On Tuesday, March 25, 1913, the Great Miami River broke free of its banks and swept through Piqua, Rossville, and Shawnee. Unlike floods that had struck Piqua before, this one took its toil in human lives as well as property. Within three days, fourteen men, women, and children had been taken to the temporary morgue established in the print shop of W. F. Steiner at 424 North Main Street. Dozens more were simply listed as missing or locations unknown. At the end of three weeks, thirty-three bodies had been recovered. At the end of a month, thirty-eight fatalities had been recorded with another four names still unaccounted for.
The average age of the flood victims was approximately forty years old. But this is a bit misleading. Of the thirty-eight deaths listed in the Leader Dispatch by May 28, 1913, ten were over the age of sixty and nine were under the age of eight. Issac Kerns was the oldest at age eighty and Charles Kenneth Croner was the youngest at only thirteen months. Family tragedies were common. Jacob and Grace Millhouse, 118 First Street, lost three children: Hazel, age 8, Helen, age 6; and John M., age 3. George Heidle, 108 East Main Street, lost his wife Bertha, his son Paul, age 6, and his daughter, Pauline, fourteen months old.
There were many tragic stories associated with the flood and one of the saddest was told in the Leader Dispatch on April 29, 1913. The body of Mrs. Belle Spencer had just been recovered from the Miami River near Farrington. According to eye-witness accounts, Mrs. Spencer, her son Leon, and his wife had all been trapped by the flood waters in their residence on Home Avenue. Leon Spencer knocked a hole through to the roof, pushed his wife up onto the roof, and then climbed up himself. He then attempted to pull his mother up through the hole to what they thought was the safety of the roof. But the current pushed the house off of its foundations and Leon lost his grip. “Mrs. Spencer threw up her hands with a wild appeal for help and then sank. Mr. Spencer walked rapidly from the hole through which his mother had disappeared and went to his wife, huddled on the roof. She rose to meet him and laying off her raincoat enfolded her husband in her arms and both went down together.”
The 1913 Flood was not the first flood to hit Piqua and the Miami Valley. The earliest flooding in this area after the arrival of the city’s pioneer settlers was in April of 1805. During the next one hundred years, the Great Miami River would overflow its banks on nine separate occasions.
During the first fifty years of the nineteenth century, the river flooded only twice, in June 1835 and during the first part of 1847. The later flood was the worst to date with a recorded high of twenty-five inches. It was also the first flood to wash away the city’s bridges. But the overall damage to the city was light and the river stayed within its bank for the next thirteen years.
During 1859 and 1860, the city built a small levee along the west bank of the river at the head of Spring, Harrison, and Manning Streets. But, unfortunately, the levee was no match for the floods of the 1860’s. The first flood of the decade hit in April of 1860 and punched through the levee at Harrison Street. Most of the eastern portion of the city was flooded. Within five years, two more floods hit Piqua with an overflow of seventeen inches in 1865, and almost twenty-two inches in 1866. The 1866 flood hit on September 19 and destroyed the bridge of the Columbus, Piqua, and Indiana Railroad Company.
The city did not experience another flood for seventeen years, but the flood of February 2 and 3, 1883 hit hard with an overflow of thirty-nine inches. After this disaster, the city rebuilt the levee and extended it in both directions. For ten years the levee did its job and the river stayed within its banks.
The floods of the 1890’s hit Piqua extremely hard. In 1893 the overflow reached almost twenty-one inches. On March 5, 1897, the flooding reached just over twenty-nine inches. Finally on March 23, 1898, the largest flood to hit Piqua up to that time reached a high of over forty-one inches. The city east of Harrison Street, as well as Rossville and Huntersville, suffered major water damage. Residents were forced out of their homes and at least five industries closed due to damaged stock, machinery, and factory buildings. The west half of the iron truss bridge into Huntersville was swept away in the flooding. The area was cut off from direct access to the city.
Despite all the damage, the city did very little to improve its flood protection plan. The levee along the west bank of the river was repaired but not enlarged. So when the 1913 flood hit fifteen years later, the city was totally unprepared for the devastation it caused. The levy and flood dams would prove their worth during the heavy rains and flooding in January of 1937. Local flooding was limited to Rush Creek overflowing in Rossville and basements being flooded on the south end of South Main Street.