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The Time the Wolf Creek Levee Broke


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, July 16, 1933

The Time the Wolf Creek Levee Broke

by Howard Burba


     The average Daytonian is acquainted with but two floods—the one of Noah’s day of which he has only Biblical knowledge, and the one of 1913 in which, possibly, he personally figured.  He doesn’t know that the flood problem is in truth as old locally as Dayton herself is old, or that a flood actually accounts for the city having been located where it stands today.

     Historians have done a good job of recording events of this kind in the Miami Valley.  They have let nothing of this nature escape them.  In my hand I hold the first history of Dayton ever written—a history published for the first time exactly one hundred years ago.  In it I read that the settlement known as Dayton was removed from up along Mad river to a point on the river now spanned by the Main st. bridge for the good and sufficient reason that the pioneers were “washed out” of the original site.

     Another disastrous inundation came during the early ‘thirties, with a considerable property loss but no loss of life.  Then Dayton forgot about it and dwelled in peace and tranquility so far as the doings of one Jupiter Pluvius were concerned until the year 1886.  And that is the year the old Wolf creek levee broke, “Seely’s Ditch” overflowed, and the first actual steps toward a gigantic flood prevention project were taken.

     The detailed story of what the historian calls the “Dayton flood of 1886” forms a thrilling chapter in the history of a city which counts its thrills on many fingers.  Compared with a later event of a similar nature, the flood of 1913, it hardly measures up as a competitor.  But those who were here in 1886—and they are quite numerous—can testify that from every yardstick by which floods are measured it was “a dandy.”

     “A fierce thunderstorm, accompanied by rain and hail, visited this city last evening,” wrote a reporter for The Dayton Daily Times on Oct. 14, 1886, thus fixing the actual date of the occurence as Wednesday, Oct. 13, or 47 years ago.  “The storm was heralded at an early hour by great flashes of lightning which played about the northwestern sky and constantly sent fiery darts flying across the firmament.  Heavy thunder followed, indicating the approach of the storm. The display drove people homeward.

     “At 8 p.m. the storm clouds diverged over the city.  Sidewalks were quickly deserted by pedestrians and the streets by vehicles.  At 8:20 the rain began, a blinding and continuous fall of water lasting for two hours and greater in volume than ever witnessed by any one now living in this community.  While the storm was at its fiercest a shower of hailstones as large in many instances as hen eggs fell with the rain.  There was not much wind, but thunder and lightning were incessant.  Streets in various parts of the city were covered with water from curb to curb, especially in the district immediately drained by ‘Seely’s Ditch.’  All streets south of Fifth, from Eagle to Wayne were covered, and between Wayne and Bainbridge it was belly deep to street-car horses.  It reached and covered the floors of hundreds of homes.

     “S. Brown and parallel streets suffered when ‘Seely’s Ditch’ overflowed, the water at many points being deep enough to swim a horse.  Persons who rowed over this territory, around Brown, Warren and Park sts., said the water was from 3 to 5 feet deep in the houses, and that nothing but a sheet of water covered the streets, walks and yards.  Water rushed through the Wayne st. market house with an appalling sound.

     “The uptown damage was confined to cellars, business houses on Main from Second to Fourth being the greatest sufferers.  The largest losers were the shoe house of William Arnold & Son, where a $25,000 stock of shoes stored in the basement was practically ruined.  Water poured in so rapidly as to make salvage impossible.  Three feet of water covered the floor of Bosler’s bakery, next door to Arnold’s.  George Krug, groceryman at Market and Main, anticipated a flood and put clerks to work moving goods to upper floors.  J. Abbey & Sons drug store at 34 S. Main suffered a loss of $1000 and heavy damage was done at the Manhattan Clothing House, and at Daniel & Meldrum’s dry goods store next door.

     “By 9 p. m. trains from the south were the last to arrive in Dayton all later ones being stopped by washouts.  The force of the water on Second st. in front of the Eaker block washed away the curbing, causing the heavy flagstones to cave in.  About 9 p. m. all lights went out and the entire uptown district was in darkness.  Lightning struck and set fire to a fence in the rear of the Thresher & Co.’s, varnish factory on E. Monument av.  In Dayton View the sidewalks and streets were covered and boating parties rode along the river on Holt and other streets.  The entire front of the river embankment at the back of ‘The Flats,’ fronting on the river, is washed away.

     “But it is in Miami city and Kemptown, across the river on the west that the damage and suffering is greatest.  The Wolf creek levee let go at a point near the railroad bridge, the bridge itself was washed away and at 2 a. m. conditions beggared description.  Many houses were washed from their foundations; hundreds of families have been driven into the darkness to find shelter on higher ground.  Water sweeping through the broken levee rushed down Blaine st. to Broadway and out Broadway to Second and Third.  Soon Dale av., Water, First, and Second sts. were impassable.

