Lawrenceburg, IN Flood, Mar 1913

Scarcely had two months elapsed after the receding of the January flood, when the flood of March came. This flood was heralded on postcards sold over the world as “the greatest disaster of modern times.” For being spectacular, both dramatic and tragic, this flood never had a precedent and probably never will be duplicated. It descended on an unsuspecting and unprepared people as the proverbial lightning from a clear sky. Immediately preceding this great calamity there were several unusual things worth recording in this connection.

The makers of the calendar have ordained that Easter Sunday shall be regulated by the full moon following the equinox. On this year Easter came on the first possible day, the 22nd. The moon was full on the night of the 21st and those who beheld it will never forget the unusual sight. Surrounding the moon was a halo of such fierce brightness as to present a dazzling effect and it seemed to radiate in throwing out its bright rays. It was such a moon as would have caused an ancient mariner to stay in port or, if he were at sea, to seek a refuge. It presaged some unusual climatic disturbance.

Easter Day, however, dawned clear and bright and the air was as balmy as a perfect spring day should be. The next morning the papers told of the cyclones that swept through Nebraska and other Western states. Still there was no concern felt in the peaceful Ohio valley.

That day the rain came—and such rain! From Monday morning until Tuesday morning the precipitation was about four inches throughout the valley of the Miami driver. The hillsides shed this water like a duck’s back and soon all of the side streams and larger ones were pouring a flood of water into the Miami and Whitewater rivers. These streams could not contain this volume of water and it spread out over the bottom lands, sweeping away barns, outbuildings, railway stations, houses and all sorts of property as it raced along. Bridges were swept away, regardless of the supposed stability of their moorings. At Elizabethtown, Ohio, the waters were temporarily checked by the embankments on which the Cincinnati, Lawrenceburg & Aurora electric line and the Big Four railroad run. This barrier only served to hold the water until it had gathered enough energy when it pushed embankment, bridges and all obstructions before it and sped on to overthrow the gigantic steel bridge over the Miami that had only recently been built to replace the famous old “lost bridge.” This bridge was the longest single span bridge in the world at the time. Within thirty minutes it was at the bottom of the river, a mass of twisted iron and broken concrete. The next bridge was the Baltimore & Ohio Southwestern railroad bridge near the confluence of the Miami with the Ohio. Here, as at Elizabethtown, the waters were offered resistance in the form of the railroad embankment which reached from the bridge to Lawrenceburg, a distance of two miles. But the opening under the bridge was somewhat larger and the process of destroying this bridge was consequently a longer one. The waters, thus held back, became at least twenty feet higher than the water in the Ohio river and the mouth of the Miami became a veritable waterfall as it emptied into the Ohio. The yellow waters, laden with barns, houses and other valuable property rushed under the trembling bridge and plowed its way through the turbulent Ohio with such speed that it “piled up” on the opposite Kentucky shore. So strong was this cross current that large boats would not dare to stem it in coming down the river. Occasionally a house or a barn would hit an abutment of the bridge in passing under and would be reduced to kindling. But the railroad embankment, being high, held out the water and kept the great pool north of the upper levee full and several feet higher than the Ohio river stage.


Wednesday morning dawned with all of the bridges along the Miami and the Whitewater gone. The only exception was the suspension bridge above Elizabethtown. And the rain continued with unabated fury. By Thursday the precipitation had reached the staggering total of about nine inches and at the headwaters of the Miami it totalled eleven inches. All this rain, coming as it did in seventy-two hours, caused the streams to pour forth water in unprecedented volume. At Lawrenceburg on Thursday afternoon the warning came from the government weather bureau at Cincinnati to prepare for seventy feet.

Before this time the exodus from the low places had been strenuous and unceasing. Now it became a riot. Farmers came in with wagons and helped move household goods. So rapidly and thoroughly was this work done that by Friday night practically every family in the city was cared for, their goods stored in places of safety and themselves housed in high and dry places. Work on the levee was organized by Mayor Axby. Crews were assigned sections of the embankment and, with material at hand for working to the best advantage, a determined effort was made to keep the water from coming into the city. It was known in the beginning that the expected height of the river would exceed the height of the levee but, with the remarkable achievement of January, 1913, in mind, it was thought possible to prevent an overflow again, even if the water did reach above the top of the levee. The night was divided into watches and the work never stopped. On Saturday it was being pushed to the utmost when, at two o’clock and forty-five minutes in the afternoon, that portion of the levee immediately to the west of the lower Center street approach to the levee lifted up at the base and went out. The factory whistles blew the blast of warning and work on the levee was abandoned. The original rent made in the levee was about one hundred feet wide, and the enormous force of the water soon ripped it open to a width of two hundred yards. Through this vast opening the water rushed with the force of a Niagara and struck the houses at the extreme end of Center street and then took a course toward the Newtown pond in the direction of the Catholic church. In the path of this wall of water were the houses on lower Mary and Tate streets. These were upturned and carried along on the bosom of the water to be dashed to pieces against the Lake house at the corner of Walnut and Third streets. The Newtown pond was soon filled up and the waters began pouring over Walnut street and Third street. The Catholic church, directly in the pathway of the swirling waters, withstood the terrific current without the slightest damage. The Rev. Father Sonderman and Rev. Father Kreis were both in the parish house as the waters came on and had no means of escape. Their experience was one fraught with such grave dangers that it could hardly be described.

