Like most rivers giving birth to and raising cities, the rivers of Dayton have been both friend and foe.The first settlers of Dayton arrived from Cincinnati via the Great Miami River, landing on April 1, 1796.After delivering settlers, the rivers became conduits for transport and trade, with the first flatboat being launched from Dayton in 1799.Loaded with grain, pelts, and five hundred venison hams, it made the journey to New Orleans in record time.
It was these same waters that caused the city to flood periodically over the years.Less than nine years after the first settlers came to Dayton, they recorded their first flood.John W. Van Cleve spoke of the occurrence in an address before the Dayton Lyceum on August 27, 1833:
In the spring of 1805 Dayton was inundated by an extraordinary rise of the river.In all ordinary freshets, the water used to pass through the prairie at the east side of the town, where the basin now is, but the flood of 1805 covered a great portion of the town itself.There were only two spots of dry land within the whole place.The water came out of the river at the head of Jefferson Street, and ran down to the common at the east end of Old Market Street, in a stream which a horse could not cross without swimming, leaving an island between it and the mill.A canoe could be floated at the intersection of First Street with St. Clair, and the first dry land was west of this point.The water was probably eight feet deep on Main Street, at the courthouse, where the ground has since been raised several feet.
In consequence of the flood, a considerable portion of the inhabitants became strongly disposed to abandoning the present side of the town, and the proposition was made and urged very strenuously that lots should be laid off upon the plain upon the second rise on the southeast of the town, through which the Waynesville Road passes, and that the inhabitants should take lots there in exchange for those which they owned upon the present plat, and thus remove the town to a higher and more secure situation.The project, however, was defeated by the unyielding opposition of some of the citizens, and it was no doubt for the advantage and prosperity of the place that it was.
Early on, a levee was built by Silas Broadwell to protect the western part of Dayton from the runoff of the annual freshets overflows.The levee began at Wilkinson Street and ran west quite a distance along the Miami River.D.C. Cooper gave Broadwell a number of lots in the vicinity of the levee in payment for building it and for keeping it in good condition.
In 1814, the Miami again overflowed its banks and destroyed the levee.On January 8, 1828, the rivers flooded once more, breaking or passing around all the levees that had been built.Considerable damage was caused, with small bridges carried away and a warehouse at the head of Wilkinson Street destroyed.
M.E. Curwen was living in Dayton when yet another flood swept through the city on January 2, 1847.His account of the flood was published in O’Dells Dayton directory and Business Advertiser in 1850:
The river had been rising for several days; and on the 1st, the principal merchants, along the Canal Basin, thought it prudent to raise their goods to the second story, in anticipation of any accident that might happen to the levee, which was then new and not yet settled.A few minutes after midnight, the insignificant outer levee, that had for years been neglected and weakened by earth being hauled from it to fill up house yards and roads, gave way, near Bridge Street, and the inner levee, suddenly rushing upon it, and rising in a breast two feet above it, soon after fell in.
A breach once made, the waters rose rapidly, filling the cellars and covering the ground floors of houses in the vicinity.At the church bells rang an alarm.A crowd of men with boats and on horseback promptly turned out to rescue those who lived in the low grounds, west of Perry Street, while others assembled on the levee, north of Mill Street, with shovels, to check the leakage there.The water had by this time risen nearly to the top of the bank, and the work was soon abandoned as hopeless.A small party passed down Kenton, St. Clair, and Stone Streets, rousing the inhabitants along the line of the Basin, and advising them to move their valuables into the second stories of their houses.The levee gave way near the head of Mil Street, about .
In the course of the night, all principal citizens opened their houses, lighted fires, and offered accommodations to those whom the water had temporarily rendered homeless.The Council, on the next day, voted a handsome appropriation to relieve the wants of the destitute.
Other floods of note occurred in 1866, 1883, and 1886.The problem was one of geography.Thinking of, among other things, the transportation benefits, the first settlers in the area decided to build their city at the convergence of the region’s four waterways: the Great Miami, the Stillwater, and the MadRivers, and WolfCreek.In time, the most heavily populated sections of the city grew up around the bend or “S” curve in the Great Miami, where the width of the channel begins narrowing by almost fifty percent from eight hundred feet where the Stillwater flows into the Miami, to five hundred feet just south of our downtown.The same water that makes the MiamiValley a rich and fertile growing area also leaves it vulnerable to devastating floods.
