LIMA — It began, like many early spring days in Ohio, with a cold rain falling on the dirty remains of the just-passed winter. But this rain lasted much longer than most. According to the newspapers, it rained for five days — an “incessant” rain for the first two days — and it leached the color out of Easter Sunday 1913, the day it started.
A headline in capital letters in the following day’s Lima Daily News read “Heavens floodgates released Easter Sunday sees all Lima observing the holiday indoors.” Bad, but another all-caps headline in that edition told of bigger problems: “Danger of worst flood in a decade is imminent.”
It kept raining, melting the last of the ice and snow, pouring off roofs and streets, forming countless tiny streams that filled gutters and sewers and ran off frozen fields. Eventually, it all flowed into the Ottawa River. Between 2 and 8 a.m. March 25, the river rose dramatically, by some estimates at the rate of five inches an hour.
Statewide, according to the Ohio Historical Society, 467 people perished in the great flood of 1913, with Dayton suffering the highest death toll at 123 as the Great Miami River ran 10 feet deep through downtown streets. Downstream in Hamilton, about 100 people died. In Columbus, the Scioto River claimed 100 lives. Thirteen survivors were plucked from a single tree in Columbus. Six to 11 inches of rain fell on Ohio beginning March 23, pushing every river in the state out of its banks. It was much the same in Indiana.
Ruin had arrived on the heels of an ill wind that ushered in Spring that year. The News on March 21 reported a “gale that unroofed houses, demolished buildings, shattered window glass and wrecked electric service. Lima for five hours Friday morning swayed at the mercy of the cyclone.” The gale was part of a larger system that spawned tornadoes in 20 states.
The Ottawa River reached flood stage by noon March 24, and kept rising. It didn’t crest until 6 p.m. the following day.
“Terror stricken by the encroachment of the raging Ottawa River, hundreds of dwellers of the lowland and bottom districts fled from their homes in scant attire shortly after midnight Monday morning when the swollen stream neared the height of the worst rampage since the memorable flood of 1905,” the News reported March 24.
“From McCullough’s Lake (now Schoonover Park) in the northeast to Faurot Park in the southwest, a wild avalanche of water is sweeping with unrelenting fury for a width of three to four city blocks, flooding houses, inundating streets and bridges, carrying away property and leaving thousands of men women and children homeless, and in many instances destitute,” the Lima Times-Democrat said.
Water was reported 12 feet deep in Faurot Park while homes along South Main Street between Eureka and Circular streets were under 8 to 9 feet of water.
“Scurrying rats terrorize spectators at floods edge,” a March 25 all-caps headline in the Allen County Republican Gazette claimed. Scurrying rats or not, March 25 proved to be the worst day of a terrible week in Lima, which, according to the March 25 News, was “rent in twain by the worst flooding in the history of the city … at 11 o’clock this morning was cut off from the outside world.”
South of the river, water crept into the boiler at the Lima Locomotive Works closing the shop, while employees couldn’t reach Ohio Steel or the Gramm Motor Car Co. Lima shut down.
The “wild avalanche of water” on March 25 left only the Pierce Street bridge above water according to the Times-Democrat. That day, the Central Avenue Bridge was swept into the river, sending workers diverting debris away from the Main Street bridge scurrying for safety. Fortunately, the unmoored Central Avenue bridge snagged on a tree between Union and Main streets, steadying itself “long enough to sink,” The Times-Democrat reported. The Hiner Stone Quarry building on East North Street was washed into the flood when the river bank collapsed, carrying with it an immense steam shovel, which was buried in the debris. A Shay locomotive operated by the stone company floated into the newly constructed East North Street bridge, which also eventually washed away. That Shay locomotive was subsequently donated to the city and is now housed in the Allen County Museum.
Lima’s only casualty directly attributable to the flood also occurred March 25 when a teamster named Basil Buck ignored the warnings of spectators and tried to cross the West Street bridge near Eureka Street. According to the Republican Gazette, “as he drove on his horse made a desperate struggle to breast the current but it was too swift and strong.” Buck’s body was recovered the next day “lodged near the Pierce Street bridge.”
The Times-Democrat reported service on the five railroads and two electric interurban lines “is practically suspended and the city is marooned from the outside world almost as effectively as if there were no railroad lines entering the city.” Adding to the misery, the city gas plant was knocked out leaving “the entire city devoid of gas supply.”
The city was not devoid of rumors. Stories of impending collapses at the reservoirs at Celina (Grand Lake) and Lewistown (Indian Lake) were reported and denied several times. On March 27, the News reported “at the hour of the sending of this message the whistles of all the factories in St. Marys are being blown to sound warning to the people of the city and surrounding country to flee for safety.”
The March 25 News reported: “Wholesale meat dealers late Wednesday denied the lurid rumor given currency Wednesday morning that Lima would be in the throes of a fresh meat famine before morning.” That same day, the paper said Lima Fire Chief John Mack was refusing offers of “$50 or more” to rescue stranded horses.
March’s fickle nature was on full display the next several days. “Effects of Lima’s marine holocaust were felt keenest at 3 o’clock this morning,” the News reported March 27, “with the city wrapped in the throes of a northwestern blizzard which brought with it three inches of snow and 10-degrees temperature.” Two days later the weather was described as clear and warmer.
A hint at a return to normalcy came on March 31, eight days after the rain started. The front page of that day’s News was filled with reports on the death of Gilded Age financier J.P. Morgan, and a murder in Lima. “Zella Newson, slave of the underworld, murdered by an Italian sweetheart in south Lima early Sunday evening,” the News announced.
Although other events replaced flood news on the front pages of Lima’s newspapers, it took much longer for it to recede from Lima’s memory. “Muddy and dirty homes, disappearing sidewalks and gaping holes in the streets lingered for weeks,” the Lima Citizen reported in a 1963 story on the 50th anniversary of the flood.
On the inside pages of local papers, echoes of the flood appeared for weeks with stories of plans to prevent future floods, deaths traced to stress from the flood and this item in the May 24 Republican Gazette: “Woman defies car edict; Babe rides.” The woman, according to the story, had refused to exit a street car and walk across the Pine Street Bridge “on account of its unsafe condition rendered so by the recent flood.” The short standoff ended when the conductor allowed the baby to ride across with him.