Of the thousands of fatalities in the catastrophes of the last half century in this country probably more were due to floods than to any other single cause. Rising waters, with destruction of property, have been common from year to year in many valleys. Almost invariably, however, it has been possible to warn inhabitants of the low areas adjoining rivers. Most of the destruction of life by water has occurred in connection with the breaking of dams or levees, from which cities and villages have been inundated. This was the case in many places that suffered from the never-to-be-forgotten floods of March, 1913.

In Ohio the first call for help was received by Governor Cox from Larue, in Marion County, early Tuesday morning, March 25. Appeals soon followed from Columbus, Delaware, Prospect and Dayton, the latter town reporting through the Red Cross at Washington.

In Indiana Governor Ralston received reports of flood damage March 25 and 26 from many points, including Peru, West Indianapolis, Terre Haute, Fort Wayne, Logansport, Brookville, Washington, Frankfort. Muncie, Lafayette, Newcastle, Rushville and Shelburn. Many homeless refugees required aid and prompt measures were taken for their assistance. Governor Ralston personally superintending the state aid.

Flood damage was by no means confined to the states of Ohio and Indiana. Many Illinois towns also suffered from the high stage of water. For several days Cairo, Ill., was threatened with the worst flood in its history and Chicago troops were ordered by Governor Dunne to aid in fighting off the danger. From cities as widely sundered as Albany, New York, and Grand Forks, North Dakota, came reports of damage by high water. The general conditions in many of these cities and towns is described below.


Mayor Frank W. Rockwell of Akron, Ohio, reported as follows:

"Flood conditions are bad, but fortunately for us, not so bad as reported at Dayton, Columbus and some other cities, The Little Cuyahoga River overflowed, cutting new channels and carrying to destruction about twenty-five dwellings and saloons, all city bridges and doing immense damage to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and county fair grounds.

"The Ohio Canal also overflowed its banks and caused heavy damage through the business district.

"Several lives have been reported lost, but I know of only two cases.

"Akron can take care of the public loss, but contributions for the benefit of individuals who have suffered loss and are needy would be acceptable."


With a score of persons reported dead—swept away in the flooded Olentangy River—many others missing, and between 300 and 400 families homeless, this city of 10,000 inhabitants was cut off from surrounding territory March 25, with the exception of a crippled telegraph service.

The flooded condition of the town made rescue and relief work difficult. Mayor B. V. Leas was reported drowned, but saved himself by catching hold of the roof of a shed in a lumber yard. Life savers from Toledo did good work in rescuing the marooned.


Loss of life and $800,000 damage to property were reported from Celina, Ohio, when the flood subsided March 29. Many residences were destroyed and the flooded district was the scene of many pathetic incidents. A number of persons were unaccounted for March 29. The National Guard of Ohio was called in to aid the relief work.


At Cincinnati the river reached almost the seventy-foot stage March 29 and was rising an inch and a half an hour. Twelve thousand persons were homeless in the neighboring towns of Covington and Newport. Business houses in Front street, Cincinnati, were flooded and on Second street some of the places were damaged.

Sixty business houses in Newport and Covington were under water. The suspension bridge between Cincinnati and Covington, Ky., was under water and communication between the two places was cut.

The village of Cleves, a suburb of Cincinnati, on the Great Miami River, was flooded March 25, when the embankment fill, over which the traction lines operated and which served as a levee, gave way and slid into the swirling waters. The flood instantly found an outlet and swept over the lower portion of the village, inundating the entire section.

The villagers had but slight warning and families were forced to rush to upper floors and to housetops to get out of the reach of the flood.


The estimated property loss at Fremont, Ohio, was $2,000,000, the flood having done great damage in the business district. The number of known deaths by drowning was two, Isaac Flora, captain in charge of the Port Clinton fishermen, drowned while trying to rescue marooned people, and Henry Homan, swept from his home.

Two companies of Ohio state troops aided in the task of rescue and relief. A statement in the local press March 28 was typical of the spirit of the flooded cities. It said:

"Fremont is today making a heroic effort to arise and recover from the most appalling disaster in the history of the city—a disaster that has left wreck, ruin, desolation, suffering and sadness on all sides."


"Tragedy on every side." This was the description given of the conditions at Lindenwald, a suburb of Hamilton, O., where fifty persons were believed to have met their death. It was a common sight, on March 25, to see men, women and children sitting on tops of houses, praying to be assisted to places of safety. In many parts of the town the residents were compelled to chop holes in the roofs of their homes in order to escape the onrush of the water.

When darkness fell over the city the condition became desperate. The rescuers were hampered and it was impossible to get to the persons who had been unable to leave their homes.


