The Floods of Dayton, Ohio
By Charles F. Sullivan
The first settlers of Dayton arrived here on April 1st, 1796 and including all the men, women and children, numbered just 36 people.
From then on many new faces arrived continually, and some settled here in Dayton, while others went out into the country, while others went to other towns up one of the valleys. In 1810, there were only 383 inhabitants, so it is probable that not over two hundred people were living here in the spring of 1805, when the first flood threatened the existence of the city. There was a natural dry run from the junction of Mad River and the Miami, following what is now Patterson Blvd. to the Fairground, yet when the river was high, it served to carry much of the flood water across the low ground to the river below the city. When Mr. Cooper built his two mills at Foundry and Monument Ave. he first used water from the river and wasted it down this dry run but as it did not give him good power he went up Mad River and brought the water down giving him a good power and then to protect his mills as well as the city he built a levee along the river, to prevent flood loss.
In 1805 the river flooded this ground washing away the levee, and it is reported that there was eight feet of water at Third and Main streets. As there were not many people living here at that time, it is possible that they could have bunched up for those few days in the houses standing upon the highest ground, which was between Main and St. Clair and north of Second, so Dayton was an island during that flood.
In memoirs written by my Father, dated March 1881, he says “This city, within my recollection, has increased ten fold in population and I have seen three floods, that almost destroyed the city, one in 1830, one in 1846 and the last in 1866.” I remember my Father telling me that in the flood of 1846, the levee broke just east of Monument Ave. and Patterson Blvd. And the force of the water was straight down the old canal and that back water did much damage to the merchants in the center of the city.
I can also remember his telling me that in 1866, he was standing upon the levee at the north end of Wilkinson Street and saw the water start over the levee, and then he ran for home, 435 W. Second street, and moved the family out of danger. The writer joined this family just a few days after this flood but strange to say, I do not remember a thing about it. This flood washed much lumber from the factories in the east part of this city as far out as the Barney & Smith Car. Co., east of Keowee street, and this was quite a loss to them.
In my own recollection, there have been two bad floods and a third almost wiping us off of the map. This is an average of a flood every seventeen years and since it has been almost thirty years since the last one, and it is reported that at one rainy season, there was as much water fell as in 1913, and there was no trouble, nor appearance of trouble, we must give the Miami Conservancy the credit for this condition and we feel sure that we are safe from floods for all time to come.
One evening, May 12, 1866, I was at home when a heavy rain began early in the evening and continued up ’til about 11:00 P.M.
A neighboring boy was visiting me and we were in the cellar and on account of the rain, he was unable to go home until the rain stopped when he took off his shoes and stockings and waded home for the street was flooded and water backed up into the yards all along there.
In an hour the water was all gone from our street and we went to bed with no fear of any trouble. Next morning, we learned that there had been a bad flood upon the west side and Mother and I drove over there to see it in the old family carriage. Nearly all houses west of Williams and north of Second to the Pennsylvania Railroad on the west were damaged some and many were completely washed away.
Since Wolf Creek is a short stream, it is quick to rise and also quick to fall, so it went over its banks about 1:00 A.M. and by the time we arrived, 8:00 A.M. it was down to almost normal.
Before that flood, Wolf Creek came under the Pennsylvania railroad just where it does now, turning at Summit street, it went north into the hill which turned it back crossing Broadway, about where it does now, but at that time Broadway had no street or bridge over it.
From there it ran straight to Williams street, where there was an old one-way wooden bridge in front of the present Station B of the Postoffice, and this bridge was swept away. From here the creek turned and went straight to the present mouth, and of course it pointed up the stream of the Miami but now it faces down the Miami.
My guess is that there were a hundred houses damaged or washed away at this time and caused much loss and suffering, but as it was in warm weather and many of these folks had relatives and friends living in other parts of the city, they were able to get help from them.
The city then surveyed the creek and moved it to its present location, thus removing a very great danger. It has given no trouble since then except in 1913, when the Miami was so high that it backed the water up and over the new levee that was built at that time, 1886.
A new steel bridge was built at Williams street over the new channel and was built for the horse and buggy days, and served well for many years, but was replaced by a concrete bridge in 1926.
