1913 to 2013 in 13 Miles: Brian Lenihan’s look at Hamilton’s Great Flood

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Imagine your town, at the tail end of a gloomy, rainy winter. The ground at your feet has thawed, but absorbs very little of the  excess water when it suddenly begins to rain again. Very hard. The river swells at an alarming rate. But there’s no siren, no flood warning on the news, and your Twitter feed is silent. It’s 1913, in Hamilton, OH.


In late March of that year over 9.5 inches of rain fell on Hamilton in less than 5 days. The recent rainfall in Greater Cincinnati that many have found so shocking (10.5 inches in thirty days) pales in comparison. All four bridges over the Great Miami were destroyed in just two hours. On March 26th the river reached 34 ft, and 80% of the city was submerged. If you were lucky enough to escape simply drowning you would have threat of disease and supply shortages to contend with. Railroads were impassable, roads turned to mud. Over 200 people lost their lives and thousands more their homes.


And yet Hamilton survived, its people endured. A new book by Miami Group Member Brian Lenihan examines this perseverance, in a very unique way. Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with the author. His interest in the 1913 flood started early on with the stories and photos shared by his grandmother, one of these dauntless survivors of the days of the flood. Recently, as the centennial of the flood approached, he began building a collection of photographs – and recreating them! Each photo in 1913-2013 in 13 Miles is one of a pair; one taken in 1913 and the other in 2013, at the same location.


The book is a treasure trove of 360 such photographs in all, assembled over the past two years. Each of its six chapters examines one of the Hamilton neighborhoods affected by the flood along a 13 mile route. On some streets Downtown and in the North End, water levels rose as high as ten feet. It was the most destructive disaster in Ohio History. Seeing the photos is a startling reminder that surroundings we take for granted can change drastically in just a few hours.


I couldn’t help asking if we might see another deluge sometime in the future. Brian tells me that in the decades after the flood, there was a lot of construction work along the riverbanks; a new dam was built, as well as new levees, and the river itself was widened to increase its capacity for runoff. Fortunately, these changes mean we’re unlikely to see a flood on the scale of the 1913 flood anytime soon. The banks could now withstand several times the amount of rain that fell back then. If there was a flood, many lives might be saved simply by the advances that have been made in disaster warning and communications equipment. Still, after seeing all the bizarre weather so far here in 2015, for once I’m glad I live on a hill. Just in case.


Lovers of history, photography, and/or Hamilton can pick up a copy of the new book at Micropressbooks.
Brian Lenihan, Author, Historian, Photographer
Brian Lenihan, Author: 1913 to 2013 in 13 Miles