Although most rivers tended to flood every spring, the flooding of March 1913 was unprecedented across much of the Ohio Valley. The amount of runoff from the late March rains resulted in as much runoff as is normal for a six-month period. The impact from this runoff was rivers rising to unprecedented stages, several feet above previous high water marks. Heavy rain fell over all watersheds in Indiana, Ohio, and parts of Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and New York from this event, but the damage was most significant along the Great Miami River in Dayton where flood levees broke, leading to water rising up to twenty feet downtown.
Moderate river flooding had occurred earlier that season in January, at which time the precipitation was heavier over southern sections and moved southwest to northeast (for the Ohio river this is an upstream direction). This same rain event affected the Cumberland and Green River Basins, but the northeast movement was a direction of upstream to downstream, resulting in accumulative flood waves in those rivers similar to what occurred on the Ohio River that March. Compounding the flooding in the March floods was the fact that the rain started on the headwaters and then progressed down the streams. The flood waves were then reaching areas downstream at their peak runoff times. The rush of floodwaters from the stream and local runoff cumulated into a peak flood wave for areas primarily in the Muskingum, Scioto, Great Miami, and Wabash Rivers.
To signify the impact that a cumulative flood wave can have on a river is to examine the October 3-6, 1910 flood. The rainfall was similar in area and amounts to the 1913 flood, averaging six to ten inches over the same Ohio River basins for a four-day period. The rainfall in the March 1913 event was heavier along the northern tributaries and the ground was saturated unlike the October storm, however these differences are not sufficient to account for the significant differences between the impacts caused by the two events. During the October 1910 storm the rain had started in the southwest part of the Ohio Basin, and then moved northeast. In that event, by the time the runoff from the headwaters had reached the lower reaches of the Ohio River, the local runoff had long since passed. In the March 1913 event, the flood wave from the upper tributaries reached the main stem rivers at the time of the heaviest local runoff, cumulating into a peak flood wave. In October 1910 the Scioto River at Columbus reached a stage of 13.7 feet, in March 1913 the river crested at a stage of 22.9 feet.
Lake Erie River Basin
This basin was the first to have its rivers crest during the storm event. The Maumee watershed covers most of northwest Ohio and northeastern Indiana, and drains into Lake Erie by way of Toledo. Some of the larger tributaries are the Tiffin, St. Joseph, Auglaize, St. Marys, and Blanchard Rivers. The heaviest rain fell on the St. Marys and the Auglaize which contributed the most of the flood of 1913. Rivers in the southern and eastern part of the watershed is fairly flat while the western basin consists of rolling hills. On the Blanchard River, Findlay and Ottawa saw 60 and 95% of their towns flooded respectively. At the Village of Waterville, the estimated discharge was 180,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) the next largest discharge was 94,000 cfs. At Fort Wayne IN the St. Marys and Maumee Rivers meet, and here15,000 people were made homeless and six people lost their lives. One more drowned in Findlay, OH.
The Sandusky River drains into Lake Erie north of Fremont Ohio. At Upper Sandusky the river reached a record stage, but the town lies primarily in the high land surrounding the river and the damage was not significant to property. Downstream at Tiffin the damage was far more serious as the city was inundated. The river was 10 feet higher than any previous record by the 26th. Every bridge fell in town and between 10 to 14 fatalities occurred along with harrowing tales of rescues. At Fremont downstream of Tiffin the Ballville Dam collapsed and three men drowned. Most of the business district was flooded.
The Cuyahoga River empties into Lake Erie at Cleveland Ohio. The 1913 flood remains the greatest flood in the basins history, and at the time Cleveland was the largest city affected by the storm. Hundreds of businesses were affected by the floodwaters and the heavy rain also shut down the electricity and water supply in and out of the city. Upstream near Akron the flooding was so severe that in order to spare the town portions of the Ohio-Erie canal had to be dynamited, resulting in the gradual end of the canal system in Ohio. As the water flowed downstream it caused considerable damage, but fortunately the majority of the population lived high above the river so only low lying areas were affected. In Akron the storm drainage basin characteristics in Akron are significantly improved over those that existed in 1913, and as such, flooding hazards are of lesser magnitude in comparison. The 1913 flood is estimated to have a recurrence interval of 500 years.
Ohio River Basin
The greatest known flood in the county occurred on the lower Mahoning River on March 26, 1913. A severe blow was dealt to the area. Many industries suffered excessive damage, major bridges were washed away, and electric power and water services were out. The largest city on the Mahoning River is Youngstown, and at least 25,000 were left unemployed due to damages to the industrial part of town. Every bridge in town was guarded by policemen as there was fear that they would all be washed away, several in fact did. The Mahoning River, unlike most at the time, already had a series of power and water supply dams on it that is believed to have contained much of the runoff during the storm. Despite this added benefit, the basin experienced historic flooding. Two people drowned in the town of Warren in Trumbull County. At Youngstown a large portion of the business and industrial part of the city was inundated.
