On March 25, 1913, the earthen levees holding back White River collapsed. West Indianapolis, an unincorporated industrial and residential community bordered on the east by White River, was flooded with as much as 15 inches of muddy, stinky polluted river water.
The rain that had started on March 21, two days before Easter Sunday, continued for five days leaving West Indianapolis, Broad Ripple and other areas to the west and north under water. Entire neighborhoods were inundated.
Sick and injured flood victims were rushed to Indianapolis hospitals in all the city’s available ambulances, of which there were too few. There were newspaper reports of bodies floating in the rushing water. Mrs. Jesse Zehr and her children were rescued by an Indianapolis police patrolman. A photographer captured the image of the family being rowed past the Morris Street Bridge by Patrolman Atkinson and his assistant (who said he was “too busy to give his name”).
Local papers, which were also publishing news on the simultaneous, and even more serious, Ohio River flooding, reported on March 26 that much of Broad Ripple was also under water. Photos showed that Central Avenue at 29th and 30th street was, too.
Under Mayor Lew Shank, the city and its charitable organizations hopped to the business of forming a general relief committee. The committee began to distribute food and clothing to sodden citizens arriving hourly at a rescue center in Tomlinson Hall on Market Street. The YWCA housed 250 women and girls that night, also providing them with dry clothes and meals.
Meanwhile, because the Riverside Pumping Station was under water, the city had not a drop to drink by March 26. The Indianapolis Star reported that the flood had to recede six to eight feet at the Riverside station before the system could begin functioning again. The West Washington Street Bridge gave way and part of its floor had washed downstream. The Indianapolis and Vincennes Railroad bridge and the streetcar bridge had both washed out on the city’s west side. The water nearly reached the electric wires that ran the streetcar. But luckily didn’t.
On March 27, the front page of The Indianapolis News reported that – gasp – all the saloons in the flooded section of the city were closed. That was the bad news. There was more bad news, too. A meat, milk and egg shortage was expected, according to The Indianapolis News. Militiamen were patrolling to prevent looters and Gov. Ralston had declared martial law. George Smith, Charles Rogers and William Geyer were known dead from the west side. Geyer had drowned while attempting to swim from his house on Nordyke Avenue.
There was good news on March 27. Utilities were partially restored. The streetcar company had managed to acquire power “from outside sources” and was running a few cars in the dryer parts of the city. The gas company was up and running and the water company was expecting to be back in action within a few hours of the evening’s publication. Fletcher Savings and Loan ran a third-page ad offering flood victims the opportunity to withdraw money from their savings accounts without losing interest.
A long list of contributors to the relief fund showed that in the midst of disaster, Indianapolis residents stepped up to help. So did many of the actors performing in the city’s theaters that week. A benefit for “hundreds” of victims was planned at the English Theatre, pulling together a dozen performers to put on one big money-raising show.
On March 28, the waters had begun to recede, but many were left homeless. The women and girls at the YWCA were busying themselves sewing new clothes and mending the torn and damaged ones they had on when they arrived at the Y. Girls who normally worked at the cotton mills on the city’s westside were among the flood refugees there. The Star reported that they were sewing by machine and hand for the girls and women who weren’t able to make their own clothes. According to the article, these refugees were “Happy Despite Horror.”
A list of those rescued was published in The Star on March 28, undoubtedly offering great relief to those who had not yet located their loved ones. The alphabetized list covered more than two full pages in the newspaper that day. The list of contributors to the relief fund was also long.
A boy’s death was reported on March 29, the cause a live wire in the water. Figures for the number of dead were reported as high as 25, but were never fully confirmed, according to The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis.
By March 30 clean-up had begun. As many as 7,000 families lost homes in the city in the five days of rain and the days after.
In the months and years following the 1913 flood, Indianapolis prepared its first comprehensive flood protection plan. But real flood protection would not come until another great flood in 1937 tested the city again. Following that flood, the city constructed concrete levees along White River. So far, these have held.
Connie is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm. She’s currently jet-setting between the Indianapolis metropolitan area and a little cabin on the Flatrock River in Shelby County.