It was an unexpected surprise. The weather forecast of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Weather Bureau was printed in local papers in central Ohio on March 24, 1913. It read in part, “A storm has moved from the central Rocky Mountain region eastward toward the lakes during the past 24 hours, and has caused damaging local storms and heavy rainfalls. It is passing away to the eastward and there is no danger of damaging storms in this vicinity.”
The weather report was wrong.
Columbus had had a cold winter and despite some occasional warm days, the ground in central Ohio had not really thawed. Two days after Easter Sunday, Columbus, the state of Ohio and much of the eastern Midwest was hammered with a storm of extraordinary ferocity. Over a 24-hour period beginning late on Monday, March 24, 1913, more than 5 inches of rain fell in central Ohio. Similar heavy rains fell over most of Ohio. The great rivers of the state – the Miami, the Scioto, the Muskingum, the Maumee, the Sandusky and the Cuyahoga – all rose rapidly with the relentless rain. By 2 a.m. Tuesday, March 25, 1913, it was clear to the people living on low ground near the Scioto River in Columbus that a major flood was in the making.
Columbus had seen its share of floods over the years. The first one came in the spring of 1798, when frontier Franklinton – population: about a dozen or two – was engulfed in flood water. Over the next hundred years, Columbus had about another 10 floods of greater or lesser significance. The last major one had been in 1898 and inundated much of the west side. Over the years, the city had responded to flooding with a series of levees to protect low-lying areas. Thirty feet wide at their base and about 15 feet tall, the levees kept the rising river at bay most of the time. The construction of Griggs Dam on the Scioto River some distance above the city also provided a measure of flood control.
But no one in living memory had ever seen a flood like the one that was coming to Columbus in March of 1913. By dawn on March 25, local police and fire companies had rescued several people hoping to flee from knee-high water in their homes near the river and unprotected by the levees. Then at 10 a.m., a large section of the State Levee directly across from the Ohio Penitentiary collapsed as the rising river passed the curve leading into downtown Columbus. The pressure on the levee at that critical turn was simply too great for the earthen structure to withstand and the Scioto River roared into the near west side of the city. Soon the entire Franklinton neighborhood was under anywhere from 7 to 17 feet of water.
Many people fled to the second stories of their homes and then to their attics. In some cases this didn’t help as whole houses were lifted off their foundations and rammed into nearby homes. Other people, caught in the open climbed trees to avoid the raging water. As night fell on the 25th, the temperature dropped and some exhausted people simply fell into the swirling waters below.
In the face of the worst catastrophe in the history of Columbus, the people of the city fought hard to save themselves, their friends and many people they did not know. Robert F. Wolfe, publisher of The Columbus Dispatch saw the water rising from his office near Gay and High Streets. A property holder at Buckeye Lake, he knew there were a lot of boats in winter storage at the lake. He chartered a train and sent it with volunteers to Buckeye Lake. They loaded as many boats as they could find on the train and raced back to Columbus to use the boats in rescue work.
For the next five days, local authorities, five companies of the National Guard and countless citizen volunteers worked tirelessly to save lives and property.
As the flood waters receded, it became clear that 93 people were known dead. Others probably died as well. The entire city was shut down for five days and the west side of Columbus for about six weeks. Every bridge in the downtown area – except the old iron rail bridge near what is now the Arena District – was gone.
It was a terrible time.
But out of the loss of the flood came a renewed community commitment to rebuild and prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again. Over the next several years the Scioto River was widened, new bridges and levees were built, and a civic center emerged along the river front. Flood control efforts would continue and eventually lead to the construction of the Columbus Flood Wall in the 1990s.
The 1913 Flood should be remembered as one of those classic times when the people of a great city said that a disaster would not do them in. And then they proceeded to prove it.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.