This Week in 1913


Omaha, Nebraska, 1913.

Authors: Jeff Satterly and Robert Muhlhauser,

The week of March 21st through March 26th marks the 100 year anniversary of one of the greatest – and least well known – natural disasters to ever hit the United States. This week in 1913, a series of late winter storms caused tornadoes and severe flooding across the Midwest that killed hundreds of people and left thousands homeless while causing billions of dollars in damage to infrastructure property, businesses and infrastructure.

On March 23rd, Easter Sunday, a total of four F4 tornadoes swept through Nebraska and western parts of Iowa, including one twister a quarter mile wide that plowed directly through downtown Omaha, killing more than 94 people. Fires started by stoves and live electrical wires quickly took hold in the wreckage, further devastating the west side of the city. Damage to Omaha was estimated at around $8 million, or $187 million in today’s dollars. To this day the tornado is on record as the deadliest in Nebraska history.

134 West Fourth Street, Dayton, Ohio, 1913.

Meanwhile, March 21st through 24th saw three consecutive storms dump up to 11 inches of rain onto the Great Miami watershed in northern Ohio. The oversaturated ground couldn’t absorb the water quickly enough, so the runoff flowed directly into the Great Miami River, swelling it far beyond its normal capacity. By 5 AM on March 25th the river was rising at a rate of roughly one inch every five minutes, setting the stage for the worst natural disaster in Ohio history, as well as severe flooding in Pennsylvania and Indiana.
In Ohio, cities and towns all along the Great Miami and its tributaries saw flooding, death and destruction over the next few days. The damage to Dayton would prove to be the worst by far, and to this day the flood is often referred to as the “Great Dayton Flood.” Thanks to its location on the banks of the Great Miami River, Dayton had experienced floods on a regular basis since the city’s founding in 1796. Rain had fallen for days by the time the levees broke around 6 AM on March 25th, and water began to flow into the streets at speeds approaching 25 miles per hour. By the time the flood’s advance slowed on March 26th, some 14 square miles of the city were underwater, and 360 people were dead.
Fourth and Main Street, Dayton, Ohio, 1913.

Cleanup efforts in Dayton would take over a year to complete, and the area’s economy took more than a decade to return to pre-flood levels. Despite the destruction, some good came from the disasters in 1913 as well; the Red Cross later found their experience in helping flood victims crucial when they were sent to the battlefields of Europe during World War I, and the United Way was born from other efforts to aid flood victims.

We’d also to thank some of the great archives and archivists who have done so much to work to help preserve the amazing history of the 1913 flood, including the Dayton Metro Library and historian Trudy Bell. The amount of history compiled at these two websites is truly amazing. Don’t forget to check out for more images.


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