The Great Dayton Flood of 1913: How a catastrophe in Ohio led to modern disaster response

Dayton underwater. Image: Swest7638/Wikimedia Commons.

Dayton, Ohio, is known for a lot of things. It’s the birthplace of the Wright Brothers and home of the pop-top can opener. It housed crucial parts of the Manhattan Project, and was infamously rumoured to be hosting a Limp Bizkit concert at a Sunoco gas station.

Many people (and me, on this very website) give Dayton a lot of shit; its nickname ‘Gem City’, awarded at a time when it was witnessing growth economically, ergonomically, and artistically, now feels almost cruel as it continues to suffer from the effects of the financial crisis. It isn’t known for its glamour these days and its achievements tend to pale in comparison to its recent troubles.

However, there’s one thing that Dayton isn’t known for, even though it has played a crucial role for more than a century, and especially over in the last few months. In 1913, Dayton played host to one of the worst natural disasters the United States had ever witnessed – an event which led to the creation of the disaster infrastructure that underpins the response to such events today. It may be hard to see how, or even why – but I am here to inform you that it did.

To paint a picture, Dayton sits on either side of the Great Miami River, with its downtown stretching about two square miles.

Image: Google Maps.

Main Street, as you’d probably guessed, is the main strip within downtown Dayton, home to the business district of the city. It was a place where people worked, lived, and spent much their free time with theatres, restaurants and shopping littered down the road. This area is also notable for the fact that it sits within a mile of the Miami River.

In fact, downtown Dayton is built on the river’s natural flood plain, making it a disaster waiting to happen. However, at the time, disaster preparation wasn’t really a thing, back in 1913, and Ohio’s tame weather didn’t attract much concern. A few levees were built just in case, but there were no indicators that anything dreadful might happen.


The weather that caused the flood was, seemingly, not out of the ordinary: a series of three storms, three days in a row, which yeah, sure, is a lot of rain, but not enough to make anyone think it was anything but some bad weather. No one thought it could take down sturdy, durable levees and surely not enough to destroy what was, at the time, a major American city.

The first of the storms arrived on 21 March and, again, was nothing too concerning. There were strong winds and heavy showers, but by the morning of the 22nd there were clear skies and sunshine.

Very soon, however, things started to go awry. Out of nowhere the temperature dropped by almost 40 °F, and a second storm arrived. After a third storm on the third day, the soil had become saturated: all rain water was now run off, with nowhere to go but the river.

By 5am on 25 March, the city’s levees – not just one, or even several, but literally every single levee – was in danger of not just overflow, but collapse. At 8am, the levees began to overflow and water started flooding into the city streets. Within an hour, half of the city was flooded with waters three feet deep. By midday, it had reached an almost unbelievable ten feet high.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that this, alone, would have been enough to make you shit yourself. Waistline-high water within a matter of 60 minutes, sure, is concerning, but ten feet tall waters looks like an apocalyptic plague. If it had stopped there, it still would have qualified as a lethal disaster.

But it didn’t. By 2am on 26 March the height of the water had doubled, reaching over twenty feet high. The downtown area normally housed tens of thousands of people, but the flood began on a Tuesday morning, meaning thousands more people had already commuted in before it got inescapable. From the early afternoon of 25 March, the people living and working in Dayton were completely trapped.

Image: William F. Capel/Wikimedia Commons.

The then governor of Ohio called up the National Guard to get into Dayton and begin the rescue effort. With communications links to the city centre cut, they didn’t even know how many people were stranded, and never having dealt with a disaster on this scale, they didn’t know how long it would take to get everyone out, either.

But this was 1913, and the water was 20 feet high. Troops were able to reach the edge of the city, but couldn’t actually gain access to the downtown for days. The news of the flood, and of the thousands trapped, began to spread, even internationally – but no one could reach anyone actually trapped inside the city.

People had to get creative. Thousands were making make-shift rafts, boats, or anything that could float, to get themselves to the edge of the city, from where they could wade through to dry land. The greatest and most effective, immediate relief effort, though, came from an unlikely place: the staff at the National Cash Register (aka NCR; you’ll see the name on the bottom of your self-service checkouts all over the world), headquartered in Dayton at the time. Its staff, including the company president, John Paterson, built over 300 boats and rescued thousands stranded in buildings and on rooftops. The NCR factory building became the base of the relief effort, housing not only the National Guard and the Red Cross, but also photographers and journalists so they could report on the aftermath and the rescue effort.

Ultimately, the flood displaced over 65,000 people, and killed over 360 (another 100 people died as a result of flooding across other parts of Ohio). It is still the deadliest natural disaster in all of Ohio’s history, and the deadliest flood in American history. It took weeks to make Dayton liveable again; until then, people were stranded in tents and refugee centres on the outskirts of the city.

Beyond the human toll, the flood caused over $100m in property damage, a sum worth $2b now. It also resulted in loss of Dayton locals Orville and Wilbur Wright’s original sketches of the first ever airplane. The volume of water generated from the three storms that caused the flood was equivalent to the amount of water that passes over Niagara Falls in a month.

Despite the devastation, the Great Dayton Flood did help start the conversation about disaster precaution and disaster relief. The disaster lead to the creation of the Flood Control Act of 1917, which put in place procedures and precautions for how to prepare for and handle future flash floods. This act spurred on further disaster relief legislation, which cumulatively lead to the creation of a tiny government agency called the Federal Emergency Management Agency (aka FEMA).

Image: Yassie/Wikimedia Commons.

We’ve seen a host of natural disasters wreck the United States and its territories over the last six weeks. Even today, the relief, especially the immediate response, can seem feeble compared to what is so apparently needed. However, without the destruction of Dayton over one hundred years ago, we wouldn’t even be where we are today.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.