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Dayton, Ohio - An Intimate History
Chapter Twenty





There was a time when Dayton citizens were justly sensitive about mentioning the flood of 1913, as sensitive as Californians are in connection with their great historical disaster – and for similar reasons. Now, for dissimilar reasons, they are willing to tell you all they know. For, while engineering science has formulated no plan to escape earthquakes, it has to prevent floods. Through the Miami Conservancy plan the valley is forever secure from the horrible cataclysm which overwhelmed it in the spring of 1913. Everybody is safe, and therefore everybody can afford to be frank.

A word as to the topography of Dayton will be necessary in order to understand what happened to us on the night of  March 24 and the morning of the 25th. The city lies on low ground surrounded by a sickle which is the Miami River. From the time the latter touches the northern confines of the older part of the town until it tangents off at the southern side it describes a perfect curve, literally surrounding Dayton with water. Just before it reaches the city its current is augmented by the volume of two more streams, Stillwater River and Mad River, which, though inconsiderable in themselves, when added to the channel of the large river do increase its potency. These streams, together with Wolf Creek coming in from the west farther down, have a drainage area above Dayton of 2,600 square miles. The destruction of former forests, the tilling of swamp lands and other improvements are all natural flood producers. When one of the great storms comes that periodically afflict our beautiful valley there is an insufficient run-off for the water at the rate at which it was precipitated. To those who can  put two and two together no other explanations are needed. The storm came and it lasted. For four days the rain came down and the streams of the valley, fed by the steady downpour, rapidly rose and poured over the levees. By all accounts it came suddenly but doubtless it was steadily gaining while people were asleep in their beds. Tuesday morning the 25th, those earliest to appear found water in the streets, the gutters running full as they always did when the river came up. Householders gauged the height of their yards above the street and concluded they were safe. Only one man in Dayton knew, as early as daylight, what was going to happen; John H. Patterson, who from the roof of his factory, the National Cash Register works, saw the valley landscape and knew what was coming. What he did is told in another place. What other people did makes many an interesting story. Men went to market and never got home, being marooned in any business office they could reach. Some housekeepers, with a mind for possibilities, laid in a supply of firewood and drinking waters. Others said: “The Miami River has never come into my house and it never will,” since when they have acquired more knowledge of that temperamental stream.

When at last the surging waters reached the top of the levees and began to over-run they came with a rush. From the eastern limits of town appeared a yellow curling wave from six to ten feet high, and meeting a similar wave coming from the north swept over Dayton with awful suddenness and awful devastation. It covered the street car tracks and then private lawns, bursting with a roar through furnace registers and filling lower stories of homes with a filthy soup that touched the chandeliers. Lovely parlors with inherited generations of mahogany, books, and carpets were immersed before the owners could lay a preventing hand. Families raced upstairs and watched with fascinated concentration the rise of the water pouring through the streets where it at last attained a depth of twelve feet. All city noises were hushed; no cars moved, nothing was seen or heard but the steady rise of the water and the roar of the current as it swept around corners or through the inside of houses. Happy those whose homes were high enough to keep the flood in the lower story! Thousands of people were marooned for three days and nights in the attics or on the roofs of their homes whither they had cut their way with a hatchet.

It was a time when the essential nobility of human nature – or its opposite – comes to the surface. Some varlets looted or asked big prices for country produce. Others hunted out boats, stayed in them until they were soaked to the skin and worn out in order that suffering people should be taken to homes where they could be cared for. Then Red Cross supplies came and the mariners in skiffs distributed canned milk, baked beans, bread, tinned soups and warm blankets wherever they were needed.

When the water receded and people could walk about in the streets, what a strange and transformed Dayton they saw. Wreckage piled almost to the roofs of the houses, overturned street cars, grand pianos, dead horses, waste lumber, asphalt pavement rolled into huge bales like a carpet; on every side ruin, waste, destruction, unspeakable filth and inconceivable property loss. Four hundred lives snuffed out and a hundred million dollars worth of land and buildings destroyed.

