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Dayton - Being a Story of the Great Flood as Seen from the Delco Factory


Being a story of the great flood as seen from the Delco Factory

April 1913


A Flood Unique in History

The flood that swept the valleys of central Ohio and Indiana during the week of March 24, 1913, was unique.

Nothing like it appears in modern history.

Never before since accurate records became possible has there been a rain fall of such magnitude over so large an area.

There are records of greater local rains, but nowhere in all history can we find trace of a deluge in which the elements so combined to magnify the disaster.

The records of the United States Weather bureau show that during a period of three days the rainfall amounted to an average of 7 ½ inches over an area of 8,000 square miles. In other words, something like 9,000 billion gallons of water fell from the clouds during those three days.

The weight of this water was about 33 billion liquid tons. It would have taken a reservoir 174 miles long, 1 mile wide and 25 feet deep to hold it.

It had to go somewhere, and when 33 billion liquid tons are moving in the same general direction, something has to give way. No work that could have been constructed by the hand of man would have been sufficient to withstand this tremendous rush of water.

The ground was already water-soaked from the passing of the snow and the early spring rains, so that practically all of the water that fell at this time remained on the surface and flowed off into the streams.

The City of Dayton is situated on the Miami River, where the Stillwater and Mad Rivers flow into it.

These three rivers drain about 3,000 square mile; more than a third of the entire territory affected by the heavy downpour.

This vast amount of water poured down these three streams and concentrated its accumulated force on the unprotected city. 

The Miami River twists and bends through the city, its curves offering resistance to the sweep of the waters and causing them to swirl and foam like the whirlpools of Niagara.

Merely high water would not have accomplished the havoc wrought by the flood.

It was the accumulated force of waters as they converged into a comparatively narrow valley that caused the damage.

The swollen rivers swept down upon the city with the force of a tidal wave.

Houses were torn from their foundations; windows and doors were broken; the entire first floors of stores and other building in the downtown section were swept clear of goods and furniture.

Automobiles and even heavy pianos were swept into the streets and tumbled over and over.

Over 1,200 horses were drowned, unable to withstand the rush of waters. When the water had reached knee depth on the streets, mean were unable to keep their feet and rescuers who attempted to reach imperiled people found themselves helpless in the torrent.

People were driven to the upper stories of their homes and those who were caught in the business section were unable to escape. Hundreds were confined in office buildings and stores from early on Tuesday morning until Thursday or Friday. Rescuers from the outside tried in vain to reach them or even to send them food and water.

It was on Easter Sunday that the storm started. All day the rain poured down and all through the night. The sky had a queer look and there was a feeling of evil in the air.

The story on Monday morning, of the Omaha tornado, came without surprise. Still the rain fell. It seemed on Sunday that the limit of downpour had been reached, but on Monday the heavens literally opened; the rain fell in sheets, and the people began to realize that the flood would assume dangerous proportions. Nobody dreamed, however, of disaster to the business district.

There was a tradition that way back in 1866 Main Street had been flooded, but since then levees had been built, and it seemed impossible that the water could rise so high as to overflow them.

All day Monday the rain continued and about four o’clock Tuesday morning the ringing of bells and the blowing of whistles notified the residents of the city of real danger.

 By seven o’clock the waters were slipping over the levees and an hour later they were pouring down into the streets of the business section of the city with almost irresistible force.

By noon a mighty torrent 10 to 15 deep was surging and swirling through the entire downtown section, and reaching out for almost two miles on either side. The city was in the grasp of a rushing torrent that carried before it everything of a movable nature.

Thousands of people were marooned in their homes or in the downtown buildings and rescuers on the outside were helpless to extend aid or furnish them means of escape.

People who had been caught in the streets clambered quickly into trees or up telegraph poles or worked their way into the upper stories of buildings. One great tree with spreading boughs was so thickly populated with women and children in various colored clothing, that it looked like some great Christmas tree hung with huge dolls.

In the Union Station some 600 people were imprisoned and driven to the upper levels, where they huddled for three days, packed together like sardines and with nothing but some chocolate and candy fished up from the news stand to eat.

The stories of heroism displayed by the men and women of Dayton will never be told except in isolated instances. Families were separated and terror reigned over the city.

As the day wore on the weather became colder. Snow fell. The suffering from exposure was intense.

The flood crest was reached about midnight and be Wednesday morning the water began slowly to recede.

Then came a new terror. Fire broke out in the downtown section. An explosion of gas shot flames into a building on Fifth and Wilkinson Streets and soon a vast area was burning fiercely. There seemed no possible way to check it and it looked for a time as though the entire downtown section would be destroyed, with the thousands of people who were marooned in office and other buildings. Fortunately, however, these fears were not realized. Some fireproof buildings blocked the course of the flames and they gradually died out.

