Kaleidoscope: 100 years pass since big 1913 flood occurred

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITIOR Published:

One hundred years ago this month, Ohioans were looking forward to a tranquil Easter weekend and the coming of spring after a long, cold winter.

What they got that Easter weekend was anything but tranquil. In fact, what transpired still ranks as the worst natural catastrophe in Ohio history. It claimed the lives of an estimated 467 people and disrupted thousands of people's lives for months.

It was the infamous flood of 1913, which will observe its 100th anniversary this weekend. The rain started falling over the upper Ohio Valley on March 23 and didn't stop until March 27. Ohio communities recorded between 6 and 11 inches of rain.

Just about every corner of Ohio was affected, and towns that were located along major rivers such as the Cuyahoga, Tuscarawas, Muskingum, Maumee, Miami and Scioto were the hardest hit. Millions of dollars in damage resulted.

The rivers overflowed their banks within a couple of days, washing out dozens of bridges, destroying or heavily damaging 40,000 homes and severely damaging many businesses and buildings.

HERE'S WHAT HAPPENED

The ground was still frozen as Easter approached in 1913, but temperatures were warming. Melting snow combined with intense rains to bring about the widespread flooding.

In Akron, 9.65 inches of rain was recorded in the week after Easter Sunday, including 4.75 inches in the worst 24-hour period. Bellefontaine was at the upper end of the rainfall total at 11 inches, with 10 1/2 inches recorded at Marion and just over 10 inches at Wooster.

Many roads were washed away, the rails along train lines were twisted, a train or two plunged into creeks and rivers as bridges collapsed, houses overturned or were washed down streets and hundreds of farm animals drowned.

Gas and electricity were out in many areas, and Youngstown was without drinking water for several days because the pumping station was under 6 feet of water. Mail delivery came to a halt.

TUSCARAWAS COUNTY HIT

I've seen dozens of old photos of high water and damage caused by the flood in the many books about Ohio history that I've read.

For example, "New Philadelphia in Vintage Postcards" has about a half-dozen such photos. It's one of a handful of books I own about history of my hometown.

Photos show flooding along the north side of the Tuscarawas River, and debris from the South Broadway bridge, which was washed into the river. There's also shots of high water around the American Sheet and Tin Plate Co. steel plant and the B&O Railroad line.

Because the bridge was the most direct way to reach the southside of New Philly, also then known as Lockport, residents had to take ferries back and forth to the main part of the city for several months until a new bridge was built. Ferries were necessary across many other rivers.

The three-span steel truss South Broadway bridge that rose at the site of the old bridge lasted into the 1970s, and was the one I traveled over many times as a kid. It was replaced by a single-span concrete bridge.

In my native Tuscarawas County, other cities on the Tuscarawas which were adversely affected by the flood were Bolivar, Dover, Uhrichsville, Dennison and Newcomerstown. The Ohio & Erie Canal ran through some of them.

The Pennsylvania Railroad's Panhandle Line, some stretches of which run along the Tuscarawas, was heavily damaged and had to be rebuilt, particularly in the Port Washington area.

Two people lost their lives in Tuscarawas County, and electricity was out at many homes for days. The county was saddled with debt for years after the flood, and bonds were issued to cover the expense. It was estimated that $200,000 was spent to replace bridges there.

That may not seem like a lot of money today, but it was then. The damage obviously would cost in the tens of millions to fix today.

FOCUS ON OTHER AREAS

Dayton was the hardest hit city in the state, as the Loramie Reservoir in nearby Shelby County failed, pouring millions of gallons of additional water into the Miami River, which widened to nearly one mile. An estimated 123 people died.

Except for the highest points, most of the city was under 6 to 10 feet of water, and some downtown areas were under 20 feet of water. Thousands of people were stranded in upper floors of tall office buildings. Fires broke out, and because firefighters could not reach them, many buildings were destroyed.

A large portion of Hamilton, which lies between Dayton and Cincinnati, also was under water, and it wasn't until the next week that people could stand on the muddy land.

Hamilton's damage was at least $15 million, with 106 deaths, 500 homes damaged, four bridges washed away and 10,000 residents homeless.

About 100 residents in Columbus died when the Scioto River spilled 9 to 17 feet of water into adjoining neighborhoods. And downstream, most of Chillicothe was under water.

The Muskingum River at Zanesville crested 27 feet above flood stage, and water was 20 feet deep at some downtown intersections. Only the lamp posts were visible on the famous Y-Bridge.

In Defiance, the Maumee River crested 10 feet above flood stage, and 268 homes were under water. In Tiffin, 19 homes collapsed into the Sandusky River, killing 19 people, while 4,500 homes were flooded in the Portsmouth area.

The Ohio River at Cincinnati rose 21 feet in 24 hours, and in Cleveland the Cuyahoga River washed away docks, lumber yards, train cars and rail yards.

In Wooster, the rain was preceded by gale-force winds which downed telephone and telegraph lines and trees. A 31-pound piece of concrete, along with numerous bricks, blew off the IOOF Hall, hit the awning of a grocery store across the street, smashed through a window and came to rest among bins of food and glass candy cases.

The roof was blown off a mill, and many roofs and chimneys were damaged, including that of the Wayne County Courthouse. The steeples of the Baptist and Presbyterian churches crashed to the ground.

Damage to Pennsylvania Railroad tracks and bridges caused 25 trains to be stranded between Orrville and Wooster. Two dams in Wooster were destroyed, and the front of the building which housed the Wooster Republican newspaper was gone. Fortunately, nobody died in the Wooster debacle.

END OF MIGHTY CANALS

At the time of the flood, railroads had surpassed canals as the primary mode of transportation of commodities, and the canals were in decline. The flood put an end to them, damaging many to the extent that it was not feasible to rebuild them.

The Little Cuyahoga River in Akron overflowed its banks in east Akron, and a dike at the East Reservoir gave way. With downtown in danger of being wiped out, city officials decided to dynamite the Ohio & Erie Canal locks running through the city to lower rapidly rising water levels.

The lower floors of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. were submerged, homes were swept away into the valley and a man crossing Case Avenue was drowned.

The loss of the canal was a major blow to Akron and other cities such as Massillon, which rose to their industrial heights because of the canal. Debris from the canal remains to this day under the Akron Civic Theater on South Main Street, which was built in 1929.

THE FLOOD'S AFTERMATH

Many water control projects were undertaken around Ohio after the flood. In 1914, the Vonderheide Act, also known as the Ohio Conservancy Law, was passed.

It gave the state the authority to establish watershed districts and raise funds for improvements through taxes. The law was challenged, but upheld by the state and U.S. Supreme courts.

In 1915, the Miami Conservancy District was created, becoming the first major watershed district in the nation. A series of earthen dams was built on the Great Miami River and the river channel was modified in Dayton.

One entity many area residents are familiar with is the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, created in 1933 and headquartered to this day in New Philadelphia. It covers 8,000 square miles of the Muskingum River watershed.

The federal government contributed $22 million to form the district, with several million more raised from local taxes. The first plan called for creating 14 dams and reservoirs. Some of the dams are Bolivar, Dover, Beach City and Mohawk. They are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Dover Dam, the biggest of the MWCD dams, was built in 1936 as a Works Progress Administration project, as were several of the other dams. It currently is undergoing a major upgrade.

A number of lakes, which have become popular recreation spots, also were created, including Atwood, Leesville, Seneca, Clendening and Charles Mill.

Email: klahmers@recofrdpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189

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