About 1919 the Miami Conservancy came along and raised the levees and rip-rapped them where it was necessary, changing the mouth to correspond with the natural flow of the water when the river was high, and now we feel safe from floods.
Now we will go to the Miami where it first comes into this city under the B & O bridge north of Leo street, and after coming straight to about the end of Webster street, it formerly turned almost straight south to Leo and then made almost a right angle turn and went back to the Miami at the upper end of Triangle park and then on down in the old channel. The New Troy pike (now called the Dixie highway) crossed it upon a one lane wooden bridge making almost a right angle both entering it and leaving it. In March 1897, the river was high and when it came to the curve near Phillips Bath House, it went over the levee and filled all the space between the Miami and Mad river and west of the B & O tracks with water. This was all back water and not many houses in the district so not much damage was done and when that filled up it ran over the railroad into the more thickly settled part and did considerable damage. The County then got busy and gave to Chas. H. Hoglen the contract through this loop and thus eliminated another sore spot. The levees were raised and strengthened and it was considered safe in North Dayton, and it was until the 1913 flood.
A new steel bridge was placed over the new channel which served well until just a few years ago when a concrete bridge was placed over it. At the same time this was happening, lower Riverdale was receiving a dose of flood. I had lived upon Hydraulic Street (new Floral Avenue,) but we escaped because we had bought on Glenwood where we now live and had moved before this happened. The tail race for the mills had a levee around it to prevent any trouble, but at some time, a hole had been dug into the levee and nearly everybody knew it was there, but thought it harmless. This time the river backed up and started running through it and lower Riverdale was flooded before it could be prevented. The water filled almost every house into the first floor and lots of furniture and household goods were ruined by it. This made lots of work to make these two parts of town habitable again, and it cost the residents much money and effort to repair this damage. This did not interrupt traffic into the upper part of this suburb for it could use Forest Ave. with very little extra travel.
In 1913, I was called by the Postoffice to carry Rural Route #2 going out the Wilmington Pike to White’s Corner then across to the Cincinnati Pike and then back to the office by way of Carramonte, and I started this just six days before the 1913 flood struck us.
During that week it had rained every day and the ground had soaked up all it could hold. Rain fell all day Monday and the river was up quite high and rising. I drove a livery horse that day, so I went direct to the livery stable in the rear of Third and Williams.
Leaving the outfit there, I boarded a street car and at the east end of the bridge we had to ford through over a foot of water for the street was flooded with back water, and I was expecting to be stuck in the middle, but we kept going slowly and finally reached the end of the water. After taking care of my work at the Office, I boarded a north Main car and at the north end of this bridge, we had to ford for over a square. The Postoffice was then located at the S.W. corner of Fifth and Main, where the Fidelity building is now standing, the present Postoffice at Wilkinson and Third was only about half completed.
The next morning I was awakened by the whistle of the Platt Iron Co. in North Dayton, blowing an alarm signal about 4:00 A.M.
I knew at once that that section of the city was going under water so I got up at once for fear of trouble in our suburb, and I might have trouble getting transportation over the river. I went to Main street and found several men there waiting for a street car and we decided none would be coming, the most of us started walking.
To that 5 minute delay I owe much, for if I had gone at once, I would have gone through to the Postoffice, and been caught there for two days and nights, with little heat and almost nothing to eat.
When I did arrive at the Great Miami blvd. there was about three inches of water going down the street and in the dull light of the morning, I could see the water coming over the levee just below the old headgates.
Since there was no water on the sidewalks, I turned west and went to Forest Ave. and at Riverview, I saw water going over the levee and several men trying to get home had to wade through a half foot of water. I went on to the Dayton View Bridge and across it to the east side. Before me was Monument Ave. and Stratford and both of them had two to three feet of water in the low end, I looked up the levee to the east and the water was just at the top of it, then down Robert Blvd. and at First Street I saw water gong east four or five feet high, the full width of the street, and I decided that home was the place for me, for I knew we were safe there. While there, I saw a good sized house going down the river and when it struck the Dayton View Bridge and looking upon the opposite side of the bridge, could not see a trace of it in the river. By this time the sun was up and shining but in a few minutes it was raining hard again. I walked home and reported what I had seen and soon after it was reported that Riverdale was flooded as far out as Warder street. I went to the Stillwater at Ridge Ave. and the water was just covering the wooden floor of the steel bridge and by afternoon it was a couple of feet higher. I then went to Mumma and Main where there was quite a pool getting about three feet deep. I went on down and found the water was up to half way between Vincent and Helena and still raising and we could see a terrible current sweeping across all cross streets.
