Sunday, January 20, 2013

Morgan's Cowboys

What is the worst possible future flood? And how can a city protect against it? Until brilliant young Arthur E. Morgan  figured it out after the Great Easter 1913 flood, no one knew how to save Dayton.
            The perspiring young woman scrubbing her living-room floor shakes her head. “I can’t believe there’s still dried mud from the flood inside the house four months later!” she mutters. Now, in hot July, she still wakes up nights reliving March’s unforeseen horror—waking to ice-cold floodwaters swirling into her bedroom, grabbing the baby, racing out into the torrential downpour, panting and slogging upslope in her sodden nightgown, slipping in the mud until yanked free by her husband. Thank God, at least they had all survived... but now she is paralyzed with night terrors that it all could happen again.

            Knock! knock!

Just months after the Great Easter 1913 Flood, Arthur E. Morgan, founder of Morgan Engineering Co., deployed 50 engineers around the Miami Valley watershed to calculate the actual volume of water in the 1913 flood. In the absence of reliable maps, Morgan’s men—some dressed as cowboys—went house to house interviewing residents to record the times of flood stages, and surveyed the land themselves. The goal: to deduce the maximum possible flood and engineer fix-it-forever flood protection for Dayton. [Photo credit: Miami Conservancy District]
            Brushing a sweaty curl back from her forehead, the woman opens her front door to see two smiling paint-spattered young men in cowboy hats, one holding a weird telescope-like instrument on a tripod and what looks like a giant ruler taller than he is, the other with a ladder in one hand and a bucket of paint in the other. “Hello, we’re from Morgan Engineering,” says the man with the strange contraptions. “We’re figuring out how to prevent future floods like the one that swept through the Miami Valley in March. Can you please show us how high the water got around your property?”
            As the woman points out the mud stains near the eaves of her house and flood debris still caught up in the branches of nearby trees, the second young man climbs a ladder and carefully marks each spot with a horizontal line of white paint, until the entire property is traced with white marks revealing the depths of inundation.  Then the young man with the surveying equipment measures heights and triangulating distances, his assistant carefully writing numbers on a clipboard. Surrounded by the those white marks and looking up at them, and seeing similar white paint marks dotting her neighbors’ properties, the housewife is awestruck at the full magnitude of the flood that ruined all their lives.

            The summer of 1913, scenes like this play out house by house around the entire Miami Valley. A watershed of 4,277 square miles in southwestern Ohio (plus another 1,425 square miles in Indiana) and encompassing parts of 15 Ohio counties, the Miami Valley drains about 10 percent of the state of Ohio. Its three main rivers—the Mad, the Miami, and the Stillwater—join within the city limits of Dayton, and then flow southward as the Great Miami before emptying into the Ohio River at the Ohio-Indiana border west of Cincinnati.
            In 1913, the flood runoff—a total of some 4 trillion gallons, equivalent to about a month’s discharge of water over Niagara Falls—was funneled down the three river channels in four days, directly into downtown Dayton. Thus, Dayton—then a bustling industrial metropolis of about 115,000 souls—became the focus of the country’s first comprehensive program for flood control.

The floodwaters had just passed their peak on March 27 when  Ohio Governor James M. Cox (see "The Governor's Ear") appointed the Dayton Citizens’ Relief Committee, composed of Dayton’s mayor and several of the city’s leading industrialists (including NCR President John H. Patterson; see “The Villain Who Stole the Flood”), to oversee immediate relief and rehabilitation. Three weeks later, after the Ohio Legislature passed an emergency act authorizing the mayor of any city to appoint an emergency commission to expedite long-term repair and reconstruction, Dayton officially incorporated its relief committee into a not-for-profit Dayton Citizens’ Relief Commission. The commission established a Flood Prevention Fund to raise seed money to begin financing engineering surveys, plans, and construction contracts for a fix-it-forever flood-control program. By the end of May, after a monumental fund-raising campaign of only 10 days, the Fund had received pledges for more than $2 million (in 1913 dollars—equivalent to about $45 million today) from 23,000 subscribers.
            Equally important, by the end of May, the commission also had contacted and retained exactly the man they wanted to head the flood-control program: Arthur E. Morgan, president of Morgan Engineering Company in Memphis, Tennessee.

            Morgan had been draining wetlands for industrial and residential development since age 22, when he joined his father’s small hydraulic engineering firm in Minnesota in 1900. He quickly put himself on the map. From his first-hand experience as a field engineer, slogging through swamps with a surveyor’s transit to map drainage basins, and preparing engineering plans for draining peat marshes , Morgan became convinced of an eternal truth: that each river and its drainage system had to be treated as a unit, irrespective of any arbitrary human-drawn township or county boundaries it crossed. Thus, any political process for approvals for drainage projects had to conform with nature’s reality.  When his father retired in 1905, the 27-year-old took over the family business, and within a year was lobbying the state legislature on behalf of the Minnesota Engineers and Surveyors Society to change antiquated statutes and conflicts in Minnesota’s drainage laws. In 1907 Morgan was recruited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to join its Office of Drainage Investigations as a government field engineer to provide technical advice on large drainage programs managed by various state governments or other groups around the nation. In 1910, armed with both know-how and know-who, he left government service and opened his own firm Morgan Engineering Company, in Memphis, Tennessee, building dams, bridges, drainage canals, and flood-control levees along the Mississippi River. 
            So in early May, 1913, six weeks after the Great Easter Flood, it was a no-brainer for the Dayton Citizens’ Relief Commission to turn to brilliant, 35-year-old Arthur E. Morgan for expertise and deliverance.
            Morgan was given carte blanche: “The valley has suffered a calamity that must not be allowed to occur again. Find a way out.” The Dayton commission wanted to see dirt flying by fall in building the last word in flood protection for the city. Morgan countered that no plan should be adopted before calculating the actual volume of water of the 1913 flood, estimating the likely magnitude of the largest possible future flood, and conducting what he called a “conclusive engineering analysis” of the merits of all possible engineering solutions.

