Trudy E. Bell was a fairly new transplant to Ohio in 2003 when she joined her husband and daughter for a bike trip along the Ohio and Erie Canal.
They kept bumping into historical markers — an extinct mill here, the ruins of a canal lock there. Each referenced a 1913 flood.
“All these markers were talking about something that was wiped out,” said Bell, a Lakewood resident and freelance science and technology writer.
Intrigued, she turned to the Internet and found all kinds of communities referencing their most memorable weather disasters. The Great Dayton Flood. The Great Columbus Flood. The Great Chillicothe Flood. The Great Marietta Flood. The Great Defiance Flood.
They all started March 23, 1913.
Bell was learning something that was already well documented: that a deluge dropped the equivalent of two to three months of rain on an already saturated Ohio, sending every river over its banks.
Levees broke, cities burned when gas lines ruptured and more than 20,000 homes statewide were destroyed or carried away in torrents that claimed at least 428 lives.
A century later, it remains the single biggest natural disaster recorded in Ohio history.
But Bell took her curiosity to a whole new level.
She started piecing together how — in the days before and after Ohio’s flood — 14 other states were experiencing hurricane-force winds, blizzards and tornadoes.
What many people have come to see as profoundly local tragedies was actually part of a storm system that Bell is convinced is the No. 1 weather event in the history of the country.
“Even post-Katrina and post-Sandy, it’s the biggest natural disaster the United States has ever suffered,” she said.
Bell is now a national expert on the topic, and her calendar is particularly full of speaking engagements this month, the milestone anniversary.
That includes an 8 p.m. Friday appointment at Happy Days Lodge in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, 500 W. Streetsboro Road, Peninsula.
The site of her lecture happens to be in the area of the most intense rainfall of the entire storm system. It was estimated that 11 inches fell over four days between Cleveland and Akron.
And because it poured on the east-west Continental Divide that cuts through Akron, it filled waterways in every direction.
That included the Ohio & Erie Canal, where some communities — including Akron — blew up their locks to keep the debris moving or risk losing their downtowns.
“There aren’t many times you can say a canal era ended on a specific day,” Bell said. “It’s usually more gradual than that.”
But canal transportation in Ohio ended permanently on one very rain-drenched Easter Sunday in 1913.
First news accounts
“All of Akron gave thanks this morning after 10 o’clock when the rain ceased,” began the story beneath a blaring 4-inch-thick headline in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 25.
In an edition the powerless newspaper printed by attaching its typesetting machine to a motorcycle engine, area residents read pages of dramatic accounts of the flood.
In the first day, five people were missing and presumed dead and an estimated 500 were made homeless as their houses were “marooned” and cut off from dry land.
Businesses were paralyzed. “Every foot of first floor factory space at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant is under water” — some areas 8 feet deep, the story said.
Some of the most shocking scenes were in Elizabeth Park Valley (below the modern-day All-America Bridge) where the swollen Little Cuyahoga River swept away up to 20 homes.
In dramatic narrative, the paper recounted the site of a crowd gathering to watch the chaos:
“And when the timbers cracked and the women wailed and the waters roared hungrily, then the spectators scattered and fled and most turned their heads away as another home went desperately beneath the maelstrom.”
In the week that followed, each day offered new tragedies and growing concerns.
Lumber yards located along the canal that connected Lake Erie in the north to the Ohio River in the south had their inventory swept away, adding to other debris that created huge dams.
In Akron, water roared over the gates of the canal locks, making them impossible to open. Lock 1 in Akron held back 9 miles of water, according to the website of the Ohio & Erie Canalway.
“Canal cities were warned by those on horseback to evacuate the area,” the report said.
In Akron, where the flooded canal was undermining the foundations of downtown buildings, B.F. Goodrich engineer John Henry Vance received permission from the Statehouse to blow the locks.
As the water moved again, it crushed gate after gate, “ripping the clay lining off the banks of the canal, as it rushed north to Peninsula and Boston,” the Ohio & Erie Canalway report said.
The water also moved south, and other communities had to destroy their locks to keep the bulge moving.
When all was said and done, the state decided not to invest in the extensive repairs needed to revitalize the canal, and it was never used for commercial transportation again.
Disaster compared to war
On March 26, the Akron Beacon Journal compared Ohio to a battleground. Its headline called the disaster “a calamity which can only be compared to the death, destruction, horrors, and devastation of war.”
March 27 headlines reported Zanesville and Marietta “in flames” and the Celina Reservoir in Northwest Ohio — the largest in the world — “broken,” putting thousands of lives in peril.
The March 28 edition talked about martial law efforts to restore order in many communities, while Columbus was facing new “horror” from the swollen Scioto River.
Because power was down throughout the state, communication was a challenge. Many news agencies started relying heavily on rumors.
First-day estimates had 1,500 people dying in Dayton after a dike holding back the Miami River failed.
Dayton, indeed, suffered the worst of any Ohio community. At one point, it was estimated more than half of the city was under water high enough to require watercraft.
The death estimate in the city, however, later was revised to 98.
Even locally, it was hard to pin down the truth, said Rebecca Larson-Troyer, a librarian in the Special Collections Division of the Akron-Summit County Public Library who researched the local impact of the flood for a current library exhibit.
It originally was reported that Portage Lakes property owners blasted the East Reservoir Dam to save their properties, sending water raging toward Barberton.
That city took great damage from the flood, but Troyer said there was no evidence the lakes’ homeowners had taken matters into their own hands. The dam probably broke on its own.
“The contemporary sources had inflated estimates of what went on, and you don’t see a lot of correction of [the facts] later,” she said.
While the front pages were filled with local tragedy, the inside pages kept offering snippets of what was happening to Ohio’s neighbors.
Up to 50 blocks in Omaha, Neb., were torn down by wind or burned in a related fire. A hundred people were presumed dead in Des Moines, Iowa. An Easter Sunday cyclone caused death and destruction in Terre Haute, Ind. A train was blown from its tracks and killed several people in Illinois.
Bell said that is the part that has been almost lost in history: the idea that all of these tragedies were linked to the same weather event.
“Radio was only 10 years old,” she said. “We just didn’t have the technology like we do today that would have put this together and created real visibility around it.”
Still, she said, “it puzzles me how something so calamitous could be forgotten.”
Other topics take over
A week after the storm had passed, reports of recovery efforts moved to inside pages.
The front pages gave way to events leading up to World War I, the death of financier J.P. Morgan and the work of suffragettes in Britain to gain the women’s vote.
“Other things took over, so the result is you don’t even really know how bad things still are and how they’re recovering,” she said.
There is no definitive count of how many people died throughout the storm area. Bell’s best guess is about 1,000 — nearly half of that in Ohio.
But the size and impact of the devastation is vividly preserved in photographs, engineering reports and news stories.
In the decade since Bell’s bike trip stirred her imagination, she has made it her mission to re-assemble the jigsaw puzzle of a storm that made history from Nebraska to New York.
She has visited almost every affected state and has written dozens of articles. She suspects she has averaged 10 hours a week for 10 years researching the topic.
“I already have the largest collected library of materials about it,” she said. “Someday, I’m going to write the definitive book.”