100 years later: Dayton forever changed by the Great Flood of 1913


With each passing year, the human tie gets a little more frayed.

For this year’s 100th anniversary of the Great Dayton Flood of 1913, the newspaper could find only two survivors of the second-deadliest flood in American history.

One of them, 100-year-old Robert Ferneding, was just eight months old when his mother, Emma, saved him after their rescue boat capsized by grabbing a tree trunk with one arm and her baby with the other.

“She wouldn’t let me die,” Ferneding told the Dayton Daily News. “She stood in my way.”

Ferneding, who lives in Clinton County, is among the very few left who can provide a personal anecdote to the Great Dayton Flood, which killed more than 360 people throughout the region as flood waters from the Great Miami River rose as high as 20 feet, destroying 20,000 homes and displacing 65,000 people. More than 1,400 horses also died. The region sustained $100 million in damages, more than $2 billion in today’s dollars.

With its toll of death and destruction, March 25-28, 1913, ranks as perhaps the region’s worst week — and its best. The tales of heroism, told and retold in books, plays and living rooms, never get old. The flood is part of the region’s DNA, an unforgettable event that forever stamped Dayton as a place where greatness can happen.

It put Dayton on a national stage, but that had happened before, and it has happened since. A decade earlier, two bicycle tinkerers became the first to fly an airplane. Seven years later, a newspaper man from Dayton led the Democratic national presidential ticket.

Yet the Great Dayton Flood maintains a special place in the hearts of average citizens, resonates much more deeply than other historically significant and even titanic events. The question is why?

“Wilbur and Orville (Wright) and others risked their lives to discover the secret of controlled flight, but all of us didn’t have to take the risk,” speculated Dawne Dewey, director of Wright State University’s Special Collections and Archives. “The flood forced everyone in the city to take risks and face tremendous challenges and hardships. We care so much about the flood, because it was a much more personal experience for so many. The flood happened here and touched nearly everyone in the city in some way.”

And the evidence, Dewey said, is still tangible: “We can read the diaries and letters, look at photographs and films, and tell stories of our grandparents and great-grandparents who lived and suffered through it.”

For generations, these stories of terror and heroism became embroidered into family histories and woven into the very fabric of the community. “It was that big of an event, and so much has been handed down through the generations, that it’s still relevant to a large part of our population,” observed Mary Oliver, director of collections for Dayton History. “We came out of this better and stronger and ready to face anything that came our way.”

Defining moment

The 100th anniversary is sparking a community-wide commemoration unlike any other, inspiring several major museum exhibits, as well as numerous books and lectures, as well as a guided flood walk. Dewey said the attention is warranted: “The flood is described as one of those defining moments in Dayton’s history. It forced change, innovation and cooperation and fostered fortitude and character building in Dayton’s people. But what connects us to it today in a very real way is that it was very personal for so many, and we can see the traces or evidence of it all around us. It speaks to our desire to be resilient and proud of who we are, where we live, and most of all, to remember the people who overcame a tragedy and kept going, building a place for future generations.”

Hamilton historian Jim Blount said the anniversary has reminded the community that the Great Dayton Flood was truly a regional event. It still ranks as Ohio’s worst natural disaster, with 467 deaths statewide. “All these years we have heard isolated stories,” Blount said. “We’re finally putting it into perspective how widespread this was, with devastation all over Ohio and the state of Indiana.”

Dewey is reminded of a line from the Wright State University play, “1913: The Great Dayton Flood,” first performed in 1997 and presented again earlier this year: “We’re all in the same boat now.”

Dewey explained, “People came together and helped each other. People persevered no matter what their walk of life or their ethnic group. People had to depend on each other and make friends with strangers in order to survive.”

That’s the story of thousands of people throughout the Miami Valley who showed extraordinary resourcefulness and selflessness in saving their own lives and their neighbors.

It’s also the story of how Ferneding miraculously made it to his first birthday.

Harrowing choice

His parents, Frederick and Emma Ferneding, faced a harrowing choice as the flood waters engulfed their home at 307 Norwood Ave. in West Dayton, only a half mile from where the levee had just burst.

Frederick lovingly placed his wife and eight-month-old son in the rescue boat — their best chance of survival. There was no room for Frederick and his two sisters, who faced long odds by remaining in the three-story home where most of the residences either tipped over or floated away in the fierce currents.

