Miami Valley Celebrates 100 Years of Flood Protection And The Recreational Opportunities That Have Come With It
By Matt Bayman
It is quite possible that a volcanic eruption in Alaska led to the greatest natural disaster in Ohio’s recorded history—the Flood of 1913.
According to Conrade Hinds in his book, Columbus and the Great Flood of 1913: The Disaster that Reshaped the Ohio Valley, the 1912 eruption of Mount Katmai emitted enough fine ash into the atmosphere to block sunlight and cool the climate of the Northern Hemisphere. This created what is known as a volcanic winter. The eruption took place in June but impacted the climate long after, leading to a “harsh winter” that resulted in heavy snow and ice accumulation in Ohio and throughout the Midwest.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was a four-day storm that blew through the Midwest from March 23 (Easter Sunday) through March 26 in 1913. With the ground already saturated or frozen, an extra 9-to-11 inches of rain fell to the ground, causing local streams to rise an average of one inch every two-and-a-half minutes for five hours straight on the third day.
In the Miami Valley, and especially in Dayton, this spelled big trouble.
There are four major streams that converge in Dayton—the Great Miami River, the Stillwater River, the Mad River and Wolf Creek, along with many smaller tributaries. From here, they all join the Great Miami River, which then flows south to the Ohio River and eventually the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.
While every city and town on the Great Miami River was affected by the flood, Dayton’s position at the intersection of so many streams meant that an epic level of water was about to crash into the city, which is exactly what happened.
When flood waters that reached 20 feet deep in Dayton began to recede in the Miami Valley on March 27, 360 people were dead, nearly 65,000 were displaced, and approximately 20,000 homes were destroyed. Property damage to homes, businesses, factories and railroads exceeded $100 million, which would be about two billion dollars today.
Bishop Wright (the father of Orville and Wilbur Wright and a Dayton flood survivor) said of the event: “The flood was second only to Noah’s.”
The Flood of 1913 remains Ohio’s largest weather disaster in history and, at the time, was the worst natural disaster in United States recorded history. In the Midwest, damage was estimated to exceed a billion dollars, in 1913 money! Because so many roads, bridges, railroads, farms and businesses were destroyed or damaged in the Midwest, it became the first natural disaster to impact the entire U.S. economy, rather than just a specific region or industry.
According to J. David Rogers in his book, The 1913 Dayton Flood and the Birth of Modern Flood Control Engineering in the United States, cleanup and rebuilding efforts in Dayton took approximately one year to repair, and the economic impact took most of a decade to recover.
In short, it was devastating.
Never Again! The Formation of the Miami Conservancy District
Naturally, the people of Dayton and the Miami Valley never wanted such a terrible thing to happen again, so they took action.
Almost immediately after the flood, the City of Dayton raised what would today be millions of dollars to fund a flood control effort. This makes the repair unusual, as most natural disaster relief comes from the federal government and is coordinated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The city commissioned hydrological engineer Arthur Morgan and his Morgan Engineering Company from Tennessee to design an extensive plan to protect Dayton and other communities on the Great Miami River from future flooding.
According to Rogers, Morgan hired nearly 50 engineers to analyze the Miami Valley watershed and precipitation patterns and to determine the flood volume. They then came up with a plan to build five earthen dams and to modify the river channel in Dayton. The dams would have conduits to release a limited amount of water and a wider river channel would use larger levees supported by a series of training levees. The plan was modeled after a flood control system in France.
According to Rogers, flood storage areas behind the dams were to be used as farmland between floods. Later on, this would turn out to be a good thing for nature lovers as much of this land, as we’ll see, was turned into public parks and recreation areas.
In 1915, the Miami Conservancy District (MCD) was formed to construct and maintain the flood control system, which it continues to do to this day. It was first led by Morgan, who served as the organization’s first chief engineer.
Between 1918 and 1922, the MCD built the five dams, plus 44 miles of levees and channel improvements. An additional 12 miles of levee would later be added, as would smaller dams and other features.
Dams were built on five key streams in the northern Miami Valley; one in Germantown to regulate Twin Creek; one in Lockington to regulate Loramie Creek; one in Englewood to regulate the Stillwater River; one in Vandalia to regulate the Great Miami River; and one near what is now Fairborn to regulate the Mad River.
