In late March of 1913, the Ohio Valley experienced one of the most devastating floods of all time. Especially in river towns like Peru, Logansport and Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Dayton, Ohio, the water was all-consuming. Fort Wayne is home to the Maumee River Basin, one of the eight major watersheds in the state. The confluence of the Maumee, St. Joseph and St. Marys Rivers is in the heart of town, and the Basin also includes the Trier, Junk and Fairfield Ditches and Spy Run Creek.
Locally, the rivers crested at 26.1 feet before the flood waters receded. Some 5,000 acres were flooded in the Fort Wayne area and 15,000 were left homeless for more than a week. The property loss was estimated at $25 million.
The devastation in the Midwest began with deadly tornadoes in Nebraska and Iowa on Easter Sunday, March 23. The storms moved eastward across Illinois and into Indiana. Northern Indiana already had experienced a heavy rainfall on Good Friday, March 21. Between the morning of March 23 and the night of March 25, 4.75 inches of rain fell. As many as 2000 homes were underwater in Fort Wayne by Tuesday, March 25. Before the rivers crested at 26.1 feet on Wednesday night, the Lakeside dikes of the St. Joseph River broke in two places. The electric light plant was submerged, casting Fort Wayne into darkness for two nights. The three pumping stations stalled, leaving the town vulnerable with no fire protection.
Six people are reported to have lost their lives in Fort Wayne during the Great Flood of 1913, including four young girls from the Allen County Orphans Home who drowned when their boat capsized during an attempt to move children from the home to a safer location. In other cities, the loss of life was even greater. In Peru, on the Wabash River, twenty people died. And in Dayton, Ohio, 150 died.
In Peru, the winter quarters of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus were flooded with six feet of water. Joseph Leiethel, one of the circus managers, reported that the elephants panicked, pulled their stakes from the ground and began to fight with one another in their fear. Five elephants were killed in the fighting, three were drowned and one died of exhaustion. Three escaped and were roaming the countryside. “Most of the monkeys went floating down the crest of the flood huddled on pieces of wreckage,” Leiethel said.
The storms raged on eastward, all the way to Vermont, leaving citizens in their wake to pick up the pieces of their lives and their communities.
Drinker, Frederick E. Horrors of Tornado, Flood and Fire. Phildadelphia: National Pub. Co., ca. 1913.
Griswold, B. J. “The Flood of March 1913.” The Pictorial History of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Chicago: Robert O. Law Co., 1917. Page 549.
Shoaff, John H. “Fort Wayne’s Floods.” History of Fort Wayne & Allen County, Indiana, 1700-2005, Vol. 1. John Beatty, ed. Evansville, Ind.: M.T. Publishers & Co., Inc., 2006. Pages 415-419.
Wright, George T. “Water USA: Resources, Conservation, Demand.” Paper prepared for the Quest Club. 17 Dec. 1965. Quest Club Papers; digital image viewed online at www.acpl.info in the Quest Club Papers collection in Community Album. Click to view