Did the citizens wring their hands and assume sackcloth and ashes? Not the least in the world. They broke up furniture to make fires in the grate, assembled what eatables the flood had spared and shared them with next-door neighbors; they went from door to door calling on citizens  to form relief stations in the ward schoolhouses. Private cars in the suburbs collected bread, coffee, bedding and blankets and took them to the stations. Fires were made, beds set up, pots filled with coffee or with potatoes to boil – ten to twelve hours a day they worked with faces so dirty that near friends failed to recognize each other and at the end fed themselves with a chip from a can of cold baked beans and went to whatever bed they could find, thinking “Never, never again, this sort of thing for Dayton!”

After the militia appeared and martial law was declared, things went better. With great determination the citizens accepted both their individual and community losses, cleaned up the wreckage and reestablished their businesses. The militia patrolled the streets and enforced order. Every able-bodied man was put to work. Food was distributed and tents supplied for the homeless. Railroads and telegraph lines wrecked by the rush of water were rebuilt and communication restored – the last an inestimable blessing to the out-of-town Daytonians awaiting in other cities the news of their families.

All in all the restoration period proved as good a story, though less picturesque, than the flood itself. People were hardly dried out than they began to make good “the promises made in the attic.” Here was Dayton, beautiful, powerful, our fathers’ home and ours; should it be periodically threatened with the horrors we had just been through? Somehow, some way, some time, it must be prevented. It would take money, then engineers, to solve an apparently unsolvable problem; it would take agriculturists and soil experts, architects and legislators and lawyers and enough official paper, it was estimated, to cover the continent from here to California.

First they raised a fund to enable engineers to study the problem as a whole, that is all up and down the valley, for there was no idea of wasting time on a piecemeal job. Well, they went to it and while they were studying plans and problems the citizens were raising money. A giant cash register on the courthouse corner showed each day’s progress. It clicked around until the result showed that twenty-three individuals had contributed two million dollars. There was an indirect advantage in that it gave people something to cheer about, which up to that time they had little reason for doing. Housekeepers with ruined carpets and books, cherished family treasures swept Cincinnatiwards, merchants with attractive and expensive stocks scooped out and spread in the mud, churches with organs, vestments, books and brasses destroyed, tried to minimize their sorrow when they walked past the courthouse and saw the mounting thousands rise.

The committee on flood protection was augmented by citizens from  other counties, the personnel of which constituted the Miami Conservancy District and embraced portions of nine counties, Montgomery, Shelby, Miami, Clark, Greene, Warren, Preble, Butler, and Hamilton. The first definite act of the committee was to employ the Morgan Engineering Company of Memphis and to put them in entire control of the job. It then developed that not a spade-full of dirt, not even a blue print could be executed for the reason that there was no enabling law to fit the case. Cities could do things but not a lot of cities and counties cooperatively. Consequently the Conservancy Act of Ohio was prepared, chiefly by John A. McMahon and O. B. Brown and passed by the Ohio Legislature February 18, 1914. The day after the signing of this act by Governor Cox a petition was filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County asking for the establishment of the Miami Conservancy District. Then followed a legal battle on the constitutionality of the law and it was not until June 28, 1915, almost two years after the flood, that the district was established by the court and the directors selected.

The plan decided upon was what is known as the retarding basin plan, which is this: At a certain place in the channel of each river a dam is built so solid that it seems just another long hill connecting at right angles the hills that make the river valley. This dam, in time of freshet, lets only enough water through to fill the normal channel of the river – all that can safely be accommodated between its banks. The rest is held back, “retarded” in a lake above the dam and, as the crest of the flood passes, it slowly takes its way down the valley, endangering nothing on the way. In addition to this there were to be other safeguards, such as deepening and straightening the channel, repairing and raising the levees, but the preliminaries to them all were to appraise the farms lying within the conservancy district and purchase them outright. This, as may be imagined, was a long and sometimes painful job. Homes that had sheltered several generations of families had to be surveyed, appraised and taken possession of. In one case the whole village of Fairfield, up Mad River, had to be moved bodily to higher ground. On November 25, 1916, the official plan was approved by the court; the appraisal roll was filed May 9, 1917; on September 13 they advertised the construction work; on December 3 they sold the first installment of bonds amounting to $15,000,000. All of this time the general public, ignorant, as the general public always is in technical matters, had been screaming for accomplishment. “Five years” they bellowed, “and no dirt flying yet”! Now, if they have patience to read part 2 of the “Technical Reports of the Miami Flood Control Project,” they might gain some small idea of the multi-multitudinous arrangements, plans, surveys, sales, forms and specifications, drawings, court decisions, which had to be gotten over with before the first spadeful of dirt was excavated.

