1913 Dayton Flood at Franklin & Ludlow

The story of the flood has been preserved, and is retold here, through resources available from the Dayton Metro Library’s “Dayton Remembers: Preserving the History of the Miami Valley” collection, and a handwritten account -- authored by Sister Helen of the Sacred Heart -- from the Notre Dame Academy Archives.

Flooding began Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, when storm clouds converged over the Miami Valley, bringing nine to 11 inches of precipitation during a five-day period. Having thawed from its winter freeze, the saturated ground in early spring could not hold the excess water. Instead, runoff filled the Great Miami, Mad and Stillwater Rivers and surrounding tributaries beyond capacity.

Courtesy of Notre Dame ArchivesHeavy showers Monday caused levees to fail early Tuesday morning, allowing the force of an estimated four trillion gallons of water to rush into downtown. It was reported that the amount roughly equaled the volume of water that passes over Niagara Falls in four days time, and 14 square miles of Dayton were covered.

The Sisters at Notre Dame Academy, located at Franklin and Ludlow Streets, were left stranded in the heart of the devastation. Beginning at 5:25 that morning, Sister Helen of the Sacred Heart scribed journal entries detailing the disastrous events.

“The water forced its way into the basement with the roar of Niagara, and we hurried to the next floor, to remove furniture to a place of safety,” she wrote. In the hours that followed, a fiery explosion is documented on Washington Street and the 12-foot wall surrounding the convent is said to succumb to the flood.

Waters were reported to crest 10 to 12 feet above ground level, reaching as high as 20 feet in places of lower elevation. Gas main leaks fueled fires that destroyed other parts of the city. The Sisters who were penning the journal were advised to put out their lights to avoid a similar fate. Before nightfall, the current is recorded at 50 miles an hour and a boat carrying five is witnessed to capsize on Franklin Street near Emmanuel Church.

Courtesy of Emmanuel Catholic Church“Water rose steadily until one o’clock but contrary to expectation, when it stopped rising it did not begin to go down. [...]Away over the hill the electric lights from St. Mary College and from the National Cash Register (NCR) only made the darkness over the stricken city darker still. The rain poured; wind blew; cold intensified; the weary hours wore away.”

The Marianists and citizens unaffected by flood waters at St. Mary (later renamed the University of Dayton in 1920) and NCR ramped up relief efforts, building boats in order to rescue and supply food, and providing shelter for the displaced. On Wednesday, Gov. James M. Cox declared a state of emergency, placing Dayton under martial law (an order that would last approximately one month) and calling in the Ohio National Guard. Cox wouldeventually appoint NCR President John H. Patterson head of the Citizens’ Relief Committee.

“Every school house and every church outside the flooded district was utilized as a relief headquarters and as a place of refuge,” reported the Dayton Daily News in the March 28 ‘Flood Extra’ edition, issued from the offices of NCR. Rev. Father Bernard O’Reilly, president of St. Mary’s, is quoted to have taken in 520 at his boarding school where students’ Easter break allowed for extra vacancy.

Courtesy of Emmanuel Catholic Church“Thursday, [March] 27. All day the waters kept going down slowly. The Thermometer [sic] registered 45 dg [sic]. In the rooms, the corridors were even colder. That day we helped ourselves to the little food that was left. In the morning we had puffed rice and rain water,” the Sister’s entry described. By 3 p.m., the National Guard had reached the iconic red brick building by boat in water now “only six feet [deep] in
the streets.”

A message sent from the Sisters to Fr. O’Reilly elicited a delivery of ham sandwiches and bottled water in reply from the Marianists Friday morning after rain and snowfall ceased. These provisions were followed by another delivery of bread and water. With supplies being delivered and floodwaters receding, the wrecked but sanitary school building also became a point of refuge for the weary.

“The boat rowed in over the iron Gate [sic] to the Franklin Street door. All day Friday, refugees were brought to the Convent on Franklin Street. [...] From Saturday morning until the following Tuesday, 78 persons were brought to the Convent half starved, half frozen; one woman having stood on a roof from Tuesday until she was brought to us on Friday. Doctors and nurses were constantly coming to see if the refugees needed their aid. Everybody was kind to us.

Courtesy of the Dayton Metro Library“During the first ten days after the flood six hundred persons were served with food by the Sisters, who got it from the Relief Committee; ten Sisters were busy serving all day. Former Graduates [sic] of the Academy came with baskets for relief,” the Sister’s account detailed.

Cleanup efforts began immediately. Mud, debris from homes and businesses and upwards of 3,000 horse and animal carcasses littered nearly all areas affected by the flood. The recovery would take years, but eventually culminated in the creation of The Miami Conservancy District in 1914 and the construction of five dams — Englewood, Germantown, Huffman, Lockington and Taylorsville — completed in 1922. The estimated death toll was between 300 to 400, including 123 casualties in Dayton. Property damage was estimated at more than $100 million (well over $2 billion today).

Through their hardships, the Sisters prayed and gave thanks for the many community members who offered help, going as far as acknowledging the Brothers of Mary as “best friends.” Long after, the relationship between two of the area’s prominent Catholic religious orders would continue to grow.

Fourteen years later, the Marianists purchased the property at Franklin and Ludlow before reuniting there with the Sisters in 1973 to form the school that continues to thrive at the very same downtown corner.

This story was first published in the Winter 2013 issue of Vision, CJ's alumni magazine.