Know Ohio: Great Dayton Flood

IN DAYTON, OHIO IN 1913 IT STARTED RAINING ONE DAY – AND IT BASICALLY DIDN’T STOP FOR A WEEK! AND THIS WASN’T A DRIZZLE EITHER. IT BEGAN WITH A STORM ON GOOD FRIDAY AND, OVER THE COURSE OF FIVE DAYS, NEARLY A FOOT OF RAIN POUNDED DAYTON, AND THE MIAMI VALLEY – THAT’S THE REGION AROUND THE GREAT MIAMI RIVER.

ALL THIS RAIN SENT THE GREAT MIAMI RIVER RUSHING OVER THE LEVEE AND INTO BUSY DOWNTOWN DAYTON. A LEVEE IS A WALL OF EARTH BUILT TO PREVENT THE OVERFLOW OF A RIVER – BUT, IN THIS CASE, THE RAIN WAS JUST TOO HEAVY, AND FLOODWATERS TURNED THE GEM CITY INTO AN UNDERWATER CITY: IN SOME AREAS THE OVERFLOWING WATER WAS 20 FEET DEEP!

THE WATER ROSE SO QUICKLY THAT IN SOME CASES PEOPLE HAD TO SCALE TELEPHONE POLES AND CRAWL ACROSS THE WIRES TO SAFETY. HOUSES FLOATED OFF THEIR FOUNDATIONS, SENDING RESIDENTS JUMPING FROM ROOF TO ROOF, UNTIL THEY FOUND DRY LAND.

AND SURVIVORS WHO WERE WORRIED ABOUT DROWNING OR FREEZING IN THE COLD TEMPERATURES ALSO HAD TO BE CONCERNED ABOUT BURNING WHEN THE CITY’S GAS LINES RUPTURED AND SET ENTIRE CITY BLOCKS ABLAZE. IT BASICALLY LOOKED LIKE A SCENE FROM A DISASTER MOVIE!

WITH THE MAYOR TRAPPED IN HIS HOUSE, LOCAL BUSINESSMAN JOHN PATTERSON BECAME THE DE-FACTO LEADER IN DAYTON DURING THE DISASTER. HE HAD HIS FACTORY THAT NORMALLY MADE CASH REGISTERS, BUILD BOATS INSTEAD, AND HE SENT OUT RESCUERS TO BRING PEOPLE BACK TO HIS FACTORIES, WHICH HE TURNED INTO MAKESHIFT SHELTERS AND HOSPITALS FOR THOSE WHO HAD BEEN DRIVEN FROM THEIR HOMES. HIS HEROIC LEADERSHIP SAVED THOUSANDS OF LIVES.

WHEN THE WATER FINALLY RECEDED, OHIOANS BEGAN TO ASSESS THE DAMAGE. ALONG WITH MORE THAN 360 LIVES LOST IN THE FLOOD, MORE THAN TWENTY THOUSAND HOMES WERE TOTALLY DESTROYED. FACTORIES, RAILROADS, AND OTHER STRUCTURES ALSO FACED MAJOR LOSSES. IN TOTAL, PROPERTY DAMAGE WOULD HAVE BEEN MORE THAN $2 BILLION IN PRESENT-DAY TERMS.

AFTER THE FLOOD, DAYTONIANS, WERE DETERMINED TO NEVER LET THIS HAPPEN AGAIN. THEY HIRED HYDROLOGICAL ENGINEER ARTHUR MORGAN TO DESIGN A MASSIVE SYSTEM OF DAMS AND LEVEES TO PROTECT DAYTON FROM FLOODS. IT WAS A HUGE UNDERTAKING AND TOOK FIVE YEARS TO BUILD, BUT SINCE MORGAN BUILT HIS FLOOD CONTROL SYSTEM IN 1922, THE CITY HAS NEVER AGAIN EXPERIENCED A FLOOD LIKE THE ONE IN 1913.

ONE COMMUNITY THAT WASN’T REALLY EFFECTED BY THE FLOOD ITSELF WAS THE SMALL VILLAGE OF OSBORN, OHIO. LYING NORTHEAST OF DAYTON, IT HAD VERY LITTLE DAMAGE FROM THE FLOOD, BUT THE VILLAGE WAS LOCATED IN THE AREA THAT MORGAN DESIGNATED TO BECOME PART OF THE HUFFMAN FLOOD PLAIN – WHICH WOULD MAKE IT PRONE TO FLOODING. SO, THE CITIZENS OF OSBORN DECIDED TO PICK UP AND MOVE THEIR WHOLE CITY, THREE MILES AWAY, NEXT TO ANOTHER TOWN CALLED FAIRFIELD. SOME YEARS LATER, OSBORN AND FAIRFIELD MERGED TO BECOME FAIRBORN, OHIO, WITH THE NAME SELECTED TO REFLECT THE MERGING OF THE TWO TOWNS.

SO, I GUESS YOU COULD SAY THE FLOOD BROUGHT COMMUNITIES TOGETHER…LITERALLY.


Instructional Links


Website Article: Dayton History Books Online, The Great Dayton Flood of 1913 | Collection of links to primary sources, ebooks, and photographs.

Online Reference Book: Ohio History Central, 1913 Ohio Statewide Flood

Website Article & Video: Discerning History, The Great Dayton Flood of 1913 | Includes original film footage.

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