            Until the Easter Flood of 1913, no one knew how to estimate the worst possible flood. Up to then, cities usually figured that no future flood could be worse than any recent worst flood. Wrong!  The Miami Valley flood of 1884 was far worse than the previous record-setter of 1866, and the Great Easter Flood of 1913 dwarfed them both. To do the job right, Morgan knew engineers needed to get a grip on quantifying actual risk.
            Also, levees alone didn’t work. In fact, levees could make matters worse. Those earthen dikes along a river’s banks were usually built as high and as strong as deemed adequate to hold back waters of the most recent worst flood. But their massive structures gave people a sense of false confidence, to the point where cities allowed the building of homes and businesses on known flood plains—one key reason the 1913 flood’s devastation of Dayton was so great. Second, the force of turbulent floodwaters could erode and weaken a levee so quickly that it would give way all at once, like a breaking dam. In Dayton, collapsing levees released several 10-foot walls of water that roared through the city’s streets like juggernauts, their megatons of force wrecking the city’s structures far worse than quietly rising waters ever could.

            So within days of being hired, Morgan opened a branch office in Dayton and fielded more than 50 engineers—dubbed “Morgan’s Cowboys” for their wide-brimmed sun-shading hats—to determine the flood’s volume of runoff around the Miami Valley watershed plus the flood crest’s rate of travel. Armed with buckets of paint, the engineers went from house to house throughout the valley’s 120-mile length, carefully marking high-water lines, recording information from homeowners about the time and height of various flood stages, and surveying the land to obtain measurements of the desired accuracy.
            Meantime, other engineers buried themselves burrowed in libraries around the Miami Valley, combing through dusty old newspapers far back into the nineteenth century, sleuthing out information about river crests at various towns along smaller tributaries, to deduce flows through the Miami Valley in previous floods. Last, to determine how big was big enough to protect against a maximum possible future flood—one possibly likely once in a thousand years—Morgan deployed experts to Europe to examine stream flow records going back centuries and even millennia for the Seine at Paris, the Danube at Vienna, and the Tiber at Rome.

            On October 3, 1913, the Morgan Engineering Company unveiled their grand plan to the Dayton Citizens’ Relief Commission for a solution that would protect Dayton—and the entire Miami Valley—from severe floods forever.
[To be continued]

©2013 Trudy E. Bell. For permission to reprint or use, contact Trudy E. Bell at
Next time: Morgan's pioneering vision leads to the biggest engineering project in the world... Morgan’s Pyramids

[MAP] lthough numerically Dayton suffered the most deaths of any single city in the Miami Valley (the Ohio Board of Health pegged the number at 98, which the American Red Crossed later upped to 116), cities both above and below it in the Miami Valley watershed also suffered horrific losses. Shown here is a map of the flooding through Troy, above Dayton, where at least 16 people died according to the Ohio Board of Health. Throughout just the Miami Valley alone, the Ohio Board of Health counted 261 deaths within a month of the flood. The ultimate death toll in Ohio and other states was four times greater (to be the subject of a future installment “Death Rode Ruthless...”). [Source: McCampbell, E. F., “Special Report on the Flood of March, 1913,” reprinted from Monthly Bulletin Ohio State Board of Health, May 1913, plate opposite page 420]

[ERODED FARM FIELDS] Not only cities like Dayton, but also farmers and agricultural interests around the Miami Valley (and elsewhere in Ohio and the Midwest) suffered great losses in the Great Easter 1913 flood, as evidenced by these fields washed of all their fertile topsoil. [Photo credit: Miami Conservancy District]

Selected References
This article was based on Trudy E. Bell, "Taking Engineering by Storm," The Bent, 95 (1): pp. 15-22, Winter 2004, which also portrays Arthur E. Morgan’s fascinating personality and utopian convictions about social engineering.

Calculations of the runoff from the Miami Valley appear on page 23 of Carl M. Becker and Patrick B. Nolan, Keeping the Promise: A Pictorial History of the Miami Conservancy District (Landfall Press, Dayton, Ohio, 1988)
The most comprehensive biography of Morgan is Roy Talbert, Jr., FDR’s Utopian: Arthur Morgan of the TVA (University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS, 1987). The carte blanche quote “Find a way out” appears on pages 29–30 of C. A. Bock, History of the Miami Flood Control Project (State of Ohio: The Miami Conservancy District, Dayton, Ohio, 1918). Much history about Morgan also appears on the site of the Miami Conservancy District. 

Statistics about the Miami Valley watershed appears at this University of Dayton geologydepartment page.
All of Chapter Six “Resolve”—featuring 39 photographs—is devoted to Morgan and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control in Trudy E. Bell, The Great Dayton Flood of 1913 (Arcadia Publishing, 2008), a picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me at


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  2. These little jewels are great! I'll send an order for the book in a few days.