Portage didn't escape flood's wrath

by ROGER DIPAOLO | RECORD-COURIER EDITOR Published:

The rain began on the morning of Easter Sunday (March 23) 100 years ago. The Kent Courier reported the downpour started just in time "to catch the Easter-bedecked people in the churches."

It didn't end for four days. And by the time it stopped during the evening of March 26, 1913, 8 inches had fallen in Portage County, causing widespread flooding, considerable property damage and effectively isolating residents who waited out the storm in dark, dreary homes without light or heat.

The Great Flood of 1913 was one of the worst natural disasters in Ohio history. Every river in the state overflowed; 467 lives were lost, including more than 200 in Dayton and Columbus; and thousands were rendered homeless.

No lives were lost in Portage County, but 70 bridges were swept away and thousands of acres of farmland were rendered useless. Transportation was halted as roads became impassable and railroad traffic came to a standstill. Schools and businesses closed. It seemed as if the rain would never stop.

It was, in the words of the Courier, "a story that no one could have conceived possible."

Kent residents witnessed unbelievable scenes as the community of 4,500 anxiously watched to see if the landmark dam and the bridge at West Main Street would give way to the waters that transformed the Cuyahoga River into "a raging torrent." Flooding in the downtown area forced residents to flee to the upper floors of their homes. The waters undermined the Erie and Baltimore & Ohio railroad tracks; 116 passengers on an Erie train were marooned in Kent for 50 hours.

THE RAIN that started on Easter Sunday tapered off that night, but resumed with a vengeance the following day, growing worse Monday night and into the early morning hours. Tuesday, March 25, "was a day of excitement and expectancy" as the flooding turned all eyes to the downtown area.

"Hundreds lined the river, watching the rising flood waters and discussing the flood," the Courier reported. "The muddy waters ... came through the narrow rock-bound gorge with force, spreading beyond the confines of the dam and covering the B & O tracks, washing out the ballast."

Several hundred feet of railroad track was weakened, making rail travel impossible on the upper or lower tracks. Three trains were held up on Erie line, including one that came to a halt north of the Williams Brothers Mill. "Everyone had a good view of the river, whatever consolation that may have been," the Courier observed.

Children who came to school that morning "traveled in a heavy downpour and most of them were soaked to the skin," the newspaper reported. Central School reported an absentee rate of more than 50 percent; only five first-graders made it to school and only 50 of the 125 high school students reported to class. School was canceled later that day.

In Ravenna, the flood waters filled the streets in many neighborhoods, leaving homes in the Bowery Street area -- present-day Highland Avenue -- surrounded by water. North of Kent, 2,000 acres of farmland were submerged.

A bridge across Plum Creek south of Kent and another in Thorndyke in Brimfield were swept away. A span in Aurora, near the Erie Railroad, collapsed, taking out a cheese house with it.

Scores of other pedestrian bridges throughout the county gave way as streams were swollen to the size of rivers. Four feet of water at the Breakneck bridge cut off the main road to Ravenna. The top of Standing Rock on Kent's north side was covered by two feet of water.

ELECTRICITY and gas were shut off, leaving most residents in darkness in cold homes. "Furnaces all over town were out because of flooded cellars," the Courier reported, "Many had to resort to oil stoves, gasoline stoves and lamps." By March 26, the only light in the gloomy town came from oil lamps.

Kent was at a standstill: "No trains, no electric cars, no freight, no electric lights, no gas, no picture shows."

While the community watched the river anxiously, flood waters menaced residents in the downtown area, where a storm sewer on East Main Street caved in.

"For the first time in the history of Kent, as far as anyone can recall, people had to be rescued out of a second-story window and gudied down a ladder because of a house being flooded," the Courier reported.

The flood filled the ground floor of the home of an 80-year-old woman who lived on South Water Street between Erie and Mill (now College Avenue)streets. She and two elderly tenants huddled upstairs "but a few inches from the water" until painters who worked at Fred Jacobs' shop, located nearby, were able to lead them to safety.

The area along South Water, on what now is the site of the Davey Tree and Ametek buildings, bore the brunt of the downtown flooding.

"The low ground between Mill Street and the alley north was a lake," according to the Courier. "Several houses, barns and outbuildings were surrounded. Chickens were drowned and horses were rescued during the night with difficulty. Men in boats and canoes rowed about, giving a Venice-like appearance to that section of town."

PEOPLE IN more than a dozen homes had to be taken to safety by boats.

As the rain continued to fall, "It was a disheartened lot of people that went to bed early Wednesday, trusting that the morning might bring better conditions."

Their hopes were misplaced, as the storm continued. Fears that the downtown dam would give way were heightened as the flood waters continued to surge. "Hundreds rushed to the river at noon Wednesday when the [old canal] lock weakened and began to topple," the Courier reported. "Old, young, infirmed -- all wanted a glimpse of the higest water Kent has ever known."

Among observers lining

the Main Street Bridge and the river banks was 104-year-old "Uncle George" Austin, who was Kent's unofficial patriarch. "Never saw anything like it," he said.

Also in the crowd were several photographers, including Arthur J. Trory, who captured 30 images of the flooding and sold 800 postcards just days after the storm. He took the photos accompanying this column.

The flood waters reached the bottom of the Stow Street bridge's deck, threatening its abutments. Sixty loads of stone were piled at the east end of the bridge to prevent it from being carried away. It held.

The downtown dam also held, although the nearby canal lock was severely damaged, along with the railroad beds.

The rains finally ended shortly before midnight March 26, and then snow began to fall. The flood waters receded rapidly; the Cuyahoga River was a foot lower by daybreak.

At noon the following day, the sun peeked through for a few minutes. It was the first time in nearly five days that the skies cleared.

Email: rdipaolo@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4164

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