All aerial photography provided by the Miami Conservancy District.
(Pictured above: To help prevent another catastrophic flood in the Miami Valley, the Great Miami River was widened and levees built through downtown Dayton and other cities. Pictured below: Hamilton, Ohio. Pictured at the top, A map of the flood protection system in the Miami Valley.)
According to the MCD, more than 2,000 men worked to build the dams and levees simultaneously. It was the largest public works project in the world at the time and cost more than $30 million to complete (about a half-billion dollars today).
Angela Manuszak, Special Projects Coordinator at the MCD said, for the most part, the project went off without a hitch, but it did have its challenges to overcome. This includes relocating the Village of Osborn out of the Huffman Dam retarding basin, moving railroad lines, finding enough staff and equipment during the middle of World War I to complete the job and, of course, raising the money and passing the legislation required to complete the massive project. But it all came together.
Today, people from throughout the United States and world come to Dayton to view and learn about the MCD’s flood control system. In fact, the success of the system helped to inspire the development of the much larger Tennessee Valley Authority during the Great Depression.
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Taylorsville Dam being built. Photo provided by the Miami Conservancy District.
Dry dams store water only as needed
Many dams continuously hold back water either for recreation or power generation. MCD dams are “dry dams,” with no permanent pool or reservoir behind them. The land behind MCD dams is normally dry and only stores floodwater after heavy or prolonged rains.
How the dams work
Each earthen dam has large concrete openings (conduits) at the dam’s base. During normal flows, the river runs through the conduits unimpeded. When the river rises approximately to the top of the conduit, water begins to store in the retarding basin upstream. The conduits allow through, only the amount of water the downstream channel can handle.
During periods of extreme high water, it can take up to a few weeks for the retarding basin to drain the backed-up floodwaters. Combined, the five retarding basins take up 35,650 acres of land. Much of this land is used for recreation and agriculture. MCD has flooding easements and building restrictions on this land.
The flood protection system is designed to manage a storm the size of the Great 1913 Flood (9-11 inches of rain in three days across the 4,000-square-mile watershed) plus another 40 percent. (Images courtesy of the Miami Conservancy District)
Above: The levee system in Troy and, below, in Piqua. Photos provided by the Miami Conservancy District.
A Perfect Track Record
It has now been 100 years since the completion of the flood control system, and Morgan’s plan continues to work perfectly.
According to the MCD, since its completion in 1922, the system has protected the Miami Valley from flooding more than 1,900 times and flood damage in the protected areas has cost a total of $0.
In these 100 years, the dams and their retarding basins have never come close to reaching capacity, nor has flooding ever come close to the levels reached in 1913.
Manuszak said the highest recorded river stage since 1913 took place in January of 1959. During this event, the Germantown Dam, which was impacted most, reached about 32 percent capacity. However, Manuszak added, “at Piqua and Troy, a December 2013 storm topped 1959.”
Thankfully, the entire system is designed to manage a storm the size of the Flood of 1913, plus 40 percent more!
Today, the dams and levees reduce flood risk for a total of about $3.2 billion worth of land and buildings (not including personal property or infrastructure) and protect about a million people from flooding.
Huffman Dam as seen from the Wright Brothers Memorial in Fairborn. Photo by Matt Bayman.
Stewards of the Land
Flood protection has always been—and remains—the MCD’s core mission (the organization has branched out to tackle numerous emerging water issues during the past 100 years). However, they have also become stewards of the land.
The MCD owns and/or controls around 42,000 acres of land, of which 3,000 acres is leased for recreation purposes. Along with fishing, kayaking and other river activities, the recreation lands owned by the MCD are used by tens of thousands of people each year.
In fact, a great way to enjoy the outdoors close to home—and to see one of the greatest manmade projects of the early 20th century—is to visit each of the five dams and the parks and preserves that surround them. (The MCD has other parks as well, which are listed on their website). You can even backcountry hike and camp at several of them!
Each of the dams has its own personality and design, and each of the parks offers a different array of activities. Four parks are operated by Five Rivers MetroParks in Montgomery County and one is operated by Shelby County.