While I was standing there I saw a large blacksmith’s shop that had been standing for years at the corner of Main and the boulevard, start across Main and down the boulevard, but it probably did not go far as a building because of the trees in that park. Heavy rains fell all day and night and the river continued to rise until 2 A.M. the next morning. Early that morning all city water went out and soon after gas and electricity also went off, leaving us just as in pioneer days. Our boys had built a small furnace in the yard just for their own pleasure and had gathered some wood for it but it was all wet, but we found some that was dry and by the use of this and the fire in the furnace and a grate in the front room, we were able to do the necessary cooking.
Since we had coal in the cellar and a grate in the front room, it gave us light and heat in the first floor but we helped out with candles and kerosene lamps as best we could. There was a neighbor that had a good pump and when he came home, he would go along calling out, “water” and he did a big business for several weeks, until we were sure that the city water was safe for domestic use.
After dark, I went up the hill to Ridge and Main and looked over the city, and it was a sorry sight, several fires were raging in the business part of the city, and since water covered all the streets and there was a terrible current, nothing could be done to save them, and so they burned to the waters edge. Frequently I would hear an explosion and a high flame from it would tell me where the sound started, and it was beautiful but since it was so terrible we could not appreciate it, fearing it might get closer to our own neighborhood. These explosions were tanks of Naptha, turpentine, oil or other inflamable stuff that got too hot and exploded its container. From there I could see that none of the fires were in Riverdale, and for that I was very thankful, for we had many friends and relatives scattered through lower Riverdale. We wondered about them but as the current was so swift it was impossible to hear or see them, for a boat would have been carried down stream with the boatman. When I got home I found some friends from McOwen Street there, the water had gotten into their cellar and put out the fire in their furnace, and they brought along some supplies and stayed with us over that night, and the next day and night before they thought it safe to go back to their home.
When the railroad bridge across the Miami, west of the depot was being placed there a few years before, there was some discussion between the railroad and the city and they were required to place it two feet higher than planned. It was a girder bridge and probably eight feet high and held the water back greatly.
When the water began to threaten the bridge, the railroad placed a double line of loaded coal cars clear across the bridge, to prevent its being washed off of its foundation into the river, and these cars also acted as a dam to hold the water back and make it find another route through the city. This being the case, what would be more natural than that the water would take a short line between the joining of the Miami and Mad rivers to the channel west of the Fairgrounds.
This made a terrible current through the city doing damage into the millions and probably many lives. This bridge held together until 2:00 A.M. the next morning when three spans were washed into the river with the coal and cars upon it, and immediately the water in the city began to fall and by daylight had fallen three feet, proving that the bridge had been the cause of much of the flood damage.
The next morning I went down in Riverdale to see what, if anything, could be done to relieve the sufferers and by a little detouring, landed at the Riverdale M.E. Church on Warder Street and found boats were bringing people there, and a fire in a stove warmed them up and coffee was served them there and from there they were sent to the Van Cleve School. This building was turned into a relief station and the people were kept there until other plans could be arranged for them. Supplies were brought here and served to all, for all were in need, even those with homes out of the flood, could get nothing for very few stores were outside the flood and those were quickly sold out.
While we lived outside of the flooded district, and there was one grocery not flooded close to us, he was soon sold out and it was necessary for us to get our supplies from the relief station just like every one else, and even they had but little of a very few things, but we were able to exist for those few days. All available boats were in constant use in bringing out those that had a place to go and feeding those who were wanting to stay in their homes.
Another first aid station was established at the Forest Ave. Presbyterian Church, to care for those in the lower end of Riverdale, and from here they were forwarded to the Longfellow School, corner of Superior and Salem Aves.
We had relatives living in a house without an attic and when the water was getting ready to come into the second floor of their house they managed to get a plank across to a window of the house next door and from there up into their attic where they spent the night.