The 1913 flood along the Great Miami and its tributaries exceeded any known flood by 10 feet or more in many locations. The Great Miami basin suffered more fatalities than that of any river basin affected by the 1913 storm system. At least 260 of the total estimated 467 deaths from these floods occurred in the Great Miami Basin. The Whitewater basin of Indiana does empty into the Great Miami just before the confluence with the Ohio River. The Whitewater River basin deaths totaled about 17. During the rise and peak of the flood, thousands of homes and businesses in the Miami Valley were swept away or completely destroyed. In Dayton, several city blocks were devastated by fire in addition to the massive flood, while Hamilton saw fires spread through several industrial buildings. Dozens of roadway and railroad bridges were washed away, crippling transportation and hampering rescue efforts. Water treatment sources also shut down, leaving thousands without potable water.
This massive tragedy also brought out heroes and visionaries both during and after the flood. In addition to hundreds of neighbors helping neighbors, James Patterson, president of National Cash Register, ordered 170 of his employees to build flat bottom boats to assist in the rescue efforts and supply distribution. NCR grounds were used as a hospital, morgue, registration center to search for missing family, as well as store for badly needed supplies.
The 1913 flood brought about the Miami Conservancy District, in which lead design engineer Arthur Morgan developed one of the most comprehensive and far reaching flood control plans of the era, which is still considered visionary to this day. MCD and Morgan’s combined flood control approach still protect the major population centers of the Great Miami Valley.
While the upper Scioto basin has a relatively low slope of only 2 to 3 feet per mile, the heavy rain of March 25th resulted in rapid rises through especially the Columbus area, and along the Olentangy tributary at Delaware. Roughly 138 people of the Scioto river basin perished, including 18 known deaths along the Olentangy River in Delaware. The state capitol of Columbus was not spared the devastation, with 92 fatalities occurring here. An additional 20 people downstream at Chillicothe. Major flooding occurred from the headwaters near Kenton, with the first gauged location at Prospect recording a flood of 21’, which is still nearly 4 feet higher than any recorded flood today. Along the Olentangy, the channel was actually narrowed due to bridge and industrial development, and on the river rose over 20 feet in 24 hours. While only 12% of the city flooded, 18 deaths occurred due to the rapid rises and the fact that the flood occurred during the middle of the night on March 25. Destruction was widespread, with dozens of bridges destroyed and industries lost in the addition to thousands of homes inundated.
The Illinois River was above flood stage from the end of March through April. The flood at Cairo broke all records to date at 54.7 feet. The citizens of Cairo had the advantage of being alerted to floods upstream with enough notice to make preparations, including building a temporary levee. Two levees upstream of Cairo broke on the 3rd, the one at Naples and the other at Meredosia, flooding parts of those towns and neighboring farmland. Despite more time to prepare compared to those in Indiana and Ohio, damages still exceeded an estimated $5 million dollars, mainly from smaller communities along the river including Shawneetown, Illinois and Caseyville, Kentucky where the town was “washed away”. (Monthly Weather Review Volume 41, Issue 4, R.T. Lindley pp.553-564.) No fatalities occurred most likely due to all the advance warning the communities had to prepare as the flood crest occurred over a week from that in Dayton.
Unprecedented flooding during late March in Indiana left numerous towns and cities without power and water, and in many cases isolated from the outside world. More than 100 people died of weather-related causes. Storms and floods cut communications, disrupted transportation, and heavily damaged or destroyed residential and commercial districts from north to south. Rivers and streams reached record to near-record levels following rainfall of nearly 5 to more than 10 inches from March 23-March 27. Heavy snow, up to 8 inches, fell in northern areas, and in all areas below freezing temperatures on the 27th greatly added to the misery of the flood.
The eastern portion of Indiana experienced severe flooding by the 24th. The Maumee, Whitewater, and the upper portions of the Wabash and White Rivers reached record levels late that day. The record-setting flood wave quickly moved to central Indiana on the 25th and 26th. Rivers and streams at or nearing crest included the Wabash River from Logansport to Attica, the White River in the Indianapolis area, and the East Fork White River in the Columbus and Seymour areas. On the 27th and 28th, this epic flood wave was converging on south central and southwest Indiana. Homes and bridges were destroyed in the Terre Haute, Vincennes, Washington, Bedford and Shoals areas as the Wabash, White, and East Fork White Rivers crested. These three flood waves converged on Mt. Carmel, Illinois on the 29th and 30th, and where the Wabash River spread some 8 miles wide leaving northern and western Gibson County, Indiana in a sea of water. As March drew to a close, the crest of the Wabash River had made its way to the Ohio River. While an epic flood would befall the Ohio River in January 1937, Ohio River flood levels approached or set a new record for southern Indiana in 1913.
