Story of the Dayton Flood of 1913
Clarence C. Mauch
There are hundreds of incidents that occurred during the Dayton flood, which could be told by the survivors that experienced them. Many of them filled with heroic action, greater dangers, and more trying difficulties than the story that is now being written. No doubt scores of them, had they been committed to the written word, would make for more interesting reading than the experiences that the following pages will unfold.
Today, September 1970, I am the only living member of The Finke Company group that shared the experiences that make up my story. The Almighty has called to rest George Fleckenstein, John Kreusch, Harry F. Finke and Herbert M. Finke. May their souls rest in peace.
In memory of these men, my very good friends, this work is written, and with the thought that the younger generation of today, now directing the affairs of The Finke Company, might appreciate having a record of the incidents herein related.
Clarence C. Mauch
The Mauch home, 1542 Richard Street, was located in one of the higher areas of East Dayton, and was free of flood waters at all times during the 1913 flood.
At about 6:30 A.M. on Tuesday, March 25th, I left home to go to my place of employment, The Finke Company, then located on East Third Street, third building from N. W. corner of St. Clair. Excitement in the neighborhood was noted immediately, with stories and rumors running rampant. “North Dayton is completely under water, “ “the Riverdale section has many people on the rooftops of their homes,” and “the Central business section of the city is threatened.” The rumors were many.
Deciding to try to get through to The Finke Company, I had no difficulty until Wayne Avenue was reached. Here the opposite side of the Avenue was gained by wading in about a foot depth of water. From this point on, the rest of the way to my destination was made by 7:30 A. M., with very little hindrance.
The Finke Company were jobbers and wholesalers of varied lines, hosiery, underwear, school supplies and sundry items. The building, brick constructed with wood floor, consisted of three floors and basement.
Entering the building, I was greeted by Herbert M. Finke, Harry F. Finke, George Fleckenstein and John Kreusch, who were busily engaged in moving the basement merchandise to higher floors. Load after load, carried to higher safety, using the old fashioned rope propelled elevator. After practically clearing the basement, work was continued in moving the first floor merchandise to the third floor. About 8:15, with some water entering our first floor, our work was speeded up by pitching loads into the aisles on the third floor. The major portion of the goods on first was removed to the upper floor when our work was halted by an explosion. It was thought that the explosion had happened in the Burkhardt-Rotterman Drug Store, two doors away. With about two feet of water now on our first floor, the basement flooded, we decided to leave the building.
It was planned that we would go to the City Building, located on the second floor of the old Market House, where Harry Finke, an engineer, had his office. Taking our books and some records, we started for this office, hoping to reach the Jefferson Street entrance. Wading in water then about three feet in depth, and rising quickly, we passed the eight or nine other buildings in the block, reaching the Bank room at the N. E. corner of Third and Jefferson Streets. At this point, the depth of the fast waters and some debris made it impossible for us to reach our intended destination.
The bank room was a part of the Beckel Building, the room being about three or four feel above street level, with a seven or eight step entrance. Entering the room, we noted some nine or ten had already found this haven. Among them was a bank officer, and he kindly took our books, etc., and placed them in the bank’s vault. Temporarily in the dry, but in minutes we had about a foot or so of water in the room, fifteen or sixteen people, plus several horses.
Looking for some way to get out of the room, we found that the only exit was also the entrance through which we had entered. This meant stepping into about six feet of water, so we realized that some other means of escaping had to be found. Several of us opened the windows facing the Jefferson Street side, and it was noted that the large main entrance of this Beckel Building was just about six or so feet from the most northern window of the bank room.
The concern occupying the sub basement room below the Bank sold and repaired typewriters. Above their room was a long wooden sign reading “Typewriters.” About twelve feet in length, approximately eighteen inches in width and, thank the Good Lord, it was within our reach. With men at the various windows, all tugging away, the sign was torn loose and brought into our room. This plank was then tied to a heavy counter desk, using the straps found on the two horses our room sheltered, placed on the window sill, at an angle close to the transom of the main entrance to the Beckel building. One by one, we crawled on the plank, and with the assistance of a caretaker of the building, all made the trip to safety and could step into floors this large building afforded. By noon we were happy to have reached this dry haven. Shortly after, some of our group went into the roofs of the buildings facing Third street, and in the Adamson Wholesale Grocery house, we secured some canned meats, sardines, cheeses, canned fruits and crackers, so we need not suffer from hunger. A list of the items taken was made by one of the employees of Adamson Company.
So the afternoon of March 25th was spent in safety by a group of people now numbering twenty-five to thirty. Some slight discomfort was felt as the temperature was quite low, and there was no heat in the building at the time. Dark hours of a long, dreary night slowly passed, with all of us deeply concerned for the welfare of our families and homes, now in the flooded and darkened city. Yes, it was a night to be long remembered.
The light of day that came on Wednesday, the 26th, was welcomed by all, and our spirits seemed to get a lift when we noted that surrounding waters, while still high, appeared to be slowly subsiding. Situated as we were, in a building that we thought should keep us safely until waters lowered, it was felt that there was nothing to do but patiently wait until the time we could make it to our homes.
But our difficulties and dangers were not over. About 1:15 P.M. several of our group had walked onto the roof of the Schauer Building, which faced East Third Street. Suddenly there was an explosion, blowing out walls of the Burkhardt-Rotterman building, at the corner of St. Clair Street and shortly after, smoke and flames were issuing from the C. F. Adams and the Finke Company buildings. Soon it became a real conflagration, and with a brisk wind fanning the flames, it seemed certain that the entire block would go. The Beckel Building that now housed our group, had kept us safely from flood waters, but would it withstand the ravages of a terrific fire? This was doubted by all, and it was thought that we must move north, away from the oncoming fire.
