2013-05-03 / Front Page

All Things Historical… From The Gosport History Museum

Recounting ‘The Great Flood’ Of 1913
by Annie Arthur
Museum Curator

One hundred years ago this spring in 1913, a series of three winter storms hit Indiana and other states in the Midwest. Within three days, eleven inches of snow fell throughout the area already saturated from previous snows and rains, resulting in more than a 90-percent runoff. That caused the rivers and their tributaries everywhere to overflow. Levees failed and a cold wave caused the ground to freeze and the water had no where to go but over land. The waters rose with a vengeance and miles and miles of land was inundated. A vast lake of the muddy torrent swirled across the ground tearing houses from their foundations.

Almost the entire state of Indiana was underwater from the valley of the White River in the east to the valley of the White River in the Fort Wayne area and also the Wabash. Later, the Ohio and its tributaries were on the rampage. The entire state was like one huge sea. As levees broke, people living along the rivers had to desert their homes and head for the big cities, which were totally unprepared for the onslaught of flood refugees. People were rescued from second story windows as the flood waters filled downstairs rooms of their houses.

Small communities just vanished. In Brookville, sixteen people were killed, five of them children last seen clinging to bed posts as their bed was swept away. Wagon and railroad bridges washed away. In Connersville, the levee on the White River broke and swept people before it into the darkness. In Brookville and other towns, people gathered in churches for refuge. In one area alone, 250 children were rescued from the river.

At Fort Wayne along the Maumee River, the Orphan Asylum was flooded and seventy-five children were rescued by five men in a small boat. The worse damage was in Indianapolis where two forks of the White River flowed. The Morris Street levee broke and waters descended upon hundreds of people. Tons of dirt roared down the streets. Houses were torn apart and many people took refuge on a bridge that remained standing as the waters raced under it. Looters appeared and Governor Ralston issued an order for the militia to shoot on sight anyone caught looting in Indianapolis.

All along the Wabash, thousands of people were homeless and hungry. In Kokomo, the water in the streets was eight feet high. During the flooding, on Easter Day, a tornado hit Indiana in the Terra Haute area. The river was rising at the rate of five inches an hour. It reached a stage of thirtyseven feet and still rising.

In Peru, a telegraph message came in to Governor Ralston that said, “This probably will be the last message you get from Peru. Two hundred or more are drowned and the remainder of the residents are waiting for daylight.” The message went on asking for food, clothing and coffins. Ralston ordered rescuers into the city and one rescue party in one boat said, “The cry to be saved by those who saw the first boat was heart breaking. Some of them threaten to jump into the water if we did not take them aboard.” But it was impossible with the scant boat supply to take all away at once. In one house in Peru, twelve bodies were found. In that part of the city, the water rushed in so fast, people had no time to escape. Some made it to the courthouse but many suffocated from the overcrowding. Then the weather turn bitter cold and survivors were hungry, homeless, wet and freezing.

As many as helpers as there were, there was also the selfishness of many as well. One circus worker took out a boat and charged people $200 to be rescued. Men wanting to be rescued would draw guns on the rescuers, threatening to shoot them if they did not take them in. Communities soon found themselves overwhelmed by those needing shelter and food and many were turned away and told to go to other cities up north.

After it was all over, the search for the dead began. Hundreds were believed to have perished but many were found still alive in the hills along the Wabash River. Dead animals lined the streets. Filth was every where, adding to the possibility of disease. It was decided to bury the dead animals but there was little dry land to bury them. Around five hundred dead animals were found in Peru alone.

The actual death toll was never known because of the lack of communication in those days. ‘The Great Flood’ of 1913 was one of the most incredible natural disasters in history. It occurred at a time before our modern flood control measures and the creation of government disaster relief agencies. It could happen again but despite our modern prevention methods, as one flood historian put it, “Make sure you’re counting on yourself and not the government.”

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