Through another night or horror and suffering the people passed, until the gradually receding waters gave the rescuers an opportunity to begin the real work of succor on Thursday morning.

By Thursday afternoon it was possible to wade through some of the downtown streets, and by Friday all that was left of the great flood was the masses of debris and mud that filled the entire inundated sections of the city, and the remains of horses and other animals that had lost their lives in the rush of the waters.

The loss of human life was not nearly so great as it was at first supposed.

Not more than 100 person [sic] were drowned, and most of these were in the outlying sections where the building construction was too frail to withstand the rush of the waters.

Probably never before in the history of great disasters has the rescue and reconstruction work been so quickly and effectively organized.

Early on that long to be remembered Tuesday morning, when the waters had just begun to pour over the levees and sweep through the downtown streets, John H. Patterson, President of the National Cash Register Company, realized the bigness of the disaster and the need for quick relief.

Immediately he turned the entire force of his great factories into a relief organization, and the N.C.R. plant, with all its wonderful efficiency of organization, became the central relief station.

Co-operating wherever possible with the organized forces of the city, Mr. Patterson began to plan and work out the problems of rescue and reconstruction.

Thousands of homeless people were to be fed and clothed; hundreds were in perilous positions and had to be rescued at the earliest possible moment; homes were to be provided until the work of reconstruction could make the city again habitable. It was a tremendous task and into it Col. Patterson put all of the marvelous executive ability, all the tremendous energy and enthusiasm that for years have made the N. C. R. plant the organized wonder of the industrial world.

One of the first needs was for boats with which to reach imprisoned citizens as soon as the water should subside sufficiently.

The entire carpentry department of the N.C.R. plant was turned into a boat building establishment, and inside of a day hundreds of serviceable boats were turned out and put into commission.

Food was collected with incredible rapidity from all sources. Some of the buildings of the N.C.R. were turned into temporary barracks where hundred, and later even thousands of people were cared for. A hospital was established in one of the departments; nurses and doctors were provided.

Special trains loaded with food and bottled water were rushed from the east even before public relief trains could be gotten into the city, and thus thousands of people were fed and cared for, and incalculable suffering was avoided.

There was no money in sight; there were no public facilities for doing things of this kind, and only the great-hearted public-spiritedness of this one man, and the personal wealth at his command, made it possible.

After the waters had receded, the appalling task of cleaning up the city and putting it again into habitable shape furnished as great a problem as was presented even by the earlier work of rescue.

Governor Cox, recognizing immediately the tremendous efficiency of Col. Patterson’s organization, made him the official head of the relief and reconstruction work.

The State Militia was sent in for guard duty and the city was immediately put under military rule.

Thousands of men were gathered together from all sections and put to work on the streets and in the residence districts, cleaning out cellars, moving the debris and hauling away the brown slimy mud that covered everything.

The citizens of Dayton themselves were so appalled by their own individual problems of reconstruction that it was impossible to secure adequate forces within the city for the more public work, and it was necessary to draw laborers and teams from other cities.

All this required large sums of money and there were no public funds available to take care of it. Again the N. C. R. treasury came to the rescue and for weeks the entire expense of reconstruction was borne by Mr. Patterson and his associates.

Had it not been for the splendid patriotic ability and generosity of this one man, the suffering and loss at Dayton would have been vastly larger than is here recorded.

As has been said, the real story of the flood will never be told.

It cannot be told except in a very piecemeal fashion.

Almost every man and woman in Dayton saw it from a different angle and experienced it in a different way.

The experiences of those who were connected with the Delco plant are typical, and while they are unique in a way, they reflect enough of the general story to be of more than usual interest.

When the waters came up over the levees on Tuesday morning, 43 men were already at work in the big plant of the Delco Company on First Street. An hour or so later they were hopelessly marooned. Instead of sitting down in idleness, however, they immediately began to plan ways and means by which they could be of help to others less advantageously situated.

Rescue gangs were stationed at points on the second floor and some thirty people were saved from the flood as they were borne past on bits of wreckage.

In all the buildings round about, hundreds of other employees were marooned and food very quickly became a problem.

A delegation from the Delco plant made its way over the roofs to an adjoining warehouse and succeeded in finding eight or ten barrels of apples that served for the first day’s rations. But apples are not very satisfying as a steady diet.