Flooding plagued the city on March 6, 1897, and again on March 23, 1898.The Miami River flooded the low ground in North Dayton both times, with the Riverdale section being flooded by the backwater through the gates of the hydraulic race that once ran through the area.Storm water also covered the streets in the lower sections of Dayton, with some areas reaching a depth of several feet.The level of the water nearly reached the tops of the levees in several spots, which were built about three feet higher the next year.
The rivers lay quiet for several years afterward. Although the water did rise on occasion, it seemed to the citizens of Dayton that, finally, they had built their levees high enough to contain the river in its banks.
Then, in March 1913, it began to rain.
Three large air masses, one full of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, another from Canada, and a third traveling across the Great Plains, converged over the MiamiValley in March 1913.The three masses released nine to eleven inches of rain over land already saturated with melted snow and previous rainfall.Spread over an area as large as the MiamiValley, this became the equivalent of four trillion gallons of water cascading over the land and through Dayton, releasing in five days what would normally flow over the Niagara Falls in a month.
The water had not choice but to flow into the Great Miami River, already swollen beyond its banks, which met with the Stillwater and Mad Rivers and Wolf Creek.
As the rivers rose, the Dayton Journal, printed a special edition on the morning of March 25, 1913, with the headline “Flood stage in Miami River rapidly neared by roaring water.”Intended to be passed out to residents in the low-lying areas of the city, most were not delivered before the river overflowed the levees.
John H. Patterson, president of National Cash Register, was concerned at how quickly the water was rising.He went to Monument Avenue and joined the crowd gathered there who was watching in fear as the river steadily climbed toward the top of the levee.Shocked to find that it was only five inches from overflowing, he returned to NCR and called for a meeting.Plans were put into place by Patterson for flood relief, including the cooking of food and the building of boats before the floodwaters had poured over the levees downtown.NCR employees began building flat-bottom boats at the incredible rate of two every fifteen minutes.
On March 25, 1913, after four days of rain, the river finally overflowed the protecting levees.Slowly at first, then with ever-increasing speed, the freezing waters of the Great Miami River began filling the streets of the city.Soon, the brackish, yellow river water was traveling through Dayton at twenty-five miles an hour, carrying with it everything in its path.
Judy Walter D. Jones from Piqua, Ohio, was a flood-bound visitor in Dayton. The Beckel Hotel where he was staying was on the northwest corner of Third and Jefferson Streets, in the center of the flood that raged through the city.A description of his experience appeared in the Bell Telephone News, which published a special flood edition in 1913:
It nears in the morning on the busy streets of Dayton and the movement of the people is increasing.They are going their ways gaily or quietly; there is no more danger, all is serene and secure.
Ten minutes!A fragment of time.Ten minutes and the careless stream of people has changed to a white-faced, frightened, bewildered throng frantically seeking refuge from an awful fate that has stolen on the unawares.
A rush of water came down the center of Jefferson Street.At the first sight, it looked as though a fire hydrant might have been opened.
For the moment I was more curious than alarmed.I walked on to the Beckel Hotel.The water covered the street and began to lap over the curb on the sidewalk.I went in.The elevator was not running and I hurried up the stairs intending to leave my satchel and coat in my room and return to see the strange sight.I began to think there might be some serious inconvenience coming.
I entered the room, dropped by coat and bag, and looked out the window.A seething, foaming torrent was rolling down Jefferson Street.
Before the mind could grasp what had happened, a horrible crash sounded, apparently beneath me.The floor vibrated under my feet, and plastering commenced to drop from the ceiling.Women’s screams sounded from the next room.I sprang to my door.It would not open.But I heard men’s voices outside and I shouted to them to throw their weight against the door and they did so promptly and by doing so saved me the horror of being entrapped on the fourth floor of a sinking building.The occupants of several adjoining rooms were released in the same manner.Walls were cracking and trembling and plastering was falling.Someone shouted; “Fire!” but was sternly silenced.
