Montgomery County Government and the 1913 Flood
Article by: Tina Ratcliff - County Records & Information Manager
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On Friday, March 21, 1913, the biggest problem the Montgomery County Board of County Commissioners had was finding a new chief janitor for Memorial Hall. Commissioners Frank Munger, Richard M. Gebhart and George W. Fair, were lame duck commissioners. After four years of service, they all would be replaced by a new board in September. With spring on its way, they must have had few worries other than the normal concerns involved in leading a county government. After promoting Al Rowe to the position of chief janitor, the board adjourned, not knowing that in three days they would be facing the largest natural disaster in Montgomery County’s history.
Rain began to fall on March 23, Easter Sunday, and did not stop. By the morning of Tuesday, March 25, the rivers and creeks that course through Montgomery County were overwhelmed. The first sign of the disaster to come was the breaking of the levee at the Main Street Bridge in Dayton. Soon, downtown Dayton was covered by flood water up to 11 feet high. The rest of Montgomery County suffered as well. South of Dayton, the Great Miami River grew until Miamisburg was swallowed by the flood. Throughout the county, roads, bridges and levees were swept away.
In downtown Dayton, county buildings were surrounded by water. Flood water inundated offices, destroying furniture and damaging county records. But the portico around the grand Old Courthouse at the center of town remained high ground. In the buildings across from the Old Courthouse, men slung elevator cables across the flood water and connected them to the courthouse. People then climbed hand over hand on the cables above the flood water to escape the fires spreading through the buildings downtown.
Once the flood waters receded, the toll of the flood became apparent. Over 300 people lost their lives. Homes and businesses were destroyed. The county buildings downtown remained standing but, inside, county employees faced unimaginable flood damage. The offices of the Recorder, the Auditor and the Treasurer suffered the worst. But within two weeks, the employees had their offices up and running again. On April 4, a notice to the citizens of Montgomery County was published in the Dayton Journal Herald that read:
“All deeds and mortgages in the courthouse are safe, and all the records of the county auditor and county recorder’s offices are intact. Innumerable inquiries have been made by persons who own property, especially those who made recent purchases, but the instruments showing them to be possessors of the property are safe. The money in the county treasurer’s office is being washed—that is the silver and gold, while currency is being dried.”
As they watched their employees clean their offices, Commissioners Gebhart, Munger and Fair began a frustrating month of inactivity. By order of Governor Cox, Dayton remained under martial law. The Dayton Flood Relief Committee and the Ohio National Guard ruled the city and did emergency repairs as needed. Civil government was suspended. For more than a month, the Commissioners could do little except meet to pay the county’s bills and adjourn. But as it appeared martial law was coming to an end, the Board of County Commissioners began to take steps necessary to address the aftermath of the disaster.
In the Commissioners’ records, there is nothing to indicate that they ever panicked. Even on the Friday just after the flood, Walter Aszling, the Clerk of the Commission, simply noted that an event previously scheduled for the board “. . . was postponed indefinitely on account of the prevailing flood conditions.” But what an overwhelming situation it must have been. The county’s infrastructure had disappeared within just a few days. Roads, bridges, levees—all were gone or in desperate need of repair. In a county whose major geographic features were north-to-south running rivers and creeks, the destruction of over fifty east-to-west bridges and roads was devastating. Montgomery County was cut off from the rest of the state and the country at a time when help was desperately needed. But when martial law ended on May 5, the commissioners quickly began to use the resources at their command to restore the county’s vital public works.
The first great resource the commissioners had was the court system. Common Pleas Court Judge Carroll Sprigg and Probate Court Judge Roland Baggott had been at the center of the action as Dayton flooded. Stranded downtown with so many others and seeing no evidence of any leadership from the town’s public officials, they had declared martial law and put General George H. Wood of the National Guard in charge. Now they came to the county’s rescue again by one simple act: they opened their courts. Despite all the obstacles, Common Pleas Court opened its April session right on time on April 7. No to be outdone, Probate Court opened on March 31, less than a week after the flood began.
And the Commissioners would need their help. Under the Emergency Act passed by the Ohio General Assembly in the days after the flood, Common Pleas Court was given the power to order the Board of County Commissioners to repair or replace public works without competitive bidding or advertising. In their first official act since the flood, the Commissioners asked the County Prosecutor Robert C. Patterson to petition Common Pleas Court to order the repair of the levee on the Miami River north of Dayton because of their fear that even a slight rise in the water would catastrophically flood North Dayton. The court quickly approved this petition and the many more the Commissioners would send in the coming months.
