A photo of the Flood of 1913 taken facing south down Washington Street from the intersection at Central Avenue. Notice the people standing on the second story balcony of the house on the west side of the street and the horse - more than belly deep in the water - and wagon in the distance. (Van Wert County Historical Society photo)
BY KIRK DOUGAL
Times Bulletin Publisher
VAN WERT - Rain showers are just a normal part of the spring. But 100 years ago this week, those showers turned into a days-long deluge that led to a deadly flood.
What would be one of the most devastating natural disasters in Ohio history all began simply enough with a light rain on Friday, March 21, 1913, accompanied by high winds and temperatures hovering around 60 degrees. That changed on Saturday when a second small squall arrived with the mercury dropping into the 20s, leaving a crust of ice over the ground.
Sometime shortly after midnight on Sunday, the skies let loose with a pounding downpour. For the next 48 hours, rain fell in an unrelenting shower onto already saturated ground. By Monday evening more than 11 inches of rain had forced the local rivers to overflow from their banks, flooding Van Wert and leaving the entire downtown area looking like a low, bowlful of brown water. When the rains finally stopped on Wednesday, March 26, approximately 20 inches of rain had landed on the area.By then, however, it appeared the entire city and surrounding area had mobilized to save as much property as possible and to make sure everyone was safe. On Monday afternoon, reports were given of flooded cellars in downtown businesses and nearby homes. By the evening, the streets were blocked with water. All members of the police and city fire departments were called in to help as grocers, shop owners and factory men tried to move their goods to higher ground.
Reports in the Van Wert Daily Bulletin said the floods increased in great leaps. At one point, the water level rose three inches in twenty minutes. Every building near Third Ward Park had damage. Near the city building the water in the street was measured at seven feet. Residents near the downtown area reported seeing homes filled with water that could be seen through the windows from the street. Because automobiles would not run partially submerged, horses and wagons were used to move people and goods but the drivers had to stand on the seats to stay dry. Water made its way into the Auditorium Play House and rose to the level of the stage floor. At two o'clock in the morning on Tuesday, employees of the Daily Bulletin and fire department personnel were able to move everything of value from the Bulletin offices in hip deep water except for the massive rolls of newspaper print that were destroyed. One reporter went to the tower of the Van Wert County Courthouse once the sun rose and wrote the entire town looked like one vast lake.
If no wagons could make it down the street, women and children were carried to safety by men who waded through water up to their waists. Many of the private clubs and lodges opened their doors to any who could make it to safety. The same could be said of many of the homes that were on higher ground. Roy Shaffer reportedly carried seventy-two people to safety by himself. Every part of town reported some damage although newspaper accounts said First Ward was the least affected.
The flooding extended far from Van Wert. The local railroads ran as long as they could with the Traction Line the first to stop. The next to halt trains was the Pittsburgh, Ft. Wayne and Chicago Rail Road Company line. It stopped because the bridge over the Auglaize River just west of Delphos was swept away by the rushing waters. Between the loss of roads and railways, along with multiple-downed telephone and telegraph lines, Van Wert was virtually isolated from the rest of the world. Once contact was re-established, the widespread area of the storm became known:
- In Dayton, an estimated 7,000 people were homeless.
- The levee at the Miami River gave way and the rushing flood waters joined the Mad River in a raging torrent. Five thousand residents were killed in the 10-foot wall of water.
- The National Cash Register Company building was in ruins and what was not destroyed by water burned up in fire.
- Indianapolis officials reported thousands of people were homeless in the Broad Ripple area.
- In Kokomo the city power plant was flooded and left the town without electricity.
- An estimated 500 people were seen running down the streets of Marion, Indiana as the Mississinewa River destroyed their homes.
- All three pumping stations in Ft. Wayne flooded, meaning the city was left without a fresh water supply.
- An estimated 400 people were killed in Piqua.
- In Delphos, some families on the south side of town were rescued by boat from second story house windows.
- More than 3,000 feet of the Clover Leaf railroad line was washed away.
- At the Aaron Fisher Stone Quarry, water filled the hole and rose above the roofs of the buildings.
- The number of dead around all of Ohio was estimated at 18,000.