Before , Jefferson and Third Streets were raging, roaring torrents of depths of twelve to fourteen feet.It seems to me that the main current of the Miami River must have been diverted through the principal streets of Dayton.The storerooms opposite us filled to the ceilings.Down both streets poured a mass of draft, now a lot of chairs and tables from some home, now counters, shelving, barrels, boxes, crates of fruit from some grocery, several pianos, piles of lumber and worst of all, every few minutes some struggling, drowning horse.Some of the wreckage drafted clear, some struck poles or street lights and broke into fragments, some were hurled against and shattered the plate-glass windows of stores.It was a sickening sight of ruin and destruction.
People were trapped in their homes, some having to resort to climbing onto roofs to escape the ever-rising waters.Heat was out of the question, for fear of beginning a fire due to escaping gas.Food was scarce; most of it was contaminated when the river waters flooded the first floors.
Jennie Parsons was trapped in a boarding house on South Jefferson Street at the time of the flood.Her account was published in the July 1913, issue of McClure magazine:
It was terribly still; not a sound anywhere, except when somebody’d call out.And then the worst thing began to come—the houses going.It would be perfectly still; and all t once there would be a cracking, then a ripping and tearing noise, and then it would ease off as if the house had slid off its foundations.All the time there were those awful voices crying: “Oh, God, God! Help us! Can’t somebody help us!”
Soon the center of the city was flooded with ice-cold water, some areas as deep as twenty feet.Fires began to break out as a result of burst gas lines.One section at Third Street, between Jefferson and St. Clair, burned completely to the ground.Richard Filley, a Big Four railroad conductor, could see the fire from the Union Station Depot where he was forced to spend two days and nights on the upper floor of the station with one hundred and fifteen other people:
Wednesday night the storm reached its climax.The rain fell as from a hose.Lightening flashed and thunder crashed.Then the worst of the fires broke out and from out windows we could see flames shooting fifty feet into the air.Both men and women knelt on the floor and prayed.One man, a member of a theatrical troupe, was temporarily out of his head. “We’re goners,” a man said to me, and I was ready to believe him.
The flood water rushed through downtown Dayton and hurried toward the southern edge of town, not stopping until Main Street began to rise near the Fairgrounds.H.W. Lindsey lived at the corner of Vine and Main Streets, between the Miami and Erie Canal and the high ground south of the city.His home was across the street from Saettel’s Grocery, and his story appeared in Arthur E. Morgan’s Miami Valley and the 1913 Flood, which was published in 1917:
On Tuesday morning, March 25, just before dawn, I was aroused by a call for help from the grocer, Mr. Saettel, and upon looking out of the window was surprised to see that the water had risen and covered the sidewalk.I immediately dressed, waded across the street, and offered my assistance.We worked probably an hour waist-deep in water, moving things out of the cellar.Then the water began to pour in upon the first floor, and the rise was so very rapid that we were totally unable to move any of the merchandise to the second floor.At this time, the current was flowing east from the river: it was evidently due to backwater.The current was so very swift that I realized I could not cross the street to my home.
About in the morning, the river evidently was overflowing its banks at the north of town, and therefore for a time the current down Vine Street was no longer swift, as the current from uptown seemed to neutralize the current due to the backwater.One of my friends taking advantage of this fact launched a canoe, and as he was passing the grocery I hailed him, and he offered to take me across vine Street to my home on the corner of Vine and Main.I hung from a window in the second story and dropped into the canoe.
About we heard a loud report, and on looking out of the window saw the grocery, which I had left but a few hours before, was a mass of flames.An explosion in the lower floor had literally blown the top of the building away, and the flames belching forth from the upper story resembled a hot furnace.The concussion shattered the windows in nearby houses.
Mr. Saettel’s father, a man of about seventy-five years, was tossed by the force of the concussion onto a floating roof in the middle of Main Street.The roof drifted toward the west side of Main Street, lodging against a barn.
At this time the current was very rapid, the water flowing west toward the river so very strongly that houses and barns were torn from their foundations and floated down Vine Street.One of the houses struck a tree on the west side of Main Street and broke its trunk, eight or nine inches in diameter, as though it were a match.Mr. Saettel was on the raft for probably an hour.His plight was pitiful and our very helplessness nearly drove us to distraction. We had a steel boat tied to the porch, but we dared not embark, and if we had done so, we could never have reached him.As each bit of driftwood, and parts of houses shot by the frail roof or raft with terrible force, it would break off a piece.Eventually the remnants were insufficient to keep the old man afloat and he finally sank below the surface.
