The Great Dayton Flood of 1913

Shawn Brent, Grace Brent, & Betty Brent        March 2001

    Rain began to fall early in the morning on Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913 and continued throughout the afternoon and into the evening as Dayton was receiving part of a large storm system. As the rain fell, the gutters began to overflow and house owners went out to check the height of their yards against the streets. Although the water was higher than normal, most decided that they were safe. However, on Monday, the downpour continued and by midnight the river had risen about 10 feet to the levee. Over the next 14-15 hours it was estimated that the river continued to rise about a foot per hour. On Tuesday, March 25, on the north side of the river, water was already overflowing the unprotected areas, and was near the levee's top. While on the south side of the river, by the business district, the water was held back only about an hour longer. From the east part of town a wave that was about 10-12 feet in height appeared, with a similar wave of about the same height coming from the North and flowing into town as Dayton received the combined floods of the Miami, Mad, and Stillwater Rivers.(1)

     By 8:15 that night all the communication lines were dead, bridges were washed out, fires broke out, and houses were lifted from their foundations and carried down the river. The water climbed to second story windows and left people stranded in their attics or rooftops. There was looting during the flood, and people charging outrageous prices for food while other people went out in boats to try and rescue those stranded so they could be taken to safety. On Wednesday, March 26, the flood water was about 10-11 feet deep in the main part of Dayton. It is estimated that the water then began to fall at about four inches per hour. By Thursday, March 27, the water was receding and the levees were in sight again. The next problem that Dayton faced was the fires that broke out due to explosions from gas mains which caused extensive damage. After the fires had run their course, the wind changed which caused the fire to be blown back over the already damaged areas. However, the rain that fell eventually put the fires out, or they exhausted themselves. The waters receded by Friday, the citizens were able to back down into the streets again, and rescue work could begin.

When the flood was over, the damage could be assessed. There was debris piled up to the roofs of houses, overturned streetcars, and even dead horses in the streets. In all the flood took approximately 360-400 lives and caused an estimated $100,000,000 dollars in damage.(2)

     The people who lived through the flood were very resourceful. Instead of just giving up after the devastation, they worked to help each other by breaking up what furniture was left to make fires, gathered what food was left, and shared with each other. They even went door to door calling on citizens to form relief stations. The people worked to take care of each other and all had the mind-set that there would never be another flood like the one that they experienced in 1913.(3)

     After the flood water had receded, the people of Dayton tried to help each other by sharing with one another to survive. While the people in Dayton were surviving, the people from surrounding towns were gathering food and clothing to help with relief. "Farmers butchered cattle and hogs to add to the relief supplies. Farmers' wives worked into the night baking bread, boiling ham and eggs, and adding the 'trimmings' of doughnuts and apple butter. The farmers root houses yielded potatoes and other vegetables, while their wives drew on their stores of canned vegetables and fruit. From their dairy houses came butter, cheese, and milk."(4) While these people were doing all they could to give some relief to those in Dayton, relief committees were being formed and their members were going house to house asking for anything that people could give such as food, clothing, or fuel.

     John H. Patterson and his business, the National Cash Register Company, played a large role in the relief in Dayton after the flood. Patterson turned NCR into a relief station. One of the main reasons that NCR was one of the biggest relief stations was due to its location which was on higher ground. Another reason was that it had its own power plant and water supply. On March 28, Patterson was appointed President of the Citizens' Relief Committee by Governor Cox, which put the National Guard at Patterson's disposal as they had to obey orders from Patterson. Patterson was a very selfless man who made decisions to help those people in need. He even gave up his own house to the Red Cross, and had everything fixed up there at his own personal expense. The people whom he helped felt a great debt to him which can be seen in this statement from a group of African-American citizens of Dayton, "That to Colonel John H. Patterson we are greatly indebted: for in the magnificent scheme evolved by his master mind he knew neither race, color, or condition. That to all charities, whether local, state, or national, we commend his worthy example."(5)

     Martial Law was declared under Brigadier General George H. Wood (Ohio National Guard) after gaining approval of the local judiciary. He was later put in charge of martial law in Dayton and the surrounding area by Governor Cox. Wood made General Order No. 4 which divided Dayton into military zones, and each one was to have a commander who was in charge of sanitary and relief work in that zone. In all, five zones were set up. The divisions are listed below:
Zone No. 1: North Dayton. Under the command of Col. Vollrath.
Zone No. 2: East and South Dayton. Under command of Col. Zimmerman.
Zone No. 3: Central Dayton. Under command of Col. Howard.
Zone No. 4: Riverdale, Dayton view and Miami City to Third Street. Under command of Major Hubler.
Zone No. 5: Miami City south of Third and Edgemont. Under command of Col. Catrow.
Since the water had now receded, it was necessary for the protection of property that a curfew be made. On March 29, it was posted that no one was allowed into the streets from 6:00 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., and for the most part, people accepted the curfew. Special passes were issued by the zone commanders for those people working to restore things such as utilities, damaged plants and wiring. Slowly, but surely, the city was beginning to look as it did before the flood.(6)