Twelve persons at least met with a tragic fate in the flood at Harrison, Ohio, near Cincinnati. The village caught the full force of the overflowing Whitewater River, which went through its banks, flooded the old canal and went over into the streets. The water reached the Central Hotel and was five feet deep on State street.

There was a sea of water over the lowlands of the Miami and the Whitewater miles in width, extending from Lawrenceburg and Elizabethtown to the eastward at Cleves.

The entire farming community of the lower end of the Whitewater Valley was under water, the inhabitants being compelled to flee to the highlands for their lives. A large part of this farming land was being prepared for the spring sowing, and the loss to the farmers was beyond repair.


Fourteen deaths were reported at Middletown, Ohio, as the result of the flood, and the property loss was estimated at $1,500,000.


When the flood waters receded at Zanesville, Ohio, where great loss of life had been first reported, the number of deaths from drowning was placed at five. The property loss was estimated at several millions. Half of the city was under water during the flood. Many buildings collapsed and the city was further endangered by several fires. The city was placed under martial law.

The big Sixth street bridge was swept away by the flood and at least 2,000 persons were driven from their homes by the high water.


Sixteen deaths were reported at Brookville, Franklin County, Ind., March 28. The victims were caught in the conflux of the east and west forks of the Whitewater river, which meet in that town. Survivors tell of attempts of men, women and children to escape by the light of lanterns after the electric light plant had been swamped. Cross currents along streets and alleys carried them down to a united stream a mile wide, just south of the town.

Five children, all of one family, were seen clinging to posts of an old fashioned wooden bed, when they were swept into the main stream and lost.

Five large wagon bridges, the Big Four railroad bridge, the station and a paper mill were destroyed. Fifty summer houses on Whitewater river, south of Brookville, were carried away and much other damage done.

The survivors gathered in the churches almost immediately after the disaster and prayed that some of those who were in the water’s path might have escaped.


More than 3,000 homes in the three low-lying suburbs of Fort Wayne were submerged, the last to go under being Lakeside, which was protected by dikes along the St. Joseph and Maumee rivers. There were frequent breaks in each dike and the water flowed into the second-story windows of the homes.

Four suburbs were under water—Spy Run, Nebraska, Bloomingdale and Lakeside. One person was drowned. Hundreds of the rescued spent the night in the courthouse, the Elks’ Temple and the churches. The bakeries and meat markets of the city supplied them with food free of charge, but hundreds of little children were crying with thirst, as the water plants were put out of commission. The emergency reservoir was cut off to save the water for use in case of fire.

Relief work was promptly organized and efficient aid given to the homeless and other sufferers. More than 3,000 homes were damaged and the property loss ran into millions.


Two-thirds of the city of Logansport was under water, some places to a depth of fifteen feet. There was only one death reported, but the property loss was great.

Business was at a standstill and the attention of the people was turned to the work of relief and rescue. Four government life-saving boats, each manned by ten cadets from the Culver Military Academy, were sent to Logansport by special train to aid in the rescue work. Naval boats from the United States training station at Chicago also assisted in the work.

Three thousand people were rendered homeless by the flood, which followed a rapid rise in the St. Joseph River on the night of March 25.


The Wabash River reached a stage of thirty feet March 26, inundating the wholesale district. Hundreds were forced to abandon their homes on the levee. L. P. Woolery, a Purdue student from Indianapolis, was drowned while trying to rescue two men who were marooned after the Brown street bridge went down. At some places the Wabash was three miles wide, and the Monon, Big Four and Wabash railroads cancelled all their trains. Lafayette was entirely cut off from West Lafayette and 2,000 Purdue students suffered from want of food supplies.


The White River levee broke on the morning of March 25 and the entire northern section of the city was inundated. Many abandoned their homes and sought refuge elsewhere. Business was suspended and traffic, both steam and electric, demoralized. The Big Four bridge and the Chesapeake & Ohio bridge were destroyed. The dike at the water plant broke during the night and the employes were forced to abandon the building. The city was without fire protection.


Two persons were drowned by flood at Noblesville, Ind., March 25. Many of the business houses closed down and residents fled the city.


The city of Terre Haute awakened Wednesday morning, March 26, to a realization of the horrors of flood. Sunday night a tornado had torn its way through the south side, and all night Tuesday, said an eyewitness, "with the rain pouring down in sheets and the water dripping through the remnants of wrecked houses, sufferers in the storm-torn city wandered the streets, dazed, dumfounded, half crazed.

"From the banks of the Wabash a clean trail was left by the storm king—a trail of ruin, death and suffering. Hospitals were crowded, the morgues crowded, schoolhouses filled, and the rain outside poured on, a dismal accompaniment to a dismal scene."


