Epic 1913 Mahoning River flood cast wide net of destruction

By PETER H. MILLIKEN | milliken@vindy.com

The devastating record flood that inundated Youngstown and 93 other Ohio towns and cities a century ago was the catalyst for modern-day storm-water management, bridge and public water supply-system design, and construction and land use on floodplains.

Before 1913, floods were “almost an annual spring occurrence” in Youngstown, with notable damaging floods in 1878 and 1904, according to Joseph G. Butler Jr.’s 1921 “History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley.”

“Between approximately 1880 and 1913, there were about six major floods in Ohio, and the one in 1913 prompted the beginning of modern flood controls in Ohio,” said Sarah Gartland, a certified floodplain manager with the Mahoning County Planning Commission.

Flooding from the four-day rain that began on Easter, March 23, 1913, however, was unprecedented and never to be equalled in the century that followed.

“It was attributable solely to an almost unceasing rain of four days and four nights, something akin to the biblical deluge,” Butler wrote in his first-hand account of the event.

Although Mahoning River dwellers were forced to flee their homes, “it was the industries that suffered worst,” wrote Butler, the industrialist who founded the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngtown.

“All of these located in the river valley were put hopelessly out of operation, the water standing many feet deep in the mill buildings and covering the machinery,” Butler wrote.

Among the flooded industries were the Brier Hill Steel Co.; the Ohio Works of the Carnegie Steel Co. (later U.S. Steel); the William Tod Co. and the Lloyd Booth Co. (both later to become Wean United); Republic Iron and Steel Co.’s downtown office building and downtown and Haselton plants; and Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co.

“The flood is significant because it was the largest flood in recorded history in the Mahoning River watershed,” said H. William Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. “There were no reservoirs to catch any of this water at that point, so it just filled the floodplains of the Mahoning River,” he said. “The major tributaries also flooded.”

Immediately after the 1913 flood, the Ohio Legislature allowed the formation of conservancy districts and authorized counties to form three-member boards to construct and maintain flood-control structures.

In the Mahoning Valley, the Lake Milton dam was completed in 1916, forming the lake that would increase Youngstown’s industrial water supply and begin the creation of water-storage capacity to alleviate flooding here.

In the decades that followed, dams were built to create and regulate the water levels of Berlin, West Branch, Mosquito and Shenango River Lake reservoirs. Those lakes became part of a vast U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-managed network of water-storage lakes that would reduce downstream flooding, help maintain consistent river water depths and provide recreational boating


Each fall, the Corps reduces water levels in these lakes to increase their capacity to store snow melt and spring rains, and thereby reduce downstream flooding.

“It was officially called the ‘reservoir design flood,’” for Berlin, Mosquito and West Branch, said Werner Loehlein, a hydraulic engineer with the Corps in Pittsburgh. Those lakes and dams were designed to withstand a recurrence of the 1913 flood, but with some water going over the dams’ emergency spillways, he explained.

“They’ve reduced the flooding in the Youngstown area dramatically,” Loehlein said.

In Youngstown in 1913, many homes weren’t damaged because “most people lived above the floodplains on the hillsides or over the hills on the plateaus,”

Lawson said.

“What really affected us locally was the damage done to commercial and industrial property. ... Railroads and all the steel mills were right on the river on the floodplain. Places like downtown Youngstown and several other central business districts were right on the river and the floodplain, so they were affected,” Lawson explained. Store inventories, railroad freight, furnaces and mills suffered heavy losses.

“We were putting too many people in harm’s way by not thinking about the river as being a changeable thing,” observed Tim Seman, genealogy and local history librarian at the main library of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. “We put a lot of things right up on the water, and the way they were established and built made them vulnerable,” he said of 1913 land use.

With the Mahoning River cresting 23 feet above normal and 8 feet higher than any other recorded flood, the damage to industry caused temporary unemployment for some 25,000 workers in Youngstown. The city’s damage was estimated at $2.5 million. Adjusted for inflation, that damage would total $58.6 million today.

“From a volume standpoint, it was a record flood,” Loehlein said. The 1913 flood consisted of “a bunch of intense rainstorms with short periods of little or no rain in between,” he added.