Five Rivers MetroParks hosts a variety of events and programs at the four parks, from guided hikes and bird watching excursions to canoe trips and children’s activities. A calendar of events is available on their website.
To learn more about the Flood of 1913 and the MCD, Manuszak suggests visiting Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, which has “a beautiful building dedicated to the 1913 flood,” and any number of local historical societies and libraries; “Especially the Wright State University Dunbar Library Archives and Special Collections Department,” Manuszak said.
If you get a chance this centennial year, take time to visit the five dams and to discover the history, recreation and beauty that each one has to offer, and to remember and appreciate just how important they are to our lives!
A Dam Tour of the Miami Valley
Located just north of Piqua and very close to Johnston Farm & Indian Agency, Lockington Dam regulates Loramie Creek, which, shortly after the dam, joins the Great Miami River. Piqua’s location downstream from this confluence didn’t help during the Flood of 1913. The river in Piqua is said to have flooded some neighborhoods to a depth of 24 feet!
The seclusion of the dam and Lockington Preserve, which is a 200-acre park leased to Shelby County without charge by the Miami Conservancy District, is what makes it a special place to visit.
From the parking lot, guests can walk the entire one-mile length of the levee, which crosses over the dam along the way. From atop the dam and levee, the peaceful, panoramic view of the countryside to the south is contrasted by a view of treetops on the north side of the dam. These treetops are part of the preserve located behind the dam and include hiking trails that lead past some of the largest trees in the area, including huge walnut and oak trees.
The preserve is especially beautiful in the spring when the redbud trees blossom along the trails and again in the fall when the same canopy of trees seen from above turns orange, yellow and brown.
Located about a minute away from the preserve is Lockington Locks Historical Site. Here, visitors can walk along a group of canal locks built in 1833 as part of the Miami and Erie Canal. Just like the dam project many years later, the canal system that joined Lake Erie to the Ohio River was one of the largest projects of its kind at the time.
A visit to the historic district in nearby Piqua (filled with antique and specialty shops and unique restaurants) comes complete with historical markers on buildings that show the high point of the 1913 flood waters in town.
7481 Creek Rd., Germantown
Germantown MetroPark is part of the Twin Valley Conservation Corridor and a very interesting place to explore.
The “twin” in the name is based on Twin Creek, which flows through Germantown MetroPark and Twin Creek MetroPark. Combined, these two parks offer some of the most extensive hiking trails in western Ohio, as well as some of its oldest forests.
Downstream of the dam, you can see the Miami Conservancy District’s original construction camp dining hall, later converted to use as a large maintenance facility for the Germantown Dam caretaker.
Some Things To Do at Germantown Dam & Vicinity
Backcountry hiking and camping on 27-45 miles of trails
A rare treasure in western Ohio, the Twin Valley Conservation Corridor features a 27-mile backcountry hiking trail that offers three areas for overnight camping. The trail traverses many different natural habitats with rich biodiversity and wildlife and provides a backpacking experience reminiscent of backcountry wilderness trails with beautiful hills, babbling brooks, abundant wildlife, history and small-town charm. The hiking/camping experience can be extended to cover over 45 miles.
Trek 15 miles of hiking trails
The park has more than 15 miles of wooded trails, many with some of the most challenging terrain in the region and spectacular scenery. Loop trails are color-coded, with intersections marked by a number. A favorite of many hikers is the 9.3-mile orange trail, which begins at the Twin Valley Welcome Center. It offers rolling hills and travels along the Twin Creek and through mature and old-growth woodlands where you can spot orchids, wildflowers and wild turkeys.
Visit the Bob Siebenthaler Natural Area
The Twin Creek is a 47-mile stream that drains 316 square miles of rolling farmland west of Dayton that bisects Germantown MetroPark at the Bob Siebenthaler Natural Area. This beautiful woodland offers a rich display of spring wildflowers and scenic hiking year-round. The area honors the many contributions that former MetroParks Commissioner Bob Siebenthaler made to land stewardship and conservation in the Miami Valley.
