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Massillon History: Washington's Birthday Flood of 1848

Under the leadership of James Duncan, the Massillon Rolling Mill Company purchased 1,100 acres of meadow along the Sippo Creek, today in the area of Sippo Lake. Surveys began in 1836, swamp land was drained. Marshall Wellman oversaw the 1844 dam construction. Local men – William Keefer, Arvine Fox, Jacob Carper, Harmon Shriver, and William Tinkler – were in charge of chopping and hauling trees from the land the reservoir would consume.

Two men in a boat, c. 1900.
(Collection Massillon Museum, BC 2683.10)

The dam stretched 300 feet across Sippo Creek along today’s Jackson Avenue/27th Street, and the water was approximately six feet deep. Because the dam was 30 feet thick on the bottom with woven planks to form six-foot-wide top, the water was held back almost two miles, forming a lake one mile wide and 15 to 20 feet deep, covering approximately 900 acres. The dam was intended to provide drinking water, water to supply the canal, and power for the mills during the dry season.

The reservoir created small islands on which many enjoyed picnics. In his 1847 diary, Arvine C. Wales, “was invited by Charly Skinner and Stocking” to picnic at the reservoir with George Miller and James Bayliss. “The water stinks horridly. […] We rode all over the reservoir and concluded that a large oak which spread its arms protectingly over a green spot on the largest island was the most fitting place for a picnic dinner.”

As the lake stagnated, nearby residents complained of the smell and appearance and claimed mosquitos were spreading disease. At town hall-style meetings in Bahney’s tavern in Genoa they discussed remedies. Company officials ignored their complaints, stating that sicknesses were happening all over, not just near the reservoir. Several residents petitioned the State to remove the dam. The State refused, stating that the dam was a great resource and served the purposes for which it was built, but it appointed a committee to investigate the claims of reservoir-induced disease. Citizens believed the state moved too slowly and took matters into their own hands.

At approximately 3:00 a.m. on February 23, 1848, saboteurs axed the pilings and the dam collapsed. A ten-foot high wave traveled at approximately 100 miles an hour towards downtown Massillon, 90 feet lower than the reservoir. The rushing water of the broken Sippo reservoir came careeing down Tremont Avenue, slamming in to James Lusk Reynolds’ warehouse, near the southwest corner of South Erie Street and Tremont Avenue. The water was then diverted to the south wall of the Stone block, which caused the wall to collapse.

Tremont House Washington’s Birthday Invitation 1848. This invitation was sent to many important and well-to-do patrons as far away as Cleveland, Ohio. This particular invitation was sent to Colonel Thomas Webb, a local hotelier who ran the Franklin House hotel. (Collection Massillon Museum, gift of Margaret Arline Webb Pratt and Mrs. W.K. Atwater, BC 2135.2)

On that devastating night the Tremont House, also a Massillon Rolling Mill venture, celebrated its grand opening and President Washington’s birthday. By 3:00 a.m., about 20 revelers were still dancing when the flood waters surrounded the structure. Charles Skinner rode up to the door and shouted “Hallo! The reservoir’s broke! Flee for your lives!” Guests ran to Tremont Avenue on the north side, and found themselves quickly in waist-deep water.

The solid gravel street was swept away, and a nine-foot chasm was cut into the road near the intersection of South Erie Street and Tremont Avenue, like the damage seen in the bottom photograph. Filled the basements of every warehouse, tumbling walls and crushing doors.

Kent Jarvis’ home sat along the canal. Early on February 23, Charles Skinner rode past the Jarvis’ home and yelled warnings about the reservoir. Kent Jarvis wrote to his brother, “Of course we set about getting out the most valuable things from our house. It was dark, cold, raining, and aside from the disaster a very cheerless morning. And while engaged in removing our things, we could hear the unearthly roar of the flood, the cries of the people, the falling of buildings, but had no tidings where the flood raged most, who were in danger, what buildings were yielding to this mighty torrent.” His daughter, Ann, was one of the remaining revelers at the Tremont House. The washed out road, led many to believe the hotel would fall. Jarvis continued, “It was soon found that a horse could ride across [the flood waters] to one corner of the house,” where he pulled the remaining patrons.

Several warehouses were destroyed, the canal banks caved, and the total damage was $30,000-40,000, estimated at $1 million today. Joseph Watson had opened the first drug store in town, also selling paints, oils, dyes, crockery, and glassware. Watson’s warehouse was located on the south side of Main Street between Erie and Mill Streets, one of the worst damaged in the 1848 flood. Joseph Watson’s hogshead of sugar was found three miles away in Bridgeport. Luckily no lives were lost during the disaster.

Arvine Fox, who had helped to clear the swamp and trees on the reservoir property near his home, found a piece of support beam with ax marks lodged in an elm tree below the destroyed dam. While Martin Clark, Thomas Noble, Amasa Bailey Sr., and several others were arrested, no trial was held and no culprit was definitively determined.

Continental Cigar Factory, 1887. The Tremont House (later the cigar factory) was a towering structure at the southeast corner of South Erie Street and Tremont Avenue. Musical entertainment provided by W.A. McCauley’s orchestra led by Sam Jones. The hotel’s innovative spring floor in the ballroom provided a fine dancing surface. Two entrances led patrons to either street. It was lost to fire in the 1970s. (Courtesy Rudy Turkal)

In a letter to his brother on March 14, 1848, Kent Jarvis describes the results. “The morning of the 23 February witnessed the execution of their threats in the horror – destruction – Misery, peril and distaff, which their wickedness flooded upon our ill-fated town.” In his diary, Arvine Wales wrote that “the town presents a sickening spectacle of destruction and desolation.” A February 1848 Ohio Repository article give an account. “We witnessed the scene of destruction on Saturday last and it is truly appalling. Never before have we believed that any quantity of water could have produced such destruction.” Downtown streets became impassable the next day, littered with lumber, warehouse contents, mud, and canal boats. When the flood water hit downtown, it broke the canal banks, emptied the canal, and carried canal boats into trees. Barrels of pork, cloverseed, flour, and other warehouse items were swept away out of their storage, many carried more than eight miles away. Barrels would be found years later near Zoar, Ohio, in the river bed of the Tuscarawas River.

Business owners faced massive losses in stock. As crowds gathered from all over Ohio came to town to see the devastation, business owners had “flood sales” for damaged items. When the stock was sold out, other items were reportedly dipped in dirty canal water and sold as “the real thing.” The photo below shows a similar flood sale after the 1913 flood-damaged stores.

Two flood photographs from 1913
These photos taken during the devastating flood of 1913 show similar damage to that of the 1848 flood. Doll's held a flood sale after much of their inventory was damaged by rising waters.
(Collection Massillon Museum)

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