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Great Dayton Flood: Wikis


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The Great Dayton Flood of 1913 flooded Dayton, Ohio, and the surrounding area with water from the Great Miami River, causing the greatest natural disaster[1] in Ohio history. In response, Ohio passed the Vonderheide Act to allow the Ohio state government to form the Miami Conservancy District, one of the first major flood control districts in Ohio and the United States.[2] This also inflicted a domino series of events, resulting in a further disruption. The flood was created by a series of three winter storms that hit the region in March 1913. Within three days, 8-11 inches of rain fell throughout the Great Miami River watershed on frozen ground, resulting in more than 90% runoff that caused the river and its tributaries to overflow. The existing series of levees failed, and downtown Dayton experienced flooding up to 20 feet (6.1 m) deep. This flood is still the flood of record for the Great Miami River watershed, and the amount of water that passed through the river channel during this storm equals the flow over Niagara Falls each month.[1]

The Miami River watershed covers nearly 4,000 square miles (10,000 km2) and 115 miles (185 km) of channel that feeds into the Ohio River.[3] Other cities across Ohio experienced flooding from these storms, but not as extensive as the cities of Dayton, Piqua, Troy, and Hamilton along the Great Miami River.[4]


Background conditions

Aftermath of the flood

Dayton was founded along the Great Miami River at the convergence of its three tributaries, Stillwater River, Mad River, and Wolf Creek. The four rivers converge within one mile (1.6 km) along the river channel near the city’s central business district.[3] When Israel Ludlow laid out Dayton in 1795, the local Native Americans warned him about the recurring flooding. Prior to the 1913 flood, the Dayton area experienced major floods nearly every decade, with major water flows in 1805, 1828, 1847, 1866, and 1898.[5] Most of downtown Dayton lies in the Great Miami River’s natural flood plain.

1913 storm timeline

Main Street during the flood

The following events took place between March 21 and 26 in 1913.[3]

  • Friday, March 21, 1913
    • The first storm arrives with strong winds with temperatures at 60 degrees.
  • Saturday, March 22, 1913
    • The area experiences a sunny day until the second storm arrives, dropping temperatures to the 20s causing the ground to freeze.
  • Sunday, March 23, 1913 (Easter Sunday)
    • The third storm brings rain to the entire Ohio River valley area. The saturated and frozen land can’t absorb any more water, and nearly all of the rain becomes runoff that flows into the Great Miami River and its tributaries.
  • March 24, 1913
    • 7:00 am - After a day and night of heavy rains with precipitation between 8-11 inches, the river reaches its high stage for the year at 11.6 feet (3.5 m) and continues to rise.
  • March 25, 1913
    • Midnight - The Dayton Police are warned that the Herman Street levee was weakening and they start the warning sirens and alarms.
    • 5:30 am - The City Engineer, Gaylord Cummin, reports that water is at the top of the levees and is flowing at 100,000 cubic feet per second, an unprecedented rate.
    • 6:00 am - Water overflowing the levees begins to appear in the city streets.
    • 8:00 am - The levees on the south side of the downtown business district fail and flooding begins downtown.
    • Water levels continue to rise throughout the day.
  • March 26, 1913
    • 1:30 am - The waters crest, reaching up to 20 feet (6.1 m) deep in the downtown area.
    • Later that morning, a gas explosion downtown near the intersection of 5th Street and Wilkinson starts a fire that destroys most of a city block. The open gas lines were responsible for several fires throughout the city. The fire department was unable to reach the fires and many additional buildings were lost.[5]

Clean up effort

The Ohio Governor James M. Cox sent Ohio National Guard troops to protect property and life, and support the recovery efforts. The ONG was not able to reach the city for several days because of the high water conditions throughout the state. They built refugee camps using tents for people permanently or temporarily displaced from their homes.[3]

During this time, John H. Patterson, a local businessman who ran the National Cash Register (NCR) company, led the recovery efforts. NCR employees built nearly 300 flat-bottomed boats[4] and Patterson organized rescue teams to save the thousands of people stranded on roofs and the upper stories of buildings.[5] He turned the NCR factory on Stewart Street into an emergency shelter providing food and lodging, and he organized local doctors and nurses to provide medical care.[4] Initial access was provided by the Dayton, Lebanon and Cincinnati Railroad and Terminal Company, the only line not affected by the flood.


People viewing the aftermath of the flood

As the water receded, the damages were assessed in the Dayton area.

  • More than 360 people died.[3]
  • Nearly 65,000 people were displaced.[6]
  • Approximately 20,000 homes were destroyed.[7]
  • Buildings were moved off their foundations, and debris in the moving water damaged other structures.
  • Property damage to homes and businesses, including factories and railroads, were over $100,000,000 (in 1913 dollars or over $2,000,000,000 in today’s dollars).[1]
  • Nearly 1,400 horses and 2,000 other domestic animals died.[3]

The clean up and rebuilding efforts took approximately one year to repair the flood damage. The economic impacts of the flood took most of a decade to recover.[3]

Destruction from the flood is also responsible for the dearth of old and historical buildings in the urban core of Dayton, whose center city resembles newer cities in the western United States.