Once martial law officially ended on May 5, the Commissioners prioritized the public works that needed immediate replacement and repair. They focused first on vital east-west connecting bridges over the Great Miami River north and south of Dayton. But even as they ordered the replacement of bridge after bridge, the Commissioners knew that there was not going to be enough money in the county’s General Fund to cover the mounting costs. To cover the shortfall, the Commissioners issued Emergency Flood Bonds totaling $300,000 to repair, reconstruct and replace public property and public ways destroyed or damaged by the flood and remove obstructions and matter deposited by the flood.
As the Commissioners tried to focus on the disaster, the day-to-day matters of county government—paying the bills, hiring and firing—began to be a distraction. They needed more help. Fortunately, the Ohio Assembly again provided them with an option. In passing a bill setting up the Ohio Flood Prevention Commission, the Assembly had included a section allowing counties and municipalities in the flood zones to set up their own emergency commissions to repair, rebuild and restore public works destroyed or damaged by the flood. These emergency commissions would help local governments better organize their rebuilding efforts.
The Montgomery County Emergency Commission met for the first time on May 23. The Emergency Commission would organize itself as a joint commission with the Board of County Commissioners. In addition to Commissioners Gebhart, Munger and Fair, its members would include leading members of the business and financial communities, such as Colonel Edward Deeds. These men would serve, without pay, on the commission for over a year. At their first meeting, the members met with the County Surveyor, the State Highway Engineer and Arthur Morgan of Morgan Engineering, who would soon become famous for his work with the Miami Conservancy District. They discussed the flood conditions and ordered a survey of the condition of the streams in the county. Once they were organized, the Emergency Commission got down to work.
Over the next year, the Emergency Commission and the Board of County Commissioners would order the replacement or repair of 44 bridges around the county. Most of these bridges were over the Stillwater and Great Miami Rivers, but they also replaced bridges over the Mad River, Wolf Creek and Big Twin Creek. Bridges in nearly every township (Washington Township was the exception) were damaged or destroyed. However, Miami Township suffered the most damage. Eight bridges needed to be repaired or replaced in and around Miamisburg. This included a foot bridge over the Great Miami. While these bridges were being constructed, the Emergency Commission paid for the cost of a pontoon bridge across the river.
Other public works also needed to be repaired. The levees north and south of Dayton were repaired and the river channels cleaned of debris left by the flood. Roads throughout the county were replaced or regraded. A 2.5 mile stretch of Springboro Pike from Dayton’s corporation limit to the county line was destroyed and had to be completely replaced. The Emergency Commission also addressed the condition of the county buildings downtown. Floors needed to be replaced in the Old Courthouse and Memorial Hall. Books and ledgers in the Recorder’s and Auditor’s offices, so desperately needed to track property lines and owners displaced by the flood, had to be transcribed and copied by hand because the originals were still waterlogged from the flood.
For months the Commissioners Gebhart, Munger and Fair would meet nearly every day in special or regular sessions dealing with the aftermath of the flood. But their time as commissioners was short. They would meet for the last time with the Emergency Commission on September 11, 1913. The new Board of County Commissioners, Charles Brenner, Alonzo Michael and Arthur Eberly, took their seats September 15 and continued the work their predecessors had begun. They worked with the Emergency Commission to repair and replace bridges and levees. They would begin new collaborations with the State Highway Department and the Morgan Engineering to upgrade highways and levees that had proven unreliable during the disaster. And when the idea for the Miami Conservancy District was brought before the public, the Commissioners gave it their full support. But they did not deviate from the path their predecessors had laid out.
Commissioners Gebhart, Munger and Fair had blazed a path that would be followed for many decades by those that followed them. It was a pragmatic approach that incorporated cooperation from private and government entities, private and public citizens, to accomplish tasks that they would not have been able to accomplish on their own. All levels of society were needed to make it through the disaster.
These men accomplished much with little concern for their own glory. There is little record of what they went through. No dramatic accounts or tales of heroic deeds. There is just a journal of the Commissioners’ actions with page after page of dry reports about replaced bridges and repaired roads, a journal whose pages are still wrinkled by flood water.