So, therefore, the equipment was purchased and the actual construction period began on January 1, 1918. A flood forty per cent greater than that of 1913 was decided upon as the maximum to be taken care of by the flood prevention works. Never since the dams were built has there been than much increase over the flood of 1913 but as much as then went down has been experienced several times with not the slightest jeopardy to the banks, channel or abutting property. The rains have come, the lakes have filled up, eighty feet deep on the upper side of Englewood dam, but the outlets have calmly accepted it, passed it slowly down the valley and Dayton has thought nothing about it. Storage is provided for a total of 847,000 acre feet of water under maximum flooding conditions. Part seven of the “Technical Reports,” “Hydraulics of the Miami Flood Control Project,” gives a presentation of the flood control plans and of the method of working out their application. Four railroad lines and several telegraph and telephone lines occupied rights of way in the basin area. In the case of the railway lines the rights of way were within the areas in which the dams were built. These public utilities are now relocated on higher ground wholly or partially out of reach of the backwater from the retarding basins. The actual work as it faced the committee on January 1, 1918, consisted of the construction of five dams, at Germantown in Twin Creek, protecting Middletown and Hamilton; Englewood on Stillwater; Taylorsville on the Miami; and Huffman on Mad River, all just above Dayton and protecting it and the towns below. Then the quantities of material involved were large – for public service relocations, 2,500,000 cubic yards excavation, 30,000 cubic yards concrete, 55 miles railroad tracks. This only, as it were, to get ready for the real work, which  was flood prevention work. For this 8,200,000 cubic yards embankment in dams, 2,550,000 cubic yards embankment in levees, 5,330,000 cubic yards excavation in river channels, 162,500 cubic yards concrete in outlet works at dams, 89,000 cubic yards in walls and levee revetment. The concrete, if put into a road, would make a sixteen-foot highway from Cincinnati to Toledo. The earth removed, if put into ordinary two-horse dirt wagons drawn by teams spared far enough apart to allow the teams to walk, would fill a string of wagons long enough to go round the earth six times. To move such an outfit would take almost twice the number of horses and mules existing in the United States. And the dunderheaded public, of which the writer was a part, thought it ought to be done in a hurry!

The organization of men to do the job was needed, and not only men to do the actual digging, but accountants, storekeepers, cooks, buyers, warehouse men, chauffeurs, skilled mechanics on repair work, and many others. The district early adopted a definite policy which guaranteed fair treatment, because of which the construction force stuck loyally to the job in spite of the war and the attraction of easy jobs at big pay that existed on every hand. The maximum number employed at any one time was 2,000; the minimum 750.

The equipment for the job called for 29 locomotives, 21 drag-lines, 200 cars, 63 automobiles, many miles of railroad track, 100 pumps, over 100 transformers, 73 miles of transmission lines. The men had to have a place to live, so five little villages were built to accommodate them and their families; 230 houses, 200 sheds, 5 mess halls, 5 stores, with running water and baths in dwellings, and bunk houses. As to supplies, the widely diversified construction required an amazing variety of articles. Millions of small tools, 70,000 tons of coal, 45,000 barrels of cement, 10,000,000 feet of lumber and 400,000 gallons of gasoline filled 7,800 car-loads and several less than car-load lots which if combined would make a solid string of cars reaching from Dayton to Cincinnati. The purchasing, distributing and accounting of these articles was a job of no mean size. Railroad sidings on which to receive and unload freight, houses for sheltering the men, transmission lines over which to transport electrical energy and erecting of equipment were undertaken first. As the progress on the dams depended upon the promptness with which the streams were diverted through the permanent conduits, these structures were started at the earliest possible moment. Of the five dams, that at Englewood was the largest, being 4,700 feet long (about nine-tenths of a mile), 415 feet thick at the base and requiring a volume of 3,600,000 cubic yards of earthwork moved.