John H. Patterson turned his factory into a makeshift rooming house, hospital, and kitchen, and put almost all of his seven thousand employees to work on flood relief and rescue efforts.
On March 27, 1913, Patterson wired the New York Times explaining the situation in Dayton and asking for help in the form of motorboats, food, clothing, and medical supplies:
Situation here desperate.All people except on outskirts imprisoned by water.They have had no food, no drinking water, no light, no heat, for two days.We have had no house-to-house communication by telephone for two days.Dayton Water Works stopped two days ago.Fire raging twenty-four hours in center of city and now spreading.Beckel Hotel burned.Weather suddenly cold with strong wind and snow.Water current too strong for rowboats and rafts.Need help that can reach us today from nearby cities.Help should be in the form of motorboats and people to man them.Need good rowboats.Need troops for protection and help. Need fire engines and motor trucks and automobiles.Also provisions, clothing, and medical supplies.Our factory safe.Has its own power, heat, electricity, and water plant.We and private houses are caring for many people, but they are only small part of the sufferers.We cannot reach central, northeastern, northern, or western parts of the city, consequently cannot answer many telegrams of inquiry about safety of people that are coming in.Railroads reaching Dayton practically all out of service.
Patterson’s children helped as well.Dorothy ran the kitchen that fed the thousands of Daytonians who no longer had food.Frederick set out in an NCR boat to rescue people trapped in their homes.Don Allen, staff reporter for the Times Star, wrote of a scene he witnessed at NCR on March 27, 1913, between John H. Patterson and his son, Frederick:
[John H.] Patterson was at his factory.His arms welcomed those who had been deprived of their homes and their loved ones.A pat on the back greeted each man brought in, and each weeping woman was given a cheering word.
Suddenly a noise arose outside the building.Gradually it became louder than the groans of the grief stricken, louder even than the wailing of the babies and the sobs of the men.It was a cheer.At first it seemed strangely out of place, that token of happiness in that chaos of sorrow.The cheer grew louder as several men carried a young lad in on their shoulders.
The youngster was soaked to the skin.His shirt had been torn from his back, his hat had long since been carried away by the waters.He tried to smile as he was carried in and taken up to Patterson.His smile died in a wan, faraway look as he lurched forward and fell into the arms of Patterson.The color came swiftly back to his face as a cup of coffee was forced into his mouth.Then he struggled from the strong arms of Patterson and looked him in the eye.Patterson’s hand shot out, and clutched that of the boy, swollen and bruised from his twenty-four hours’ work.
“Stay here,” said Patterson.“You’ve done enough boy, you’ve saved at least forty women and children.”
“I can’t, Father,” muttered the lad.“My place is there, there where they need me,” and he was rushed back to the waterfront in a swift auto.
And for the first time John H. Patterson’s eyes filled with tears.He walked slowly away from the crowd.No one followed him.Everyone saw, and understood.
After four days the flood waters had finally receded enough for many people to leave their homes and take account of what had been lost.It was estimated that the flood left more than $190 million worth of damage in its wake.Electricity had been lost, as had phone lines, sewage lines, and sources of clean water.Roads were impassable due to mud, debris, and dead horses.Looting was a problem as well, as many store windows had been broken, their merchandise lying in the streets.Dayton was also soon flooded with another problem, sightseers.
Captain Harry B. Kirtland, a member of the Toledo Signal Corps that had been brought in to help with the flood relief, came up with a solution to at least part of this problem.He described his experience in the Toledo Blade on May 3, 1913:
About (March 30th) my attention was attracted to a little group talking excitedly, and blocking traffic.Riding up to clear the street, I saw, and from his pictures, recognized, John H. Patterson.
As nearly at his wits’ end as he came at all that week, Mr. Patterson was wrestling with the problem of moving those 15,000 wet, cold, and hungry refugees to food and shelter, and of transporting twice daily, to and from the scattered homes in which they found their patients, the 600 nurses.He needed transportation and except in quantities wholly insufficient, it was lacking.As nearly as I could make out from the excited talk of those around him, he was unable to determine how to get it.