Can you imagine several women, one over the age of 60 years, crawling across that plank, about five feet from window to window and the water just a couple of feet below them, and the current very strong and both houses shaking with the weight of the water against them.
Then about a dozen of them staying in the attic all night with just one candle and after it had burned out, just darkness, and a few crackers to eat, and rain water to drink for it was raining and snowing all day and night. By daylight the water had gone down several feet and they were able to come down stairs but every thing was wet and full of mud. Some places where they did not have an attic, they broke a hole to the roof and set there all night taking the rain and snow and a very strong wind blowing all the time. Sitting there he could see the fires burning over in the city and knowing that no help could be had for those fires or themselves, it was very discouraging to all. The old saying “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” was very applicable to all at this time.
Thursday morning I was determined to try to get to the Postoffice, but since I was only a substitute, I did not have a uniform for I knew that I would have to have something to identify myself, so I borrowed the mail cap of David Hoffman whose route I was carrying during his sickness and headed for town. I met a friend, Charles Clark, who was a telephone lineman going back to work and we went to the fire house at Forest and Main where we received a pass to go over the river. We then went down Forest Ave. to the Dayton View Bridge and at the east end of it we met a guard who allowed us to go after seeing our passes. By this time our party consisted of six men and seeing no way to cross the still water upon either Monument or Stratford Aves., we went south on the boulevard passing First, Second, Third with no better chances to cross. At Sycamore, we found a boat that was not in use and we all got in and rowed to almost Perry Street and they all got out while I was to return the boat. On the return trip a man hailed me to take him out which I did and I made several trips doing this when I met a fellow who said I had his boat, so I asked him to take me to Perry Street and he could have his boat, which was done.
I then went to the Postoffice and as everything down stairs was locked up, I went up to the Third floor and there I found the Postmaster, Forest May, who had been there since Tuesday morning and he said that it was his duty to stay there until some one from away from Dayton was sent to relieve him. He had a little fire in a grate, and was drying his stockings as best he could. He said that they had gotten a line across Fifth Street and what eats they had had come over that line probably from Elder’s store, and that there had been a half dozen men who had been marooned with him but that they had gone home that morning.
A horse had come to the door of the postoffice and they had gotten him into the first floor of the building. Then when the water was in the lobby, they got him upstairs until Thursday morning when they got him down and turned him free to forage as best he could.
I offered to stay at the Post office and relieve Mr. May in any way I could but he said that it would be unnecessary for he would be held personally responsible for it, so he must be on hand when they came to see what the damage amounted to. He told me to come back on Monday prepared to work, which I did. Monday I helped to clean up the mud and trash and then was told to prepare to go on the route Tuesday.
I went to the livery barn and found that I could get a horse, so I took the route books, which I had left in the mail wagon and the wagon was covered with water during the flood, home with me and dried them as best I could but found them almost useless.
Tuesday I started upon the route with about 40 letters to deliver and these were rescued from the flood and the addresses were none too plain, but I made the whole route, 26 miles, without any trouble for it was all over high ground, all of the way. Each day brought more and more mail until it got back to normal. Both the Herald and News had their presses under water and could not issue any papers for some time and that made for a light mail. The Herald was the first to get into operation because their presses were upon the first floor, while the News were in the basement of their office.
It was necessary for them to get the fire department to pump the water out of the basement before they could begin work in preparing them for work. However, they borrowed a press from Columbus and set it up on Fourth Street and built a temporary shed over it and printed many issues of the news before their own press was ready for use. After they did not need it, it was torn down and sent back to Columbus. The first traction able to run was the Covington & Piqua and they were only able to come to the Monument and returned upon the same track, for street cars were not able to run for many days. During this time, they carried city passengers and standing room was at a premium, and several times I rode to the Monument with one foot upon the step and both hands holding to one handle and was glad to get that good service.
In a few days we had all our public service, even electricity during the night, but it was off during the day to allow repairs to poles and lines that were needing attention and many did and if there was no power upon them better work and quicker service could be had.
