The flood of 1913
In the early part of the 20th century, spring floods were common in Mahoning and Trumbull counties. An annual combination of increased rainfall and melting of snow and ice resulted in the Mahoning River breaching land and causing hardships for the area.
Things reached a head on Easter Sunday 1913 when unusually heavy rains toward the end of March drowned the area in waters measuring higher than 21 feet in some parts.
From March 23 to March 27, the river crested its banks and wrecked much of downtown Warren as well as several other communities in its path, including Niles, Girard and Youngstown.
Wendell Lauth, a historian of Trumbull County, said most of downtown Warren was flooded.
“The water was clear to the street level on Main Street,” Lauth said.
The waters in Warren cut the city off from the outside world and cut power to its residents. Work came to a standstill, homes and other buildings were washed away or caught fire and burned while high water prevented firefighters from getting to the flames.
In Warren, the Flats area on the southwest side were especially hard hit. Any homes that weren’t washed away were battered by flood waters that broke windows and doors on almost all of them.
Lauth said relatives of his living in Southington traveled to Warren to see the damage. ”They had to go to Warren to see the flooded streets.”
They were among large crowds that gathered to watch the waters rise and fall, especially around the bridges in the city.
Youngstown was also mostly under water, with commercial and industrial properties along the river banks taking the brunt. Both the Division Street and West Avenue bridges collapsed under the force of the tide.
“There was tremendous damage to almost everywhere,” Dr. Donna DeBlasio, a professor at Youngstown State University, said.
“You also have to remember, this wasn’t just our area that was hit. This was statewide. It was all over the place. I’m looking at one unbelievable photo right now where water was literally engulfing the mills,” she said.
Areas hit hardest included Mahoning and South avenues, as well as what was then considered the East Side of Youngstown, DeBlasio said.
“Of course the area around Wilson Avenue was hit extremely hard because they’ve got a hill that basically would have directed the water right down onto them,” DeBlasio said. “The mills were hit, because they were right on the water and there were no controls in place to help slow down the rising of the waters.”
The ‘great flood of 1913’ helped push public sentiment toward the creation of a system to better control river tides through dams and reservoirs.
The heavy rain that hit the Mahoning Valley also plagued the Midwest. The Ohio River and its tributaries overflowed across the state, causing heavy damage in Dayton, Columbus and other places.
More than 35,000 Ohio homes were damaged, and at least 400 people were killed, or perhaps 600 by some estimates.
Floods washed away or damaged docks, bridges, railroads and trains, wreaking havoc from Cincinnati to Portsmouth to Cleveland and hindering efforts to get aid to damaged areas. Levees broke, drenching various cities and leaving parts of Dayton and Columbus with 10 feet of water or more.
Werner Loehlein, chief of the Water Management Branch Operation Division with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Pittsburgh District, said the flood ultimately led to the creation of large federal projects like the reservoirs at Mosquito, Berlin, Lake Milton, West Branch and the Michael J. Kirwan Dam and Reservoir.
“They used the March 1913 flood to design those projects and to make sure if there was a recurrence of the same kind of rainfall, it could be handled,” Loehlein said. “Over the years, they’ve also added a spillway and increased the size so as not to over top the dam.”
What made the 1913 flood so devastating, according to Loehlein, was the persistence of the rain.
“It rained for four days and it had four separate peaks. The waters would go up, come back down and then go up again. It was a series of rain storms very close together,” he said.
“There is almost always a definable break between the storms and the flooding, but not in this one. That’s what makes this a historical flood, volume not the peak.”
The area has endured two major floods in the century since the ‘great flood’ – in 1959 and 2003 – in which the river crested higher than 16 feet both times, but nothing approached the level of the 1913 waters.
“If you go back into records, heavy rains have hit the north, south, east and west, but it has avoided Youngstown and the surrounding areas,” Loehlein said. “There has been really a 100-year period of not having that kind of rainfall again.
”Still, large storm events like that are random variables that you really can’t completely account for.”
The Army Corps of Engineers stays in close contact with the National Weather Service in monitoring the possibility of these large events, in addition to potential effects of climate change, Loehlein said.
“For future flooding, again, the reservoir system was done to handle another flood like the one in 1913, but we know we’ve had extreme events around the country lately, namely Hurricane Sandy,” Loehlein said. “If it would have hit in this area, it likely would have been more than what fell in 1913. We wouldn’t have the fear of over-topping in a situation like that.
“However, we would have had water going over the spillways. There would have been extensive flooding. The fact is, we can’t control every mile of river. The system has worked well, though,” he said.
Lauth said he is surprised that over the years more attention was not paid to the flood’s aftermath, both its cleanup and the flood control that followed.
”It’s a shame that more wasn’t recorded of the aftermath of those floods,” Lauth said.