Weatherwise it was pretty certain that March 1913 would be going out like a lion in the Mid-Ohio Valley. Forecasts were calling for wind, snow and rain.
But no one could have predicted the catastrophic events that were about to unfold during the final days of that month, when waters at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers would eventually surge to nearly 23 feet above flood stage.
"The destruction was unimaginable," says local historian and author Lynne Sturtevant, who researched the 1913 flood for her book, "Haunted Marietta."
Photo courtesy of Marietta College Special Collections
Men row on Front Street, past the office of The Marietta Daily Times, as the 1913 floodwaters recede.
"It was Easter weekend when the bad weather started with back-to-back storms," she said. "Wind and rain lashed not only this area, but the entire state. Everyone thinks the 1913 flood was just a local event, but that's not true. And people died from floods in cities like Columbus and Dayton."
In Marietta 8 to 10 inches of rain fell within a four-day period, culminating in a peak flood level of nearly 59 feet. Houses were knocked off their foundations. Rushing waters washed the Putnam and B&O Railroad bridges into the Muskingum River.
"Water was literally pouring into the second-story windows of downtown buildings," Sturtevant said. "The water would no doubt have been full of sewage, dead animals and fish. And people at that time didn't know a lot about the dangers of mold and bacteria."
Some of Marietta's historic flood levels:
1832 flood-48.8 feet.
1861 flood-45 feet.
1884 flood-54.5 feet.
1898 flood-49.6 feet.
1907 flood-52.1 feet.
1913 flood-58.7 feet.
1937 flood-55 feet.
1959 flood-41.4 feet.
1964 flood-45.2 feet.
2004 flood-44.9 feet.
2005 flood-43.3 feet.
Source: National Weather Service and Times research.
About the 1913 flood in Ohio
The March 1913 flood, Ohio's worst weather disaster, resulted from a four-day rainfall on already saturated ground throughout Ohio.
Some areas of the state received nearly 11 inches of rain, with most reporting between 6 and 8 inches.
In the end 430 people had died statewide.
A total of 104 communities were under water, and 35,500 homes were left uninhabitable.
Source: Ohio Historical Society's Echoes magazine March/April 2013.
The Marietta Register Leader reported on the rising waters in its March 31, 1913, edition:
"All Wednesday night (March 26) and Thursday business houses and residents in the low lands were engaged in carrying their goods to the second and third floors of their store rooms and residences. There was no check in the (water) rise over Thursday, and by Thursday night a wide section of the city had been inundated.
"Every man possessing a boat patrolled the streets, rescuing from second and third floors persons who would have suffered sure death but for the efforts of rescuers."
Sturtevant noted electricity and telephones had become fairly common by 1913, but the wind and rain had washed all of that away, leaving many communities already out of touch with the outside world when the flood came.
"They didn't have any way to know what was going on elsewhere," she said. "Was it just us? Or were other places hit too? And people were running out of food and other supplies."
Gas and water lines were also damaged, adding to the hardships.
The situation was pretty chaotic, according to the Register Leader, which reported at the time that by March 30 Marietta Mayor Charles F. Leeper had issued orders to city police and National Guard units to "shoot to kill anyone found looting or attempting to steal anywhere in the city."
Martial law was soon declared in the city by Seventh Regiment Military District Commander Col. Harry Knox in charge of National Guard troops who were dispatched to assist flood recovery efforts in Marietta.
The rivers kept rising in the city until March 29, when the flood finally crested at 58.7 feet. By then the waters covered virtually all of downtown and the lower section of the Harmar district, as well as residential areas on the east side of the Muskingum between Front and Fourth streets.
All or portions of Pike, Greene, Butler, Putnam, Scammel, and Washington streets were also submerged.
The Marietta Daily Times reported on the extent of the flooding:
"All of Front Street was inundated; Second with the exception of a bit between Washington and Montgomery. Third as far north as the First Methodist Church, and the lower side of the street to a point further north than that. Fourth to Scammel and further north on the west side, all of the bottoms of the fairgrounds, all of the East End safe the hilltops, and all of the West Side."
The Pioneer City wasn't alone. A single-column item in the McConnelsville Daily Herald was headlined "HELP!"
"We are suffering; we need help. Let the farmers send in their donations of milk, eggs and anything else, cooked or raw, that will satisfy hunger," the article read. "We will need fuel if the gas quits. A suffering community must be fed and clothed and warmed. Send donations to the committee appointed to receive and disburse..."
Science writer Trudy E. Bell of Lakewood, who has researched and written several articles and a book on the 1913 flood, said the waters rose quickly.
"The Muskingum River runs through some steep valleys," she said. "So there was a very fast rise, sending great torrents of water downstream from the source to mouth of the river."
Bell related one story of a man who barely escaped from his house along the Muskingum and began running up the steep hill behind the home.
"He was running uphill as fast as he could, but the water was still lapping at his heels," she said.
Weather events leading up to the flood began more than a week before, according to Sarah Jamison, service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Cleveland.
"On March 21-Good Friday-a freakish gale system with hurricane-force winds was moving over the Great Lakes area, and helped create 45 to 55 mph winds that blew throughout most of the day in the Ohio Valley," she said.
Jamison said the high winds would have knocked down trees as well as utility poles bearing electrical and telephone lines, resulting in widespread power outages and virtually cutting off communications for communities across Ohio and surrounding states.
The mixed bag of weather continued Easter Sunday, March 23, as the faithful attending area sunrise services would have been greeted by a chilly morning barely reaching 30 degrees. But by sunset that day the temperature had climbed into the 70s.
"I'm sure people woke up on Easter and were thankful the wind and rain was over," Jamison said. "But they had no way of knowing that other weather systems were forming to the west over the Rocky Mountains."
She noted the Weather Bureau-predecessor to the National Weather Service-could only forecast at that time from surface observations which only indicated a cold front would be moving east during the week, maybe carrying some snow with it.
"They knew there would be some rain on Easter, and it was expected to be moving off to the east," she said. "But a high pressure system along the east coast blocked that front, so the low pressure and rain just moved over the Ohio Valley and stayed."
That system was the first of a series of three low pressure areas that backed up over Ohio and surrounding states, drawing enough moisture from the Gulf of Mexico to fuel several days of nearly steady rain.
"Everything came together for a perfect storm that carried lots of rain," Jamison said. "It rained from March 23 through the 27th, and between six and 10 inches of precipitation fell over the entire Muskingum River basin. It was a very bad combination, not only for Ohio, but also for many other states."
Bell said the 1913 flood dealt a massive blow to the northeastern section of the country.
"The biggest thing about this event is that it hit the industrial north section of the country," she said. "This didn't just affect an agrarian area. Parts of 15 states were impacted, not only by flooding, but also by tornadoes to the west."
Bell said the floods were long-lived, and continued down the Mississippi River basin through April, before finally reaching the Gulf of Mexico in May.
"In Cairo, Ill., for example, the water stayed above flood stage for more than three weeks," she said.
Bell said the closest comparison in more recent times to the devastation caused by the 1913 flood might be Hurricane Sandy, which struck several highly-industrialized areas, including New York City, along the Atlantic coast last year.
"But in terms of damage to a wide area of the industrial north, I think we can safely say there has been no more destructive event than the 1913 flood," she said.
Jamison said the 1913 flood ultimately had a global impact, due to the Ohio Valley being a large provider of coal, iron, natural gas and being an agricultural area.
"If you shut down the Ohio Valley, there are ripple effects across the country and beyond," she said.