From Ohio History Central
John H. Patterson directing rescue work, the Dayton flood, March 1913.
The Flood of 1913 is known as the greatest natural disaster in Ohio history. Although rivers in Ohio tended to flood every spring, heavy rains in March 1913 exacerbated the flood conditions. Most communities located along rivers in the state experienced flooding, even those that had not had problems in the past. The most severe flooding occurred along the Great Miami River, and the conditions in Dayton were particularly bad.
In some parts of the state, officials chose to dynamite canal locks in an attempt to alleviate flooding. By the early twentieth century, few canals were still in operation in Ohio, but the destruction of the locks ensured the permanent end to canal transportation.
In Dayton, flood levies broke, leading to water rising up to twenty feet in the downtown. In addition, fires broke out across the city as gas lines ruptured, and the fire department was unable to access the fires. John Patterson, the owner of National Cash Register, was a prominent figure during the flood. He organized relief efforts in the community, even going as far as opening his own factories to act as emergency shelters for those who had been driven from their homes.
When the flood was over, Ohioans began to assess the damage. At least 428 people died during the Flood of 1913, and more than twenty thousand homes were totally destroyed. Property damage was extensive, as many other homes were seriously damaged. Factories, railroads, and other structures also faced major losses.
After the flood waters receded, Patterson and other Dayton residents were determined to prevent a future disaster of this magnitude. They hired hydrological engineer Arthur Morgan to come up with an extensive plan to protect Dayton from floods. Morgan recommended the construction of a series of earthen dams on the Great Miami River, as well as modifications to the river channel in Dayton. Governor James M. Cox supported the plan, helping to gain passage of the Vonderheide Act, which is also known as the Ohio Conservancy Law, in 1914. The law gave the state the authority to establish watershed districts and to raise funds for improvements through taxes. Although the Vonderheide Act was challenged in both the state and United States supreme courts in Orr v. Allen (1915 and 1919), the law was upheld. In 1915, the Miami Conservancy District was created in response to the Vonderheide Act. It became the first major watershed district in the nation.
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