The spillways were a vexing question since they were planned to be used only when a volume of water should come down the channel forty per cent bigger than in 1913 and it is quite plain we never will have a flood of that size. But it was decided that the dams could not contain the absolute element of safety which was promised the people of this valley unless these safety valves were included in the design. There they stand, solid concrete assurances that should a floor come which, like Noah’s, would cover all the face of the earth, the conservancy dams would still function. As highways cross the valleys on top of the dams, the spillways are all spanned by substantial concrete bridges strong enough to allow two twenty-ton trucks to pass each other.

The conduit tunnels which take up the ordinary overflow are ingeniously constructed. During flood stages, with the retarding basin above the dam nearly full, the water emerges from the conduit tunnels with high velocity. To break up this velocity a carefully designed structure built to utilize the hydraulic jump is placed at the lower end of the conduits. This hydraulic jump uses up energy when the water lifts itself in the standing wave, and the attendant pools also use up energy when the water swirls about within them. The water leaves the lower end of the structure quietly, with low velocity, and thus is eliminated one of the gravest dangers of a flood, the wearing away of the river bank on the outside of a curve.

The hydraulic excavation and hydraulic fill methods were used in construction. In excavating, the materials brought up were those necessary for the after construction. At the Lockington dam gravel suitable for concrete mixing was found in uncovering the rock foundation, to furnish all the material needed. The hydraulic fill method owes its origin to placer mining in the West where it was at first developed. The natural borrow pit materials are thoroughly broken up by water and carried by moving water, either under pressure in pipes or in open sluices, built on a steep grade so as to give the stream of water a high velocity, to the outside edges of the embankment under construction, where the water, with its burden of material, is dumped on the outside edge. The water, released from pressure, flows toward the center of the dam, over the sloping banks, by gravity. The rock drops out first, as the velocity of the stream decreases, then the coarse gravel, then the sand, until when the central portion of the core is reached, only the fine material is being carried along and deposited. This fine material is semi-liquid mud just below the water-line of the pool but at greater depths it soon loses all the characteristics of a fluid and becomes a dense solid mass through which water will not percolate. It is this material, when spread thickly over household possessions and not immediately removed makes later cleaning so impossible. Added to the refuse of factories and cesspools, slaughter houses and paint works, it forms a concrete which requires nothing less than a pick to get out. When soft  it entered the tiniest apertures in woodwork and furniture and even now, nearly twenty years after the flood, small particles of it will drop out of table legs and drawers in solid chunks to make despairing housekeepers ask “Will we never get rid of that flood mud?”

Channel improvement being a part of flood prevention, much work went into that at all the towns up and down the valley. The removal of sand bars, impeding trees and islands, the lengthening of bridges, the straightening of the bed of the river, the raising of the top of the levees and the revetment of banks were some of the improvements carried out. On one place the entire removal of a factory on each side of the river was accomplished to get the necessary width of channel. Every town had its special problem. Water and gas mains had to be lowered, bridges raised, two new bridges built, many railroad tracks shifted. The handling, the housing and feeding of the workers, the endless experiments to speed up and cheapen the work, the social significance of this great cooperative enterprise, the schools provided for the children in the camps are all complete stories in themselves and would make a larger book than the present one. For the interesting details the reader is referred to the “Conservancy Bulletins” which may be had at the Conservancy Building on Monument Avenue, with all the other material available for engineers the world over who come to Dayton to find out about flood prevention. In this building is carefully preserved the cost, down to the last penny, every conceivable item of preparation, whether legal or constructive, every problem and how it was solved – in fact it is happily not the flood which put us on the map of the world but our success in the prevention of floods.

For  they have been prevented, and Dayton is as safe from loss by water as if she were situated in the middle of the Sahara Desert. On April 11, 1922, a severe storm poured its contents into the valley, all in one day and well on into the night. In some places an inch and a half fell in less than two hours. The total rainfall for twenty-four hours was three and one-half inches and this on saturated ground. Under the old conditions the danger mark in Dayton would have been eighteen feet at Main Street bridge. Actually, however, it only marked nine feet and six inches. Only thirty-two percent of the channel capacity was used and only four per cent of the basin storage capacity utilized. Everything worked out according to plan. The water was carried through the improved river channels in the cities smoothly and swiftly; the familiar turbulent appearance in former floods being entirely absent. At all of the dams the hydraulic jump worked just as it was intended to and only a few hundred feet below each of the outlets the water was flowing smoothly with no intention of scooping out soft banks. Practically no damage was done to the property in the valley or to the works of the conservancy district. On June 8, 1924, a near-cloudburst caused a rainfall of over four and one-half inches over the upper part of the Stillwater water shed. The result was a rapid rise of Stillwater River and only the moderate stage of thirteen feet at Dayton. Englewood dam held back a volume of water which made a temporary lake covering 2,300 acres. No scraping off of rich loam from fields, no covering of other fields with gravel, no filling up of cellars in the towns, no tearing away of bridges and farm buildings to send them to Cincinnati on the crest of the flood. No wastage of stocks in stores nor crops in the barns, no ruining of carpets and household treasures, in fact nothing to worry about and nothing to regret. Thus have the forces of nature been conquered.

