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History Lesson: The 100th anniversary of the flood that destroyed Franklinton

Doug Motz Doug Motz History Lesson: The 100th anniversary of the flood that destroyed Franklinton
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Today is the 100th anniversary of the worst natural disaster to ever strike Columbus – the Flood of 1913.

The rains of March 1913 had been steadily pouring since Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913 and on Tuesday the 25th, the wooden levees that held the Scioto back from the homes and businesses of the West side could bear no more and broke through.

Flooding along the western banks of the Scioto was sadly, nothing new.

In fact, when Lucas Sullivant laid out Franklinton and prepared to offer up his lots in 1798, Columbus historian Alfred Lee relates the following in his 1892 History of the City of Columbus:

The lots were to be sold on a certain date, but before the appointed time, an inundation of the lowlands took place, which has been known in the traditions of that place as the Great Flood of 1798. The plan of the town was therefore changed and made comfortable to the boundaries of the higher grounds adjacent to the original location.

It was because of the low-lying nature of Franklinton that the State legislature passed on its location as the site for the Capitol and chose the lands along the eastern side instead.

Flooding continued and with the forest making way for the new city, floods were recorded in 1832 and in 1834 resulting in the washing away of the Broad Street Bridge bringing the National Road from east to west.

The Ohio State Journal records the following of the flood of 1847; “So high has been the waters that we are nearly destitute of the news of this terrific flood.” Seemingly a magnet for trauma, the National Road Bridge at Broad was damaged again.

Floods ravaged the west side again in 1852, 1859, 1862 and in September of 1866 the river rose 12 feet and Alfred Lee describes the view from the dome of the Statehouse as:

Old landmarks were gone, the National Road seemed blotted… the low districts to the South and to the West were well watered and were chiefly inhabited by a floating population. There were scenes in the dim distance of women and children being handed from windows to boats below, of men wading shoulder deep in the water carrying little children above their heads across the flood.

Again and again throughout the years the river continued to rise; in1868 and again in1875 when the levee first broke. The river rose in1881 and again in February of 1883, when Lee writes:

To the right and north, the Olentangy was pouring its yellow, turbid waters into the larger and more quiet stream of the Scioto. The large ice cakes ground together with a peculiarly harsh and crunching sound, and when they would strike the peers of the bridge, would cause the old frame structure to tremble; then they, with the floating debris, would go on in their mad rush downstream.

Needless to say, the rising of the river in 1913 would dwarf all of the previous inundations.

Ninety-three people lost their lives and newspaper reports continued to chronicle the devastation for weeks afterwards. The March 30th Columbus Evening Dispatch tells the tragic story of Columbus policeman Harry Keys. He rushed home to take his 86-year old blind mother to safety. He reached her in time to get her out of her home, but stumbled in the flood damage near the swamped corner of Avondale and State streets and she was swept out his arms, never to be seen again.

Green Lawn cemetery worker Floyd Lynch got his wife and three children into an improvised raft and headed to safety. On their way to dry land and refuge, the parents were suddenly thrown overboard and lost sight of the raft and their family. The parents were sadly reunited five days later at the morgue when they identified the bodies of their three children.

One particularly unlucky soul by the name of Leon P. Earl had the distinction of being not only caught in the flood but the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. He told the Dispatch on March 29th, that he thought the damage more appalling than that horrific disaster. He is quoted as saying:

The earthquake was over in a couple of minutes, while the flood raised (sic) for days and kept the people in constant danger. They have suffered from cold and hunger and misery while generally in San Francisco the people could get out into the streets at once, find dry shelter and food.

Amidst all of this tragedy were also stories of courage and survival. An African-American woman was actually rescued by four Ohio Pen inmates and their warden along Spring Street in front of the old Ohio Pen. “Go and get her boys” was what the warden shouted. They managed to reach the drowning woman in time and she was given dry clothes and taken into the rear of the Pen, which had escaped the high water.

The day after the flood, March 26th, the Dispatch carried the headline, Flood Baby Born In Tossing Rescue Boat.

The stork visited Mrs. Olmstead, a Westside refugee late Tuesday afternoon. Perhaps no child ever was brought into the world under more uncanny or harrowing circumstances.

Perhaps the greatest hero of the story was the man behind their recordings. Robert F. Wolfe, then publisher of the Columbus Evening Dispatch, personally chartered an interurban train from Columbus to Buckeye Lake and procured nine motorboats and 20 rowboats to take back with him to the rivers edge. Some of the boats were locked up and he had his men break the locks to free them up in this time of great need. This impromptu flotilla was launched from Rich & Scioto Street and was responsible for saving countless lives. In his 1930 History of Franklin County, Opha Moore writes:

“When the flood was over and the reckoning made of what had been done and by whom, Governor James M Cox conferred on Robert F. Wolfe, as the law provided the title of Commodore of the Ohio Naval Reserve.”

Mayor Karbs’ wife Flora is also credited with opening up city hall to take in survivors of the flood. She is credited with meeting them at the doors of City Hall – at that time on State Street where the Ohio Theatre stands today – and helping them into dry clothes. Under her direction 200 cots were set up in the top floor of City Hall and Flora helped stretch sheets across the area to divide it up into areas for either women and children or men and boys.

Early estimates of the damage to homes and businesses came in at five million dollars with the eventual total climbing to twenty-two million dollars (In 2013 dollars that total would be well over five-hundred million dollars)

A March 31, 1913 cartoon by Billy Ireland.

Afterwards, efforts to survey the damage and get supplies to the survivors were impeded by sightseers as recorded by Billy Ireland in this cartoon courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.

The flood also brought even greater attention to the slums and ghettos of the Scioto riverbed and for further information on that, I would gently refer you to the History Lesson of August 11, 2011.

The effects of the flood stifled any development within the flood-plane until the Franklinton Flood-wall was begun in 1993 at a cost of 193-million dollars. The work was completed in 2004 and today the revitalization of Franklinton has become as synonymous with Mayor Coleman as his penchant for saying the word “Swagger.”

So today lets all take a moment to remember the victims of this awful tragedy and thank all of the heroes then and now who worked then and are working now to make Franklinton a great place to live work and play!

All photos courtesy Columbus Metropolitan Library.

Visit the Columbus Historical Society for a special exhibit on the historical flood, at COSI, 333 West Broad St., Columbus, Ohio. More information at www.columbushistory.org.

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