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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