Journal-News, Wednesday, March 5, 2003
'Two raging rivers' hit Hamilton March 25, 1913
By Jim Blount
"Two raging rivers" devastated Hamilton, according to some witnesses to the death and destruction caused by the Great Miami River flood Tuesday, March 25, 1913. Some survivors contended that one swath was along the river's usual course while the other raging current followed a new channel centered roughly along North Ninth Street.
A reporter -- seeking an explanation for the water's unusual force several blocks east of the river -- attributed the new channel to conditions at a bridge on the mainline of the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad between Hamilton and New Miami.
"The CH&D Railroad had had its bridge at New River washed away many times. The last time . . . the railroad determined it would be the last time," he said. [New River Junction is a railroad junction north of the Great Miami River in the village of New Miami.]
The reporter said the new bridge featured concrete abutments "sunk 30 feet below the bed of the river" and a steel span "with solid sides 10 feet high."
The bridge not only withstood the force of the river, but, with debris piled against it, formed a sturdy dam that diverted the current "through a high bank and then down into the east part of Hamilton," the reporter said.
Some engineering studies conducted after the flood estimated water levels higher in the vicinity of North Eighth and North Ninth streets than at Front and High or Third and High streets, the latter locations much closer to the river.
"Had the water been only back water, without current" in the North End, the reporter concluded, "houses would not have been swept away and the destruction would have been comparatively small" in that neighborhood.
The death toll in Hamilton exceeded 200 within two days, and complications added 85 to 100 people to the list in following months. More than 10,000 people -- nearly one out of three residents -- were homeless as water invaded 75 percent of the city's homes, factories, schools, stores and Mercy Hospital, then the county's only hospital.
About 300 buildings were destroyed; another 2,000 damaged houses and structures had to razed; and property damage in the city topped $10 million in 1913 values -- or about $167 million in recent dollars.
Between noon Tuesday, March 25, and 2:15 o'clock Wednesday morning, March 26, all four Hamilton bridges were swept away. Utility, telephone and telegraph lines crossing the river were severed in the city of 35,000 inhabitants.
In a three-day period, between nine and 11 inches of rain soaked the region. Engineers later explained that with the ground already saturated, 87 percent of the rain ran into the river that bisected Hamilton.
Within 48 hours, the Great Miami in Hamilton rose from 4.8 feet to an all-time high of 34.6 feet. The full force of the flood hit late in the morning of Tuesday. The river continued to climb until early Wednesday, stretching from C and D streets on the west to Erie Highway on the east.
The events of March 23-27, 1913, rank as "Ohio's Greatest Weather Disaster," claiming 467 lives across the state, said Thomas W. Schmidlin and Jeanne A. Schmidlin in their 1996 book, Thunder in the Heartland, A Chronicle of Outstanding Weather Events in Ohio.
The Ohio weather historians rate the 1913 flood above more recent weather extremes -- including the April 3, 1974, tornadoes; the cold winter of 1976-77; and the Jan. 26, 1978, blizzard -- "because the extent of death and destruction [in 1913] exceeds all other weather events in the state’s history."
"Four days of heavy rain falling onto saturated ground caused floods all across Ohio" during the March 23-27 period, the Schmidlins reported. "Never before 1913, and never since, has so much rain fallen over so much of the state in such a short time," they declared.
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Journal-News, Wednesday, March 12, 2003
1913 flood didn't treat every community the same
By Jim Blount
Geography was a factor in the disparity in deaths in the cities of Hamilton and Middletown and Butler County villages during the March 1913 flood. For example, more than 200, and possibly as many as 300 people died in Hamilton, but none within Middletown when the Great Miami River overflowed.
The river swept around Middletown from northeast to southwest before flowing south. Most of the city was east of the Great Miami River, which had a wide flood plain as it skirted Middletown. That configuration helped to spread the water and lessen the force of the current Tuesday and Wednesday, March 25-26, 1913.
In Hamilton, the river narrowed as it funneled water through the city center. Houses, apartments, stores and factories had been built to within a few feet of the stream. The river was 390 feet wide at the High-Main Street Bridge in 1913.
In completing the Miami Conservancy District's flood protection plan, the river was widened to a minimum of 520 feet between the toes of the river banks -- a 33 percent increase over the 1913 measurement.
The little-used Miami-Erie Canal also flowed through both cities in 1913, and it, too, didn't treat the cities the same.
In Hamilton, the canal (now Erie Highway or Ohio 4) was about a mile east of downtown. The canal levee served as a dam, protecting much of East Hamilton from severe flood damage.