Of course we have our conservancy taxes to pay and will until we die. Some people object to doing this, which forces us to reflect that the conservancy plan lacked just one provision – a method of bringing to his senses a man who begrudges the outlay. It should provide placing him for a certain number of days without sanitary arrangements, drinking water or food, for keeping a shovel in his hand while he removed several tons of offensive muck from the rooms of his house, meanwhile going without a shave or a bath. After such probation as this, wings wouldn’t be quick enough to get him to the assessor’s office.

As it is, the flood will always remain the Odyssey of Dayton. “Haec olim meminisse juvabit” applies as much to those lugubrious days as it does to the old-fashioned amusements of which some people are so fond of telling. For in those four days Daytonians LIVED as they had never lived before. No volume of adventure could equal it. You may hear it when, on an evening before the fire or on a summer evening on a porch, even at this day, people happen to mention the flood. The very word opens the floodgates of narrative. No one’s personal experience is like any other. Those Daytonians who were out of the city when it happened feel as if they have lived in vain. For  they cannot contribute. They hear, among other things, how an elderly maiden lady, full sixty years behind the ordinary  fence-climbing age, crawled on a six-inch plank resting one end on her bathroom window sill, the other on that of her next-door neighbor, above a raging torrent of water ten feet below her and got there in safety. Or how a family just beginning to set the breakfast table were surprised and fled to the upper story having only placed the butter-balls on ten individual plates. Three  days after they arrived to view the scene. The dining table had risen on the flood until it touched the ceiling, when it slowly lowered itself, leaving ten butter-balls stuck tight out of the water line. Or of the distracted mother who dropped her six-months old twins out of a skiff and found them again at the landing place where the next skiff that came along had rescued and placed them. How the younger son of a family of refugees and found a hammer and tacks and proceeded to drive them into the ancestral mahogany of his temporary hostess. Of millionaires standing in line to receive whatever a generous government could dole out to them and consuming dry bread and bologna sausage with relish. How a  train load of three hundred transient passengers were marooned in an upper room of the Union Station with nothing to eat but one box of chocolate creams and rainwater. How one man showed a way of escape by walking three squares of aerial telephone cables and thirty people followed. How an aged couple, marooned in a small house only one hundred feet from dry land and on account of the swift current every boat overturned before it could reach them, were finally rescued by backing a freight train until the last car touched the house. Three minutes after they had climbed up a ladder to safety the house  bulged up on its foundations and left for the south. How complete show cases filled with jewelry crashed through the windows of Newsalt’s store and emptied themselves in the mud of the street. How an old couple faint from cold and hunger, were carried out of their home on West Third Street, past a dead horse, a grand piano and a street car, all stranded on their front steps. How fifteen hundred pianos were hauled to the river bank, kerosene poured over them and burned. How hundreds of poor horses swam and swam and begged with their eyes that people they saw at windows would help them and finally sank to the bottom. How the National Cash Register plant served two thousand seven hundred and fifty meals every day to refugees who lay thick upon the floors of the factory. How rescued old people died from exposure and babies were born in those halls and corridors. How sheds were washed away and one deposited on the roof of a small house.

Considered then as a whole, the flood was not an unmixed curse, for it carried with it new moral and spiritual appreciations. When families, having been separated and harassed by anxiety were finally united, they could hear the grand piano breaking the windows of the conservatory with complete equanimity. The wife of his bosom welcomed the husband of her bosom regardless of the fact that he had slept in his clothes on office chairs for four nights. The flood took away from Dayton many precious things but it gave something in return – it illuminated those that were really precious.


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