The storm of the century was 100 years ago. Only it was more like the storm of the Millennium. The resulting flood waters caused one of the most widespread natural disasters in our nation’s history and turned the streets of our great Midwestern cities into the Canals of Venice for five days and nights.
Hurricane Katrina ; Hurricane Irene ; and Super-storm Sandy  were not even close in the amount of wide-spread devastation they each left in their wake. Mother Nature doesn’t play favorites. She took the lives of more than one thousand individuals in a massive storm system that started out as a string of several tornados Easter Sunday, beginning March 23, 1913 at 6 p.m. in Omaha, Nebraska. Then she pelted the ground with freezing rain lasting days and gorging major and minor rivers to bursting east of the Mississippi in a fifteen statewide area.
It disrupted communications and manufacturing from the industrial north to the agricultural south. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed and millions were left stranded from the Ohio Valley outward to Pennsylvania; Michigan; Indiana; Kentucky and as far away as Nebraska; Arkansas, New York; New Jersey and Vermont. The flood was often compared to the San Francisco earthquake and resulting fire and the sinking of the Titanic which was the year before. More Americans were affected than both of those catastrophes combined.
It was the second-deadliest flood in history after the 1889 flood of Johnstown, Pa. where 2,209 died when a dam failed. Like the twin tower terrorist attacks – people either had been there, had family or friends who had been there, or knew of someone who had.
Dayton is considered to be the epicenter and history knows it as the Great Dayton Flood, but it has also been referred to as the great flood of various other cities as well. It brought an end to the Ohio and Erie Canal system and the canal era in Ohio as we knew it. Although damaged itself, Cleveland was a first responder during the first critical week when outside help could not get through.
An estimated 11-inches of rain fell over a four day period between Cleveland and Akron. Rivers rose spilling their banks and levees burst washing away or damaging bridges, docks, railroads and trains. Floating wood from the lumber yards along the canal added to the debris and further jammed the lock gates so the decision was made to dynamite seven locks to keep the water flowing to Lake Erie.
Ominous weather patterns, days before, foreshadowed the terrible events and destruction. March 15: Blizzards in the Midwest. March 16: Hurricane hits Alabama and Georgia. March 17: cold wave hits Tampa, Florida. March 21: A blizzard hit 20 states. A high-pressure system from the Arctic circle moved into Canada and Bought in severe winds from the west causing storms in most of the Midwest and much of the east and northeast of the US and caused telephone and telegraph poles to go down in six states. The following sleet took out more wires – resulting in the US Weather Bureau not being able to collect information or send out warnings.
March 23: Tornado in Omaha, Nebraska. F4 winds, 200-260 MPH – Path 100 miles long. US Weather Bureau in Washington DC issued an alert that “A severe storm is predicted to pass over the East Tuesday and Wednesday.” Storm warnings were issued from North Carolina to Maine. “Showers are predicted to fall in the time until the storm arrives.”
Monday, March 24: The water in the Ohio and Erie Canal was now raging. It had been raining the past three days and water was rising six-inches each hour. (Dayton bore the worst of the flooding.) March 25: The ground wasn’t frozen. This can cause problems when there is flooding. The ground gets over-saturated with melting snow. The rains could not be absorbed fast enough. There was 24 hours of straight flooding.
The first bulletin published in the Akron Beacon Journal and countless others that evening read: “Cincinnati, Oh. March 25 – It is reported that the Miami River at Dayton has broken and flooded the city. At 9 o’clock this morning a Western Union operator working with an operator in this city abruptly cut off a dispatch he was sending and said “‘Good-bye, the levee is broken.’
“Dayton is on low ground, and the river levees rise 25-feet above the level of the town. Right in the heart of the city the Stillwater and Mad Rivers merge into the Miami and during the high water, the levees are in great danger. If they have broken an untold loss of property and loss of life has occurred.”
Another report in the same paper read: “An unconfirmed report here says that 1,500 people lost their lives at Dayton today when a levee along the banks of the Miami River went out, and the waters inundated the town.” (That figure was later confirmed to be 123 people.)
The Tuesday evening Beacon Journal edition headline read: “Five lives lost; 500 homeless; Millions of damage; as flood sweeps over Cuyahoga Valley.” The paper went on to state: “All of Akron gave thanks this morning shortly after 10 o’clock when the rain ceased, the sun made a struggling effort to break through the clouds and the most strenuous 12 hours in Akron’s history came to a close. With the stopping of the rain came a slack in the rising flood in the Cuyahoga Valley and the climax of the disaster had been passed.”
The paper also offered an apology for the “Abbreviated form and a story of the flood that is but a makeshift, when the possibilities of the occasion are considered.” There was no electricity to run the Linotype machines and the printing presses. So motorcycles were rigged up as a power plant to run one type setting machine to print a small paper at the plant of the Werner Company. “We know our readers will overlook the manifest weakness of this issue and accept it as the best that was possible under the circumstances.” By March 27 & 28 the water was retreating and the massive cleanup could begin on March 29.
Ada Cooper Miller, who turned 109 years of age on 12-12-12, was born in South Hampton, England and has lived in Hudson since she was four years old. She recalled being nine years old at the time. “We flooded,” she said, “But I don’t remember too much about it though. I remember in the spring it rained and rained. Those kinds of things didn’t bother me; I didn’t pay much attention to the news.” Miller said she never road on a canal boat with her family.
Alison First, Summit County Historical Society education coordinator said, “They had to dynamite the locks but the flooding did so much damage. Houses were floating down, businesses were destroyed, and everything was destroyed by the flood. But they did blow up the locks to let the water flow more freely because it was backing up and destroying all the property.” The flooding itself did tear up the canals as well she explained.
“In the Portage Lakes the dam burst and when it burst it just flooded everything.” As a result of all that, it was impractical to invest the time, money, and effort in restoring the canal system. By that point in time the railroads had been taking over freight shipment and transportation as faster and in greater volume.
“The canal was in bad repair in the first place and it was very expensive to keep the canal running because the banks would get washed away and the locks had to be kept up, so people were going by train instead of canal by then. It was quite old and was not being used very much at all,” First said.
It was the flood that was the “death knell” to the canal system. Plus, the canals did not operate in the wintertime when the water in them was frozen.
A system of flood control reservations was established by the Miami Conservancy District, the first major watershed district in the nation. Governor James M. Cox supported the plan, helping to gain passage of the Vonderheid Act, which is also known as the Ohio Conservancy Law, in 1914. The law gave the state authority to establish watershed districts and to raise funds for improvements through taxes.