Reports from the river districts March 25 showed all traffic blocked north of Pittsburgh and a half dozen towns inundated. Youngstown, Meadville, Sharon and Newcastle reported the worst floods in their history. Pennsylvania trains were held up by numerous washouts, industrial plants were shut down and the rivers were still rising.

At Newcastle, Pa., the Neshannock River, which usually is about five feet deep, broke loose and became a raging torrent, sending a stream of water three feet deep across the business streets leading to the stream. On Neshannock avenue the water reached a stage of almost three and a half feet. Many people were penned in their homes along the banks of the creek.


Loss of life as the result of floods in New York state was reported from Glens Falls March 27. A bridge there was swept away and two persons are said to have been drowned. In the eastern end of the state the Mohawk and Hudson valleys experienced the worst flood in years.

In Albany, power plants were put out of service, street car traffic was practically suspended and schools and factories closed. The south end of the city was under water and the police rescued residents there in boats.

The flood situation in the Adirondacks was acute. The village of Luthern, with 200 inhabitants, was cut off, while half the town of Fort Edwards was inundated.

At Hornell, N. Y., part of the town was reported under water, bridges damaged and a dozen surrounding villages inundated. There was one death from drowning in the flood at Hornell. Portions of North Olean, N. Y., were under ten feet of water and much damage resulted.


The worst flood in the history of Troy, N. Y., occurred during the week of March 23. After breaking all records and creeping up nearly two feet higher than the historic overflow of 1857, the water began to fall Friday evening, March 29, and receded rapidly. So far as was then known, there were no drownings or other fatalities, but the fire loss was heavy, the buildings in most cases being a total loss. Six, eight and in some cases ten feet of water prevented the firemen doing anything at all. Hundreds of people, particularly in the South End, were made homeless and all they had in the world was in many cases destroyed. The loss cannot be calculated, but corporations, merchants and business men suffered heavily. National guardsmen patrolled the streets day and night. The Troy Gas Company was able to furnish light Friday night, which made conditions more bearable. There were, of course, no trolley cars and no electric light, all power plants in the Capital City district, as well as Mechanicsville and Spier Falls, being under water.

Good order was maintained without difficulty. The police and firemen all worked hard. Nobody suffered for food or lodging, but the property loss was enormous.

The Standard Press of Troy issued flood editions 8 x 11 inches on several days, and was the only newspaper printed in Troy during the flood.

Flood conditions were reported from several other points in Northern New York. In fact, the week will go down in history as unprecedented in the United States as a period of widespread damage from storm and flood.


During the week of the great floods in Ohio and Indiana, fears were expressed at Cairo and other Illinois and Kentucky towns in its vicinity, that the rising waters of the Ohio and Mississippi would sooner or later break through or overtop the levees and endanger the lives of their inhabitants.

Steps were taken for the protection of the levees at Cairo and Governor Edward F. Dunne of Illinois ordered the Seventh Regiment,
I. N. G., Col. Daniel Moriarity commanding, from Chicago to assist in the work of saving the levees and to preserve order in the threatened city.

The Illinois Naval Reserve was also called out to assist and sent a force of men and boats from Chicago under Commander William McMunn.

The work of both forces was efficient and useful. The troops did excellent work along the levees and in the city, where many of the residents feared the worst. The naval militiamen distinguished themselves in rescue work. One party of fourteen, in charge of Ensign A. R. Pieper, was occupied for three days in a relief expedition on the Mississippi, and rescued 142 starving and flood-bound residents of Kentucky and Missouri living along the banks of the river below Cairo. Most of those saved had been without food for several days. They were found marooned in the upper stories of trembling houses and on housetops.

"The men, women and children we got were in the most pitiable condition imaginable," said Ensign Pieper. "The aged people were crying and praying, the sick women carried out on litters improvised with oars and blankets were in terrible pain and the little children were crying with hunger and cold."

Shawneetown, Illinois, near Cairo, lay for many days at the mercy of the flood waters. Many were homeless and relief was furnished by the state. At Governor Dunne's suggestion, flood relief funds collected in Illinois after April 3 were devoted to the aid of the homeless and destitute in and around Cairo. It was estimated at that time that nearly 20,000 flood sufferers in Illinois towns along the Ohio river were in urgent need of aid. The flood in Illinois, though somewhat dwarfed by the occurrences a few days before in Ohio and Indiana, was declared to be the worst in the history of the state.

Hear ye, that are far off, what I have done; ye that are near acknowledge my might—Isaiah xxxiii, 13.
—Chicago Examiner.


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© 2001, Lynn Waterman