Over the four days, the Mahoning Valley got between 7 and 9 inches of rain, Loehlein said, adding that rainfall averages were 8.8 inches in the west branch basin of the Mahoning River, 7.15 inches on the river’s main stem and 8.35 inches along Mosquito Creek, which flows into the river in Niles.

Floodwaters carried away the Division Street and West Avenue bridges and inundated Youngstown’s West Avenue water pumping station and North Avenue power house, shutting down water and electrical service.

Streetcars and railroads ceased operations, and telephone and telegraph lines were down. Streetcars became temporary dwellings for those made homeless by the flood, and city water service didn’t resume until three days after its shutdown.

With the city nearly isolated for three days and traffic at a near standstill, Mayor Fred Hartenstein ordered all saloons to close. Gov. James Cox sent in three National Guard companies to provide disaster assistance and discourage looting.

With The Vindicator’s press room flooded, the newspaper’s March 26, 1913, edition was limited to a single 6-by-8-inch flood news bulletin sheet with hand-set type, which was printed on a small job shop press.

In those days, which predated radio and TV, newspapers were the key source of news, Seman noted. “In Youngstown, the only medium of information, the only way it was transmitted was through the Youngstown Vindicator because there was no electrical power for telegraph lines or telephone,” he said.

The flood nearly isolated Sharon, West Middlesex, New Castle and Oil City, Pa. Five people drowned in Sharon, where the Shenango River flooded, Lawson said.

Along Yellow Creek, an 8-year-old Struthers boy died after falling into the raging waters as a section of the stream bank collapsed.

The flood of 1913 also led to changes in bridge design, with newer bridges featuring a higher and clearer span to avoid having flood debris in the river threaten to destroy the bridges by piling up at their support beams, Lawson said.

“That changed the way we looked at our public water as well,” Lawson said of the flood, noting that Youngstown’s water supply and treatment later moved from the Mahoning River in downtown Youngstown to Meander Reservoir, which was created in 1932.

The 1913 flood also led to the formation in Youngstown, Cleveland and other major cities of the Community Chest to assist flood disaster victims, which was the forerunner of the United Way, Seman said.

“People really pulled together. We had firemen and policemen doing their jobs, but a lot of private citizens were out there rescuing people, rescuing horses and dogs,” Seman said.

The disaster was much worse in Dayton, where floodwaters created a three-mile wide river, and a downtown fire compounded the loss, and in Columbus, where all but one bridge over the Scioto River was swept away by floodwaters, essentially dividing that city in half.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated Ohio’s damage at more than $143 million — $3.3 billion in today’s dollars The U.S. Weather Bureau pegged Ohio’s 1913 flood death toll at 367, but the U.S. Geological Survey put it at 467, perhaps due to an error in copying the number from the weather bureau report.

With 94 towns affected, 220 bridges destroyed, and 33,833 buildings flooded, Ohio suffered, by far, the most damage and loss of life among seven Ohio River Valley states. “Lots of animals were lost, especially around the farms,” Seman said, adding that 40,000 Ohioans were made homeless.

The destruction from the 1913 flood also put Ohio’s canal system permanently out of business.

With the ground saturated, local runoff was compounded by heavy rainfall over the headwaters of Ohio’s major rivers and their tributaries, with some areas getting 8 to 10 inches of rain, Seman noted. This created “a flood- wave surge,” he said. “That is why the level of the water came up so fast and the devastation was so immediate.”

Since 1913, Mahoning River flood levels have been “not even close” to that peak year, “predominantly due to the construction of the flood-control measures,” Gartland said.

“Also, we modernized our outlook on construction, so that things were built to withstand flooding. Where we construct changed,” she added.

“In flood-prone areas, the lower levels of the buildings are used for parking” and other uses that “will not result in extensive loss” due to flooding, she said. “We started building away from the water, which partly is due to the end of the canal system.”

“The reservoirs helped a great deal in catching water and in slowing down the flooding process,” Lawson said. “The reservoirs have really helped control flooding on the river and also keep the water levels up in the dry months.”

Another flood comparable to the one a century ago is “highly unlikely because of all the flood and water-level controls that are on the river at this point,” Lawson said.

The historical society is featuring information on the 1913 flood in its March-April Historical Happenings newsletter and on its website, www.mahoninghistory.org.