Region to mark record-shattering floods that swamped Ohio in 1913

Streets turned to rivers, buildings splintered into toothpicks, trees tossed like sticks.
Mar 26, 2013


Photographs depict the devastation: Streets turned to rivers, buildings splintered into toothpicks, trees tossed like sticks.

The 1913 flood swept away homes and claimed hundreds of lives, including 19 dead in Tiffin where the Sandusky River flows through the city and a century ago submerged it.

Historians are among those marking the flood's anniversary from March 23-27, 1913, when relentless rain pelted a dozen states in record-setting fashion. At least 428 people were killed in Ohio alone, according to the Ohio Historical Society. Others think the state's true death toll was even higher.

Tiffin plans to pay tribute to those who died with a public memorial service at 3:30 p.m. April 14 at a former church at 230 S. Washington St. The free event is modeled on a 1913 service and will include speakers and photographs.

Rain drenched the state in 1913, from destroyed Dayton, where many perished in the deadly waters, to Toledo, where old weather-bureau reports describe nearly 5.5 inches of rainfall in a three-day period and said the overflowing Maumee River "caused much delay and inconvenience to traffic" but a "comparatively small" amount of damage and loss.

The flood remains the largest weather disaster in Ohio or Indiana, said Sarah Jamison, senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Cleveland. It also wiped out the state's canal system.

One hundred years have passed since spectators in hats and overcoats crowded downtown Tiffin and watched from across a submerged street as rescuers using cables, a ladder, and boat worked to pluck guests from the balconies of the Shawhan hotel.

The building remains, now transformed into assisted-living residences. Across the street at a coffee shop, customers can sip lattes and view the area where a rescue boat once ferried the stranded to safety.

Like soggy clothing to skin, flood history clings to Tiffin.

It's preserved at the Seneca County Museum, where stark photographs show the rising river and awful aftermath. Residents documented the disaster with their cameras, recently made affordable and accessible.

It's passed down generation to generation, in shared snippets like the one museum assistant director Mark Steinmetz learned from his grandmother. She recalled after the flood at age 13 that she crossed the railroad bridge by jumping over coal cars that had weighed down the bridge and prevented its collapse.

It's carved on a monument at Saint Joseph Catholic Cemetery. An elaborate marker there commemorates the lives of a mother, her nine children, her son-in-law, and a young woman engaged to one of her sons. All 12 died when the flood destroyed the house where they had taken refuge on an upper floor.

Flood waters receded, years crept by, and survivors passed.

Lisa Swickard, author of the book Calamity and Courage: Tiffin's Battle During Ohio's Deadly 1913 Flood, said some people she meets don't know about the disaster. Her research began when she was a reporter for the Advertiser-Tribune newspaper; she now contributes stories to The Blade as a correspondent.

However faint, memories of the flood haven't entirely washed away.

"It's something that most people, even the younger people, are aware of," Mr. Steinmetz said. "Whenever there is a pretty decent flood in town there's always these stories that go back to well, you know, you think it's bad now, you should have seen it during the 1913 flood."

Before the water, there was wind.

On Good Friday, March 21, 1913, hurricane-force winds whipped through the area. Meteorological notes from the weather bureau report a "severe gale" that day in Toledo and the region, and gusts reached 100 miles per hour. Windows shattered, and electric poles and wires were damaged.

"What that did is it set the stage for when the rains did start. The relay for help was limited," Ms. Jamison said. "Rain came in Easter Sunday evening, and it just rained and rained and rained."

Deadly tornadoes hit Omaha that day. Bad news and worsening weather would continue.

Throughout the following days, waters surged in Ohio. Bridges toppled, washouts hampered rail transport, communication lines severed, and levees broke, according to The Blade. Total rainfall measured 7.97 inches in Tiffin, 5.6 inches in Findlay, and 8.67 inches in Fremont, Ms. Jamison said.

Weather prediction was less sophisticated then, Tom Rieder, Ohio Historical Society reference archivist, said.

"Because of the lack of warnings and their experience with floods in the past, they were not ready for the volume of water coming their way," he said.

In Tiffin, some waited too long to evacuate.

"They just didn't leave. They didn't see any reason for leaving because they had been through floods before," Ms. Swickard said.

Rescuers struggled to row boats through strong currents to save people stuck in homes. In her book, Ms. Swickard wrote about unsuccessful efforts to reach the Klingshirn house, where occasional lights of matches inside the home revealed a dozen people's distress. Witnesses separated by a watery divide could hear cries for help, she wrote.

Among the crowd was George Klingshirn, who watched as the house containing his wife and nine of his children gave way to flood waters and collapsed. A cemetery monument inscribed with their names and the words "May their souls rest in peace" commemorates the family.

The Blade described the Tiffin deaths of William and Addline Axline.

"When the Axline residence on Water Street was picked up by the rush of waters, spectators saw Mr. and Mrs. Axline at the second story window, the wife's head pillowed on his breast and his arms encircling her body," the story states. The Seneca County Museum displays a small, horseshoe-shaped footstool from their home salvaged from flood wreckage.

About 20 miles north, Fremont also battled the bulging Sandusky River. Three people died in the flood there, and many more were rescued. One man was hailed a hero. Capt. Isaac Floro of Port Clinton drowned when his boat wrecked after he saved multiple people. A photograph featured in a commemorative flood booklet shows three men standing below a bare tree, a white X on a limb high above the men's heads, marking the spot where his body was discovered.

"He was killed rescuing people," said Fred Recktenwald, vice president of the Sandusky County Historical Society and a Fremont historian. "There's no parks named after him. He came from out of town to help save people here, and he lost his life."

Mr. Recktenwald made a film a few years ago that tells the story of the flood and Captain Floro. His funeral, held in Port Clinton in front of an estimated 2,000 mourners, included about 100 from Fremont who made the trip, according to The Blade.

Not all the tales were tragic. The newspaper carried the story of a Columbus woman who gave birth while rocking in a row boat midrescue. A patrolman and detective met the boat at a bridge, where the baby was wrapped in an overcoat.

"Perhaps no child ever was brought into the world under more uncanny or harrowing circumstances," the story stated.

Toledo's response

Although parts of Toledo were under water, including Water Street, reports indicate Toledo fared better than many Ohio cities.

The Blade reported several Toledo deaths in the flood's early days, though confusion reigned and fatality estimates from various sites were inflated. Much newspaper coverage focused on the relief and rescue efforts launched by locals.

A relief train from Toledo was the first to reach beleaguered Dayton, a story noted. Its progress was impaired by detours and "slow testing of tracks." One train to Dayton held 60 members of the Toledo naval reserves and newspapermen.

Other trains left Toledo to help cities throughout Ohio, and Toledo sent boats to Pemberville, Woodville, and Tiffin. Fremont received the help of several Toledo firemen and volunteers who came with boats by train.

Toledo was "one of the few communities that actually had the ability to transport," Ms. Jamison said.

Ohio National Guard members from a Toledo unit arrived to help keep order and halt looting in Tiffin, Ms. Swickard said.

The flood's historical import didn't end when waters receded. The deadly event led to the creation of conservancy districts to build projects that reduced flood risk.

In Tiffin, Ms. Swickard said officials launched river-improvement projects, including a river wall.

Ms. Jamison is a member of the Silver Jackets, a flood-focused coalition of local, state, and federal agencies. The group wants to spread awareness about flooding, something the area still experiences.

If a similar amount of rain fell again, reservoirs would help reduce runoff though major flooding and significant damage would still occur, she said. But the weather service would be able to sound the alarm, and fatalities "would be drastically reduced," she said.


By Vanessa McCray - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (MTC)

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