Diagonally across the street from the Catholic property stood the large carriage-building plant of John Knippenberg. The water struck it with such force that it was swung completely around and carried over the brink and out into the bottom land toward Greendale. A small fire left in a blacksmith forge set fire to the building and it burned to the water’s edge as it floated away. The household effects of several families and two automobiles were destroyed in this building. Next the water completely destroyed three dwellings on Third street belonging to Adam Schwing.
Within an hour after the break, water had found High street and covered it throughout its entire length. All of the public buildings, such as the court house, the halls of secret orders, the school buildings, engine house and factory buildings were crowded with families.

By dark the water had found its level and there remained only a thin strip of dry land—the top of the levee—surrounding the city, resembling a large attol. A relief expedition was sent out at once from Cincinnati arid on Sunday morning—just one week after the ideal day on Easter—a commissary was established in the Newtown engine house, with Mayor Axby directly in charge. A careful record was kept of the provisions dispensed and to whom they were given. The supplies were plentiful and the needs of every citizen were supplied if there was need.


The city of Lawrenceburg was isolated from the world for two days after the destruction of the railroad bridges. The main lines of telephone and telegraph cables were destroyed with the bridges and the people were without means of communicating with friends and relatives who were excessively alarmed at the newspaper reports of the lives lost and great destruction wrought by the flood at Dayton and Hamilton, Ohio. The flood had done its damage at those places and was beginning to recede before it really began to threaten Lawrenceburg. However, hundreds of telegrams were sent to Cincinnati on the first boat, for forwarding. When a boat came in the levee was black with people. They were anxious to get some word from other places, and especially from the weather bureau in Cincinnati.
Gradually communication was established and by the time of the break in the levee telephone connection with the outside world had been made and messages of reassurance flooded the little exchange.

On the Sunday after the break the mayor appointed the following as members of a citizens’ relief committee: William H. O’Brien, A. D. Cook, V. M. O’Shaughnessy, George H. Lewis, P. C. Braun, Jesse W. Riddle, Victor Oberting, Archibald Shaw, Ezra P. Hayes, Hugh S. Miller and Jacob Spanagel. This committee organized by electing V. M. O’Shaughnessy, chairman; P. C. Braun, secretary, and G. H. Lewis, treasurer. The primary duty of this committee was to secure money for the rehabilitation of homes and to take steps toward restoring crippled industries….


The water remained in the city for seven days. On the eighth day it receded from High street and then began one of the most disheartening tasks ever undertaken by a populace. The streets, sidewalks and floors of homes were covered with a slimy mud, from three to six inches in depth. It stuck tightly when it was wet and it literally froze fast when it became dry. But the people equipped themselves with rubber boots and brooms and tackled it. Within a day the streets and buildings began to take on a natural appearance. About fifty wagons were employed in hauling debris off the streets and this work was continued for nearly a month. By June 1 the city showed but few signs of the great scourge and the annual fair in August attracted its usual thousands and some more, who expected to see a topsy-turvy city. They were disappointed. By that time there were, indeed, but few traces of the flood. Aside from the fact that the traction line had not yet rebuilt its tracks across Third street, one might have doubted that such a flood had visited the city and destroyed more than half a million dollars worth of property.

In Aurora the extent of the flood was anticipated. Household and mercantile goods were removed from the danger zone and every precaution was taken to keep the loss of property down to minimum. By the time the crest of the rise passed Aurora only the top of the Big Four depot was visible above the water. The flood extended up Second street to the gutter in front of the new Sutton library and was three inches deep on the postoffice floor. However, aside from the natural inconvenience of the actual inundation, the damage done was inconsequential and the resumption of normal activity along all lines after the water receded was very rapid.


A most remarkable feature in the history of the many and treacherous floods at both Lawrenceburg and Aurora is that the loss of life has been so small. During all of the floods of record there is recorded but one death by drowning. Of narrow escapes there are a countless number. But, especially in Lawrenceburg, it speaks well, indeed, for the efficient organization of the city government, that the citizens were led through such a dangerous crisis as the March flood of 1913 without some one being caught unaware when the levee suddenly opened up. Thorough and systematic warnings delivered personally are responsible for the loss of life being nil.

Immediately following the great flood, steps were taken looking to the formation of a society for the prevention of floods, if such a thing be possible. Hard-hit cities like Dayton and Hamilton keenly felt the onus of the flood. It was proposed by eminent engineers to construct enormous dry reservoirs for catching and holding the water back until the natural force of the rise had spent itself. This, it was argued, would act as a brake on the rise and prevent the terrible devastation of such a rush of water as attended the March flood of 1913.

History of Dearborn County, Indiana : her people, industries, and institutions, 1915, Pages 498-504