like we used to see,'" recalled Davis.
Back then, everybody who had a boat or manpower available would come and help. Therefore, Richard's was able move all but a few things up to the third floor, said Davis.
The flood halted communication for more than a week. The Marietta Post Office was under water for several days.
In a 1951 newspaper article commemorating the 38th anniversary of the flood, post office employee Ed C. Morgenstern recounted how the water was eight feet, two inches deep in the post office. Morgenstern and other employees returned to the flooded office by boat to try to salvage what they could.
"Post office officials rowed from the steps of Marietta College library to the post office over the swirling waters of the Muskingum," he recalled.
The post office recovered, but several businesses were not be so fortunate. The entire building that housed bicycle manufacturing business Lobdell Rim Works at the bottom of Montgomery Street was washed into the Muskingum River, said the article.
The Register-Leader, a local newspaper, suspended regular operation on March 27 because "the big press and the greater part of the plant in fact" were under several feet of water.
But starting on March 30, the company got special authorization to release a Sabbath edition of the paper to keep citizens abreast of the situation. The crudely hand-typed edition told tales of even more local industry ripped away by the waters.
Several buildings at the fairgrounds were a complete loss, among them two barns and the newly built grandstand.
The Marietta Chair Company's brand new sawmill was swept away, never to be seen again.
"Although men employed by the company are hoping to recover much valuable lumber from the plant, which has lodged against the draw span of the rail-road bridge," said the Register-Leader on March 30.
The next day, the paper reported that a few businesses had "succeeded in getting their valuables to the third or attic floors. Others secured barges and loaded their goods upon them." However, most downtown businesses suffered a total loss of merchandise, they reported.
However, one site made the most of a bad situation, housing some refugees and serving food on the upper floors.
The Bellevue Hotel then stood at the current site of the Lafayette Hotel. Although its first floor was nearly entirely flooded, the hotel's restaurant and several rooms with fireplaces were located on the second floor, making it possible to serve food and house the displaced just after the flood.
"With uncanny prescience and foresight, the Bellevue proprietors had moved their saloon up to the second-floor out of flood reach," said a Marietta Daily Times article.
With every other saloon in town under the flood waters, the boat-through saloon business at the hotel fared well, said the newspaper.
Area businesses coped with merchandise loss and others struggled to reopen, but on a larger scale the flood would forever impact industry on the river.
According to a report by the Silver Jackets, a multi-state flood risk management group, "The damage to roads, railways, telephone, and electrical lines paralyzed commerce in and out of the region. As a result, there was a national outcry for state and federal government to reevaluate their role flood control."
As a result the Ohio Conservancy Law was signed in 1914, giving the state the authority to establish watershed districts and collect taxes to fund improvements in those areas.
And though businesses slowly licked their wounds and reopened, commerce transportation on the rivers was never again what it was before the flood of 1913.