     Lindley Garrison, who was Secretary of War at that time, stated that the situation in Dayton was under control in the matter of relief as no one was in need of food, clothing, or medicine. Garrison passed the sanitation situation onto Major Thomas Rhoads. The city was divided into two districts both of which had doctors and nurses although there was little sickness. House to house inspections were held to check the safety of the living conditions. Garrison felt that there was already a well-organized force in Dayton to begin the clean up work in the streets under General George Wood. Major Rhoads was able to hand over his duties of sanitation back over to local authorities within four weeks as the situation came under control.(7)

     With most conditions in Dayton under control again, the need for marital law was no longer needed and was suspended by Governor Cox on May 6. However, The Dayton Citizens' Relief Committee and the Red Cross continued their work. Civil government resumed its functions and a commission-manager form of government was adopted.

     On April 18, the Ohio legislature passed an emergency act which allowed the mayor of any city to appoint an emergency committee of no more than four members for the purpose of repair and reconstruction. Patterson put a call to action to surrounding towns to take more active steps for the future. Shortly after this, Patterson left Edward A. Deeds in charge of his position while he went out of Dayton for a while. At a meeting on May 2 of the Flood Committee, two decisions were made. First that there was small possibility of quick federal assistance for flood control. Second, that the action of flood control would be done quickly if the citizens raised a fund.

     There was a final decision by the Flood Prevention Committee at that meeting that another flood like the one of March 25 ought never to occur again. It was decided that there should be a program of surveys, plans, specifications, condemnation, contracts, and construction to help prevent against another flood and to restore Dayton to its previous state, and the amount to be raised was $2,000,000. A plan was made for receiving collection of subscriptions to the fund. After this recommendation, the days of May 25 & 26 were then designated "Dayton Days" which was a drive to raise the funds. Also at this meeting the search for an engineer to begin flood prevention investigations was authorized with the result of Morgan Engineering Company being chosen.(8)

     The Flood Prevention Committee then held a meeting where neighboring cities were asked to attend and talk about the possibility of having several counties work together for the benefit of flood prevention. At the meeting were representatives from Miami, Clark, Darke, Shelby, Logan, Warren, Butler, Greene, Montgomery, and Preble counties. After Edward Deeds made these representatives aware of his plan, all agreed to work together and formed "The Miami Valley Flood Prevention Association." However, after only a few meetings, the association was no longer together.

     Despite this setback, the 2,000,000 dollar fund campaign was well underway. In front of the courthouse (3rd and Main) a large replica of a cash register was erected. Each day the amount subscribed would be added up for the entire public to see. In the end, 2,130, 000 had been raised by a total of 23,000 subscribers. This money financed things like preparation plans and other pertinent expenses for almost four years until proceeds from bond issues were available. Of the remaining funds, 10% was held back for further needs, while 83% was returned to the subscribers.(9)

     Since the people of Dayton had raised the $2,000,000 for flood prevention, there was now a need for legislation. To prepare for the legislation, the existing water-control laws from several states were assembled. Then the laws were broken down into specific steps for carrying through the improvements. Lastly, the steps were varied and methods of the many laws were used for comparisons and studies were done of the effectiveness of the different methods. Kenneth Grant, who was part of the engineering staff, collected the main European water-codes and translated them from different languages such as German and French who had also done extensive water-control projects. This material was used for the comparison and appraisal. After all the comparisons the next problem was that the bill needed to meet the existing state constitutional laws and if necessary, certain laws would need to be changed so that the flood project could begin. John McMahon, chief counsel for the flood prevention project, was to make sure that the Ohio Conservancy Act addressed any and all legal issues that might come about due to the act itself, and that no legal action would be able to win over the Ohio Conservancy Act.(10)

     Most people accepted the need for flood prevention and the need for the Conservancy Act. However, opposition began in the counties of North Dayton where most of the "dry reservoirs" would be built. Many lawyers attacked the Ohio Conservancy Act by telling people, especially farmers, that it wasn't really intended for flood control, but to take their lands away, and to create a power project for private profit at public expense as most of the cost would be funded by farmers. Northern counties, especially Troy, were angered by the Conservancy Act, and even published heated newspaper editorials, like this one from the Troy Daily News:

