By Joan Baxter
It seems each year, the media recalls the disasters 1913 Dayton flood, but there is little said about a very damaging flood in Xenia in 1886 which took the lives of 28 residents, many of them children.
An unidentified newspaper had the following headline “The Storm-King Disastrously Sweeps through the Miami Valley. A Dark Night of Terror and Woe at Xenia, Ohio. The Town Deluged and Whole Families Swept Away- Thirty Dead Taken From the Angry Flood and Scores of Houses Go Down With the Tide – The Loss throughout the Valley Will Reach Millions.”
It began in the evening of Friday, May 12, 1886 with a violent storm of rain, wind and hail. Between 8-9 p.m. the winds picked up, continuing until about midnight. The fire bells rang about 10 p.m. but with the wind and rain and the darkness, it was difficult to see those who were begging for aid. Later, it was estimated that six inches of rain had fallen in a very short time. Shawnee Creek flooded to the point that it was rising about one foot every five minutes!
The flooding apparently began at a small culvert on the Little Miami Railroad. The water formed an immense lake rising to the top of the embankment. There was so much water that it could not be contained, and swept into the city with its all its force. When the creek overflowed its banks, houses were swept from their foundations, the gas works were flooded and the railroad track badly damaged.
The area most affected was that of West Third Street from Cincinnati Avenue to Detroit. At that time the area was known as Barr’s Bottom. Wrecked homes were piled against the Cincinnati Avenue Bridge causing the river to dam that much more.
As one would expect, the night was very dark there were no gas lights, because the gas plant was flooded, so bonfires were built to aid the rescuers.
It seemed as though the water would never stop its relentless torrent. It happened so quickly, people were not able to escape.
In later years, George Morris, who was just a lad at the time recalled that terrible night when he became a victim of the raging stream. The force of the water was so great that one house on West Second Street was moved completely off its foundation and rammed into the home of his parents. That home was also pushed from its foundation and followed the raging torrent.
The house was pushed into an alley between Second and Main Streets, and continued with the occupants screaming for help until the house hit a bridge. George and his brother John managed to grab a piece of lumber and rode with the current. John was rescued by a man at West Street, but George continued to hang onto the makeshift raft past Woodland Cemetery.
He said, “I could hear the water gong over the dam (at Trebein).”
The boy grasped at something stuck in a bush, “It kept bobbing up and down, up and down.” When he caught his breath, he realized that he had been holding onto the body of another flood victim. He hung on until nearly daylight, when help arrived. His parents and five of his siblings did not survive. His grandmother lived with them, but that night had been visiting with a friend on the other side of town. She and the two boys were the only survivors in a family of 10.
In addition, all eight members of the William Powell family were lost. Photographs taken in the next several days depict the nearly indescribable damage. One of the photos shows eight horse-drawn hearses lined up in front of the court house showing the funeral procession for the eight Powell family members.
There were many stories of successful rescues. Nine members of one family were saved when their home encountered the Detroit Street Bridge. One lad refused to leave his mother and helped her to lay on a piece of furniture. He then tied a rope to fasten the floating house to a tree.
Another woman was rescued in her home, but the water was up to her neck. She was holding her baby above her head. It was estimated that at least 100 lives were saved through those heroic efforts. As is the case with most disasters, survivors told their stories again and again.
Almost as fast as the water rose, the creek receded.
Temporary shelter was provided at the Casino skating rink on East Third Street. Committees organized to provide food, clothing, bedding and other necessities to those who were stricken. A fund drive was established to aid the victims, Xenia opened the drive with $1,000, Jamestown, having had a terribly cyclone just two years previously responded with $400. The remains of houses looked like carelessly tossed lumber. More than 1,000 messages were handled by the telegraph office the next day.
The entire county felt the distress of the flood. Railroad tracks were swept away, nearly every bridge in the county was destroyed and roads were washed out. Ten days later, two men drowned while attempting to ford Massie’s Creek at Old Town, where the bridge had been washed away by the flood.
The next day, the sun was bright, the weather warm. The water had receded sufficiently. All in all, it looked like a perfect spring day, but the “day after” photos are grim reminders of the damage incurred on that rainy, windy night 130 years ago this week.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and long-time historical columnist.