Dismounting and saluting, I pressed through the crowd and without preliminaries said bluntly, “Mr. Patterson, by martial law you are dictator of this county.You can do as you will with every man and everything in it.I have 16 men here.I was trained in the regular army, and if you will give me your orders I will carry them out and take all the responsibility for my acts.”
It was Sunday and the streets, in spite of the fact that for three days every newspaper in Ohio had carried the governor’s proclamation forbidding, under penalties of martial law, the entrance of sightseers, were crowded with automobiles and hundreds of visitors from all southwestern Ohio.There at hand lay both the labor and the transportation.We had only to take it.
I pointed this out and had no compunction about it.These people, forbidden entrance, had come anyway.They were a nuisance.In costly machines filled with silver Thermos bottles, packed with picnic luncheons, crowded with men and women in holiday attire, the lawless rich from twenty cities crowded their way through the streets, intheir insolence and vulgarity sparing with their remarks and cameras neither the age nor sex of the helpless.One of them, whose camera was smashed by an angry soldier, as snapping, over the protests of all beholders, a father and mother seeking in rubbish the body of a little child.Not one of them, so far as I observed, offered a helping hand, not even a lift, to the men, women, and children toiling through the mud of the streets.They acted as if the whole disaster was a spectacle for their benefit.
Superintendent Best, of the Cash Register Co., and I explained all this to Mr. Patterson.It took only a moment.Once he grasped the idea that martial law is simply, and without proviso or exception, the will of the commander-in-chief, and that he, in the absence of the governor, was such commander, he acted.Calling me a stenographer, he said: “Very well, write the order you need in military form, and I will sign it.”
Under that order the 16 enlisted men of my “guard detail” confiscated that same day on the streets of Dayton, 418 automobiles and impressed their owners as drivers.When they came sweetly, their parties were taken to the cash register plant, and their ladies fed, entertained and cared for, the machines and drivers being released after a day of service.Where they balked, the machine was unceremoniously emptied on the street, the driver, who was often the owner, coerced at the point of a service Colt’s and both kept in service till we saw fit to release them.We had little trouble.To their credit be it said that many of the men who gave us most trouble at the seizures, learning from direct observation the dire necessity for our drastic action, personally apologized both to me and to my men, and more than one of them stayed voluntarily in service after being released.
Although the flood affected most of the neighborhoods around Dayton, the area north of the city was especially hard hit.A reporter from the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune wrote of what he witnessed there as the flood waters began to recede:
Here the scene was absolutely indescribable.Houses are piled on top of one another three, and, in one case, four high.In one place a small neat cottage, practically intact, was seen perched squarely upon the roof of a two-story brick.Trees protrude through the windows here, dead horses there.Strung along the telephone wires at irregular intervals is every article of clothing under the sun.
Mirrors, intact, are seen in the branches of trees.Beside them stream the rags of a carpet torn and fringed by the fierceness of the waters.Everywhere was seen the vagaries of a current that seemed to take a malicious delight in sparing the frail and wreaking its fury upon that which man regards as most durable and strong.
In a still street a boat was pushed against a second-story window, of which both sash and frame were gone.Looking within after the eyes had become accustomed to the change of light, two bodies were seen, that of a man and a woman.The man’s arms were twisted through the rungs of an overturned chair in a different corner of the room from where the woman lay.
But his widely staring eyes were turned toward the crumpled bloated form that had once evidently been his helpmate, as if even in the death agony he yet thought of her and wished, if not that they meet again, at least to say goodbye.
The flood waters had not yet receded completely before Dayton’s citizens began to make plans to rebuild the city into something bigger and better than it had been in the past.George B. Smith remembered a time in May 1913, when an idea was beginning to form, a plan to prevent the flood waters from ever harming the city of Dayton or its citizens again.Smith’s memories are from an unpublished speech now held in the flood ephemera collection of the NCR Archive at the Montgomery County Historical Society.
I have a very distinct recollection of the visit of Mr. (Adam) Schantz to my home one evening soon after the waters had gone down.He stated that he had a matter on his mind that he wanted to discuss with someone, so he came to me as President of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce.It was an audacious thing to suggest, he remarked, but he considered that the great crisis called for the most daring plans for meeting it.
