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Most Tragic Night in Xenia's History


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News July 23, 1933

Most Tragic Night In Xenia’s History

by Howard Burba


     When the story of the Dayton flood of 1886 was retold on this page last Sunday the writer had no thought and certainly no intention of arousing a spirit of jealousy.  In fact, he was unaware that towns like to boast of their calamities, the same as their achievements.

     From the interesting little city of Xenia come protests of discrimination.  One of them is particularly emphatic in its wording. “You’ve told of the Dayton flood of 1886, and it was merely a gentle spring freshet compared with the Xenia flood of the same year; why don’t you write about it?” inquires this faithful reader.  So the thought occurs that maybe you would like to know on what grounds Xenia bases her claim to having experienced a flood that made the destructive one in Dayton in 1886 appear as but “a gentle spring freshet” in comparison.

     To start at the beginning, no one, not even the people who have lived in Xenia since the day of their birth can visualize that place as subject to inundation.  It is not on any considerable body of water; in fact it is a long step to anything bearing the name of  “river.”  Two insignificant streams course through its corporate limits, but these are little more than spring branches and really not entitled to be classified as “creeks.”  Yet creeks they have been called since time immemorial.  As to their ability to go on a rampage and their power to cast terror over an entire community, we must turn to the historians of the year 1886, said historians in this instance being the men who were then writing news events of the day for local newspapers.

     Twenty-six known dead and the destruction of more than 200 homes was the loss sustained in the Xenia flood.  But since all this part of Ohio was suffering from an over-abundance of water, and several sections were visited by a miniature tornado that swept everything in its path and left a wide trail of destruction, the actual severity of the Xenia catastrophe was overlooked by her neighboring communities until after the waters had receded, the bodies of the dead had been recovered and the town had an opportunity to take stock of its losses.  In fact it was difficult for Xenians themselves to realize the force and violence of the flood at the time it descended upon them.  They had reasoned that most anything could happen to Xenia, but a flood was something that no one living there need worry about.  All of which accounts, no doubt, for the fact that it was two days after the event that we find a detailed story of it in the old newspaper files of 1886.

     It came on the night of Wednesday, May 12.  It is in a paper dated Friday, May 14, that we read the details, and between the lines ample proof that the newspaper correspondent who “covered it” was himself unable to grasp the full measure of destruction that had been wrought.

      “The calamity that visited Xenia Wednesday was a fearful flood,” he says in prefacing his article, “a flood that carried with it terror, death, and the destruction of more than 200 homes.  It was a continuation of the storm that swept over the Miami valley with accompanying electrical disturbances, wind, hail and rain.  Early in the evening the storm clouds were noticed, and the feature of incessant lightning, as noted elsewhere in this part of the state, here attracted attention.

     “About 9 p. m. the first burst of the storm sent a shower of hail into the streets, but this soon ceased and a steady pour of rain with strong wind followed, admonishing the people of approaching danger.  Many hastened to take refuge in cellars, as previous cyclones had warned them, but the elements had a more certain and terrible death in store for its victims.

     “The steady pour of rain increased to blinding sheets of water, and pedestrians declare that they were obliged to put their hands over their faces to keep from strangling when they breathed.  The incessant glare of lightning and the dense atmosphere were terrifying.  A combined flash of lightning and violent peal of thunder unnerved the strongest hearts.

     “Scarcely had the shock subsided when the wild clamor of the fire bells called for help, and a second and a third call informed the public that something more terrible than fire was to be dealt with.  Rushing forth they found its arch-enemy devouring the town.

     “Xenia is situated among the hills of Greene co., and is considered to be high and dry.  Even its citizens had never dreamed of such thing as flood in this quiet retreat.  They had long ago learned to believe that they were far above high-water mark, though the natural watersheds, East and West Shawnee creeks, had discommoded at times a few of the lumber dealers.

     “These creeks are usually nearly dry streams.  A walled passage-way eight feet wide and six feet deep has been considered sufficient for East Shawnee to find its way through the town, and a ten-foot culvert under the railroad embankments has always been considered as ample for emergency.  East Shawnee creek starts in the hills a mile east of Xenia and enters the city through a culvert under the Columbus & Xenia railroad, southeast of the city.  It pursues almost a directly westward course to the Springfield & Xenia railroad.  Water st., running parallel 50 yards north of it.  West Shawnee runs under the Columbus & Xenia and the Springfield & Xenia railroads very near the depot and a short distance beyond joins East Shawnee.  The stream then winds a southeasterly course to the Little Miami river.

