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Our Rich History: The Floods of 1913 in Newport caused terrific suffering and economic hardship

By Deborah Pitel
Special to NKyTribune

Part 25 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020”

By 1913, the United States saw a huge influx of immigrants, as the nation’s population reached 90 million people. The descendants of the original German, English, and Irish settlers in the Cincinnati area witnessed the arrival of new immigrants competing for jobs and housing. In the years since the 1884 flood, Newport had become a major manufacturing center. Many business owners and professionals were moving from the West End in Newport to the Eastside and onto the hilltops. The vacated space in the West End was quickly filled with industry and housing for its workers. Poor neighborhoods developed alongside the iron and steel factories, along the riverbanks and in the deserted housing of the old Newport Barracks (Donald R. Bauer “Floods to Floodwalls in Newport, Kentucky: 1884-1951.” Electronic Thesis, Xavier University, 1988).

Outside the Courthouse and jail, flood of April 1913, Newport, KY. (From a postcard, courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.)

Two separate floods occurred during January and March 1913. The Ohio River crested at 62.2 feet in January, with flood stage at that time being 50 feet. When the flood crested on January 14th, over 8,000 Northern Kentucky residents were left homeless (Blanche Gaynor, “Floods of 1913,” in The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, ed. Paul A. Tenkotte and James C. Claypool. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009, p. 348).

In late March 1913, the Ohio Valley was once again victim to early spring rains that occurred in conjunction with the melting of accumulated ice and snow. Newport barely had a chance to recover from the January flood before receiving 7.47 inches of rain from March 23-27 (Horton and Jackson, The Ohio Valley Flood, p. 41).

By March 28th, 50 blocks in Newport were underwater, and 6,000 people were affected by the flood. The Newport Rolling Mill and Andrews Steel Plant were shut down the day before and left a total of 1,800 men out of work. Many companies located in the West End tried to help the relief efforts in any way possible. The Wiedemann Brewing Company had every wagon in use both night and day assisting residents trying to flee the flood zone (“One Fourth of Newport: Embracing Fifty Blocks, is Flooded – Thousands Out of Work,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 28, 1913).

Hundreds of homes were completely submerged, and thousands of people went to relief shelters, such as the Newport City Building at Fourth and Columbia Streets. Unfortunately, there were no city relief funds to draw from, as the January flood had exhausted the emergency funds appropriated for flooding. Although one of the hardest-hit cities in the Cincinnati area by the flood, Newport would manage to care for its flood sufferers without outside assistance (“One Fourth of Newport,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 28, 1913).

On March 30th, the water reached two sides of the Newport City Building and was rapidly approaching the marks made by the flood of 1884. Conditions in Newport became critical, and property loss was immense. Many houses in the West End were overturned, and wooden framed buildings could be seen floating around the streets. With the exception of a few gas lamps, the entire city of Newport was enveloped in darkness, as the light company could no longer deliver power (“Prepare for 70 Foot State is Warning Issued by the Local Forecaster,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 31, 1913).

Flooded Fourth Street Bridge, between Newport and Covington, KY., April 1913. (From a postcard, courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.)

Those living just outside of the flood zone were also suffering because they were in constant fear that their homes would also be submerged. Transportation was adversely affected, as the streetcars could not operate, and only the L & N Bridge was open to pedestrians. Newport was nearly isolated from the surrounding world.

On March 30, 1913, an order was given by the Newport City Commissioners to close all the saloons in the flooded neighborhoods, in an attempt to prevent accidental deaths due to alcohol consumption. Despite the order, drunken debauchery continued. Some of the bars were even being operated on barges, and young women were seen drinking beer out in the streets. Neighborhood residents also witnessed drunken people falling out of boats when leaving the bars (“Conditions in Newport are Serious and Appeal is made to Ft. Thomas – No Electric Light,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 31, 1913).

One of the saloons that continued to operate was Moloney’s, located on the northwest corner of Ninth and Brighton Streets and owned by William Moloney. Mr. Moloney and his family lived on the second floor of the building, above the saloon. On April 2nd, as the building was entirely surrounded by 7 feet of water, Mr. Moloney was on the second floor playing cards with his wife, nephew, daughter and a family friend. During the evening, they heard an ominous cracking sound and hurriedly called for assistance. The relief crew arrived just in time and as the family was clamoring onto a boat, one of the walls of the house fell and the second floor collapsed (“Family Rescued a Few Minutes Before Brick Building in Newport Collapsed,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 2, 1913). The next day, another portion of the Moloney saloon crashed into the floodwaters (“Lights in Newport are Expected to be Burning Again Tonight – Cleaning Begun,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 3, 1913).

The Ohio River finally crested on April 1st, at 69.9 feet, which was 7.7 feet higher than the flood just two months before (Gaynor, “Floods of 1913,” p. 349). Over 90 blocks of Newport were flooded, and between 12,000 and 13,000 people had been driven out of their homes. Additionally, businesses in the West End, such as the Andrews Steel Company and the Weidemann Brewing Company, were hard hit by the flood and forced to lay off workers. Further, thousands of Newport residents who worked in Cincinnati were stranded at home (“One Fourth of Newport is Underwater and City has Appealed to Federal Authorities,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 1, 1913).

Looking north on Monmouth St. from 3rd Street, April 1913. (From a postcard, courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.)

Lights in Newport were finally restored on April 3rd, and the massive job of cleaning was underway. The building inspector had the arduous job of traveling around the neighborhoods to examine all of the structures affected by the flood. The buildings deemed unsafe were condemned, and the owners were required to either destroy them or to restore them back to a condition suitable for habitation. Residents were urged to clean the debris from their property and place it in the streets so that the city could remove it. The Newport Public Works Department worked on flushing the debris from the streets, as well as pumping out and cleaning cellars and cisterns (“Lights in Newport are Expected to be Burning Again Tonight – Cleaning Begun,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 3, 1913).

Although the crest was higher in the 1884 flood by about a foot, it was agreed that the 1913 flood had been the most destructive in terms of property damage. Newport city officials worried about the reductions in property value and how those might affect the city’s taxable income (“Family Rescued a Few Minutes Before Brick Building in Newport Collapsed,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 2, 1913).

The suffering and economic destruction of the 1913 flood caused individuals and groups to think about solutions to prevent future flooding. During an April 5th meeting of the Newport Board of Commissioners, it was discovered that an adequate flood prevention plan would be too expensive without state and federal funds (Bauer, “Floods to Floodwalls,” 51).

Nationally, the newspapers and books written about the 1913 flood created a new awareness of flooding and its consequences. The House of Representatives created a flood control committee in 1916, and Congress passed a resolution for plans to develop the nation’s water resources in 1917. Congress also voted for the first-ever appropriation for flood control levees, as opposed to navigation levees. The United States’ entry into World War I, however, delayed the push needed for federal flood protection. The 1920s saw no serious flooding on the Ohio River and construction on the river was limited to dams, channels, and reservoirs. The personal hardships and economic losses of the Great Floods of 1884 and 1913 were a distant memory as the protection of river cities, such as Newport, was forgotten (Bauer, “Floods to Floodwalls,” p. 54).

Deborah Pitel is a graduate of the MA in Public History program at Northern Kentucky University. She is the author of Marketing on a Shoestring Budget: A Guide for Small Museums and Historic Sites, published in conjunction with the American Association for State and Local History.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at NKU (Northern Kentucky University) and the author of many books and articles.

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