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.
The rain-swelled Mahoning River swept the Perkins’ barn into Warren’s East Market Street bridge during the flood of 1913. The barn was intentionally set ablaze to clear the debris-clogged channel. Special photo
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.
Diary of a flood
The Warren Daily Tribune kept its readers updated on the flood that swept though Ohio the week of Easter 1913. Some highlights:
* MARCH 23
The heavy rain began on March 23, with a rain gauge recording 5.60 inches of rain within 24 hours.
* MARCH 24
Roads began to flood, wreaking havoc with business in the city because workers could not get to their jobs and street cars were also delayed because of the high water. Reports came in that the river was at its highest level since 1904.
* MARCH 25
Flood waters reached their zenith as they reached East Market Street and the bridge, as well as the city power plant. Perkins Park was under water and the water made it as high as the top of the Summit Street Bridge.
It was also the day Tom Winchell was saved when the boat he was in was buffeted by waters rising 3 inches an hour. He threw a line toward the East Market Street bridge and a man grabbed the line and hauled him over the railing.
That same day on Main Street, a baby boy died during a rescue attempt as the boat he was in with his mother tipped over into the waters.
* MARCH 26
The water started dropping and dropping fast. At its peak, the river crested at 21.1 feet.
Frank Wilkerson was swept off his Belden Alley porch as he was getting a boat ready to rescue his family.
Tentative damage estimates were estimated at at least $100,000 as residents gawked at the Riverside Auditorium, which was pushed to Buckeye Street N.W. by the waters and blocked the street.
* MARCH 27
More damage became apparent as the water continued to recede. Revised estimates said Warren alone suffered at least $500,000 in damage. Sidewalks were torn up and gas mains exposed.
In Girard, the waters in Squaw Creek overflowed and the Avon Park amusement park was under water.
In Leavittsburg, hay in barns was washed away and found stuck to the tops of trees as the waters receded.
* MARCH 28
Residents began returning to their homes. Cleanup crews, mostly of volunteers, were formed, but people lamented family mementoes or children's toys.
Benefits were held across Trumbull County in the days to come to help out the flood victims.
National Guard soldiers found Wilkerson's body at Park Avenue and Fulton Street as the river returned to its normal channel.
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.