The second day a steel washer was tied to a ball of twine and tossed to the roof of a building across the street. Then a heavy wire was drawn from the one building to the other and a trolley established. By this same process the wire trolley was continued across another street, then along the roofs of several buildings and across a third street to a coffee warehouse, where ground coffee and other provisions were obtained.

These were passed back along the trolley to the Delco plant, where coffee was made and provisions were cooked by electricity, generated by an automobile engine hooked up to a dynamo.

These provisions were then sent back along the trolley and distributed among the hungry refugees in other buildings.

In this way, the Delco force was enabled by its ingenuity and aggressiveness to be of real service to hundreds of people who would otherwise have suffered.

As soon as the water had receded sufficiently on Thursday afternoon, committees were sent out from the factory into the downtown districts to carry hot coffee to the early rescuers and others who might need it.

Each committee carried a large coffee pot and a plumber’s blow torch. They established themselves on street corners and coffee was made for all who applied. This was the first relief work that was carried into the downtown section.

And then on Friday came the tremendous task of rehabilitating the Delco factory.

Seventeen feet of water had covered the first floor. The basement departments were still full of mud and water, and the fine automatic screw machinery on the first floor was so thickly covered with slimy mud as to be almost unrecognizable.

It was a task that would have appalled much less determined hearts. But the men at the head of the Delco organization had met and solved difficult problems before.

The flood was past. Sitting down and mourning over it and counting up losses would not accomplish anything. There were orders to be filled and an army of employees to be provided for. Time was too valuable to waste in vain regrets.

The first big thing to accomplish was to clear away the mud and get the water out of the basement.

A committee was dispatched to Springfield to borrow some fire engines from that city.

The Vice-President of the Company himself drove to Cincinnati in an automobile and secured a big seven-ton Ahrens-Fox automobile fire engine, through the kindness of the Ahrens-Fox Company.

He drove this big engine from Cincinnati to Dayton at an average speed of almost thirty miles an hour over all kinds of roads, and immediately turned the tremendous force of its pumps on the mud-covered machinery in the automatic screw department.

Two engines from Springfield arrived not long after, having been towed part of the way by automobiles, and the entire force was put to work pumping the water out of the basement.

In the meantime, the automatic machinery was torn down and rebuilt. The flood marks were washed off the building and every possible effort made to eliminate all traces of the disaster.

The question of power to start the machinery came up next for consideration. The big electric transformers had been so damaged as to be completely out of commission.

In this extremity, the generosity and energy of the Cadillac Motor Car Company came to the rescue.

Three big transformers were secured in Detroit, and accompanied by engineers and skilled workmen from the Cadillac plant, were rushed to Dayton by special train.

These volunteer helpers took off their coats and went to work with as much enthusiasm as was displayed by the Delco people themselves, and on Monday morning, one day less than two weeks after the flood poured down upon the city, power from the electric lighting station was secured and the Delco plant resumed operations. It was one of the first plants in the city to recover from the effects of the disaster.

Other automobile companies using Delco equipment were equally prompt in sending men and trucks to help in the rehabilitation of the plant and in the installation of new machinery. And all this generous co-operation contributed in no small way to the promptness with which the Delco factory got under way again.

The problems were not all solved, however, when the factory resumed work.

Of the thousand or more employes connected with the Delco plant, over 200 who owned their own houses were homeless on account of the flood.

As soon as the employes could be gotten together after the waters had receded, each man was asked to fill out a registration blank giving full information as to his personal loss; how he had been getting along since the flood and what he needed in order to get him back into his home.

With this registration as a working basis, plans were immediately perfected by the Delco Company for the relief of employe who needed help.

A large automobile truck was purchased and a reconstruction crew consisting of house-movers, foundation builders, carpenters, paper hangers, painters and furniture repairmen was put to work at the expense of the Delco Company, to repair the damage that had been done to the homes of the Delco employes.

By this method, the men themselves were enabled to return to work immediately, entirely free from worry insofar as their families and homes were concerned.

Arrangements were also made by which any who needed furniture or supplies could get them without the immediate expenditure of money.

The great Delco factories are now running almost as smoothly and efficiently as ever. The employes are getting back into their homes as quickly as possible. The work of reconstruction will take some time, but it is being pushed with vigor and will be accomplished at the earliest possible moment.

And in almost all parts of Dayton this same spirit prevails. The flood is a thing of the past. The new Dayton is rising greater, more powerful, more energetic, more resourceful than ever.

The people of Dayton are profoundly grateful to the big-hearted generosity of the Nation that responded so wonderfully with provisions and money and offers of help in their time of need. It was a marvelous demonstration of the spirit of brotherhood that rises dominant in times of great stress and makes us thrill with pride for the citizenship of this great country of ours.