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A Day of Horror

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News
on March 19, 1994
by Roz Young
            Rarely does a March 25 come around in Dayton without another good story from the recollections of a thinning rank of citizens about an experience in the Dayton flood of 1913.     
            Harry P. Jeffrey, a retired Dayton attorney, was 11 years old at the time, 81 years ago. The Jeffrey family lived at 825 S. Main St. about where the Rodgers Pontiac used car lot is now.
            At 6 a.m. on March 25 Harry's mother wakened him and his brother Don. Water had already risen to the top of the front terrace of their house. The boys threw on their clothes and rushed downstairs. The basement was filled with water, and the street was a dirty river.
            The dirty brownish-green water kept rising. The family carried as much furniture as possible to the second floor.
            By noon the water level was halfway up the first floor walls. "Early in the morning the current had moved slowly and lazily," Harry said, "but it gradually turned into a rushing mill race.
            "My grandmother, aunt and uncle were visiting us at the time. I think we would have made a belated attempt to escape but my sister was in bed with a broken leg. My parents feared to move her, for the leg had not yet been placed in a cast."
            The Jeffrey house was brick and very solid. It stood at the bottom of a steep hill and they could see crowds watching from the top of the Fairgrounds hill.
            Finally a boat rowed by two firemen reached the house, and they decided to try to escape. From the second floor the men lowered the two boys by means of a blanket into the boat, but the current was so swift the strength of the firemen rowing as hard as they could did not prevent the boat from being sucked into the river. The men pulled the boys back into the house.
            "Our plight was steadily getting worse," Harry later wrote. "The rain fell incessantly, and it was bitter cold. No one dared to even strike a match for fear of starting a fire, for by now the pungent odor of escaping gas filled the air. Less substantial frame houses began to give way under the strain and were torn from their foundations. Barns, horses, furniture and autos and articles of every imaginable description floated past the house in an endless stream."
            "Darkness closed in on us. There was no fire to cheer us with its light and warmth. There was only black, stygian darkness, bitter penetrating cold and rain - unceasing, relentless rain. Shadows would have been welcome in that blackness, for we could barely distinguish each others' forms across the room."
            The whole family gathered in the front bedroom. The water had risen to within 2 inches of the second floor, and they huddled together, listening to the swish of the water and the thumps as floating debris crashed into the house walls.
            The crash of an explosion shook the air. "We rushed to the windows in time to make out a great mass of wreckage hurled into the air. Bricks were thrown hundreds of yards. The large apartment house half a square away had been blown up. Screams of men, women and children pierced the air. The building above the water had become a mass of flames. The fire soon spread to neighboring houses. The occupants of those houses fled from one house to another over roofs and masses of floating wreckage.
            Searchlights from the hill illuminated the scene. One man tied his baby to his back with a sheet and he and his wife managed to reach a telephone pole. They pulled themselves by the wire cables for two blocks to the safety of the hill. A man from another house threw a rope to the second floor balcony of the Jeffrey house, and Harry's father and uncle pulled 28 people one at a time through the flood waters to the balcony. The one thought of all of them had was would the fire reach their house. There was nowhere for them to go to escape.
            The last frame house burst into flame. They found as much rope as they could and decided that if the fire reached the Jeffrey house they would tie themselves together and go into the water, attempting to fight their way to dry land.
            Then the wind direction changed, and the sparks from the fires fell into the waters. By 3 a.m. the water level began to recede. "At last thin streaks of gray began to appear in the east, but that dawn did not seem cold and cheerless to the silent watchers in the house," Harry recalls. "Anything would have been a relief after the experiences of that night, a night which had assumed an eternity."
            When the current had somewhat abated, rescuers sent a line of boxcars down the hill on the streetcar tracks. Workers built a kind of pontoon bridge from the boxcars to the house. It was completed by 7 a.m. and workmen were ready to take out the people. Don and Harry took their little dog Punch along when they were rescued.
            Everyone was taken to the National Cash Register Company where they received food and warmth. Mr. Jeffrey and the two boys went to the top of the 12-story building, from which they could see the downtown area, which was still under water. "More than one fire had occurred during the night," he recalls. "We looked down at our own home, at the ruins so near and then were glad to turn away. Our recent experiences still seemed unreal and unnatural. It was like awakening from a bad dream which left impressions too vivid to be shaken off."