1913 Flood Warnings

 

 
 
This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on March 25, 1973

1913 Flood:There Had Been Warnings, But Residents Greeted Rising Torrent With Curiosity, Absence of Fear
By BENJAMIN KLINE
 
     It was 60 years ago today that the Great Flood of 1913 engulfed Dayton.
     It might be an appropriate day to get out the oldest family album or to persuade grandmother, one more time, to describe how she made it from the porch roof into the flat-bottom National Cash Register rescue boat.
     YOU COULD DRIVE out to Englewood, Huffman or Taylorsville dams, walk around their banks and be glad they are there.  Or you could pass through Hills and Dales park, glance respectfully at the stern, bronze face of NCR Founder John H. Patterson and be glad he was here.
     For those now thinning ranks of Daytonians who lived through it, the anniversary of the Great Flood is a time for nostalgia.
     For those increasing numbers who weren’t even alive Mar. 25, 1913, and may know very little about the calamity, the sentiment may be closer to the way people felt then.
     It is a feeling of disbelief, reflected by the headline on the Denver Post that day:
     DAYTON SWEPT BY FLOOD AND THOUSANDS PERISH.
     Or the Macon, Ga., News:
     DAYTON IS FLOODED WHEN GREAT LEVEES ABOUT CITY GO OUT.
     Or one day later, the NCR Weekly:
     DAYTON CUT OFF FROM WORLD.
     And three days later the Dayton Daily News, in a “flood extra” published proudly from NCR:
     DAYTON FACING SITUATION WITH WONDERFUL BRAVERY.
 