Explore a wetland and monarch habitat prairie
This 147-acre tract of farmland adjacent to Germantown MetroPark on Boomershine Road was designed to give a lift to the 2,000-mile annual flight of the Monarch butterfly across North America.
Native grasses, plants and flowers such as milkweed that are favorites of the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators, including honeybees can be seen here. Hiking trails were recently opened to take visitors through this important habitat.
See the four seasons at the Valley Overlook
For a spectacular view, especially during the peak of fall color, stop at the Valley Overlook. Year-round, this site provides a scenic view into and across Twin Creek Valley. Park at the restroom parking lot and follow the path to the wooden overlook platform.
See very old forests
A highlight of the park system is a mature and old-growth woodland preserved here. It is the largest tract of old woods in Montgomery County, hinting at what Ohio’s forests were like before European settlement. Due to its size, it provides crucial habitat for species not found in other areas. A variety of small orchids have been found, and wildflowers carpet the Old Forest in the spring. Wild turkeys have also been spotted. Breeding bird surveys indicate brown creepers and summer tanagers nest here, both rare occurrences in Montgomery County.
Hunt for fossils
Just south of dam, look for a designated area to hunt for fossils that date back almost a half-a-billion years!
Catch a variety of fish
Twin Creek is known for its bass, crappie and bluegill. Catch and release is available at Sunfish Pond.
You don’t have to backcountry hike to camp here. Overnight camping is available with permit by calling (937) 275-7275.
Winter sports are popular
Cross-country skiers utilize the many miles of trails here and a sledding hill is open to the public at 6206 Boomershine Rd.
Launch a kayak or canoe
There are four locations within this park system to launch a kayak or canoe. As with all streams in the Miami Valley, water conditions can vary considerably.
4439 Lower Valley Pike, Dayton
Many of the recreational opportunities at Huffman Dam and Huffman MetroPark revolve around cycling. This is not by chance as the park is named after the Huffman family (founders of the Huffy Bike Corporation) and located right next door to Huffman Field, where two bicycle-makers from Dayton perfected flight. A designated mountain biking park and the Mad River Trail offer miles of entertainment. The Mad River Trail leads to some of the most popular tourist destinations in Ohio, including the National Museum of the US Air Force.
Some Things To Do at Germantown Dam & Vicinity
Go mountain biking in nature
Part of the MetroParks Mountain Bike Area (MoMBA), this mountain biking trail contains 9 miles of sustainable trails and includes trails for all levels from beginners to advanced. Learn more about the trail at metroparks.org/momba.
Bike the Mad River Trail
The Mad River Trail connects to the park at the top of the Huffman Dam. Taking this paved trail west will lead users through Eastwood MetroPark into downtown Dayton. Heading east, users can connect with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the Air Force Museum, Huffman Prairie Trail, and the Kauffman Avenue Bikeway, which extends to Wright State University and Fairborn.
Hike the Huffman Prairie Trail & visit the Wright Brothers Memorial
The Huffman Prairie Trail is part of the statewide Buckeye Trail, connecting Huffman MetroPark with downtown Fairborn. Along the trail, users will pass the Wright Brothers Memorial Park and the Huffman Prairie State Natural Landmark, one of the largest prairie remnants in Ohio and a unique part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park.
Hang out at the lake, kayak & fish
Huffman Lake was created when MCD crews removed soil for the construction of the adjacent earthen dam after the 1913 flood. Fed by the waters of Mad River, the lake rises and falls with the operation of the dam. Bass, bluegill, catfish and carp can be caught in the lake. The lake and surrounding habitats draw many migrating birds, including many species of ducks, gulls, herons, songbirds, woodpeckers and birds of prey. There is access for nonpowered watercraft at the Lake View entrance.
Hike the Huffman Lake Peninsula
Compare river and lake habitats with a side-by-side study when you hike along the peninsula at Huffman MetroPark. Park at the 4439 Lower Valley Pike entrance or bike across the Mad River Bikeway connection and walk along the peninsula that borders the lake and Mad River.
Experience the Mad River
This scenic stream flows cool, swift and clear during most of the year due to the numerous springs from glacial deposits in west-central Ohio that feed it. Lush forests and abundant wildlife can be found along its banks. The river provides great fishing opportunities with a local population of brown trout, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, rock bass, bluegill, crappie and carp. Paddlers can put in upstream and take out before reaching the dam. The Mad River was designated as a state water trail in August 2010.
