On the morning of Tuesday, March 25, 1913, a deadly wall of water that had been the peaceful Great Miami River crashed through Dayton, Ohio. A crowd gathered near one of the levees fled when, with a mighty roar, the retaining wall broke. The events that ensued came to be called the “1913 Flood,” a brief term masking the magnitude of the destruction.
Along the Great Miami, thousands of homes were swept from their foundations. Victims clung to icy treetops. On the night before Dayton was struck, flooding had already taken lives in the city of Piqua, Ohio, to the north. Troy and Tippecanoe City, Ohio, had also been inundated. Lying below Dayton in the path of the rapidly advancing devastation were Miamisburg, Franklin, Middletown and Hamilton, Ohio. Soon, over half the people of Middletown would be homeless, and, before long, Hamilton would find itself second only to Dayton in the number of homes and businesses destroyed. Cincinnati and Lawrenceburg, Ind., would also suffer from the deluge. Our story will focus on Franklin, a city of more than 2,600 inhabitants.
A vast system of unsettled weather spawned the catastrophe that befell the Miami Valley. On Easter Sunday, March 23, a tornado leveled much of Omaha, Neb., leaving a death toll of 154. Passengers on a halted Chicago, Burlington & Quincy train watched as the violent winds tore through the town of Ralston, Neb., on the outskirts of Omaha. One of the eyewitnesses reported, “A big threshing machine, standing near one of the houses when the cloud struck it, shot straight up into the air and was carried about forty rods.”
Other tornadoes touched down in Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Arkansas and Indiana. The funnel that hit Terre Haute, Ind., left in its wake a disaster almost as bad as that at Omaha. Deadly flooding in the Hoosier cities of Peru, Ind., Kokomo, Ind., and Indianapolis presaged what was to come in Ohio. High waters in western Pennsylvania and in western and central New York followed the cataclysm in the Buckeye state.
Early reports estimated the dead in Dayton at between 500 and 1,000. Ohio’s property loss was in excess of $5 million – even worse than the cost of the havoc wrought in San Francisco seven years earlier. At today’s prices, Ohio’s loss would be between $10 and $159 billion.
North of Franklin, the Great Miami River makes an oxbow bend to the west. When the crushing wall of water from the collapsing levees and the swollen streams around Dayton reached the tight curve, the floodwaters shot across the open farmland toward Franklin, where half a dozen people would lose their lives.
“Papa was born on Oct. 16, 1912,” says Mary Ann Bishop, referring to her father, Clarence Ross Mote, who went by his middle name. “The river was beginning to crest. My granny gathered up Papa in one arm and his brother, Ted, in the other arm and took them up to her mother’s place on High Street.” Ross’ quick-thinking mother was Dora Maude Williams. His father was Joseph Marcus Mote, a son of Quaker artist Marcus Mote, whose paintings hang in Lebanon’s famed Golden Lamb hotel and restaurant, the oldest continually operating hostelry in Ohio. Joseph was a pattern maker and machinist. He owned a portable sawmill, which he powered with a Case steam traction engine.
A photo taken in Franklin shortly after the flood depicts a Case steamer amid debris. A note accompanying the image said the cataract shoved the heavy machine 30 feet southward. A descendant of George Millard said the engine and a white brick house belonged to George. Mary Ann says the Case in the photo could well be the steamer that belonged to her grandfather, for she had always been told that Joseph had the only Case engine in Franklin in the early 1900s. He had used it to saw lumber, thresh wheat and build streets.
Another snapshot of the flood damage in Franklin shows a derelict Reeves steam engine. Unfortunately, time has obscured its ownership.
Reconstruction Aided by Steam Power
In April, mayors appointed commissions to expedite reconstruction. In Dayton, John H. Patterson, NCR’s president, erected a gigantic cash register nearly as tall as the courthouse to record donations to the “two-million-dollar fund.”
Eventually, the Miami Conservancy District was formed to oversee flood prevention from Piqua to Hamilton, a distance of 70 miles. The Conservancy Act affected nine Ohio counties. Protection for Franklin included building levees around the western portion of the city and enlarging the restricted channel of the Great Miami River. Flood-control projects took a decade to complete. An important component in the intricate system was the Germantown Dam.
Both a Reeves traction engine and a Huber steamer were involved in its construction. Throughout the Miami Valley, steamrollers helped repave streets that had lost their asphalt surfaces or had been grooved and channeled by cascading water.
Gradually, a normal way of life returned. Not long after the 1913 Flood, Harlan “Dutch” Hamlin arrived in Franklin. His son, renowned sports announcer Tom Hamlin, says, “We had a little Baker and we had a Case later on, but our Huber was really a workhorse. My father’s threshing ring had 12 or 14 farms, and he steamed tobacco beds for 20 to 25 people. We boys put eggs just below the surface of the beds and had hard-steamed eggs that way. It was always a big day when Dad got the engine out.
On one occasion, Dad took the engine from Franklin to Eaton to heat asphalt that had become solidified in the tank cars. He had to take the smokestack off to clear the covered bridge at Gratis.” Tom’s sister, Mary Ann Doliboa, says, “The Avalon Dairy near Middletown lost a boiler, and Dad’s engine supplied the heat for pasteurizing the milk that winter.”
The Miami Valley Conservancy projects have protected Ohioans ever since 1913. Thomas R. Foley says that conservancy dams and levees are designed for a 300-year flood; that is to say a flood so big it overpowers all efforts to restrain it might come along only once in 300 years. We hope the 1913 Flood was the last to trouble the Great Miami.
Contact steam historian Robert T. Rhode at 990 W. Lower Springboro Road, Springboro, OH 45066; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
I thank all those named within the article for their valuable help in telling the story of the 1913 Flood. I extend a special note of appreciation to Charlie Thoma, who spotted the Case photo in Geoffrey G. Gorsuch’s book and suggested I find out more about the engine. I thank Geoffrey for researching the photo for me and readers of Steam Traction. Finally, I express my lasting gratitude to Thomas R. and Harriet E. Foley, who graciously shared their work, explained historical details, put me in touch with knowledgeable people and edited my article.