     Old timers may think back to the standing ovation NCR’s Patterson received that week when he declared with a sweep of his arm, “This must never happen again!”  Or to the slogan for the fund-raising campaign to make sure it didn’t: “Remember the Promises Made in the Attic.”
     There are all kinds of death and rebirth symbols of that day.  Hundreds died, but others were born.  For them, Mar. 25 is a special sort of birthday.
     “Father was on his way to get the doctor and someone yelled ‘Go back!  The water’s coming!,” relates Jane Rothaar Lafferty, 4827 Fran Lou Ave.
     “I WAS EIGHT HOURS old when I went out that second-story window in a mortar box.” Says Kenneth Maloney, 24 Bellevue Ave.
     Mrs. Lafferty, Maloney and seven other “flood babies” were entertained by the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce on the 50th anniversary of the flood in 1963.
     Today they are fewer and harder to find.  One of the best-known among them, Cash E. Durst, died five years ago this month   He’d been named for the NCR refugee camp where he was born.
     Mrs. Lafferty, today a grandmother 14 times, was born at the home of an uncle, Jacob Rothaar, on Richard St., East Dayton, one hour and 20 minutes after her mother had been brought there in a canoe from the South Park area.
     “IT WAS AS HARD on Dad as it was on mother,” she says with a smile.  “He had all those women to take care of—my mother, his mother-in-law and an aunt.”
     The flood left little Jane with a residual excuse.  “Everything I lost or misplaced, I would say I had lost it in the flood.  I guess I picked that up from my parents.”
     Maloney, a grandfather six times, was born at 8 a.m. Mar. 25 in a house at 1012 W. Second St. Later their escape boat floundered and they had to be rescued again when the craft caught in a tree.
     Jeanette Maloney, Ken’s mother, passed away three years ago, but he can still hear her joking, “Kenneth was my only child.  The stork’s wings got wet and she sank.”
     EVEN SCARCER THAN the flood babies are those who were full-grown adults when the waters came rushing over the Monument Ave. levee, east of the Main St. bridge, at 7 a.m. that dreadful day.
     Edgar McMillan, an 83-year-old former typesetter at the old Dayton Journal, remembers getting off work around 2:30 a.m. and standing on the levee near where Steele dam is now located.
     “George Lindsay and Bob Husted and I were standing there, watching the water rise.  It got about four feet deep and I remember one guy said, ‘I’ll stop this,’ and went home and got a two-by-four and put it down on the levee.  I think he was serious.
     McMillan had his own quirks that strange, rain-soaked night.  He remembers thinking, “We’re going to need gas,” wading through the water in his Riverdale basement to put a quarter in the gas meter.
     THE PIANO AND a cherished stamp album went out the front window of McMillan’s house, but he, his wife, his infant daughter, and three others went out safely on a borrowed horse-drawn grocery delivery wagon.
     The extent of the 1913 flood in Dayton represented a combination of nature gone berserk and a city gone unprepared.
     There had been forewarnings of such a disaster.  In 1805, the Mad and Great Miami rivers had gone over their banks to form a channel 10 to 15 feet deep down Main St. to Fairgrounds hill.
     Earthen levees were constructed but there were other floods in 1814, 1828, 1832, 1847, 1866 and 1883.  Again and again, the levees had been repaired or patched but the hazard remained.
     DAYTON MARKS the confluence of four streams—Wolf creek, Mad and Stillwater and the Great Miami rivers.  The Great Miami’s channel was wider where it entered Dayton than where it left, creating a funnel or tree branch pattern on the map with downtown Dayton the curving trunk.
     An early spring thaw and four days of heavy rain preceded the 1913 tragedy.  Charlotte Reeve Conover, author of “Memoirs of the Miami Valley,” relates how unaware everyone seemed to be of what was happening.
     On Monday night, Mar. 24, she writes, “the local weather bureau called up by telephone the people in the lower parts of the city to warn them that the high water might cause them inconvenience.”
     But most of Dayton continued to sleep, she says, while the people upriver at Troy, Piqua and Sidney were awake all night as their floods began.
     AUTHOR ALLEN W. ECKERT tells of the flood in  “A Time of Terror,” an absorbing, intimate account, which here describes how NCR’s Patterson, a formidable 68 years old, surveyed the coming danger in a trip around town with his secretary, John Barringer, about 6 a.m. Tuesday.
     The two drove along the downtown levees.  Twice they passed small squads of National Guardsmen, but though Patterson took note of them, he made no comment.  Nor did he remark about the abnormal number of police and firemen on the streets.
     “Everywhere they went there were crowds of people standing on the levees, watching the fascinating spectacle of over 100,000 cubic feet of water passing every second.  On the levee along Monument Ave. there were literally hundreds of people, with the most congested area between Main St. and Monument Ave.  Patterson tapped his driver on the shoulder.
     “Stop,” he said and added, turning to Barringer, ‘Wait here.’
     HE GOT OUT and climbed the levee just behind the central fire station.  At the top, 15 feet above street level, he was shaken in spite of himself at the sight of the river running past with an evil swishing less than five inches from the top.
     “Spectators huddled under umbrellas talked and laughed and gazed in wonder at the force of the water, but none “seemed particularly concerned,” Eckert writes.  His entire book is based upon accounts of people who were there.