In Middletown, the canal (now Verity Parkway, or Ohio 4) paralleled the Great Miami River before running through the center of the city. North of Middletown, the river and canal were only a few yards apart. As the river overflowed, it spilled turbulent water into the canal, adding to the flooding in downtown.
South of Middletown, the village of Trenton was spared. It was situated several yards west of the river on relatively high ground. The Trenton bridge, surrounded by flood plains, also survived.
Not far down stream, Woodsdale suffered heavily. It sat close to the western bank of the river while higher land was on the east side, forcing the water to the west over the community. The Woodsdale bridge was destroyed and not replaced until 1916.
Seven people died in Coke Otto, as the village of New Miami was known in 1913. Thirty-four houses were swept away and a newspaper said "43 persons were rescued from perilous positions" by boats. It reported a Coke Otto resident "harbored 123 people in his place and had them scattered all over the house in order to keep the building anchored securely."
"There was really no damage done at all in Oxford," said the Republican-News in an optimistic report on the impact on the village several miles from the river. The article noted that "the Oxford Water Works was put out of business on account of water in the boiler room, and this necessitated a shutdown in the light plant, so Oxford was out of water and light for 24 hours."
Telephone connections with Hamilton went out at 9 o’clock Tuesday morning, March 25. Telegraph links remained open, but reports from Hamilton "seemed so unreasonable that few [Oxford] people would believe them," a reporter said.
Spring break was canceled at Western College for Women "because Oxford found itself cut off on all sides." Most students had no place to go because the flood disrupted railroad travel.
Also stranded was Ysaye, identified as "the celebrated Belgian violinist" who had given a recital at Western Monday night, March 24. He was unable to travel to recitals scheduled later that week in Cincinnati, Chicago and Detroit. He remained in Oxford, trying to communicate with concert managers in those cities.
The flood's impact on rural areas will be covered in a future column.
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Journal-News, Wednesday, March 19, 2003
County farm losses among unknowns in 1913 flood
By Jim Blount
There are detailed accounts of the suffering and losses in Hamilton and Middletown during the March 25, 1913, flood, but little was recorded of the damage to farms in Butler County. An early report said "conservative estimates" put the agricultural loss at more than $1 million.
That contrasts with property damage within Hamilton of more $10 million in 1913 values -- or about $167 million in recent dollars -- as the Great Miami River reached a record level.
More than 10,000 people -- nearly one out of three Hamilton residents -- were homeless after water inundated 75 percent of the city's homes, factories, schools, stores and the county's only hospital (Mercy on Dayton Street).
Thousands of structures were destroyed or uninhabitable. Later, the numbers were set at about 300 buildings destroyed. Another 2,000 damaged structures had to razed. The Hamilton death toll exceeded 200 within two days. Complications added 85 to 100 names to the death list in following months. Utilities, communications and travel were disrupted.
Securing accurate information on agriculture losses was hampered by the lack of communications. Telephone lines were down, and roads and bridges were washed out. Later, county officials asked the state for $512,000 to replace bridges and $50,000 to repair damaged rural roads. (There were no paved roads in the county in 1913.)
An April 17 report predicted that "thousands of acres of land will not be farmed this year, and probably for several years." The greatest damage was along the Great Miami, but tributaries feeding the river also took a toll in rural areas.
The newspaper said between Hamilton and Venice (Ross) along the river, "at least 150 farms were made practically useless by the flood. There are sand and gravel to the depth of several feet on these farms." On the 185-acre William Brown farm, south of Venice, the gravel deposit was estimated to be five feet deep. "The only value of the farm is the value of gravel and sand on it," the reporter noted. "Farms that were once the richest and most fertile in the Great Miami Valley have been converted into mammoth sandbars and swamps."
Years later, a man recalled spending some of his teen-aged years shoveling and raking sand, gravel and debris from the fields of the family farm and repairing fences and outbuildings damaged by a rampaging creek. That task was in addition to the usual farm chores.
Livestock losses were widespread and at least four persons lost their lives trying to save animals. A father, two of his sons and a neighbor drowned trying to rescue cattle and horses from a barn north of Amanda and south of Middletown.
At West Middletown, a farmer had 276 hogs in holding pens at the CH&D depot, waiting to be loaded onto railroad cars. Most of the animals, valued at $5,000, were washed away.
In the Oxford area, Four Mile Creek was reported at its all-time high as it washed away valuable farm land and endangered livestock. On the James Bryant farm in Oxford Township, 31 small pigs were in danger of drowning until a son swam to retrieve them. "The trips were repeated until one by one all of the pigs were rescued," reported a newspaper.