     “In the darkness of the night there was great inconvenience in the rendering of assistance.  There was great excitement.  Hundreds ran to and fro, eager to render help to the needy, and yet they were not able to do so owing to the depth of the water, from 4 to 10 feet deep, and running like a mill-race. Thousands visited the scene up to 1 a. m.   Those who stood at the railroad near Dodd’s Rake Factory and obtained a view of the flood in the lightning’s flashes will count that as memorable in his history.  Nothing can describe it.  Far up Wolf creek from Hoover & Gaines nursery to the railroad bridge, there was one immense sheets of water from 10 to 12 feet deep and covering an area of over 100 acres.  The immense lake found an outlet over the railroad and poured its immense volume into ‘Kemptown,’ converting its streets into canals and overflowing into houses, causing hundreds of families living in cottages to stand upon chairs, tables and stools, and those living in two-story houses to seek safety upstairs.

     “The houses of the following citizens are all under water this morning: Henry Houser, Frank McBride, Charles Swick, Howell’s residence and grocery, Mr. Resor, William Madden, George Fouts, Senator Kemp, George Keller, Charles Keller, Rev. M. R. Drury, Rev. F. P. Sanders, Rev. L. Bookwalter, J. McClure, Harry Barnett and scores of others.

     “The bawling of cattle, trampling of horses, howling of men, cries of women and children, lamps lighted and placed in second–story windows, the rattling of wagons, the roaring of thunder, the lightning’s flash, the continuous rainfall all contributed to make the night memorable.”

     Thus the newswriter of 1886, who has become the historian of today, pictures the breaking of the levee and the flood of 1886.  He has left no doubt as to the seriousness of the event.  But his nimble fingers set down a still more graphic picture.  Let us follow him on that we may learn how Dayton went about the rescue of her more unfortunate citizens.

     “Chief Larkin and a large force of firemen rendered noble assistance,” he says, “to families living near the site of the railroad bridge.  Cottages washed from their foundations floated down to the foot of Broadway and lodged.  A stable floated down the Miami to which a horse was hitched.  John Dodd’s lumber yard is all under water.  Fansher Bros. soap factory is submerged.  As the water recedes wrecks are more and more visible.  A cottage floated out into Dakota st. and fell to pieces at Dale av.  Cries were heard from another family in a cottage which had collapsed, leaving them buried in the debris.  A family named McClellan, husband, wife and baby, were taken on horse back from their home, and several invalids were carried out as the waters swept about their beds.  Nearly all cottages have been deserted; the upper floors of two-story houses shelter as many as a dozen families in some instances.  Revs. Matthews and Clayton were at the scene doing what they could to render assistance as many of their parishioners live in the submerged district.

     “The Miami river raised nine feet last night in three hours—from 9 to 12 o’clock, something unknown in its history.  Dayton was cut off by rail in all directions except over the C. H. & D.  The covered wagon bridge over Wolf creek has been swept away.  On Forest av. two foot bridges were washed away.  The Wolf creek bridge lays with the water, so the current must have been desperately swift.

     “A crank sort of chap who had ventured to question the accuracy of the Bible account of the deluge now comes forth and surrenders his objections.  Since the storm and the announcement per rain gauge 4 ½ inches of rail fell in the space of two hours, he has been figuring on the depth of water which on this basis would accumulate in 40 days and 40 nights.  The time covers 960 hours.  At two inches per hour this would give 1920 inches, or 160 feet.  He is satisfied, he says, that one-forth this depth of water would be sufficient to destroy all animal life on the land surface of the globe and leave the fishes and marine monsters in full possession.  He therefore withdraws his objections to the Bible account of the Noahian deluge, and accepts it as reliable and authentic.

     “The greatest damage and destruction to residential property is in Miami City; with general damage in the eastern and southeastern sections of the city.  The thousands of citizens who drove over to Miami City to see the work of destruction wrought by the flood can have no idea of the general havoc.  Two days ago that part of the city was beautiful, cozy and rich with home comforts.  Now it is nothing but sorrow and ruin that greets one on every hand.

     “Nor is the damage confined to Dayton alone, from early reports.  The storm accompanying the rainfall, and which passed south of the city, seems to have had its origin in the vicinity of Gettysburg.  It is said to have laid waste a tract of land from a quarter to a mile and half wide, over into the heart of Greene co.  It was not a cyclone, but a fierce, furious tornado crushing nearly everything before it in the earth.  It continued from 15 to 20 minutes in different localities and the scars of its work of ruin will be seen for a generation to come.

     “At Bellbrook the Little Miami rose to a higher point in three hours than ever before known.  The new iron bridge there, 50 feet long, was swept away and carried 100 yards down the stream.

     At Miamisburg the Miami river raised five feet within an hour.  The. C. H. & D. bridge over Bear creek was undermined by water and fell with a crash.  The bridge over Sycamore creek on the Dayton pike at the north end of the town was swept away.  Freight cars on sidetracks at West Carrollton were stripped of their tin roofs by the violent winds.  In Miamisburg the old twine factory, D. Groby’s sash and blind factory, the mower works, the old flour mill and Col. Bowles’ residence were all unroofed.