History of the Greeks and Ancient Troy Being Repeated at Present Time:
"...History is now repeating itself. Another wooden horse has been prepared and Dayton to subserve her own ends is laying a plan to filch from the already heavily taxed people of Troy and all over the county a sum almost without parallel. We are asked to build reservoirs and dams for the protection of Dayton, to take up the best lands in Miami County, to lay a tax upon our people that will not be lifted until thousands of those now living are in their graves.
Dayton which owes much of the great flood to her confining of the natural course of the Miami through business greed turns now to this county to protect herself from future waters. She care not how high our taxes rise nor to what inconveniences we are put financially or otherwise. She must be protected at our expense while the Morgan Company and others get the graft arising from the expenditure of millions of dollars.
     A lot of alleged consulting engineers have approved of the Morgan plans. Why of course. That's what they were selected for. They wouldn't have been put on the list if they were suspected of being contrary-wise. A man never puts his enemies on the jury. These wise-acres tell us what a great blessing it will be to us to have our farms turned into reservoirs that may not be needed in the next thousand years....Dayton is going ahead as if she owns the Miami and Shelby Counties and the projectors of the plot are lying awake at night counting up the graft that will ensue when they have accomplished their object.
     It is well knows that had our rivers been cleared out and not been encroached upon there would have been no such flood as the one which visited us last March. To neglect in a large measure can much of that terrible inundation be ascribed. The whole scheme is for Dayton.
...The citizens of Troy, Tippecanoe and other towns north of Dayton are to be taxed-ground for the benefit of Dayton herself. Who called Mr. Morgan into the deal? Not the taxpayers of the cities that are to be robbed by this stupendous scheme of graft. The Morgan Company is not working for love. Where the feast is thought to be there the vultures gather and you may be sure rick pickings are in sight when this company hoves in view.
     We are told in flowing language what a great benefit will accrue from the mighty reservoir to be built among us. The fellows at the head of the scheme say nothing about taxes. They are not going to come to our aid and help pay them. Oh, no. They are going to sit back in their easy chairs and count the graft while we toe the mark and pay the fiddler. Like Nero they are going to fiddle to the tune of our empty pockets.
     I think it is high time for the people of Miami County to wake up and throttle this beautiful scheme. If they don't we will be paying our surplus cash and more too for a city that has never put a dollar into our treasury. Maybe Dayton will take some of the money and rebuild her burned district which ever since the flood has been a disgusting eyesore to those who are compelled to notice it. Really now how much do you think will be the rake-off on the millions that are to be spent on this tremendous system of reservoirs? No persons but those who are in the scheme can figure this out.
     While the proposed reservoirs, dams, etc., exist they will be in constant need of repairs and engineers as competent as that wonderful consulting committee tell me that they are not necessary. The cleansing of our rivers will accomplish the object sought just as well as the plan evolved in the brains of the Morgan people. But of course that is not desired. The graft would be less.
     ...All taxpayers of this county no matter how far they reside from flood peril would have to pay for the alleged "improvement." ...Property in every city and village would drop in value and no one would seek a county burdened with taxes.... Dayton is willing to ruin more than one farm in her eagerness to help herself. She is ready to tax ride the people of Troy for her own benefit. It is with her merely a question of selfishness. Let her build up her town before she seeks to despoil others of their savings.
     The reservoir bill must be taken by the horns and crushed. If Dayton cannot protect herself save at the expense of adjacent counties she should surrender her charter and to out of existence. We don't want to turn our fair lands into reservoirs for her benefit. What does she offer in return? More taxes, a depreciation of our properties and a burden that will not be lifted for two generations." (11)


     The Dayton Flood Prevention Committee tried to reassure the northern counties, especially Troy and Piqua, that this was not the case. So, the committee sent Edward Deeds to go up and down the valley to explain the purposed plan and of the law. He addressed the people at schoolhouses, churches, and other meeting places and gave an illustrated lecture that covered the legal, engineering, and financial aspects of the Act. This attempt at proving the validity of the Act seemed far easier in the South than in the North. Despite all the conflict, the Ohio Conservancy Act was passed and became law on February 7, 1914.(12)