He proposed that the citizens of Dayton and vicinity undertake the task of raising one million dollars as an emergency fund with which to obtain the best engineering advice and the surest methods of devising a plan for flood prevention or control in whatever way the greatest security could be afforded.He was very much in earnest about the matter and offered to start the list of contributions with a very substantial amount by his own immediate business and family group.
A meeting was called in a day or two, and the idea of asking our stricken people to raise so large an amount of money so closely upon the heels of our great common disaster at first appalled those present, but after the ardent presentation of the idea by Mr. Schantz and others, the group enthusiastically and heroically set about to form an organization to put the plan into immediate execution. They, however, increased the amount to be raised to two millions of dollars instead of one million as at first suggested.
Hundreds of workers went out to call upon our citizens and they received very generous responses, but when only a day remained in which to complete the amount, there yet remained over $403,000.00 to be raised.Mr. Patterson sent out over 500 invitations to citizens to come to the NCR Schoolhouse at Sunday afternoon for the final effort to complete the amount.
A great crowd assembled there and bands enlivened the meeting with stirring music, while Mr. Patterson inspired the great throng by his own enlivening enthusiasm, by flood pictures on the screen, and by his thrilling appeal to those present to “DOUBLE YOUR SUBSCRIPTIONS.”Colonel Deeds followed with the story of the plans of the Citizens’ Committee and the Flood Prevention Committee.Arthur E. Morgan, who had been called to Dayton from Memphis, Tennessee, declared in a short address that “the fundamental principle here is the spirit of Dayton,” and further gave his word that the physical condition of the valley was such that the prevention of floods was an engineering feat that could be accomplished provided the moral and financial backing of the people of Dayton were given.Amid the tremendous applause that met this announcement, Mr. Patterson came to the front and wrote upon a chart, “It looks as if we could make it,” then upon another chart he wrote the “Today” with a question mark after the word.
The group uproariously accepted the challenge, and already a number were on their feet to announce their desires to double their subscriptions.With their hearts full but the purses nearly empty, they were inspired to forget their immediate distress, their own heavy losses, and respond in a way never before witnessed in our community.There were not only doublers, but treblers, quadruplers, and quintuplers, as they called themselves, many of them standing on their chairs and shouting to be recognized and recorded.
Only their love for Dayton, their pride of citizenship, their loyalty to the traditions and the worth of their community, now dearer to them than ever before in its pitifully stricken condition could impel them to such sacrifice and to such benevolent motives.But the goal was still far from being reached.At a dramatic moment, Mrs. Carnell announced that the National Cash Register Company was ready to double its original subscription of $250,000.00 and—that put it over.Then pandemonium reigned, and everyone seemed to sense the great fact that a new day was dawning for Dayton.At 8:30 that evening, after five hours in the strenuous meeting, the great crowd formed in parade fashion behind the band, Mr. Patterson and Mrs. Carnell heading the procession, and we all marched victoriously up Main Street to the corner of Third Street, hundreds of Roman candles and plenty of red fire enlivening the occasion.
When we reached the Old Court House lawn, where a huge replica of a Cash Register indicated the grand total of $2,150,000.00, then from the throats of the tens of thousands of our people gathered in the streets that night there went up such a roar of jubilation and enthusiastic approval as could leave not doubt of the ultimate consummation of the great project, and the touching slogan of the campaign, displayed on a huge banner mounted across the upper front of the classic old structure, “REMEMBER THE PROMISE YOU MADE IN THE ATTIC” seemed to have found its way into the hears of our people to the end that a great and good work was already well begun.
The $2 million was but the start of a project that led to the building of five dams—located in Englewood, Germantown, Huffman, Lockington, and Taylorsville—and the beginning of the Miami Conservancy District.The citizens of Dayton did remember the promises they had made, and the city has benefited ever since from their generosity.
In 2001, Dayton’s citizens welcomed a new park and recreation area along Monument Avenue fittingly named Riverscape.Among sculptures of local inventions, an ice skating rink, and restaurants stands a marker showing how high the water rose during that terrible time in 1913.
Daytonians once again gather at the river, only now it is to enjoy its beauty, not to watch in fear.