Miami Conservancy District creation

Rather than accept defeat from the flood, the people of the Dayton area were determined to prevent a future disaster of this magnitude. Lead by Patterson’s vision for a managed watershed district, on March 27, 1913, Governor Cox appointed people to the Dayton Citizens Relief Commission. In May, the commission conducted a 10-day fundraiser which collected over $2,000,000 (in 1913 dollars) to fund the flood control effort.[3] They hired hydrological engineer Arthur Morgan[1] from St. Cloud, Minnesota who later worked on flood plain projects in Pueblo, Colorado and the Tennessee Valley Authority, to come up with an extensive plan to protect Dayton from future floods.

Morgan hired nearly 50 engineers to analyze the Miami Valley watershed, precipitation patterns, and determine the flood volume. They analyzed European flood data for information about general flooding patterns. Based on this analysis, Morgan presented eight different flood control plans to the City of Dayton officials in October 1913. In the end, the city selected a plan based on the flood control system in the Loire Valley in France, consisting of five earthen dams and modifications to the river channel through Dayton. The dams would have conduits to release a limited amount of water, and a wider river channel would use larger levees supported by a series of training levees. In addition, flood storage areas behind the dams would be used as farmland between floods. Morgan’s goal was to develop a flood plan that would handle 140% of the water from the 1913 flood.[3] The analysis had determined the river channel boundaries for the expected 1,000 year major floods, and all business located in that area would be relocated.

With the support of Governor Cox, Dayton attorney John McMahon worked on drafting the Vonderheide Act or the Ohio Conservancy Law in 1914.[4] The Act allowed local governments to define conservancy districts for flood control. Controversial elements of the Act gave local governments the right to raise funds for the civil engineering efforts through taxes, and granted eminent domain to support the purchase or condemnation of the necessary lands for dams, basins, and flood plains. The Ohio legislature passed the Act in 1914[2] and within days after Governor Cox signed it into law, the Miami Conservancy District was created with Morgan appointed as its first president.

The constitutionality of the Act was challenged by a lawsuit brought by a landowner impacted by eminent domain in Orr v. Allen, and attempts were made to amend it through the Garver-Quinlisk bills. The legal battles continued from 1915-1919 and reached the US Supreme Court, but in the end, the law was upheld.[8]

Since its inception, the Miami Conservancy District has protected the region from flooding over 1,500 times.[9] Ongoing expenses for maintaining the district comes from property tax assessments collected annually from all property holders in the district. Properties closer to the river channel and the natural flood plain pay more than properties further away.[10]

Osborn, Ohio

Ironically, the small village of Osborn, Ohio which had little damage from the flood, was the city most affected by the flood’s aftermath. The village lay in the area designated to become part of the Huffman flood plain. The mainlines of the Erie Railroad, the New York Central Railroad, and the Ohio Electric railway tracks running through Osborn were moved several miles south to run through Fairfield, Ohio.

The citizens of Osborn decided to move their homes instead of abandoning them, and almost 400 homes were moved three miles (5 km) to new foundations along Hebble Creek next to Fairfield. Some years later, the two towns merged to create Fairborn, Ohio with the name selected to reflect the merging of the two villages.[4]

Historical losses

Orville and Wilbur Wright, who made their home in Dayton, had flown for the first time a decade earlier, and were busy creating the aviation industry in their workshop and the area around Huffman Prairie, adjacent to the planned Huffman Dam. They had meticulously documented the flight efforts using a camera, and had an extensive collection of photographic plates. One unexpected loss in the flood was water damage which created cracks and blemishes on the photographic plates. Prints made from the plates prior to the flood were better quality than the prints made after the flood.[11] However not too many prints had been made off of the glass negatives before 1913 as the Wrights kept evidence of their pioneering work a secret from the public and the images, if all had been lost, were irreplaceable.

By this time, there were few canals in Ohio still in operation, but many of them remained intact across the state. To alleviate flooding conditions, local government leaders used dynamite to remove the locks in the canals to allow the water to flow unimpeded. This destruction ended the era of canal transportation in Ohio history.[7]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d "The History of the MCD: The Great Flood of 1913". Miami Conservancy District. Retrieved January 13, 2007.  
  2. ^ a b "The History of the MCD: The Conservancy Act". Miami Conservancy District. Retrieved January 13, 2007.  
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i J. David Rogers. "The 1913 Dayton Flood and the Birth of Modern Flood Control Engineering in the United States". Natural Hazards Mitigation Institute:University of Missouri-Rolla. Retrieved January 13, 2007.  
  4. ^ a b c d e Diana G. Cornelisse (September 10, 1991). "The Foulois House: Its Place in the History of the Miami Valley and American Aviation". Wright-Patterson Air Force Base:ASC History Office. Retrieved January 13, 2007.  
  5. ^ a b c "And the Rains Came: Dayton and the 1913 Flood". Dayton History at the Archive Center. Retrieved January 13, 2007.  
  6. ^ "The Flood Menace: The Debate Over Flood Protection in Ohio’s Miami Valley Illustrated Through Political Cartoons". Wright State University Libraries: Special Collections and Archives. Retrieved January 13, 2007.  
  7. ^ a b "Flood of 1913". Ohio History Central. Retrieved January 13, 2007.  
  8. ^ "The Flood Menace: Opposition to Vonderheide Conservancy Act". Wright State University Libraries: Special Collections and Archives. Retrieved January 13, 2007.  
  9. ^ "The History of the MCD: Construction". Miami Conservancy District. Retrieved January 13, 2007.  
  10. ^ "Flood Protection: Assessments". Miami Conservancy District. Retrieved January 13, 2007.  
  11. ^ "The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers at the Library of Congress:Photography and the Wright Brothers". Library of Congress. Retrieved January 13, 2007.  

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