Wild Weather Wednesday: The Great Flood of 1913 (Part Two)

WildWeatherWednesdayBy the morning of March 24, headlines reported news of the first devastating wave of weather that had first impacted Omaha, Nebraska (see last week’s article).  A tornado later roared through Terra Haute with at least two dozen killed.  Even though the articles reported at least ninety dead in Omaha and twenty-four in Terra Haute, the headlines proclaimed HUNDREDS KILLED:

OmahaStormKills100sNebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Oklahoma had already been affected by the storm.  By the time newspapers hit the streets on the 25th the death toll was being reported to have risen to 225 with over 750 injured.  Damage estimates for Omaha were thought to be at least twelve million dollars.

The first story of flooding appeared on the 25th as well.  After the tornado, Terra Haute was inundated with rain and flooding which caught both rural and city dwellers by surprise.  Residents were already fleeing their homes as the flood waters surged.  Thousands of acres of land were underwater with rivers and creeks out of their banks and levees breached.  To prevent looting, the State Militia began boat patrols in devastated areas.

Next in line for massive flood damage was Ohio.  In Dayton, the Miami River had gone over the levees and flooded the city.  A Western Union operator suddenly broke off in the middle of the message he was sending and said “Good by, the levee has broken.”

Dateline March 25, Chicago was reporting “Private telegrams state the Dayton flood was caused by the breaking of the Miami power dam.  Reports state that the waters are rushing through streets of Dayton like a millrace, carrying property to destruction in its sweep.  Hundreds of homes are being washed away.”   Other sources were reporting that the death toll had already reached forty in Dayton with at least fifteen hundred homes flooded.  Another fifteen people were reported killed in St. Louis (tornado).  Across the river from Omaha, Council Bluffs, Iowa was also reporting at least twelve persons dead, and Chicago six killed.

WashPost1913FloodBy the morning of March 26, the Washington Post was declaring thousands had drowned and hundreds of thousands were homeless as a result of the monster storm.  While it was too early to determine definitively how many lives were lost in Dayton, the Post estimated between two and five thousand lost to flood and fire in Dayton.  A school building known to have housed at least four hundred students was submerged, all presumed dead.  Indiana was described as being a “huge sea.”  Officials were having trouble finding ways to get supplies and coffins to devastated areas.

A response from the Red Cross was desperately needed.  National Director Ernest Bicknell decided that he needed to personally oversee operations in Omaha.  He was no stranger to disaster, having been in charge during the 1912 Mississippi River flooding and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  Even though it would take at least twenty-four hours by train to travel from Washington, D.C. to Omaha he was determined to respond in person.

Apparently he was not aware of the extent of the massive storm as it swept east after leaving Nebraska.  So many bridges had been washed out forcing the engineer to slow the train down lest the train go off an unexpected precipice.  The system was turned upside down as schedules were delayed and trains re-routed to find safe ways to get through.  It would soon become apparent to Bicknell that there was a bigger disaster than Omaha looming.

Meanwhile the storm was advancing and flood waters continued to rise.  The Post was also reporting rising flood waters in western Pennsylvania on the 25th.  Dayton was still inundated and desperate to find a way to cope with the devastation.  The woodworking department of the National Cash Register Company was building boats at the rate of ten per hour, although they were hardly up to the task of navigating the swift currents coursing through Dayton.   As if there weren’t enough challenges with the rain and flooding, fires erupted across the city.

By this time, Ernest Bicknell knew his expertise was more valuable in Indiana and Ohio.  Early on the morning of the 25th, one train plunged off what remained of a bridge over the Mad River.  Amazingly, most people on the train survived.  It would take Bicknell five days to reach Columbus, Ohio – hardly what he planned.  He would later say that this disaster was “the biggest and most difficult field the Red Cross had yet had to deal with.”

The rain and flooding continued eastward.  By the evening of the 26th, the western Pennsylvania town of Sharon was under water, with no utilities or transportation services available.

SharonPAStrickenJust because the storms had passed through Ohio didn’t mean the flooding had subsided.  On the morning of March 27, the Portsmouth Daily Times (Ohio) was reporting staggering data:

Ohio, sore stricken, is staggering today under the devastation of appalling floods, unparalleled in the history of the state.  In Portsmouth the Ohio was 56 feet at 1 o’clock, and the river was rising at the rate of about 7 inches an hour, a drop in the rate of rise from nearly two feet an hour at 2 a.m.  The river jumped in 24 hours from 16 feet to 51 feet, 35 feet in a day, a record never before even dreamed of.  The present rate of rise in the Ohio if continued means that 61 feet will be reached here about 9:30 o’clock.  When that point comes the water is liable to swoop into the city at any moment.  Citizens should prepare for the worst.

