Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Great Flood of 1913


Flooding of Republic Steel Mills along the Mahoning River, Photo from Mahoning Valley Historical Society Archive

The Great Flood of 1913 is an event probably no one reading this remembers. But my grandparents, and those of their generation, talked about it. It rained for four days and nights between March 23 and March 26, 1913. Similar to the Thanksgiving snowstorm of 1950, three different weather systems came together and stalled over the Ohio Valley, blocked by a high pressure system to the east. Flooding occurred throughout Ohio with some of the worst flooding in southwest Ohio and in Columbus. But Youngstown suffered severely as well.

Estimates range between 4.26 inches and 7 to 9 inches of rainfall over the four day period in the Mahoning Valley. Back then there were no reservoirs or flood control measures and so all the water from the tributaries to the Mahoning River caused it to crest at 26.5 feet, 10 feet above the flood stage of 16.5 feet, and 7 feet higher than any previous storm. The peak discharge of the Mahoning River was estimated at 44,400 cubic feet per second.


Youngstown Daily Vindicator map of flooded areas, March 27, 1913

Youngstown is a hilly city, through which the Mahoning River runs. Therefore many areas of the city were spared flooding, but not the low lying areas along the Mahoning River and Crab Creek. Unfortunately, Youngstown’s steel mills were built in the flood plain as well as the railroads that served them. Parts of downtown adjacent to the river were also flooded, including The Vindicator. Flooding destroyed the West Avenue and Division Street bridges, took out the water pumping station and the power station on North Avenue. Ironically, Youngstown was without drinking water in the middle of a flood!


Flooding at the B & O Station, Photo from Mahoning Valley Historical Society Archive

Damage estimates at the time were estimated at $2.5 million in the Youngstown area and over $100 million statewide. Governor Cox mobilized National Guard troops to provide disaster assistance and prevent looting. Youngstown Fire Department personnel played a key role in helping pump water out of the North Avenue power station, enabling power to be restored, and out of the press pit of The Vindicator, allowing the newspaper to resume regular publication. All told, about 25,000 people were temporarily out of work.

Flooding had been a regular occurrence along the Mahoning River. Joseph G. Butler, in his history of Youngstown describes floods as a yearly event, though none as bad as this. Sarah Gartland, of the Mahoning Valley Planning Commission states that there were six major floods between 1880 and 1913. This flood led to major changes. The flooding of the water pumping station ultimately led to moving Youngstown’s water supply to Meander Reservoir. Bridges were designed with higher spans so debris wouldn’t build up and then sweep the bridge away.

Most important was the development of flood control measures along the tributaries to the Mahoning River. In 1973, a flood protection project was completed on Crab Creek. Eventually five dams were built creating reservoirs that helped control the flow of water into the Mahoning–the Milton Dam in 1917, Berlin Reservoir (1941-43), Mosquito Reservoir (1943-1944), Shenango Reservoir (1963-1967), and West Branch (Kirwan) Reservoir (1963-1966). A map showing the locations of these reservoirs can be found in an article by Stan Boney, showing how Youngstown is better prepared to withstand rainfall totals like those experienced in the 1913 flood. The Milton and Berlin Reservoirs work together and reduce flooding on the Mahoning River 3-5 feet.

So when you boat on Milton or one of the other reservoirs, thank the Great Flood of 1913  and hope those engineers are taking good care of those dams. The flood of 1959 (I’ll write about that someday, perhaps) is a once in 43 year event, the flood of 1913 a once in 200 year event. Given some of the extreme weather of recent years, a major rain event is only a matter of time.

While there are no longer the same industries along the Mahoning there once were, anything close to the river, in its flood plain is at risk. Given that the 1913 flood was ten feet over flood stage, and the dams may halve that, it does appear flooding could still occur. The master plan for the Youngstown Riverfront Park and Amphitheater indicates that much of the site is within the 100- and 500-year flood plains of the Mahoning River (the Covelli Center is just outside the 500-year boundaries). Let’s hope planners are taking that into account.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — John Young


John Young Memorial, photo by Jack Pierce. (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Did you know that Youngstown gets its name from the first European-American to settle on and acquire the land?  Youngstown is literally “Young’s Town.” Sure, you knew that! That’s Youngstown history 101. What was interesting to me was to find out a bit more history about Young. Along the way, I discovered that his presence, on and off for under six years, was sufficient to shape the early contours of the city, still evident to this day, and to attract one of the key early settlers who helped found the city. I also discovered that there is some controversy about whether Young really is Youngstown’s first settler.