The only watershed in Indiana that did not experience severe flooding in March 1913 was the Calumet and, possibly, the Kankakee Rivers in extreme northwest Indiana.
Of the 17 states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri) that experienced flooding from March 23rd-27th, none suffered as extensively as Ohio. To this date, the Great Ohio Valley Flood of 1913 remains the largest weather disaster the state has ever witnessed. No less than a third of the state experienced the equivalent of a 1-in-1,000 year rain event. The unprecedented rainfall caught residents by surprise, most notably along the headwaters located over the divide between the Ohio and the Lake Erie river basins.
Towns located in these areas had very little time to react, as rivers had quickly risen above flood levels by Monday the 24th. By the 25th, most rivers throughout the state were in flood. Conditions continued to get worse, and by Wednesday the 26th, rivers were cresting at heights the likes of which had never been seen by Ohio residents. After the 27th, the rivers in the Lake Erie River Basin had receded, and floodwaters in most of the Ohio River tributaries were entering the Ohio River itself. The greatest tragedy occurred over the Great Miami Valley that contains the city of Dayton. Here, levees failed under intense pressure and inundated the heart of the city, with floodwaters up to second stories. The state capital of Columbus’ plight was nearly as tragic as that in Dayton. Levee failures and fires in Columbus led to increased confusion and terror, limiting the ability of the capital to respond to the statewide disaster. A clear number of fatalities and damages are difficult to come by, but it is known that at least 467 people died, with the likely number being closer to 600. Dayton and Hamilton claimed the major share of the grim statistics, as Dayton lies at the confluence of 3 flooding rivers, and all of the flow was routed down to Hamilton, which was bisected by the massive Great Miami crest.
With the Ohio River Valley devastated by floodwaters, those on the Mississippi River knew that water would be heading their way. Preparations were made as best as they could mainly through the heightening of levees, but this proved futile in most instances. Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, and eventually Louisiana and Mississippi all saw levee failures as the floodwaters made their way south. The Ohio Valley provides the most flow to the Mississippi River. Since the water was slower to rise and recede the further downstream you go, the downriver results from the 1913 flood lasted well into May!
The first storm system from the Ohio Valley moved into New York on the 24th continuing to bring heavy rain. Unlike Ohio and Indiana, there was some evidence that frozen ground cover had some part in the flooding in upper New York during late March. March 22nd-23rd brought a significant amount of rain to northern New York ranging from 1 to 1.50 inches in the east to 1.50-2.50 inches in far western New York. Though normally not a significant amount, this rainfall saturated the ground and raised river levels.
On March 25th and 26th, as the second storm system moved out of the Ohio Valley, it brought an additional 1.50 inches in western New York and upwards of 3 inches in eastern New York. Buffalo was flooded by the 25th, primarily South Buffalo. The Buffalo River and Cazenovia Creek flash flooded, catching people off guard early Wednesday Morning. This rainfall was predominantly runoff, resulting in significant river rises. The total rainfall for the month was 3 to 5 inches above normal with the highest amounts in the Mohawk and upper Hudson River basins. The Sacandaga River near Hope reached stage of a 1% annual occurrence flood (formerly 100 year* flood), while the Mohawk River at Little Falls and the Hudson River at Mechanicville saw record flows greater than a 1% annual occurrence flood. Another record stage was at Indian Lake where spillway levels were exceeded by more than 5 feet.
Over the Genesee River basin the storm total rainfall was over 4 inches, enough to cause extensive flooding in Rochester. In Rochester, half the business section was under water up to 5 feet deep peaking by Friday, March 28th. One fatality occurred as a canoe was swept over the Court Street Dam.
The Genesee River flooded into the towns of Mount Morris and Dansville. Binghamton was flooded in the entire northwestern side of the city from the Susquehanna River.
A dam in Herkimer swept away several houses. The town of Troy was hit hard with hundreds of families left homeless. In Watervliet the water measured 10 feet deep. A third of Green Island was flooded. The lumber district in Albany was hit hard.
The flooding in the Ohio Valley occupied the national news for several days, allowing for little mention of the destructive floods occurring further south.
The James River in Virginia saw severe flooding from the 27th through the 31st of March, primarily from the heavy rains stalled over the Alleghany Mountains. Areas most impacted were Lynchburg, Buchanan, and Norwood. In Lynchburg the main damage was to bridges and machinery, but enough warning was given to allow for some protection of property in advance of the flood. Railways were flooded and communication lines were damaged, along with a bridge in Buchanan where a river gauge was washed away.
* 100-year flood is old terminology. Agencies are now using the term "1% Flood Level" which is the maximum flood level with a one-percent chance of occurring within any given year.