     As the Conservancy Bill was going through and becoming a law, petitions were being made to establish a Conservancy District. Some of the reasons for such an establishment was to prevent floods, regulate stream channels by changing, widening, and deepening the channels, reclaiming and filling wet and overflowed lands, regulating the flow of streams, and diverting or eliminating either entirely or partly water courses. The counties who had land in the district were Montgomery, Warren, Butler, Hamilton, Preble, Greene, Clark, Miami, Shelby, and Logan. Some of the first conservancy hearings were called to consider the petition for the organization of a Conservancy District. While some of the hearings met with delays, it was eventually okayed. Many alternate proposals were made during these hearings. There were three main proposals. The first was by O.C. Barber who proposed a plan for an alternative system consisting of huge concrete pipes built underneath the riverbed to carry the flood flow. This system was also supposed to generate a great deal of power, though it was never really stated how this would be done. The second plan made by J. E. Barnes whose idea included drilling holes into the earth to open the vast subterranean cavities in which water could go. However, these "cavities" never really existed. The third and final main plan was purposed by John Bryan whose plan was to turn the river into a huge concrete flume. There were many more alternative plans made at the hearings but nothing really ever came of them.

     In 1915 there was an effort to repeal the Conservancy Act, and on February 9, those both for and against the conservancy act met at a joint session of the House and Senate Committee. The opponents of the act presented a petition signed by about 70 radicals from Dayton which stated that they felt the act was made by someone who only wanted to make a large personal benefit in the way of large salaries, legal fees, advertising cheat water power, etcetera at the public's expense. Advocates also displayed a petition signed by 72,889 people from Dayton who did not want the law to be amended. Another petition also surfaced with 16,000 signatures from the people of Hamilton who also wanted the Conservancy Act to remain as it was, and unamended. On June 4, 1915 the Ohio Supreme Court declared the Conservancy Act constitutional and a proper emergency measure, and on June 28, 1915 the Miami Valley Conservancy District was officially organized.(13)

     There was an official plan drawn up with a detailed explanation about what work the District was to undertake. There were two main reasons that the public deserved this detailed plan. First was that it would allow the people to know exactly what work was being done. The directors and engineers made themselves fully accountable to the public with all the important facts fully disclosed, while reserving the right to make changes in the design as the construction conditions might require. The second reason was that it provided a basis for the determination of benefits and damages.

     A Flood Control Plan was made that basically provided for a system of five retarding basins that were supplemented by channel improvements through the cities. The retarding basins were to be formed by earth dams and built across the valleys of the Miami, Mad, and Stillwater Rivers, and on Twin and Loramie Creeks. The highest dam, at Englewood was to be 120 feet above the valley, and the lowest which was the Huffman Dam was to be 65 feet high. For the construction, a total of all the dams was 9,000,000 cubic yards of earth and about 190,000 cubic yards of concrete would be necessary. Each dam was to have in its base permanently open outlets through which the ordinary flow of the river and the flow during ordinary freshets would pass unimpeded. The conduits were proportioned so that no more water could pass through the cities below. During large floods, the water which could not pass through the outlet conduits would be held temporarily in the basins above the dams which would allow the extra water to gradually lower over weeks and help prevent floods. The local flood prevention works at various cities were to consist of widening and deepening the channels, correcting sharp bends, raising and lowering bridges, protecting the sides and bottoms of channels with concrete at critical points, and building levees. The channel improvement work was to involve about 5,000,000 cubic yards of excavation, and 90,000 cubic yards of concrete. In the event another flood like that of the 1913 flood may occur, the new flood system would do a very good job at preventing another serious flood. The work was planned so that construction could proceed simultaneously on all of the dams. Hearings were held about the plan as arguments began to arise as people thought the retarding basins were and dams were going to cause damage to the lands or properties near the basins. Most of the arguments were either overruled by the court, or answered in a detailed explanation in the official plan itself. Despite this, more arguments continued to come up. One such argument was that regardless of how safely the dams might be planned and built, there was still a danger of them failing at some point in time. Some people saw the works for the dams unsafe and inadequate, and some said that the dams were larger than then needed to be. However, like the previous arguments, which were usually made by those wanting the dams not to be built due to the tax increase, these arguments fell to the wayside and work proceeded.(14)

     A survey of the plan was done and the findings were that in order for the dams not to be overtopped, they would be safely secured by the means of a spillway which was stronger, and more able to care for a storm far in excess of the standard storm. The reservoirs proposed above Dayton were well located to secure the maximum benefit for that city. They are to be able to control all except for 70 square miles of the entire drainage area above Dayton as the 70 square miles are to be extensive enough not to cause any danger to Dayton due to severe local storms. The surveyors reached the conclusion that "...While the plan does not include the entire valley it aims to provide protection for all places where such protection is most urgently needed so far as can be economically justified..." (15)


After the survey was completed, an appraisal of benefits was conducted. The appraisal determined the market value of the property before the flood, not counting the damage done during the flood, and then determined the benefit which would result from protecting those land values from deteriorating. This was in contrast to the almost universal practice of determining the direct increase of market value which would result from an improvement.


