Recalling the historic 1913 Flood in Aurora

John Kudley Jr.
Aurora Historical Society
The Erie Railroad culvert and embankment prior to the March 27, 1913 washout.

Wildfires have ravished the western part of the country, hurricanes have devastated the Southeast, while tornadoes have caused havoc across the Western Plains.

Aurora has been fortunate to not have seen the total destruction brought on by these natural disasters. Many would say that northeastern Ohio is one of the safest places to live. However, on March 21, 1913 the Midwest part of the country experienced unprecedented storms.

High winds, sleet, ice and tornadoes caused widespread destruction throughout the region. The spring storm followed a harsh winter with heavy snow fall which left the soils saturated when the spring thaw began. A record 11 inches of rain fell over a five day period.

Rivers and streams overflowed their banks. Floodwaters inundated towns and cities: Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus were hit the hardest. In Cleveland the Cuyahoga River over reached its banks and washed homes and businesses into Lake Erie. Across the state an estimated 470 Ohioans lost their lives and 20,000 homes were destroyed.

The "Factory Bridge" was washed away in the flood. The Route 82 hill on East Garfield Road can be seen in the distance.

The 1913 flood is considered Ohio’s greatest weather disaster. The Aurora community did not escape the flood, which many may have thought was of Biblical proportions.

At the bottom of what was the first fairway of the former Aurora County Club is the culvert over which the tracks of the former Erie Railroad carried passengers and goods from Cleveland to points eastward. Across the fairway and under the culvert flows Silver Creek, the Aurora branch of the Chagrin River. Two hundred yards to the northeast East Garfield Rd. (Route 82) crosses the river.

In 1913 the river was spanned by what was called “Factory Bridge.” The river flows northeast crossing Route 306 at Centerville Mills. It continues on through Bainbridge and into Chagrin Falls before winding its way to Lake Erie.

The river was the life blood of a vibrant collections of industries that dotted the valley just east of Aurora’s historic Train Depot District. There the moving waters provided power to grist and sawmills. It also was a source of fresh water for Aurora’s flourishing cheese industry.

By 1913 many of the mills and cheese factories had been abandoned. The railroad with refrigerated cars made it more economical to ship milk to Cleveland and eastern markets rather process cheese. Isaac Lacey’s ashery and the Elder family woolen mill had ceased operation. The only operating dairy was Hurd’s creamery, cheese factory and warehouse. Farmers continued to till the river valley’s bottom.

As in other areas, Aurora experienced torrential rains that fell over a four day period causing ponds and streams to overflow their banks. Downed trees and debris were swept downstream where they began to form a dam at the Erie Railroad culvert just east of the Aurora train station and East Garfield Road. Water backed up for a distance of nearly two miles reaching Harmon Pond (Sunny Lake) on Mennonite Road.

As the water began to back up the ground surrounding the railroad trestle became saturated undermining its supporting columns. Waters grew deeper and wider behind the railroad embankment.

Anxiously Aurorans hoped for a miracle. In the late morning of March 27 the water began to flow over the top of the embankment 60 feet above the river bed. Unable to withstand the pressure, nature’s artificial dam burst and a wall of water carried away the trestle and unleashed a torrent that swept through the valley.

The Harmon cheese factory, which housed the family of W.B. Isham, the Aldrich barn, a sawmill along with several bridges that lay in the path, were washed away as the water surged downstream toward Geauga Lake. The Ishams and Aldrich families had already moved to safety.

Near the lake, the water took out Deacon Brewster’s suspension bridge and washed away valuable farm and pasture land. In some areas the water reached a depth of between 15 to 20 feet above normal.

Eventually the rains ceased and the waters receded, leaving the remnants of a once thriving and productive commercial area.

The railroad track and ties dangle over the chasm that remained after the bridge was washed away.

Twisted metal and wooden pilings along with sandstone blocks and boulders were strewn across the river valley. Daredevil youth tempted fate and walked across the suspended railroad ties held together by the iron rails high above the river valley.

The April 13 edition of the Chagrin Falls Exponent reported that “Many from here have visited the flooded section at Aurora Station. Your correspondent would say it’s worth going miles to see. No one will have any idea of the vastness of the damage done without seeing it.”

A new trestle bridge under construction.

Within days after the flood the community began to recover.

Upstream just past the depot the Erie Railroad built a temporary “catwalk” over the site of the old trestle. The last train to make it across the trestle was “Old No. 6” bound for New York City. Passenger service resumed soon after the flood. However, passengers who traveled from between Cleveland and Youngstown had to de-train, walk across the “catwalk” and board the train on the other side to complete their journey.

A temporary trestle was constructed while the new culvert and trestle was built. By August, the construction of a new bridge was well under way with an estimated 1,200 carloads of dirt being needed to fill the chasm left by the spring flood.

The flood marked a turning point in Aurora’s history. As the community entered the 20th century the footprint of the early pioneers and the challenges they faced in the wilderness would be overshadowed by the challenges of World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Today the waters of the Silver Creek gently flow winding their way through Aurora.

Kudley is president of the Aurora Historical Society.