Dayton was beginning to panic over the possibility of famine.  Governor James Cox was especially concerned with the need to rush through supplies, knowing that there was not even a full day’s provisions in the city.  The governor’s private secretary provided a grim assessment: “If the deaths only reach 1,000 we will consider it a miraculous dispensation of providence, and if it is 10,000 I will not be surprised.”  Other cities awaited their fate.

President Woodrow Wilson pleaded for funds to assist victims:

We should make this a common cause.  The needs of those upon whom this sudden and overwhelming disaster has come should quicken every one capable of sympathy and compassion to give immediate aid to those who are laboring to rescue and relieve.

By March 28, headlines began to reflect somewhat more calm and accurate reporting.  The Fort Wayne Sentinel reported that as the waters receded, the death estimates became more realistic.  Just a day before one newspaper had proclaimed that five hundred people had died in Peru, Indiana.  On the 28th the Sentinel reported improving conditions and a death toll of twenty-five.  Over the next few days the news would continue to trend that way with actual death toll numbers dropping precipitously from previous panic-induced estimates.

That, of course, did not lessen the impact of the disastrous flooding, tornadoes and fires.  Truth be told, historians today still are not sure how many people actually perished.  It is most simply noted as the second worst flood in United States history, second only to Johnstown, Pennsylvania’s massive dam break in 1889.

The Ohio Bureau of Statistics officially listed only eighty-two deaths in Dayton.  Indiana estimated between 100 and 200.  More than 250 people who lived in the Miami River basin lost their lives.  As historians have noted, some deaths likely went unaccounted for because some individuals simply vanished, washed away.  The Dayton Citizens’ Relief Committee estimated damages exceeding $73 million in 1913 dollars.  Total damages in Indiana have been estimated to be at least $25 million.  One hundred years later, one account would place the total damages across the entire flooded area at more than $200 million.

1913FloodDamageThere were some heartbreaking stories of people who made panicked decisions only to regretfully lose their lives.  Many died from other causes other than drowning.  One man in Huntington, West Virginia helped his wife and children into a boat (the waters had risen to the second story of his home).  The waters continued to rise and so despondent was he, convinced the boat would never return for him, committed suicide by drinking poison.  One couple slit their own throats rather than face death by drowning.

One resident of Marietta, Ohio had lost everything in the flood.  On June 20, weeks after the actual event, she waded into the Muskingum River and drowned herself.  One family was rescued by wagon from their house, only to have the wagon overturn on the slick and muddy road – all perished.  Some people likely died from shock and anxiety.  Some caught pneumonia and died.  One bloated corpse was found near New Orleans on April 14.  While there was no identification on his body, it’s likely his body had floated down the river some eight hundred miles – on his person was a business card for Williams and Brown, Cleaners, Walnut Street, Cincinnati.

The Wright family of Dayton — Orville, his father Milton and sister Katherine (Wilbur had died in 1912 of typhoid fever) — were forced to flee their home.  Upon returning to their home they found it was still standing, although extensively flood-damaged.  Orville was stunned to discover a table with a bowl of moldy oranges on top of it.  The oranges had been left on the table as they fled.  As the waters rose, the table with the oranges did so as well – and when waters receded the table returned to ground level, all the while keeping the bowl of oranges situated on the tabletop.

The bicycle shop where Orville and Wilbur had drafted blueprints for their bi-plane was near a building that caught fire.  Fortunately, the shop was untouched.  The 1903 Flyer had been dismantled and was stored in crates in a shed located behind the shop, and for eleven days the crates were submerged.  Amazingly, the mud had actually helped preserve the contents.  Later those parts would make their way to the Smithsonian.

The aftermath of the Great Flood of 1913 brought demands for better flood control.   By early April, politicians and pundits began to weigh in.  Theodore Roosevelt wrote an article which asked the question: “The Ohio Floods: Can Such Calamities be Prevented?”  He chided the Federal government who, although had appropriated millions for food and levee repairs, was still woefully short-sighted in regard to plans to deal with flood control.

In Ohio the Conservancy Act was passed in 1914, creating conservancy districts throughout the state.  Each district would, among other flood control measures, be responsible for ensuring adequate clean drinking water, as well as ensure creeks and rivers were free of debris (a major contributing factor to the 1913 flood devastation).

A major flood control system became a reality twenty years after the Great Flood of 1913 when President Franklin Roosevelt established the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of many Depression-era agencies designed to provide desperately needed jobs.  Although the project was far from completion in 1937 when flooding surged through the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys, killing over two hundred, downtown Dayton was entirely free from flooding.

These are but a few stories surrounding the Great Flood of 1913.  If your interest has been piqued to know more, I highly recommend the book reviewed last Thursday: “Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America’s Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed it Forever.”

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.

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