When I left the Postmaster, I walked north on Main Street to Third in the very middle of the street, for soldiers were standing along the sidewalks with their guns in hand, and I did not care for any argument with them. Almost all the plate glass was out of the windows and doors in the entire down-town section of the city and it looked like it could never be returned to its former condition. At Fourth and Main in the Davies Building, there had been a fine jewelry store with fine show cases and counters, owned by A. Newsalt, and he had a large stock of valuable ware, and since this was a corner room, the water had a fine sweep through the store and everything was washed out, and probably little of it was ever found, but mud was left in its place.
I would like to have gotten a nearer view of these down town stores, but I thought I had better not attempt it for discretion was the better part of valor. So I stayed in the middle of the street and used my eyes as much as possible.
Turning east on Third, the first square was just about in the same condition as Main, but when I passed Jefferson, it was a different picture. All buildings on the south side were burned to about six feet of the ground, the water’s edge and only a few of the walls were standing, clear back to the alley between Third and Fourth Streets, except just one store-room about the middle of the square, which had a fire wall upon each side running above the roof and the ruins were smoking and a terrible sight. On the north side, the old Park Presbyterian (Now Central) church was down and the ruins were smoking terribly, and a couple of the store rooms were burned out, but the balance were not burned. At the Public Library, all books and papers in the basement were lost and upstairs only a few in the lower shelves were lost by water, not fire.
Retracing my steps back to Ludlow Street and turned south there and in front of the Arcade entrance was a large stone from the wall around the Old Courthouse, which is used to hold a vase of flowers during the summer time. I am sure that this stone weighed nearly a ton and to wash it to where I saw it seems just impossible, but there it was, right in the street car tracks. I could see one of the large City Railway cars lying upon its side in front of the YWCA, one end in the gutter and the other on the tracks in the middle of the street.
On Ludlow Street I saw many horses that had drowned and the water had washed them to a quiet corner and left them there. Hundreds of horses died in just this way, swimming as best they could, and not knowing where to go for safety.
Going west through the Union Depot, I never saw it so quiet, not an engine with steam up in sight, and I was the only moving object.
Below Perry Street and close to the river was a Pennsylvania train with steam up and as close to the river as possible, filled with passengers. Whether they were able to keep up steam during the highest of the water, I do not know, but they were able to keep the passengers comfortable when I saw them, and the dining car seemed to be doing a big business at that time. I think this train had been there since Tuesday morning about 8:00 A. M. about 48 hours and I cannot tell how much longer they were there. The bridge was out ahead of them and could not go back without orders and since the wires were down no orders could be issued. Going north along the levee to Fifth Street, the west end of the bridge was gone but one span at the east was still there and hanging up high by his hind foot was a beautiful white horse, that had gotten tangled in the bridge and left there by the water. From there I went home without anything unusual to see.
At the Steele High School, most of the teachers were on hand and many of the scholars, when the water began pouring south on Main and then it was impossible to leave until Thursday morning.
The Lion was standing just where it does now near the corner, and made a whirlpool in the water and it washed a hole in the ground about ten feet deep, undermining the Lion and the round tower of the School extending out that way and when the water was its highest about 2:A.M. the next morning, it crashed into the water making a terrible creak and crash. Can you imagine the feelings of the inmates of that building, for there were no lights and they would be fearful to examine for a new part might crash at any time.
John Patterson was in his office early and could see from there just what was happening and put all the men he had to making rescue boats which were distributed free for this work, and as quickly as possible. He also threw his factory open for the use of the flood sufferers, feeding and sleeping them as long as it was necessary before they were able to get back into their own homes.
A fire broke out near the corner of Main and Vine and the people of that vicinity became panicky, and Mr. Patterson seeing the situation gathered up all the flat cars around his plant, and ran them down on the Traction rails, with some plank by which they could get from the houses to the cars and upon them to dry land.
Few steel bridges were able to stand this flood, but all re-enforced concrete bridges were just as good after the flood as ever, although they were nearly all completely covered by water with a heavy current so the pressure must have been a terrible strain upon them.
At the corner of Main and First was a piano sales room and when the water got into it the pianos began floating around and soon bumped out the windows and went down the street in quite a procession. Rev. Wilson at that time was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church (now the First Reformed) at the corner of Second and Ludlow and lived in the parsonage in the rear of the church upon Ludlow Street. Looking out of his window he saw several pianos in his yard, floating around. He said afterwards that he had always wanted a fine piano for his home and could never afford one, yet here were several right in his yard and he was unable to get a one of them, but instead was looking at them being ruined and he was unable to prevent it.
