Arthur Morgan’s Simple Yet Elegant Solution

Mar 28, 2014

101 years ago this week, it rained in Dayton. And rained some more. And it kept on raining. It was the Great Dayton Flood. Today though, because of a man named Arthur E. Morgan, communities from Piqua to Hamilton have little to fear from the rising floodwaters of the Great Miami River. 

Arthur Ernest Morgan was an Antioch College president who hadn’t ever earned a degree himself, a self-taught hydrologist who once chaired the largest civil engineering project of its time, the Tennessee Valley Authority. He was a Utopian thinker, a 19th century man driven by an ethical purpose, who sounds formal and reserved to our 21st century ears.

There several recordings of Arthur Morgan in the WYSO Archives. Antioch College also has an extensive collection of his papers in the Morgan Room at the Olive Kettering Library on campus.

Scott Sanders, archivist for Antioch College's Olive Kettering Library
Scott Sanders, archivist for Antioch College's Olive Kettering Library
Credit Jocelyn Robinson

"We’re really fortunate that Morgan kept so much of the paper that he generated over his long and very productive career," says archivist Scott Sanders.

Arthur Morgan is well known for reviving Antioch College back in the 1920s, and for inspiring its innovative cooperative education program. But it’s his work as an engineer that first brought him to the Dayton area, and leaves us today with an enduring reminder of his genius.

"Morgan’s most lasting contribution to the Miami Valley is a system of earthen dams we call the Miami Conservancy District," says Sanders.  "In 1913, this area and much of the Midwest was devastated by floods, Dayton’s situation was so bad that the people that ran the city resolved that it would never happen again and hired, open casting call really, for engineers to come up with a flood control solution. Arthur Morgan when asked what his solution would be, his answer was, 'I won’t know until I’ve walked the land.' So he had to actually see what the situation was before he came up with a solution. He did, and from the time the conservancy district went online in 1919 it has held back hundreds of serious floods, maybe some that could have been as big as the Great Dayton Flood."

When Morgan walked the land, he had larger a vision. Four of the five containment dams in the Conservancy District: Taylorsville, Germantown, Huffman, and Englewood, formed the first areas developed into what is now Five Rivers Metroparks. It’s an extensive network of land devoted to conservation and recreation.

"The genius of the system is the legal authority of the conservancy law which permitted a system of eminent domain to take lands on the flood plain and to have on the flooded side of the dam dry reservoirs that were really only there to hold flood waters when flood waters came, which wasn’t so often, therefore, a system of river parks was created, open and available to the public," says Sanders.

Taylorsville Dam was completed in 1922.
Taylorsville Dam was completed in 1922.
Credit Jocelyn Robinson

So it’s a marvelous combination of Morgan’s gift for the law, his engineering technique, and also his desire for service to community, all in one single package.

Taylorsville Dam is in Vandalia, where US 40, the Old National Road, tops this wall of earth on its east-west route. You can look out at the cold and muddy Great Miami River floodplain over 70 feet below, at Arthur E. Morgan’s simple yet elegant solution.

Major support for Rediscovered Radio comes from the Ohio Humanities Council and the Greene County Public Library.