     “For a distance of a mile on each side of the Shawnee the smaller homes, mostly one and two-story frame houses, are built.  The railroads partially dammed the creeks and the back-water formed two immense lakes.  The one formed by the Columbus & Xenia railroad covered probably 30 acres, which the water quickly filled, the small culvert under the railroad failing to discharge the water fast enough.  The Springfield & Xenia railroad dammed the lake that flooded Water st., and Bar Basin. The two outlets under this road simply sufficed to give a strong current.

     “When the heavy downpour had filled the regular channel far beyond its utmost capacity the lake above had reached the top of the railroad embankment and began to pour over.  The percolating water soon washed a deeper channel and suddenly 100 yards of rails and ties slipped off, making the embankment at least two feet lower at its shallowest point.  The embankment here is at least 15 feet high.  This unexpected influx created a panic, added to the horror and forced the tottering houses against opposing walls.  The second break, on the Springfield & Xenia road, near the gas works, demolished everything south of the embankment.”

     Then the news-writer went on to explain that his power to describe the event was inadequate.  But he make a faithful attempt to paint a picture of the destructive element which came down out of the small valleys east of the city, carrying death and misery in its wake.  Strong houses went to pieces; horses, cows, sheep and hogs could not fight against it and were swept away.  Valiant swimmers were only saved from drowning in their attempts at rescue work through foresight in attaching ropes about their bodies before they plunged into the flood and fought against its mad surge.

     “Twenty minutes after the storm had set in,” wrote the newspaper man, “Officer Brown saw that Shawnee creek was usurping Water st., and calls for aid were heard in houses along that thoroughfare.  Hastening to fire department headquarters he sounded the alarm—then he called on the men to take the people out of the houses on Water st., as they were drowning.  The fire laddies rushed with the fire truck to their rescue. Dashing into the water, then two feet deep on the street, their truck was suddenly whirled from them and dashed to pieces while they had to stem a fearful tide four feet deep.  A new influx of water had come from some quarter and increased with frightful rapidity.

     “The continuous alarm called out all the people and a force of police were compelled to fight back friends who insisted on plunging into the deceitful rapids in response to the calls of their neighbors.  The low, dark clouds, drenching rain and shrieking thunder mingled horribly with the roaring torrent from which came the cries of helpless men, women and children.

     “The grinding and bumping of the houses as they slipped from their foundations, or as debris struck against them, and the crash of a home turned over and ripped to pieces, followed by wails of occupants, unnerved the helpless people on shore.  The flashes of lightning scarcely revealed the scene.  A glimpse—then darkness and thunder in a volume that resembled heavy cannonading.  Boxes, lumber and anything that would burn were saturated with coal oil and at every street corner a huge bonfire was lighted and constantly fed with oil until the town was ablaze with lurid flame.

     “Everybody loaned aid, and hundreds risked their lives to save others.  The gallant crews dashed madly into the wild stream, baffled by the flying timbers, returned to land with their precious burdens and then dashed in again to be of further service.  Their heroic acts are on everyone’s tongue.

     From the first authentic story of the Xenia disaster to reach the outside world it was apparent that the homes along Water st. were doomed when the people first reached the scene in answer to the second and third tolling of the fire bells.  For a considerable time the houses on this thoroughfare trembled beneath the shock of the swift-rushing water, but none were carried off their foundation.  When the strange new outburst of water came down, from what source no one apparently seemed to know, the two-story frame house of Aaron Ferguson, at Water and Whitman sts., was the first to move from its foundation. Rapidly floating out into the middle of the torrent, it glided around all obstacles, and the shrieks of several persons inside were carried above the din of the storm to the ears of those who stood at the edge of the water.  Lusty voices of strong men, women’s shrieks and the cries of babies were mingled.  As the house reached Detroit st., two blocks below, it struck the bridge and careened half over.  The light of the bonfires suddenly found its way through the windows and someone in the crowd shouted, “I see nine people in that room!”

     Will Morris and Frank Byers dashed into the flood and Byers struck lustily for the building.  But the current carried him below and he was only rescued from drowning by his comrade who firmly held to the rope which they had lashed about their bodies.  Twice more he tried the same desperate act, only to meet with failure.  Then Dave Tarbox tried to reach the house by starting into the water at a point higher up, and cheers from the crowd announced his success. Holding the rope attached to Tarbox, Morris and Byers quickly joined him and the rescue of members of a family named Anderson was accomplished.

