This appeared in the Dayton Daily News on December 21, 1986
‘I remember everything’
That day in 1913 still floods her memory
By Dorothea Haug
Mary Koellner still has vivid memories of being trapped for three days in a second-floor office during the Dayton flood. “I’m 92. I remember everything, though,” she said.
Mrs. Koellner’s harrowing experience began early in the morning the Tuesday after Easter of 1913. She was then Mary Spohn, 18, a telephone operator at the Bell Telephone Co. on Ludlow at Fourth Street in downtown Dayton.
“The streetcars weren’t running that morning,” she said. “So I went to the drugstore to call my boss to tell him I couldn’t get to work. “Oh, Mary, can’t you walk?” she recalled him pleading. “So I walked to work.”
Miss Spohn lived with her parents in the house her father had built on the corner of Gunkel Avenue and Gebhart, just east of Woodland Cemetery. “It was a long way. I never walked except that morning,” she said.
When Miss Spohn arrived at her second-floor office, the men had headsets on. “My gosh! They weren’t supposed to do that, you know. They were the bosses. And, oh, everybody was calling!”
Mrs. Koellner said the switchboard was “frantic” with calls from North Dayton, “the area around Pioneer Street.” It was first area to be inundated by floodwaters. “And, my golly, then everything went blank!” she exclaimed, recalling the suddenly blank and silent switchboard, caused by a loss of power. “And they (her supervisors) said, ‘Girls! Look out the window!’ And it was there already! The water was there already!
Flood took many horses
“There was a livery stable across the street. And the horses, I felt so sorry for them. They all went down.” Her smile faded and her face clouded with sadness. “And the Newsalt’s Jewelry store, oh, they had the most beautiful jewelry all the time. That all went in the flood, too. Oh, it was sad.
“I was there three days. The YMCA had a kitchen on their second floor.” A line was put in place between the buildings and with the use of pulleys conveyed food from the Y.
“And there was a candy place downtown. It was right after Easter, you know, and we got chocolate eggs.” She said.
The YMCA included milk with the food it sent. But the Bell employees heard there was a baby in a hotel down the block so they sent the milk on via their pulley system.
“There was no place to sleep,” Mrs. Koellner continued. “John Patterson built boats and got us mattresses.
“And, oh, did people pray! Never had no religion, but boy, did they pray! Some never prayed before. They were scared to death,” she recalled.
“One night there was afire down the block. We were afraid then!”
By noon on the third day, the floodwaters had subsided and they were able to leave, walking home through the muddy ruin of Dayton.
But Miss Spohn’s adventure had not yet ended. There was no work for the telephone operators until clean-up and repairs were completed. So Miss Spohn was sent by train to Boston where Bell workers had been on strike.
“The workers in Boston were different than they are here,” Mrs. Koellner reflected. “They were mean if there was a strike.”
When Miss Spohn reached Boston, the strike had ended. “But, oh, we had the loveliest hotel to stay in. And they took us on a tour all around Boston. So we just took it easy for a whole week and they gave us a nice check afterward,” she said.
Miss Spohn continued to work for Bell Telephone Co. for about four years. She was head operator when she married John Koellner, a Dayton firefighter who she called “Kelly.”
“In those days you didn’t work after you got married,” she said emphatically. “They were awful ugly to you if you worked.”
A native of Dayton and a widow for 27 years, Mrs. Koellner now brightens the corners of Heartland of Kettering on Wilmington Pike. And Mrs. Koellner still remembers it all.