Go bird watching
The lake, river and natural vegetation at Huffman Dam provide habitat for a variety of birds. In the spring and fall, the area draws migrating birds, including ducks, gulls, herons and warblers. Large birds of prey, such as the red-tailed hawk and great horned owl, are year-round residents. Rare birds also have been sighted in the Huffman MetroPark vicinity. These include the western grebe, osprey, bald eagle and white-winged Scoter.
Go sledding and cross-country skiing
With sufficient snowfall, the level- to-gently rolling terrain provides scenic cross-country skiing around the lake and through the picnic areas. Sledding, especially for young children, is available on the small hills at the north end of the lake.
100 E. National Rd., Englewood
The Englewood Dam is the largest of the five dams and one of the largest parks overall in western Ohio at 1,900 acres. The dam, built and maintained by MCD, regulates the flow of the Stillwater River and consists of 3,500,000 cubic yards of earth, making it the largest of the five dams. According to Wikipedia, that’s as much earth as the Great Pyramid of Giza!
The park and adjoining Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm contain lakes, woods, wetlands and meadows, 20 miles of hiking and walking trails, a bike trail, kayak access and…giant trolls, which are part of a permanent outdoor art exhibit at Aullwood.
Some Things To Do at Germantown Dam & Vicinity
Visit 3 waterfalls
Englewood MetroPark is home to three waterfalls: Martindale, Patty and Oaks. Use the green trail loop, which also follows the Stillwater River, to see them all.
Go night fishing
The North Park fishing ponds are open 24/7 April 1-Oct. 31 for fishing only. The lake on Martindale Road is open 24/7 year-round for fishing only.
See a very old, tall tree
Visit “Big Blue,” a champion blue ash tree that is older than the state of Ohio! Blue is located just past the stone gate entrance to the West Park area at 100 E. National Rd.
Front Country Camping (overnight tent camping) is available in a beautiful natural area at the park. Site amenities and fees vary. A permit, reserved at least four days prior to your stay, is required and available using the online reservation system at metroparks.org or by calling (937) 275-7275 during normal business hours.
See the rare Pumpkin Ash & Swamp Forest
Follow the yellow trail from the trailhead in East Park to a boardwalk that passes through a remnant swamp forest populated with black ash, swamp white oak and pumpkin ash. This remnant swamp has been dedicated as a State Natural Landmark in recognition of the occurrence of pumpkin ash, a tree rarely found in Ohio.
Take on the Blue Heron Disc Golf Course
Considered one of the best disc courses in the region, this 18-hole course is positioned under mature trees and next to a lake. It features Fly18 Concrete tee-pads with DisCatcher baskets.
Bike the Stillwater River Trail
The northern segment of the Stillwater River Trail passes through the park and connects the Grossnickle Park with Englewood MetroPark. The trail is 5 miles, one way and largely follows the Stillwater River.
Explore the Benedict Blincoe Wildlife Observation Area
Englewood MetroPark is one of the best birding sites in the area. Approximately 90 percent of all species seen in the Dayton area have been observed in Englewood. The presence of wetlands in the Benedict Blincoe Wildlife Observation Area that readily supplies worms, crayfish and other favorite food sources for birds are likely responsible for its popularity. This large wetland was formed after the shallow lake filled with silt from the Stillwater River. Migrating birds can be seen feeding there during the spring or fall, including sandhill cranes. Other birds in this park include owls, eagles, warblers, great blue herons, belted kingfishers, a variety of ducks, cedar waxwings and Baltimore orioles. Beaver, muskrat and raccoons also visit wetlands to find food.
Hunt for fossils
Search for fossils on south side of the dam. Collecting fossils is only permitted in the marked area.
Enjoy sledding hills and winter sports and activities
Winter activities at the park include cross-country skiing on the miles of hiking trails, sledding at the West Park (use 100 E. National Rd.), ice fishing, birding and winter hiking.
Take a canoe trip from West Milton to Englewood Dam
Barefoot Canoe in West Milton launches trips on this route during warm weather.