     “In the angle formed by the railroad and Detroit st., “ stated the newswriter, “the house of the Stoker family tottered dangerously and loud calls from within drew the crowd around it.  Planks would not reach, but soon a ladder was brought from the wrecked fire truck and the family was rescued.  Scarcely had the last member been safely landed when the house toppled over and went to pieces.  The crowd looked on in astonishment, and a stampede followed the crashing of a portion of Bradley’s flax mill, standing nearby.

     “In Bar’s Bottom, a stretch of lowland north of the railroad, a scene of terrible destruction was presented.  Of the 15 or 20 houses that occupied the plat only two or three could be seen, the rest having gone out with the flood.  Here a man dashed into the water, reached a floating house, just as it turned over but, undaunted, crept in and came out with a baby in his arms.  A sudden rush sent the house to pieces.  He struck for shore with his precious burden but disappeared beneath the waves and debris.  When he reappeared he was hurtling through the culvert and crying out: “I have lost the baby, catch it, it is right down there.  I can’t reach it!”  A few rods below he reached land, but the baby was not found until next day.  It was dead.  Six others went down to death in Bar’s Basin, three of them in the same house from which the child had been taken.

     “As terrible as was the scene along Detroit and Water sts. and Bar’s Bottom, the mad sweep of the water was worse below.  West Shawnee had caved out the railroad bank and vied with East Shawnee in the work of destruction.  Nearly 20 houses were overturned and demolished west of the railroad.  Several hundred yards below much of the current was stopped by Main st. bridge, and it was at this bridge that most of the lives were lost.  Those who were able to hang to a plank until they struck the debris at the bridge, and many of the houses that had hung together until they floated against it, were lost in the terrific jam.  Bodies were quickly buried amid the debris, making all attempts at rescue impossible.

     “At this point lodged the house of Orin Morris, wife and six children.  The house drifted for two squares with terrible swiftness, and just before the crash came Morris appeared at the window with a light.  The crash unbalanced him and as the house turned and twisted, all evidence of life within disappeared.  The building went to pieces, the family of nine going down with it.  Next day seven were found dead; but two survived.  One, a child of eight, had been washed to shore a few rods below; the other, a boy of 13, made a gallant swim of a mile, succeeded in grasping a passing plank and drifted on to safety.

      “At the crossing of the Cincinnati pike the bridge caught what debris the Main st. bridge failed to hold.  Here all sorts of furniture, building material and the debris of ruined houses was piled high.”

     Up to the hour the newspaper man filed his story, 22 bodies had been recovered.  Four were found later in the same day.  Of the dead, ten were white and 12 members of the colored population.  Four persons were listed as missing, and their bodies were never located.

     Examination by the coroner revealed not more than one-half of those meeting death had been drowned, the others having been literally ground and crushed to death in the debris.  Contusions on the bodies served as mute evidence of the terrible agony they must have suffered as their bodies were beaten and torn amid the swiftly moving mass of debris.  Almost all had on night clothing, indicating that they had gone to bed at the time the flood broke upon them.  Apparently some had passed away while asleep, never awakening to their danger.

     It is recorded that the torrent subsided almost as quickly as it arose.  With the dawn the current had calmed to the point where firemen, police and citizens could search in the debris.  The hose wagon was converted into an ambulance; the mayor’s office was turned into a morgue.  Shortly after daylight the work of identification of the bodies began.  Among the first to be identified were Mrs. Corcoran and son; Mrs. Casey and sister; Mrs. Anderson and child; Louis Anderson; Mr. And Mrs. William Powell and four children; Mr. And Mrs. Orin Morris and four children; Stephen Daunton; John Ivans and wife and a Mrs. Lindsay.

     All over the surrounding territory a general stock-taking was on at the time.  Every part of Montgomery, Greene and Warren co’s had suffered from the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in this section of the state.  More than four inches of water fell within a period of less than three hours.  The destruction in Dayton and throughout the Miami valley was confined to the city of Xenia.  The city that had been considered flood-proof had suffered far more severely than those located upon streams many times the size of the two little creeks which course through it.

     The Xenian who saw fit to complain that his city was unjustly slighted in our recent story of the flood of 1886 is justified in filing his complaint.  It was far more than “a gentle spring freshet” which swept Xenia the night of May 12, 1886.  It was a calamity of such proportions as to remain, even to this day, the greatest tragedy in the city’s history.