     “Fences and windows at the Valley House, in the ’burg, were torn down or crushed.  From fallen timber and other debris all country roads are blockaded so that it is impossible to ride horse back from farm to farm.  The two main buildings at Shakertown, Montgomery co., were so badly wrecked that the walls must be taken down and with the four barns demolished the Shakers’ loss will be about $15,000.  The loss in the Shaker-town and Alpha communities will easily reach $100,000.

     “As for Dayton, the city has seldom been visited with great disasters.  This one is notable for the remarkable preservation of life under the most critical conditions.  Some were taken out of their cottages through holes cut in the roofs.  Families crowded into the homes of neighbors and spent the night in terror, while no help could be rendered them.  The relief committee did noble work yesterday with the fund put at their disposal.  A preliminary meeting was held at 2 o’clock with Judge Dennis Dwyer as chairman and Rev. F. M. Matthews as secretary.  A committee consisting of Rev. Clayton, Rev. Matthews, William Kiefaber, D. Pruden and Wm. N. Smith was appointed to provide for the temporary relief of the destitute and suffering.  A committee consisting of Dr. J. W. Hott, A. L. Bauman, Ed Sachs and W. M. Simpson was appointed to wait upon Mayer John Bettelon for the purpose of calling a meeting of Dayton citizens today in the city hall.  Charles Webbert, J. R. Thompson, J. G. Feight and Alfred Pruden have been appointed a committee to ascertain the extent of losses sustained and to report at the mass meeting.”

     A significant fact in connection with the flood of 1886 is that more than four inches of rainfall descended within a period of less than three hours, as stated by newspapers of that time.  Some idea of the tremendous downpour is gained by comparing that with the four inches which fell in 1913, while at the same time considering that the latter fall was spread over a period of two days.  In 1913, however, the ground was heavily covered with ice and snow.  According to experts who planned the present magnificent flood control system, it was this ice and snow augmenting the four-inch rainfall, that brought disaster.

     That the conservation movement which reached its climax with the completion of this great flood-control system actually had its inception as the result of the breaking of the Wolf Creek levee in 1886 appears indisputable.  On the very day following the disaster we find a local newspaper editor goading the citizens of Dayton into action.  He wrote: “Now is the time for the people of the West Side to favor the moving of the Wolf creek levee further to the west to get up their petitions.  Why wait until the levee breaks in another place?”

     That the city might again be visited by a similar catastrophe seems to have been in the mind of still another editor of that time, for in a leading editorial headed “The Storm” we read this appeal for action in making Dayton safe against a repetition of the event:

     “The storm of Wednesday night was the most disastrous ever known in the history of this valley and will be long remembered by the hundreds who are direct sufferers.  For that matter, the entire community is the loser by a fire or a storm.  It is not a commercial loss which is a mere exchange of ownership and is somebody’s gain, but a fire or flood effects an absolute, irrevocable loss which can never be regained though the value may be subsequently acquired.

     “The city was full of suggestions yesterday of individuals who are wise after the fact as to means which would have prevented the dreadful destruction in West Dayton and along the route of the Seely ditch.  The Robert fill west of the levee was spoken of as a cause for the pressure on the Wolf creek bank, yet it is plain upon reflection and a view of the flooded district that the break was not caused by back-water but by a torrent that came with the force of a tidal wave from far beyond the possible effect of a Miami backwater.  It was not the quantity of water but the momentum with which it came that caused the disaster.  The iron bridge was not lifted from its moorings or let down by a sinking foundation.  It was whisked around like a whiplash by the tremendous pressure from above.  The fact that the creek and river were comparatively shallow were all the more favorable to the torrent.  It had full sweep.  A backwater would have checked it and caused a simple overflow.

     “Some find in the Wayne st. part of the flood an unanswerable argument for a mammoth sewer.  But it doesn’t follow at all that the sewer is of proper size.  Indeed, it was entirely inadequate for such a storm.  Arrangements cannot be make for a contingency that may happen once in a half-century or never again.  If we must dig and build for phenomenal operations of nature we must dig out our rivers and elevate our bridges without delay.  The mammoth sewer must be trebled in diameter to meet the ‘I-told-you-so’s’ of yesterday.

     “The lesson of the flood is no more nor less than a reminder of the hint of scriptures as to the fate of a house that is built upon the sands---‘When the rains descend, and floods come, and the winds blow and beat upon that house it falleth.’  The quotation may not be exact but it is the substance.  The office copy of the Bible has been borrowed by the ‘devil’ to get his Sunday school lessons.

     “It is a problem as to what will be done in Miami City.  Those people who have invested their earnings in little homes in Kemptown must be protected whether by a new levee, an attempt to change the course of Wolf creek, or some other plan.  Let engineers give their views and council take heed and go slow.  What is done should be well done this time in that citizens of that part of the town my in the future sleep in comparative peace.”

     It required a similar inundation, yet a far more disastrous one, to make Dayton realize the wisdom of that warning issued away back in 1886.  But in the end she heeded it.  And the flood preventing system now functioning so perfectly is her answer to it.