Although the property loss was great, it came in the early morning so that the people were able to get away with very little loss of life.
One family living up in Ome Gardens and seeing the river very high hitched up their horses and wagon and started for town for safety, and were lost, while if they had turned north they would have been on high ground and would have been safe. Had he even kept his family at home, he would have been safe, for the water surrounded his house but did not get above the cellar.
Many of the merchants, when they came back to their stores, and found their goods filled with water and mud, threw it out into the street, together with the fixtures and as fast as possible the City came along and hauled it all to the dump. This seemed a terrible waste of goods, yet when you count the cost of cleaning it up, and even then it would not be as good as new, that was the quickest and best way.
The only railroad that was able to keep up service during this time was the C.L. & N. running past the N. C. R. to Lebanon and Cincinnati. They hauled all the supplies for several days, unloading them at their depot just east of Brown on Caldwell Street.
In a couple of days, the Pennsylvania from the east was able to run their trains as far as E. Fifth Street crossing and handled the mail through Station A just a few doors from the railroad.
The railroads quickly got a pile driver and built a trestle across the river and then trains began running in all directions.
My Sister Lucy, who is a missionary in India, wrote to her Sister Carolyn living here in Dayton, that she had seen it in the papers that Dayton had been flooded, and she knew that Carolyn and Will were safe but that she did pity us for we lived near the Stillwater River.
Will lived upon Robert Boulevard and Carolyn on W. Fourth and both of them were in the flooded belt. While we lived near Stillwater we were high and dry, for the river would have had to rise twenty feet higher to get into our cellar.
Like everybody, we had to get our supplies from Van Cleve School but as one of our roomers was a clerk there, we received our supplies for our family and the temporary roomers without any trouble.
There was a grocery upon Main Street about a square away, but he was soon sold out and could not get additional supplies for several days, so our only way was through the Van Cleve relief station.
In order to give you an idea how much of Dayton was flooded, will say that almost all of North Dayton was flooded except a few streets adjacent to Alaska Street. Third Street from Dutoit almost to Summit was covered. Main Street from half way between Helena and Vincent to Apple Street was covered, and Wolf Creek, not being able to empty into the Miami, went over the levee and covered much of the west side and Edgemont to the Miami below Broadway.
During the day about the only thing that could be seen of the Main and Third bridges was the center span but as the river rose until about 2:00 A.M. these spans were probably covered.
The Barney and Smith Car Company had a dozen fine dining cars all ready to go, finished in every detail, but waiting for some table ware, before shipping them. The flood came and they were submerged and when the water went down they were found in a bad condition.
Much of the fine wood finish was ruined and had to be removed and replaced with new, and this was a great financial blow to the company from which they never recovered.
As soon as the water went down, there was a demand for labor of all kinds and every man was busy until late in the fall and the marks of the flood soon disappeared and material of all kinds was in great demand for the remodeling the homes. I was on duty at the Postoffice until June 1st and then I started contracting and was very busy all summer.
In a year’s time all the wreckage was cleaned up and unless your attention was called to it, you would not see any signs of the flood.
The water was hardly down in its channel until Mr. Patterson was out with his organization to collect two million dollars to survey the entire valley and find out what could be done to make Dayton safe from floods. The money was soon subscribed and surveying started and that took a couple of years. Then legislation was made authorizing the Miami Conservancy and Mr. Arthur Morgan was asked to take charge of it and the plan was formed to place the dams above Dayton which have proven so very successful and this was carried to completion in just a few years. These dams have a concrete conduit under them allowing only a certain amount of water to come through them and the excess will be held above the dams until the supply has been reduced to what will go through the conduit. Since this was completed, the river through this city is never high enough to make it interesting to look at. The water all goes through the city but is scattered for several days or weeks if needed, and it never becomes dangerous, for which we are very thankful. We now think we are perfectly safe from floods at all times and since it has been 29 years since it occurred, without a scare, it seems like we are safe.
The Miami Conservancy is still in operation but only does repairs and minor jobs in all the valleys up and down the Miami and its tributaries.
Chas. F. Sullivan