     There was also an appraisal of Flood Protection Benefits and damages in the Miami Valley. The flood had a tendency to depreciate property, but after the immediate effects of the disaster had been overcome and plans were initiated to secure protection and values were maintained at more closely what the value would be with protection actually accomplished. It was therefore difficult to estimate present values.

     Areas around the construction sites and along the streams were turned into recreation areas. The total land of the recreation park was 3455.9 acres and was reserved along with a chain of lakes created by excavation. These areas lead to a beautiful and unique park system for Ohio. The acres per county were as follows: Englewood - 829.7 acres, Lockington - 216.3 acres, Taylorsville - 1438 acres, and Huffman - 510 acres. The lakes and trees in the Conservancy Park Reservation added a great highlight to Ohio as there are 80 different species of trees there, and due to the fact that there are hardly any lakes, the manmade lakes were a welcomed change. Streams were also cleaned up during this time. On December 15, 1917, the board passed Resolution No. 1 of the Miami Conservancy District which prohibited the dumping of any trash, cinders, etcetera on the banks or channels of the Miami, Mad, or Stillwater Rivers. It also protected Loramie, Wolf, Two Mile, Sycamore, Bear, Twin, Clear, and Four Mile Creeks for the same problem.(16)

     During the time that the five dams were being constructed, villages were set up. These villages included a mess halls and bunkhouses. There were several types of bunkhouses in different styles which were set up to meet the needs of the workers. Each village had a schoolhouse (except at Lockington due to the fact that a school was nearby). Night courses for employees were conducted at four of the dams for free, where they were taught advanced mathematics, industrial arithmetic, penmanship, mechanical drawing, english was taught to foreigners, as well as first aide. These villages even had physicians at their disposal. The camps also had there own form of government which was run by the workers and was democratic in nature. Finally, there was entertainment in the villages. Movies were shown, dances were held, clubrooms were built for ladies, pianos for music, pool tables for men, baseball was played, tennis courts built, and a traveling library even was brought in where people were free to come in and use one of the reading rooms.


     With the construction, labor policies began to form (Miami Conservancy Labor Policy). Many trade unions were associated with the Miami Conservancy District. In all, 28 unions could claim jurisdiction. The official labor policy of the district was made on June 21, 1918 and stated that all labor will have equally fair and impartial treatment. It also stated that there would be no discrimination in treatment against unskilled labor, or against any other class or labor simply because it is not in a position to enforce its demands, but exactly the same treatment shall be given to all, except that higher skill, or skill in greater demand, shall be paid higher wages, and lower skill in less demand will be paid lower wages. Next the policy said that a man's character and workmanship will be the sole basis on which his employment shall rest, and that it was the right of the workers to organize in trade unions and to bargain collectively through chosen representatives recognized and affirmed. Finally, it was said that eight hours of work made up a day's work, and six days' would make up a work week. Overtime would be paid at half time the ordinary rate for all the time worked on Sunday and holidays (which included Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day).(17)

     The Construction of the dams took place between 1918 and 1922 under the control of A.E. Morgan and Company. Despite all the early setbacks of legal problems and counties arguing over the financing of the project, the dams were built and since that time there has never been a flood that had the devastating effects like the one that occurred in 1913.



1. Carl M. Becker and Patrick B. Nolan, Keeping the Promises: A Pictorial History of the Miami Conservancy District (Dayton, OH: Landfall Press, 1988), pp. 23-24.

2. Ibid., pp. 41-45; Arthur E. Morgan, The Miami Conservancy District (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951), pp. 24-31.

3. An excellent account of this public-spiritedness is in Allen Eckert, A Time of Terror: The Great Dayton Flood (Boston: Little, Brown, 1965), passim.

4. Morgan, p. 62.

5. Ibid., p. 81.

6. Ibid., pp. 83-99.

7. Lindley M. Garrison to Woodrow Wilson, 29 March 1913; Garrison to James M. Cox, 30 March 1913, in Ibid., pp. 108-09.

8. The Story of the Miami Conservancy District (Dayton, OH: Miami Conservancy District, 1945), pp. 8-13.

9. Morgan, pp. 138-44.

10. Becker and Nolan, pp, 109-16.

11. Troy Daily News, January 22, 1914.

12. Morgan, pp. 200-01.

13. Ibid., pp. 216-28.

14. The Story of the Miami Conservancy District, pp. 15-29.

15. Morgan, p. 244.

16. Ibid., pp. 348-53.

17. Ibid., pp. 386-403.

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