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1913 flood put much of Ohio in peril

March 29, 2013
By Christian Hudspeth - The Marietta Times ( , The Marietta Times

From March 23 to 27 in 1913 the equivalent of more than two months worth of rain pelted certain regions of Ohio, leading to one of the worst natural disasters the country has ever experienced.

At the height of the storm parts of Ohio were receiving 2 to 6 inches of rain per day, according to an article written by Trudy Bell. Bell is considered to be one of the foremost national authorities on information regarding the Flood of 1913.

The impact of the flood on communities across Ohio varied depending on location, but those close to rivers and bodies of water were devastated by the incident.

Article Photos

Photo courtesy of Marietta College Special Collections
A carriage goes through floodwaters in Columbus.

Across the state at least 428 people lost their lives and more than 20,000 homes were destroyed by the flood waters, according to

Bell said many of the initial estimates about the total number of deaths are unrealistically low, because of the time that they were released.

"When researching the 1913 flood you will notice that the official report numbers are generally very inconsistent," she said. "Some of the reports were gathered so soon after the incident that all of the data wasn't in."

Fact Box

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Rainfall over the state totaled from 6 to 11 inches over a four-day period.

Death toll numbers ranged from 400 to 600 people in Ohio alone.

More than 20,000 homes were destroyed in Ohio.

Dayton, Hamilton and Columbus were three of the hardest hit cities in terms of total deaths and damage in the state of Ohio.

Source: Trudy Bell and

The State Board of Health's reports for instance, were released in May directly after the crisis happened, according to Bell.

This didn't allow the board to take into consideration all of the deaths due to disease, starvation, loss of homes or a number of other factors that contributed towards the loss of lives.

The death total that Bell has found to be the most realistic and credible during her research is the one formulated by the Red Cross.

"In October of 1913 the Red Cross estimated that in Ohio alone the death toll was around 600 people," she said. "They were on the ground keeping detailed records throughout the entire catastrophe and waited for the data to be properly compiled before releasing a number."

Communities along rivers and streams were devastated by the destruction that occurred as the flood waters rose.

Dayton, located on the Great Miami River, was perhaps hit the hardest of any area in Ohio by the natural disaster.

Flood waters reached 29 feet at the highest point and an average of 10 feet of water raced through the streets of downtown Dayton, according to the Silver Jackets website hosted by the Midwestern Regional Climate Center(

The Silver Jackets are teams formed at the state level and work together with other federal, state and local organizations to help reduce the risk of floods, according to the official website of the Silver Jackets ( They promote flood planning and prevention methods across the nation to help reduce the risk of these catastrophic floods.

Unfortunately for Dayton during the 1913 flood, no such organization existed.

Dayton suffered greatly because of its location on the Miami Valley Watershed, according to Bell.

"Three major rivers converge at the edge of Dayton and all of that water was funneled towards the city," said Bell. "That much water led to the breaking of the levee system that Dayton had."

On top of the flooding, much of Dayton burned due to fires that ravaged what buildings weren't completely enveloped with flood waters.

"A great part of downtown Dayton burned from burst natural gas pipes," said Bell. "The flood happened so fast that many didn't have time to turn off the gas supply."

The water, fire and a number of other factors contributed to one of the highest death totals in the state of Ohio.

The Silver Jackets website estimates that approximately 123 lives were lost during the 1913 flood in Dayton alone.

The state's capital, Columbus, had to deal with 92 fatalities and an estimated $1.5 million total in personal property damage, according to the community profile on the website.

While it didn't have as many total fatalities, the capital had to help with the destruction over the entire state.

The governor of Ohio at the time of the 1913 flood was James M. Cox.

Cox realized very quickly that this storm was something that was going to affect the entire state, according to Bell.

"The governor was a former newspaper man, covering the railroad beat when he was in Cincinnati," she said. "He was able to use that familiarity to help direct the distribution of relief efforts and supplies across the states via the railroad."

Columbus also had its levee system destroyed by the flood waters that ravaged the city.

The damage done to the capital was devastating to local homeowners, leaving around 20,000 of the 30,000 estimated population homeless. The Columbus building department estimated personal property damage totaling $1.5 million, with nearly 5,000 buildings damaged and 500 completely destroyed, according to the Silver Jackets.

Bell said she often tries to imagine what it would have been like to be Gov. Cox during the natural disaster.

"He was the newly appointed chief executive of a thriving fertile state to start the week," she said. "Then only eight days later he was in charge of a state that was in ruins."

Cox didn't panic, but slowly put the pieces back together and began to help rebuild the state.

He was very active in the recovery, through relief efforts and providing funds for rebuilding, according to Tom Rieder, reference librarian at the Ohio Historical Society.

"All of the cities and towns that were affected in the flood would eventually recover," he said.

This was in part due to the money that Cox raised and the steps he took to ensure Ohio wouldn't be caught by surprise again.

"He and the general assembly raised over $500,000 for relief funds to be used for those affected in the disaster," said Rieder. "He traveled around the state surveying the damage, trying to help wherever and whenever he could."

Ohio would not be caught completely off guard again, thanks to the development of the Miami Conservancy District and other flood prevention programs. Eventually Ohio recovered from the storm, but not before hundreds of lives and thousands of homes were lost.

"It took years for buildings and bridges to be rebuilt, and even longer for industry to get back to peak efficiency" said Rieder.



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