     But Patterson saw the danger and is quoted as saying, on the way back to NCR.  “The fools!  The incredible fools!”
     AT 6:50 a.m., Mar. 25, the levee broke at Steele dam, flooding Riverdale, which is described in old newspaper accounts as a “suburb.”
     AT 7 A.M., the river reached 25 feet in depth and slid over the Monument Ave. levee to send the crowd screaming and running for their lives down Main St.  Many didn’t make it.
     There were also levee breaks near Fourth St., flooding Edgemont and near Williams St. on Wolf Creek, flooding Broadway and the near West side.  About 9 minutes later, a 350-foot-long section of levee collapsed at the head of Taylor St., flooding eastern downtown.
     Mrs. Conover, whose elderly parents were trapped in their home at Third and Wilkinson Sts., describes what it was like as the yellow-brown waters rushed south and west through the city:
     “Grand pianos and pig pens, street cars and sheds, bales of rags and mannequins in full dress from the smashed display windows of department stores; dead animals, haystacks, lumber, furniture, overturned wagons—flotsam and jetsam of every imaginable variety piled itself on porches, through open doors of houses or swept by to meet more of the same kind in the main current of the river beyond the city.  All the ordinary city noises were stilled and there remained nothing but the remorseless roar of the current and the crashing blows when some large object hit an obstacle and went to pieces.”
     HIGH AND DRY at NCR, Patterson had called his top executives together and declared that at that moment, NCR was temporarily out of commission and was, instead, the “Dayton Citizens Relief association.”
     Patterson set 150 Cash carpenters to work building rescue boats, ordered food and other supplies from every possible source, and, in effect, mobilized all 7,100 of his employees for the relief effort.
     “He brought cosmos out of chaos,” says an admiring Logan Marshall, author of a 1913 book called “Our National Calamity of Flood, Fire and Tornado.”
     Another of the day’s many heroes was John N. Bell, division plant manager for the Central Union Telephone Co., 18 N. Ludlow St.  It was Bell who made contact by phone with Dayton’s own Gov. James M. Cox, in Columbus, to tell the extent of the disaster that was occurring.
     DAYTON’S ISOLATION during the first few hours of the flood is underscored by news clippings Patterson later collected—many of them praising him.
     One dateline says “Dayton, O.—by phone via Xenia.”  Another says “by messenger to Lebanon, O.”  Lacking photographs of the disaster, many newspapers used Dayton postcard scenes.
     Some even had artists paint water on the lower half of the pictures of such buildings as Union station, the Algonquin hotel (Dayton Inn) and the YMCA (now city hall).  
     Fire added to the horror when explosions occurred in the E. Third-St. Clair St. areas, burning two business blocks down to the water line.  Numerous homes elsewhere in the city were destroyed by fire.
     Newspaperman Ben Hecht, working as an 18-year-old stringer for the Chicago Daily Journal, gives a frequently inaccurate account of the flood in his book, “A Child of the Century.”
     HE IS OFF ON the dates, even the year, but his description of being “rescued” after he fell asleep in a canoe rings true of Patterson’s NCR relief work style.
     “I woke up on a refugee cot, in a strange nightgown, with a tag around my neck.  I began yelling for my clothes and brought a nurse down on me.  She insisted I was one of the victims of the flood and refused to ‘discharge’ me until I was examined by a doctor.”
     Hecht later was rescued from NCR by Christian D. Hagerty, a 55-year-old veteran of the Associated Press who had come to Dayton with him on a railroad hand car from Indianapolis.
     Patterson’s huge scrapbook shows his daughter, Dorothy, working as a waitress in the NCR refugee kitchen, his son Fred working at the morgue set up in Building 18, now the company garage.
     NCR SHELTERED nearly 2,000 people that first night and more later. Others found refuge in the suburb of Dayton View, in Longfellow school and in many private homes.  Still others were marooned for days in downtown homes and business buildings.
     Although Dayton was the biggest (116,000) and probably the hardest hit city, the flood of 1913 saturated most of Ohio and Indiana.
     Initial estimates of loss of life here were just wild guesses—a Boston newspaper said 10,000—and it appears an official count never was reached.  Eckert quotes a figure of roughly 200 for Dayton.  Mrs. Conover gives it as 361, including 49 in Piqua, 19 in Troy and 157 in Hamilton.
     Gov. Cox told the New York American there were probably 200,000 homeless in Ohio, and the homeless in the Miami Valley were estimated at 20,000 to 40,000.
     PROPERTY DAMAGE estimates also varied, from $66 million to $300 million.
     The waters were receding by Thursday, Mar. 27, but the tragedy continued, Mrs. Conover says 32 persons were committed to the Dayton State hospital for the insane, and many old people died later of pneumonia.
     The sodden city remained for some time under martial law, with Brig. Gen. George H. Wood in command but John H. Patterson in charge.
     Just two months later, the community had raised a flood-prevention fund of $2 million—not a cent of it federal aid—to start building the dams which have since 1913, protected the valley from 600 potential floods.
     Jubilantly, the campaign committee May 25 sent a telegram to Gov. Cox in Columbus: “We have forgotten that we lost $100 million and are remembering only what we have saved.   We are building a bigger and safer Dayton.”