The Great Dayton Flood of 1913: 15 things to know about broken levees, rescue boats and lost lives

This week marks the 106th anniversary of the Great Dayton Flood of 1913, a disaster that influenced the framework of the Miami Valley. 

Here are 15 things to know about the flood:


Disaster of epic proportions. The Great Dayton Flood of 1913 was a regional event and still ranks as Ohio’s worst natural disaster, with 467 deaths statewide.

No way to keep up. The storm began with 58 mph wind gusts on March 21, 1913. Two days later, Easter Sunday, the rain began dumping 8 to 11 inches over a five-day period. Two days later, with the Great Miami River rising nearly two feet an hour, the levees failed.

» READ MORE: Dispatches describe ruin of the 1913 flood

 Third Street in downtown Dayton during the Great Dayton Flood of 1913. At the time the street featured a hotel, a menswear store, a florist and the Arcade building (just before the "bowling" sign in the photo) among other buildings.

A bustling city. In 1913, Dayton had 117,000 residents, making it the 43rd-largest city in the nation. It had endured 10 major floods, rebuilt the earthen levees each time and seemed to regard occasional flooding as the price of prosperity.

» RELATED: 100 years later: Dayton forever changed by the Great Flood of 1913

Water, water everywhere. The levees couldn’t withstand the sheer volume of water from the Great Miami and its tributaries — 250,000 cubic feet of water per second through a channel with a capacity for 25,000 cubic feet. The amount of water that passed through the river channel in Dayton equaled the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls in a four-day period.

This bridge over the Mad River near Springfield was damaged during the March 1913 flood that devastated the Miami Valley. Courtesy of Clark County Historical Society

Lost lives. The exact number of deaths in Dayton is uncertain. The official coroner’s report listed only 92, but some bodies were never recovered. The National Weather Service estimates the true number at somewhere between 98 and 123.


Many without homes. The storm displaced 65,000 from their homes. There was more than a $100 million in property damage ($2 billion in today’s economy), and more than 1,000 homes were destroyed. 

Floating south. The Barney & Smith Car Company shops were filled with 14 feet of water. Teak and mahogany, used to make the railroad cars, was found as far downriver as New Orleans. 

This an many other photographs were passed down to Robert Ferneding,  a survivor of the 1913 flood in Dayton. He was eight months old when his mother heroically rescued him when their rescue boat capsized. All the other passengers died. Contributed photo

Lost forever. The Dayton Library lost 46,000 volumes, virtually all of Dayton Power and Light Company’s overhead transmission and distribution lines were destroyed downtown and Newsalt’s jewelry store lost its inventory after entire jewelry cases smashed through store windows. 

» NEWS IN YOUR INBOX: Sign up for our email newsletters on the topics you love 

A massive cleanup. The report from the Dayton Sanitation Department for the month after the flood tells the story: 133,600 wagon loads of debris removed; 13,991 houses and cellars cleaned and disinfected; 1,420 dead horses and 2,000 other dead animals removed. 

Men walk along phone wires to escape the flood water in 1913.
Photo: Dayton Daily News archive

Hamburger wagon begins. Businesses took shape because of the flood, the Miamisburg Hamburger Wagon, still operating today, was born as a result of it. The flood dumped 11 feet of water on the city and claimed six lives. Sherman “Cocky” Porter started making burgers in a skillet to feed the homeless and hungry during the long weeks of the refugee crisis. 

Boat building. John H. Patterson, president of the National Cash Register Company, converted his 10-story factory building to a relief station and a construction site for rescue boats. More than 10,000 men, women, and children were rescued by the boats. 

» TIMELINE: How the Great Flood of 1913 progressed

Shelter from the storm. Many of the rescued stayed at the NCR factory, which served 2,750 meals daily or in a tent city built by the National Guard on NCR property. Others were housed and fed in school buildings or private homes. More than 800 people found shelter and food from the Marianists at St. Mary’s College, the school that later became the University of Dayton. 

State of emergency. Ohio Gov. James M. Cox of Dayton declared a state of emergency. Dayton and Hamilton were placed under martial law, and the Ohio National Guard was called in to maintain order and help in the rescue effort. 

The Miami Conservancy District was founded in response to the Great Dayton Flood. 

Dayton unites. In the wake of the devastating flood, the citizens of the Miami Valley rallied to initiate plans for the prevention of future flooding. Citizens raised more than $2 million using the slogan “Remember the promises you made in the attic!” to begin a comprehensive flood protection program for the Miami Valley.

»EXCLUSIVE CONTENT: Download our apps for real-time alerts on the news you care about   

A plan for the future. Arthur Morgan, an engineer from Memphis, Tenn., was hired in May of 1913 by the Dayton Flood Prevention Committee to plan a flood control system. His plan called for a series of dams, levees and flood protection plains designed to prevent floods more than 40 percent higher than the magnitude of the 1913 disaster (29 feet). People called it “Morgan’s Folly.” Today it is still considered a national model for flood prevention. 

Sources: Dayton Daily News archives, University of Dayton, Miami Conservancy District and Wright State University

Thank you for reading the Dayton Daily News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.

Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Dayton Daily News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.