And the Rains Came:
Dayton and the 1913 Flood

Floods have been a part of Dayton’s history since its founding in 1796. The earliest recorded flood occurred in 1805, when eight feet of water inundated the streets of Dayton. As a response, the city constructed a series of earthen levies to contain the rivers. Other noted floods occurred in 1828, 1847, 1866 and 1898. The typical response was to clean up the mess, patch up and strengthen the levies, and to carry on with life. While the 1898 flood was devastating enough to make people think about a better system of flood protection, there seemed to be no sense of urgency.

Geography explains why Dayton seems to have been plagued by floods during its history. Thinking of the transportation, and therefore economic benefits, our founding fathers chose a site for Dayton that is at the convergence of the region’s four major waterways: the Great Miami River, the Stillwater River, Mad River and Wolf Creek. Over the years, the most heavily populated and busy sections of the bustling city grew up around the bend in the Great Miami, where the width of its channel begins narrowing by almost 50%. Heavy rains in the Miami Valley means that the Great Miami fills up and flows southward, collecting water from the other three waterways as it makes its way towards Dayton.

That is exactly what happened in March of 1913. When it began raining on Sunday, March 23rd it did not stop again for five days. During this period, nine to eleven inches of rain fell on ground that was already saturated by the heavy snow and ice of the past few months. All of this rain became runoff, filling the rivers to overflowing.

At first, this situation did not cause any real concern for the citizens of Dayton. At about 4:00 am on March 25th, Fred Aring, a telegraph operator noted in his diary:

“About this time we had received meager reports from operators North and South of Dayton, that the Miami River had been and still was rising rapidly. At this point (South Dayton), the river already was out of its banks, but, as there are no levees here, this was to be expected…Certainly no general flood is expected.”

For a short period of time, it looked as if all would be well in Dayton. The waters appeared to be rising at a slower rate, or even falling some. This situation quickly changed though. By 5:50 am on March 25th, Fred Aring entered something new in his diary:

“Water has begun to rise again and much faster than ever. It has risen at the rate of about an inch every five minutes for the past quarter of an hour…Rain is coming down in torrents now.”

The disaster that Daytonians had thought would never happen was now beginning in earnest.

In the early morning hours of Tuesday, March 25th, church bells rang and whistles blew throughout the city, warning of impending disaster. Only one hour later, the water had topped the Riverdale levee, and within another ten minutes the Monument Avenue levee had broken. With this last defense gone, water began to roar into downtown at speeds of 25 miles per hour. The center of Dayton was flooded with water that reached ten to twelve feet deep, with depths of as much as twenty feet in lower lying portions of the city. The speed and force of the water damaged or destroyed many homes and businesses in Dayton. As gas lines in some buildings leaked and were ignited, fire also became a problem in downtown.

People had to get to the highest points in their homes to escape the rising water. This often meant camping out on the roof for days until a boat came by to rescue them. It was a cold, wet and thoroughly frightening time. Water cut off any avenue of escape, fires could be seen burning unchecked in downtown, and people could be heard crying in fear. Daytonians rose to the challenge that the flood had created. A Daytonian with a boat would often go out to rescue those stuck on rooftops. Neighbors and frequently strangers were invited into the upper reaches of homes to wait out the water.

John H. Patterson, of the National Cash Register Company, launched what was perhaps the greatest rescue effort during the 1913 flood. As early as Tuesday morning, when the flooding was just starting and most still believed that the levees would hold, Patterson initiated safety measures. He began by ordering NCR’s company whistles to blow repeatedly as a warning to citizens of the impending disaster. Patterson halted production of cash registers and set the company to begin construction of rescue boats. The Dayton Citizens Relief Association, begun by Patterson, set up coffee stations and food lines, collected donations of food, clothing and supplies, cooked thousands of meals and organized temporary shelters for those left homeless by the flood. On a smaller scale churches, schools and communities throughout the area organized similar efforts.

Finally, after four days and almost eleven inches of rain, the floodwaters began to recede, allowing Daytonians their first look at the damage. Approximately 190 million dollars in damage was left in the wake of the flood. The damage and destruction touched almost everything possible, including homes, businesses, furniture, vehicles, equipment, and livestock. Emma Grimes, who worked at Miami Valley Hospital, wrote to her sister:

“Dayton is a mass of ruins, houses are piled on top of each other…no one has been allowed to come in [to Dayton], soldiers are every place, and you know everything people owned or had in their homes is all scattered over the streets…

With the cleanup underway, the citizens of Dayton determined that a flood would never again destroy their city. A flood relief fund was begun, and in a matter of weeks two million dollars had been raised to protect the city from future flooding. From this fund, the Miami Conservancy District was created and a system of dams was built. This system of five dry dams would collect the runoff from the water systems in the northern part of the area, thus preventing the runoff from inundating the lower waterways. This effectively prevents the Great Miami from flooding at Dayton.



People rescued in NCR boat

Research & Resources
The NCR Archive
Archive Center
Patterson Homestead
Artifact Donation
History At A Glance
  Dayton’s Fifth River
  And the Rains Came: 1913 Flood
  Through the Camera’s Eye
  Found: One Missing Time Capsule
  Hawthorn Hill: The Wright Family Home
  Moraine Park School
  Old River Park
Who We Are: Dayton Neighborhoods Project
In Their Own Words: Stories From the Miami Valley
FAQ’s About Miami Valley History
National Register Sites
Related Links
Making Progress: 1890-1926


Flood rally at Old Court House, May 25, 1913

People along river

Fire Blocks damage

Westwood Garage and houses

Barney and Smith Car Company
Steele High School
Conkle Cloak reopens for business
Jewel theater damaged
Clearing debris at Rike’s
People rescued in NCR boat
John H. Pattterson in relief car
Wreckage at Union Station
Refugees of the flood