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The Great Flood Of 1913 Remains Columbus’s Deadliest Weather Disaster

In March of 1913, Columbus found itself at the mercy of nature’s raw power in an event that would become the city’s most profound catastrophe.

The Great Flood of 1913 wasn’t just a weather event; it was a turning point that reshaped the city’s approach to disaster, community, and resilience. This story, blending the depth of NPR’s narrative integrity with a touch of BuzzFeed’s engaging style, takes us back to those fateful days and their century-long aftermath.

Image from the 1908 Columbus Plan, taken years before the flood. (Image via Columbus Library)

The Prelude: A Storm Like No Other

The stage for disaster was unwittingly set by a combination of natural forces. After a winter of heavy snowfall, Columbus welcomed spring unaware of the challenges ahead. On March 24, more than five inches of rain began to fall, saturating the ground and overwhelming the Scioto River’s defenses. The city’s levees, designed to protect it from such events, were simply no match for the deluge.

This black and white photographic postcard of the 1913 flood in Columbus, Ohio, features a view on Levee Street fifteen minutes after the levee broke. (Postcard via Columbus Library)

The Disaster Unfolds

As waters rose, the city’s residents found themselves in an unprecedented fight for survival. Franklinton, known colloquially as the Bottoms due to its low-lying location near the Scioto River, bore the brunt of the flood’s fury. Homes were submerged, lives were upended, and the community faced a test of its resolve and resilience.

A scene of the 1913 flood showing debris floating in the streets. Note on the back of the postcard reads, “1:00 PM water raised 4:30 PM. The Hesters were rescued from the roof by fireman at 2:45 PM.” Location is possibly 516 W. State St. because the Hester family is listed at that address in the 1913 City Directory. (Postcard via Columbus Library)

Historian Ed Lentz poignantly dubbed the 1913 flood “the worst catastrophe in the history of Columbus,” a sentiment that captures the depth of its impact.

From the optimistic forecasts in local newspapers to the grim reality of a city under water, the flood was a harsh reminder of nature’s unpredictability.

Heroes Emerge from the Depths

photographic postcard of people watching a business burn in the Franklinton area of Columbus, Ohio, during the 1913 flood. This card was made from two or three different photos stitched together to make the scene. (Postcard via Columbus Library)

In the flood’s darkest moments, the spirit of the Columbus community shone brightly. Robert F. Wolfe, publisher of the Columbus Dispatch, orchestrated a daring rescue mission, repurposing boats from Buckeye Lake to save those stranded by the rising waters.

This effort, bolstered by volunteers, local government, and the National Guard, showcased the indomitable human spirit in the face of adversity.

Rebuilding and Remembering

The flood’s aftermath was a city in ruins, but also a community united in its determination to rebuild and prevent future tragedies. Infrastructure was overhauled, including the construction of a 7.2-mile floodwall completed nearly a century later, in 2004. This project, a testament to the lessons learned from 1913, underscored the city’s commitment to safeguarding its future against similar calamities.

The view of a damaged streetcar. A handwritten notation on the back of the postcard states that the streetcar was found on Greenlawn Avenue, a mile south of its tracks. (Postcard via Columbus Library)

Yet, the flood’s legacy extends beyond physical structures. It prompted a reevaluation of urban planning, community support systems, and the importance of environmental stewardship. Columbus’s resilience in the wake of the flood became a blueprint for managing natural disasters, emphasizing preparation, community engagement, and the necessity of adapting to the challenges posed by our environment.

A Century Later: The Flood’s Lasting Impact

Today, the 1913 flood might not be visible in the form of ruins or damage, but its influence is embedded in Columbus’s identity. The civic center, riverbank retaining walls, and flood management initiatives stand as monuments to a city that faced nature’s wrath and emerged stronger.

This chapter in Columbus’s history is one of resilience, unity, and the enduring human spirit. It reminds us of the importance of community, the value of preparedness, and the power of collective action in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.