Take the little ones to a nature play area
Children are encouraged to explore nature, gather sticks and build a fort, turn over rocks and look for critters, climb on tree trunks and more in this nature play area.
Aullwood Center & Farm and Giant Trolls in the Garden
955 Aullwood Rd., Dayton
Located next to Englewood Dam, the Aullwood Audubon Center & Farm teaches, leads and inspires people to preserve, protect and enjoy nature, farming and the environment.
Guests can discover woods, streams, ponds, prairies, meadows, a working sustainable farm, educational animal exhibits, and, new in 2021, giant trolls in the gardens! Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 for children 4-12 and $12 for adults. Free for children 3 and under and $10 for seniors. (Troll photo courtesy of the Aullwood Audubon Center & Farm website)
2000 U.S. 40, Vandalia
Some of the most rugged trails in the Miami Valley can be found at Taylorsville MetroPark, not to mention some amazing history.
Taylorsville Dam regulates the Great Miami River in Montgomery County and is 2,980 feet long and 67 feet high, making it one of the smaller dams in the system. The drainage area above the dam is 1,149 square miles. According to the Miami Conservancy District, it would take five days to empty the retarding basin after a maximum high-water event. The dam can store 60.62 billion gallons of floodwater!
While hiking, biking or kayaking through this park, guests are never far from the old Miami and Erie Canal and can visit the site and remains of an old town (Tadmor) that once stood at the crossroads of America—before the Flood of 1913 wiped it out.
Some Things To Do at Germantown Dam & Vicinity
Hike the East Park Trails
With more than 8 miles of trail and challenging elevation changes, the trails at Taylorsville’s East Park offer hikers an opportunity to challenge themselves while immersed in an old-growth forest that contains stunning river overlooks. From the trailhead located just north of the stone shelter, hikers will find a variety of trail lengths and difficulty levels.
Walk next to the Miami and Erie Canal
Running parallel to the Great Miami River through Taylorsville was the Miami-Erie Canal. This hand-dug “big ditch,” completed in 1845, took 20 years to construct. Remnants of the canal can still be found on the north side of the dam near the paved Great Miami River Trail. Five hundred feet north of the dam stands the foundation of the aqueduct. These impressive structures were large, water-filled bridges over rivers that allowed canal boats to cross.
Hike or cycle the Great Miami Recreational Trail
The Great Miami River Trail bisects Taylorsville MetroPark from north to south. Travel to the north end and discover where the village of Tadmor once stood. Along the way look for the remnants of the Miami-Erie Canal. Go south from the dam and stand on an observation deck far above a native meadow. Taylorsville MetroPark is a flat, 10-mile ride to or from RiverScape in downtown Dayton to the south. The Great Miami Recreational Trail extends all the way to Trenton, south of Middletown to the south and also passes very close to downtown Tipp City and through the centers of Troy and Piqua to the north.
Stand next to a rock outcrop
A short walk from the CCC picnic shelter north of the dam leads to a huge pile of Brassfield dolomite with an exposed rock face behind. In 1984, this was the site of a massive rock fall when 375 tons of overhanging stone tumbled down. The collapse was caused by the erosion of the softer underlying Massey shale, leaving the stone above unsupported. This process repeated itself in 1996 when an additional 100 tons fell, and it continues today. Walk up the stone stairs and examine the small caverns created by water traveling through the stone over time. Enter the park at 2101 U.S. 40 and hike the orange trail.
Go sledding and cross-country skiing
With sufficient snowfall, glide down the sledding hill near the entrance at 1200 Brown School Road. Or cross-country ski the picnic areas and open meadows. Most hiking trails are not suitable for skiing due to steep terrain, but are challenging winter treks for experienced hikers.
Visit the Village of Tadmor
Follow the Great Miami River trail north of the dam about 1.25 miles to the site of Tadmor. In the 1800s, this small village was Montgomery County’s busiest crossroad, standing at the intersection of the Miami-Erie Canal, National Road, Dayton-Michigan Railroad and the Great Miami River. It was washed away in the Flood of 1913. Today, remnants of this once bustling community have been identified with a historic marker as a significant site along the original route of the National Road.