About this time, our group was joined by more people who had been in the various buildings facing Third Street, The Evans Brothers Wholesale Drugs, Johnson and Watson Company, etc. Among this group was a man said to be an employee of the Johnson-Watson Company, who had led them through skylights and over the roofs, to our haven in the Beckel Building. Truly an outstanding man, he seemed to take over, and without question, became the leader of the entire crowd. Gathering a few men, and with coils of rope taken from The Patterson Tool Company, they proceeded to the windows that faced Jefferson Street, and signaled to people across the street in the Beckel House Hotel. With the help of hotel folks, by their signs and motions, possibly with some shouting, the attention of those in the building next to us, was attracted. Then a rope was passed from window to window, and the narrow cornices were walked, one by one, to the next building; some one at each end of rope firmly held each one’s body to the building wall, as the precarious walk was made. Gradually we made our way from building to building to the Simms building. Now barring our way to the Groneweg Bindery structure, was a twelve foot alley.
Here our leader evidently took over. A heavy rope was soon spanning from the chimney of the building we were in, secured to an iron vent pipe on the Groneweg Building. How this action was completed, the writer did not witness, but it was accomplished. Then a sort of hammock sling was fashioned, and looped over the heavy rope spanning the alley. From the top window of our building, one by one, we were swung across the alley. Through a skylight, all entered the Groneweg Bindery Building and then passage was made into the Johnson Printing Company rooms, walking the cornices from window to window, as had been done when we left the Beckel Building.
Going to the rear of the Johnson Printing Company room, second floor level, a ladder was found, and this was placed on the sill of the window to a shed roof, some eight feet away. From this point, several small sheds were traversed to a second floor window, in the rear end of an old home that faced Second street. This two-story frame building was already holding some sixty-five or seventy people, and as our group had steadily added to the crowd, our entry was not greeted with enthusiasm by those now in the building. For now there were close to two hundred people on this wood floor, and real fear was felt that the floor would not sustain the weight.
The time was now about 3:15 P.M.; the waters on Second Street had lowered quite a bit, to a depth of about four feet. However, the flow was quite fast, with waters filled with debris and wreckage. The Third Street fire was now raging to our rear, and while not too close to us, our position was threatened. One courageous man decided to brave the rushing waters. Taking with him the end of a long rope, he succeeded in swimming across to the Stern Hat Company building, N. E. corner of Second and Jefferson Streets. He secured the rope to a telephone pole, and now the rope was spanning Second Street, dipping into the water, but serving as a guide line for others to cross. Several men then made the trip, bodies in the water, hand over hand on the rope, pulling themselves to the opposite side.
Just before darkness set in, our little Finke group decided to make the trip, preferring the daylight crossing to one made in the darkness of night. It was quite a struggle, but we made it safely, as others had done before. Then keeping close to building walls on Jefferson Street, we made our way northward toward First Street. Midway in the block, we came to an old residence, then being used as a rooming house. We entered the building at the first floor level, the water then being about three feet deep, then moving to the second floor.
We entered a bedroom, and with our coming, the room now held about fifteen people. With the temperature about thirty five or so, the trip across Second Street had been a cold one, and all were shivering in our cold and wet clothing. Disrobing entirely, six or seven of us piled on to a double bed that the room afforded, laying crossway, covering with a blanket to get the warmth that we needed. Not for long did we lay, for just as this body contact was overcoming our cold and chilly feeling, we were told that sparks and some flaming debris from the fire was falling close to the house, and possibly on the roof. It was suggested that we should get dressed, as we might be forced to move. I can vouch for the fact that getting into our wet and clammy clothes was not a pleasant experience. Fortunately the night passed with no further move being necessary.
When Thursday dawned, it was noted that the water had receded, now down to a wading depth of two feet. Later in the day, some spoke of trying to make it to their homes. Maybe some did, but when several National Guardsman came by in a boat, they advised that we stay put, warning us of the danger of walking into manholes. Soon another boat came by, leaving us a small amount of food, and informing us that a soup kitchen had been opened at the fire house, Main and Monument Avenue.
Friday morning we were permitted to start for our homes, and it was with real pleasure that we stepped into the mud covering the sidewalks and street. This feeling of pleasure was dimmed with anxiety and worry as to how our families had fared during these four days of hardship and trials. Friday, March 28, 1913, became a day of joy for many as thousands of families, who had been separated, were gradually gathered together again. For others it was truly a sad day, when they were told that one of their loved ones would never return.
The flood waters had now passed, but the after days must be filled with hours of hard labor. The clearing away of debris and wreckage, and the work of making thousands of homes habitable again, loomed as a tremendous job.
The City of Dayton was placed under Martial Law, and for weeks the Ohio National Guardsmen patrolled the streets. Curfew law was soon in effect, and pass cards issued by the Military, had to be carried and shown when going into certain sections of town. The curtailment of our liberty in going and coming was probably necessary, but was resented by many.
However, the dangers that many had faced while waters raged through the city, seemed to bring new courage, and the promises made in the attic or on the roof top, helped to create a spirit of “help one another.” With this kind thought prevailing, the people in homes not ravaged by flood waters, gave their time and help to their less fortunate relatives and friends. The work of clearing floors filled with mud and restoring living conditions a real job.
Facing their problems with a spirit of togetherness, the citizens of Dayton now joined hands in overcoming the job of restoring their homes and city. With the assistance of the National Government and the generous help from neighboring cities and towns, the stricken city moved forward in the following years to become the wonderful city of “Greater Dayton.”