On March 26, 1913, the Akron Beacon Journal headline screamed: "Worst Flood in Ohio History with Dayton Center of Horror." The accompanying article described "a calamity which can only be compared to the death, destruction, horrors, and devastation of war …"
Between March 23 and 27, the equivalent of two to three months' worth of rain fell across the Ohio Valley. Every river and stream in the state flooded. Bridges, roads, railways, dams, and property were washed away. An estimated 500 people drowned, a quarter of a million were left homeless, and damages were estimated in the hundreds of millions. It was the most widespread natural disaster that the United States had witnessed, engulfing parts of 15 states.
This March, Cuyahoga Valley National Park and its partners will take a look back at this powerful event, the lives it touched, and its legacy.
The keynote event will be a Lyceum lecture at 8 p.m. March 22, by author Trudy E. Bell, the foremost expert on the Flood of 1913. Her lecture will be preceded by a flood-themed dinner as part of the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park's Dinner in the Valley series. Call 330-657-2909 for reservations if you plan to just attend the lecture; call 330-657-2796 ext. 121 for dinner and lecture reservations. This program is offered with support from the Summit County Historical Society.
While destruction was centered in Dayton, impacts of the flood were broadly felt. Locally, the Flood of 1913 may be best known as the final blow to state operations of the Ohio & Erie Canal. By 1913, the canal's role in transportation had already long been waning with the rise of railroads. Pleasure boaters and the occasional canal boat made up the limited traffic on the canal.
The experience in Akron illustrates how the damage to the canal became too much to repair. It is described by Park Ranger Pam Machuga.
"By Monday, March 24, the Little Cuyahoga River had made an amazing transformation, overflowing its banks in east Akron," Machuga says. "Akron would get another five inches of rain in the next 24 hours. By Tuesday, a crowd gathered on high ground to watch as the raging river carried houses away.
"When Akron's east reservoir gave way, some thought it had been dynamited. Water roared over the gates of the canal locks to a depth of 8 feet, making them impossible to open. Lock 1 in Akron held back 9 miles of water. Canal cities were warned by those on horseback to evacuate the area. John Henry Vance, a B.F. Goodrich engineer, used dynamite to blast open the lock gates. The water crushed gate after gate, ripping the clay lining off the banks of the canal, as it rushed north to Peninsula and Boston."
Downstream from Akron, Cuyahoga Valley residents and businesses along the Cuyahoga River were among the many battling floodwaters. Park Ranger Rebecca Jones describes the situation in the Village of Boston.
"People saw their houses swept off their foundations," she says. "The Boodey family worried about their store, so opened the front and back door to try to prevent it from being lifted from the foundation. They watched a log float through their store. People dropped dynamite onto the nearby dam on the Cuyahoga River to relieve water pressure.
"The Cleveland-Akron Bag Company had to clean up for weeks before it could reopen after the flood. How do you clean a house or business that is layered thick with mud in the days before shop vacs and readily available chlorine bleach?"
The magnitude and the impacts of the flood were much more far-reaching than the local impacts.
Lyceum-speaker Bell notes, "This mammoth storm system with its ferocious tornadoes and floods set records for fatalities and flood heights that still stand today -- and which dwarfed both Sandy and Katrina in geographical extent."
She says it also created institutions that evolved into today's United Way, Red Cross, Rotary, IBM, and Cox Communications.
An era of flood awareness followed immediately after the flood. New dams, levees, floodwalls, and the increased role of the federal government in large-scale emergency response all grew out of the Great Flood of 1913.
Natural resource protection is part of the conversation around flood control that has occurred since 1913. Wetlands protection gained support for slowing and filtering storm water. In recent years, attention has focused on impervious surfaces, areas that water cannot infiltrate such as buildings and parking lots. Impervious surfaces increase runoff and flood risk. Cuyahoga Valley National Park supports development strategies that reduce runoff. We are currently role modeling one approach through the porous pavement used in a new parking lot at Rockside Station.
The website for the Ohio & Erie Canalway, www.ohioanderiecanalway.com, lists local commemorative events.
In addition to the Lyceum, starting at 11 a.m. March 23, the G.A.R. Hall Museum in Peninsula presents Soup's On, Waters Are Rising! The program includes a large selection of homemade soups followed by a slideshow about the flood and museum tours.
Editor's note: Jennie Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.