The American Red Cross, one of many agencies that assisted flood victims, provided rehabilitation aid to 2,094 Hamilton families. The agency financed or partially paid for building 62 houses and repairing 360 residences, rehabing 83 local businesses and helping only 10 farmers outside the city.
"The only guide," a Red Cross official said, "was the family's need to and its inability to reestablish themselves." Unanswered was if farm families were better able to help themselves, if they didn't seek assistance, or if they were so isolated by conditions they couldn't apply for aid.
Property swept away and deposited in rural areas also created a problem. Sheriff Harry Metcalf addressed the situation in an order issued April 15.
"All persons whose lands may have accumulated property that has drifted there," the sheriff said, "are hereby notified that such property cannot be claimed by such persons, but must be relinquished to anyone properly identifying such property as belonging to them as the owners."
"According to law," the order continued, "the only thing that can be retained by landowners in such cases is the soil that has drifted and lodged on the land belonging to them."
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Journal-News, Wednesday, March 26, 2003
Hundreds of people were stranded in workplaces during ‘night of terror’
By Jim Blount
At daybreak 90 years ago today, thousands of Hamiltonians were giving thanks for surviving the "night of terror" during Ohio's deadliest flood. The hours of darkness Tuesday-Wednesday, March 25-26, 1913, rank as one of the most frightening nights in the city's history.
About 11 a.m. Tuesday most people working in downtown Hamilton realized the 1913 flood wasn’t like previous ones that invaded only low areas near the river. This time the Great Miami promised to swamp factories, stores, restaurants and offices untouched by previous overflows.
Employees scurried to remove merchandise, materials, machinery and records from basements to what they believed were safer, higher floors. Some items had to be moved again as the water continued to rise.
The intersection of Third and High streets -- never flooded before -- was under water by noon. At 1:30 the water there had reached a depth of two feet, and was still rising. By then, hundreds of people were trapped in downtown buildings, most on the second floor or above. They knew it was too risky to leave because of the increasing depth of the water and its strong current.
Two young men employed at the Bess Laundry Machinery Co. at 151 North Monument Avenue tried to reach safety and failed. A floating shed struck and upset their canoe, forcing them to swim to a tree on Dayton Street. They died of exposure before a rescue could be attempted.
Most of those stranded overnight went without food, drinkable water and other necessities. A few groups found candles or oil lamps, but most spent the night in total darkness. With coal piles and basement boilers under water, most buildings had no heat during the cold, damp night.
Thanks to John Bader, "those in the vicinity of [South] Third and Court streets were not required to go hungry during the three days of the flood," the Republican-News said. Bader, owner of the Boston Bakery at the northwest corner of Third and Court streets, had an oven on the second floor, and baked more than 500 loaves of bread, cooked dozens of eggs and other edibles.
Bader "distributed them gratis among the people who could be reached," the newspaper said. "The deliveries were made by way of a rope [pulley] thrown from building to building and a basket placed on the rope "
The worst part of the overnight ordeal, said those who experienced it, was not knowing what was happening elsewhere in the city. Telephone lines were down, and there was neither radio nor television to keep residents informed in 1913.
When would the water stop rising? Was help on the way? Would the building they were occupying stand up to the rushing water and the pounding of debris? And, above all, what was the fate of their family and friends? With so much uncertainty and anxiety, few people were able to sleep.
The glow of fires in the sky added another fear to the "night of terror." The most frightening spectacle was the Champion paper mill on North B Street, which burned to the water level. "This lit up the whole sky and scared everyone, if anyone could have been more scared than they were already," recalled a flood survivor.
Near downtown, flames whipped through the Martin Lingler coal yard and buildings at the northeast corner of South Fourth Street and Maple Avenue. The fires were grim reminders that tanks or containers of gasoline, oil, kerosene or natural gas -- loosened by the pounding water -- could ignite other buildings.
By 2 p.m. Wednesday, water had receded enough around Second and High streets and on Court Street from Second to Third to permit some men to wade to the Rentschler Building on the southeast corner of Second and High. There, in the offices of the Hamilton City Club and the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, organizations were formed to direct the city’s recovery.
A priority was enlisting a volunteer police force to maintain order. Twenty-five young men volunteered within 30 minutes. Armed with guns appropriated from hardware stores, they patrolled downtown streets in pairs. They were instructed "to shoot any person caught looting any store and to arrest and jail any saloonkeeper who attempted to open and sell liquor," the Journal reported.