The Great Flood of 1913

Geoff Williams, author of “Washed Away,” on the “most widespread flood in American history.”

Washed  Away Book

On March 23, 1913, a series of tornadoes struck the American Midwest. But the twisters were a mere prelude to a greater disaster, one caused by torrential rains that lasted for days, causing widespread flooding in more than a dozen states.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of what is now sometimes referred to as the Great Flood of 1913, which remains less well known than, say, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and the Great Flood of 1937.  

“The photos don’t do the [1913] flood justice,” says Geoff Williams, author of “Washed Away” (Pegasus Books), a new account of those fateful days. “Generally, the photos we have were taken after it stopped raining, but it’s clear that the water rose to incredible levels,” he continues, before graciously answering the following questions about the flood—and his book.

What inspired you to research the flood and write “Washed Away”?
Growing up near Dayton, Ohio, I heard about the flood but I always pictured the water slowly rising and then slowly receding, without a lot of drama. I didn’t realize that, no, the rivers poured over the levees and broke them, and then walls of water came rushing into the city, tearing houses off their foundations, uprooting trees, and sweeping people and horses away. 

I also thought that the flood only occurred in Dayton. It wasn’t until I started researching it that I realized that what we called Dayton Flood, the people in Columbus were referring to as the Columbus Flood, and in Indianapolis it was the Indianapolis Flood. Once I realized how widespread the flooding was and how dramatic it was to live through, I started getting excited about the idea of writing the story.

Which cities and states were hit hardest?
Dayton was ground zero, if you will, for the flood. Its downtown streets were said to be under twenty feet of water in places, and thousands of people were stuck in buildings and on the roofs of houses. But the nearby city of Hamilton had a lot of destruction and death too, and Columbus lost a lot of people—approximately a hundred. At least fourteen states were affected, but the worst destruction was in Ohio and Indiana, where over seven hundred people died. Parts of Kentucky, especially communities near the Ohio River, really got walloped, and so did areas in West Virginia. But even towns in New York and Pennsylvania experienced real trouble, as did Memphis and even down into Louisiana.

How did the flood change the way the U.S. manages its waterways?
In Dayton the changes were almost immediate. Within a couple months, the city brought in an engineer [Arthur Ernest Morgan] to start a ten year project of building a system of dams that to this day protects the city. Dayton hasn’t experienced a serious flood since 1913 while other cities in Ohio haven’t been so lucky. In fact, engineers around the world have come to Dayton to look at its flood protection measures and borrow from them, so in that way, Dayton’s flood control measures have had a lasting impact around the world. But the flood didn’t dramatically change how the United States [as a whole] managed its waterways. Changes over the last century have been a work-in-progress.

Tell me more about Arthur Ernest Morgan and the work he did in terms of flood prevention.
Morgan created what is called the Miami Conservancy District, which is still in operation today and does a great job protecting Ohio’s Miami Valley from flooding. Morgan’s project was a huge undertaking:  Work camps were set up, almost like little miniature cities, and five earthen dams were built.

And in 1933, Morgan was tasked by FDR to create the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which provides flood control, among other things, to most of Tennessee, as well as parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. Much of what Morgan learned in Dayton, he took to the TVA, and much of the electricity that was used in the Manhattan Project came from the TVA, so, really, the legacy of the flood has been felt in ways that aren’t exactly obvious.

In this age of improved weather forecasting and wireless communication, if identical weather conditions occurred again today, do you think the results would be the same?
Yes and no. I agree that with better forecasting and wireless communication, we wouldn’t be blindsided as everyone was back in 1913. But we still have flooding, of course. So I think if the conditions of the 1913 flood were repeated, we’d still have a lot of problems. If you’re in a flood zone, once it begins flooding and you’re reduced to climbing up on your roof or climbing a tree, tweets and CNN updates aren’t going to be of much help, and your smartphone is only going to get you so far. That said, a lot of people in 1913, stuck in trees, freezing to death, would have loved to have had a cell phone to call for help, or if nothing else, to use to say goodbye to loved ones.

Why hasn’t the Great Flood of 1913 been better remembered?
For one, our country has had a lot of regional floods. The 1913 flood was about as bad as it gets, but if you were living in the 1920s and brought up the flood to someone in Texas, they might have thought you were referring to the floods in Texas late in 1913. Every year, there is some serious flooding in the country somewhere, and it’s easy to get even the most serious ones confused with the lesser known ones. Floods are also usually local events, and that has a way of minimizing things. And as someone recently pointed out to me, we didn’t name our disasters back then, and we still don’t name floods, though since we’re now naming snowstorms, I wouldn’t be surprised if we get to that point. Someday we will probably have Flood Larry or Flood Jessica or whatever, and certainly, if the 1913 flood had been named Flood Bart or Flood Marvin, that might have helped keep it in people’s memories.

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The Mill River Flood, Disaster