According to biographical information provided by Charles Young, a son of John Young to the Mahoning Valley Historical Society in 1875, John Young was born in 1763 in Petersborough, New Hampshire and moved to Whitestown, New York, about 1780. He married Mary Stone White in 1792. He moved to the Ohio lands in 1796, building a log cabin on the northeast bank of the Mahoning River near Spring Common. In 1797, he began the settlement of Youngstown, purchasing a township of 15,560 acres from the Connecticut Land Company for $16,085.16, with the establishment of the city being recorded in 1802. In 1799, his family moved to Youngstown and were there until 1803, when health concerns for Mary led them to return to New York. During his time in Youngstown he laid out the first plats of the city including Federal Street, Central Square, North, (now Wood) Street and South (now Front) Street, town lots and larger farm-size plats. After returning to Whitestown, he was involved in various public works in upstate New York until his death in 1825.

On Young’s first trip into the area, he and his surveyor Alfred Wolcott were reputed to have met up with Colonel James Hillman, who sighted smoke from a fire the Young party had set as he was canoeing up the Mahoning from Beaver, Pennsylvania. Young persuaded Hillman to join him for a “frolic” that evening (with an exchange of skins for whiskey). That supposedly led to Hillman deciding to settle in Youngstown. Hillman became Youngstown’s first constable, and later, during the war of 1812 led a militia that defended the area against Indian attacks. He later served as a representative in the state legislature, and is probably worthy of a post to more fully tell his story!

No one will dispute that John Young did not permanently reside in the town that bears his name. But did he actually settle there? Howard C. Aley, in A Heritage to Share, introduces a letter from a descendent of Daniel Shehy, one of the first to buy land from Young (1000 acres for $2000) and settle in Youngstown. He contends that it is Daniel Shehy, and not John Young, that built that first log cabin along the Mahoning and that Young did no more than travel back and forth between New York and Youngstown. There is evidence of a dispute between the two men over the land purchase, which in the end meant that Shehy only acquired 400 rather than 1000 acres. Might that help account for the conflicting narratives?

Whether Shehy played a larger role than most of the histories narrate will probably remain disputed. Sheehy was definitely one of the first to purchase land from Young. What is beyond question is that Young was involved in the surveys that gave shape to Youngstown, it was Young who purchased the land and sold it to Shehy and others and for this alone deserves a singular place in Youngstown history as that man who gave the city its name and had the vision of a thriving city on the banks of the Mahoning. 

[After writing this post, I heard from two Shehy descendents. In researching the article, I came across two spellings of the name, Sheehy and Shehy. I used the wrong one and have now corrected it. It is “Shehy.”]


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Review Part Two

In week two of my recap of “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” posts, I cover the period from mid-summer through Halloween which includes “keeping cool”, a couple of posts about the Canfield Fair, back to school, autumn leaves, football, and Halloween.

Canfield Fair Ferris Wheel

Canfield Fair Ferris Wheel

I also wrote some more topical posts on the arts in Youngstown, Youngstown neighborhoods, re-purposing, restaurants, and, of course pizza! I also throw in here a post on the Mahoning River which has not appeared widely before.

So here are the posts from mid-summer up to the present:

1. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — PizzaThis was the second most popular post in this series and the winner of the informal “best pizza” poll was Wedgewood, although over 30 different places were mentioned. Needless to say, lots of good pizza in Youngstown.

2. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The ArtsOne of the surprising things, both past and present about Youngstown, is the thriving arts community and the value placed on beauty.

3. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Keeping CoolMany of us didn’t grow up with air conditioning and in this post I explore all the ways we kept cool on those hot summer days in Youngstown.

4. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Mahoning River.  This has not been posted before on the Youngstown Facebook groups. I explore the history of the river that runs through Youngstown, its gradual return to a place of beauty and the challenges of river cleanup.

5. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Idora ParkIdora Park was the amusement park for many of us growing up in Youngstown. I review its history and sad end — I think most of us regret that we allowed the carousel to be sold away.

6. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Church FestivalsSummers were also the time for many of the great church festivals that are still a big part of Youngstown life.

7. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Canfield Fair FoodWritten around the time of the fair, this post celebrates many of the great places and favorite foods at Ohio’s biggest county fair.

8. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Fair MemoriesBesides food, there were many other fun things to do at the fair, and I remember some of our perennial favorites!

9. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Back to SchoolThe funniest thing about this post was that as an afterthought, I mentioned how most of us used cigar boxes for pencil boxes and included an image of a cigar box.  That’s what everyone commented on and some still had those cigar boxes!

10. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — RepurposingThe cigar box reminded me of all the things we saved and found new uses for in working class Youngstown.

11. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown –NeighborhoodsYoungstown was a city of neighborhoods and strong neighborhood identity is key to its future.

12. Review: Steelworker Alley: How Class Works in YoungstownThis was a special post reviewing a book written by Struthers native Robert Bruno, a sociologist. Bruno puts in words the values of the working class that this whole series explores as he chronicles the life and decline of the Youngstown steel industry and the nature of the working class.

13. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — RestaurantsThe arrival in my home of Classic Restaurants of Youngstown prompted this post celebrating the great places to eat, all local, that we grew up with in Youngstown.

14. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Autumn LeavesI explore memories of autumn leaves from the beauty of Mill Creek Park to the smell and haze of burning leaves across the Mahoning Valley.

15. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Libraries.  I set my own memories of libraries against the backdrop of the history of Youngstown’s library system and its importance to the aspirations of the working class.\

Scanned from 1970 Lariat

Scanned from 1970 Lariat

16. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — FootballMemories of Friday night lights, rivalries like Ursuline-Mooney, and Chaney High School coach Lou “Red” Angelo.

17. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Halloween. I was reminded in this post that there was a time when people went trick-or-treating for several nights in Youngstown, and found out that everyone else used pillowcases, which were just awesome for holding lots of candy.

So, with last week’s post, that is the series so far. Some of my ideas for future posts include talking about things like Youngstown rock bands and music venues, our love of automobiles (American-made of course), and seasonal posts about Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holidays.

Readers comments on these posts have reminded me of so many things I’ve forgotten. In that spirit, some of you may be wondering, “why doesn’t he write a post on …?” Truth is, I may have forgotten–but I would love to be reminded and would be happy to acknowledge anyone whose ideas I use!




Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Mahoning River

One thing I’ve noticed in conversations about Youngstown is that, at least in my experience, we rarely talk about the Mahoning River. And yet the Mahoning is a defining feature of the city and surrounding area. The city literally grew up along the River and extended outward from it. The steel industry would not have existed without it. And it lent its name to the region around Youngstown, referred to as the Mahoning Valley, and indeed to the county of which Youngstown is county seat, Mahoning County.

“Beaverriverpamap” by Kmusser – Self-made, based on USGS data.. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

According to this website, the name is an Indian name meaning “salt licks’. The river arises near the Stark and Columbiana County border close to the town of Winona and follows a northeasterly course up to Warren, Ohio, and then flows southeast from Warren through the heart of Youngstown and then on into Pennsylvania where it joins the Shenango River to form the Beaver River which flows into the Ohio River northwest of Pittsburgh. It is approximately 113 miles in length, the first half of it in rural areas, the latter part flowing through industrial areas.

After floods in 1913 that inundated the parts of Youngstown along the river including the mills, a series of dams were built upstream creating Berlin Lake and Lake Milton, recreational lakes west of the city. Additional lowhead dams were built along the river as well to help control the flow of the river.

Much of the story of the Mahoning River we grew up with was connected with industry providing both water supply and waste disposal for the steel industry. My wife recounts going over the Mahoning on her bus to elementary school and watching greenish wastes pour directly into the river and watching the river bubbling. We used to joke that you wouldn’t dare wade in the river because you would dissolve. It was considered one of the hottest and most polluted rivers in the country and alternately ridiculed and held up as an example of industrial pollution as the environmental movement gained steam. The only thing it didn’t do was catch fire, as did the Cuyahoga in nearby Cleveland. We had a lot of sympathy for our Cleveland neighbors!

Mahoning River Mills c. 1910 (accessed from:

Mahoning River Mills c. 1910

Youngstowners resented much of this national attention and, until 1977, people in the city by and large stood with the steel companies in resisting EPA efforts to control wastes flowing into the river and to clean up the river. Such efforts meant increased costs and threatened jobs. That’s how the river had been used for generations and it was as if we collectively agreed to write off the lower half of the Mahoning River to industry. Anyone who thought otherwise was labelled an “environmental crazy” or worse.

My sense is that the thinking is changing. There is now a Mahoning River Fest to call attention to the beauty of the river, taking people for boat rides on the river. The river has begun to come to life, although still polluted with toxic wastes in the form of heavy metals in the riverbed, particularly concentrated behind the lowhead dams. Discussions have been under way with the Army Corp of Engineers about the best ways to remediate the pollution through some combination of removing the lowhead dams and dredging, both which will also aid the river flow and help it cleanse itself.  Regional planners have argued that the benefits of cleaning up the river far outweigh the costs but neither the funding nor a plan have been settled upon. And so it is the case that the Ohio Department of Health continues to advise no wading (maybe our jokes weren’t completely off base) and no eating of fish from the river. And no one would think of using it for drinking water (except that it does flow into rivers that do provide drinking water for people downstream).

The need for continued vigilance remains. In March of this year, the owner of a fracking company plead guilty to dumping toxic wastes into a tributary of the Mahoning River. The fracking industry has moved into eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania in a big way and without a clear determination to clean up and preserve a river healthy for wildlife and people, the Mahoning’s story could be repeated. My hope is that we will learn from our working class history and not let another big industry pollute this precious resource and leave another mess that yet a future generation will need to clean up.