A short distance downstream, the rescue boat became trapped in a whirlpool and capsized. Emma grabbed a tree trunk with one arm and her baby with the other. “The current was very strong, but she hung on,” Ferneding said.

She listened to the screams of the other passengers and their children as they drowned. She buried her fingers into the tree trunk and cried for help. Seven workers at a nearby warehouse joined hands, forming a human chain to reach the stranded mother and baby. Baby Robert wore the long girlish frock common to all babies of the period, enabling him to be passed from mouth to mouth like a newborn kitten.

His mother’s fingers had to be pried from the tree to which she had clung so tenaciously to life. “She and I were the only ones saved,” Ferneding recalled. “I survived because my mother was so heroic.”

Ferneding is still sharp-minded, bright-eyed, an avid reader. He still believes that his late mother is his guardian angel.

It is no longer the custom for Dayton families to sit around the Thanksgiving dinner table to share tales of how they survived the Great Dayton Flood. “After dinner, the talk would drift to the flood,” recalled Ferneding. “It was discussed everywhere you went.”

Dwindling numbers

This week’s anniversary is the first without a significant number of survivors. On previous milestones — even as recently as the 90th — the Dayton Daily News found numerous survivors to tell their stories first-hand. In 1980, shortly before the 70th anniversary, census data showed that 9,529 of Dayton’s 193,900 residents were old enough to have been here in 1913. Thirty years later only two could be located: Ferneding as well as 104-year-old Margaret Kender of Ocala, Fla. There are undoubtedly others, but their numbers are dwindling.

Fortunately, their stories live on in the oral and written histories passed on to their children and grandchildren. “If your family has been in Dayton for at least two generations, you probably have a flood story,” said Lynn Alejandrino of Washington Twp., whose great-aunt, Minnie Althoff, a librarian, went to work at the Dayton Public Library on the morning of March 25 and worked diligently to save the children’s literature collection from destruction.

One hundred years ago today, Daytonians had no idea that the winds from a monster Easter Sunday tornado in Omaha, Neb., and the Gulf Coast states would soon be wreaking havoc with their own city. It already had been an unusually wet winter, saturating the ground and setting the stage for disaster.

On March 21 — Good Friday — the first storm hit, with 45 mph wind gusts that knocked out telegraph lines. The rains began in earnest on March 23, Easter Sunday, pounding the Miami Valley with eight to 11 inches of rain over a five-day period. The runoff found its way to the Great Miami River, at the pinch point where four rivers — including the Mad River, the Stillwater River and the Wolf Creek — meet near downtown Dayton.

In 1913, Dayton was a bustling city of 117,000 residents, the 43rd largest city in the nation. It had endured 10 major floods, rebuilding the earthen levees each time, and seemed to regard occasional flooding as the price of prosperity. But this time, the levees couldn’t withstand the sheer volume of water from the Great Miami and its tributaries — 250,000 cubic feet of water per second through a channel with a capacity for 25,000 cubic feet. “This flood was so large that 90 percent of the total volume of water had to flow through Dayton’s city streets,” explained Julia-Dian Reed of the National Weather Service in Wilmington.

Sirens, alarms and church bells began sounding during the early morning hours on Tuesday, March 25, but many Daytonians failed to take the warnings seriously, until it was almost too late. Fred Noble brushed off his wife Wealthie’s concerns about the safety of their family of 11 children, who lived at 142 W. Columbia St., very close to the levee. “It gets this way every year; we’ll be OK,” he assured her.

By early Tuesday morning, the river level had risen to 11.6 feet, raising deepening concern and attracting gawkers to the bridges and riverbanks, unaware that three of the city’s levees had come close to failing. Curiosity turned to terror around 8 a.m. when the main levee broke at Webster Street and a 10- to 20-foot wall of water swept through St. Clair, Jefferson, Main and Ludlow streets. Thousands ran or swam for higher ground.

Mary Louise Breen, then 10 years of age, wrote years later, “It looked like fun, and some people took it as a lark. Almost everybody took shelter in whatever building was closest. A few remained on the streets. In a very short time the sluggish stream picked up force. A young man clung to a telephone pole, unable to make his way to safety. Another man started out to help him. He was knocked off his feet and the two of them were swept away in sight of hundreds of spectators unable to help.”

Ringside seat

Mary Louise and her little brother, Eddie — the future U.S. Congressman Edward Breen — had a ringside seat from the windowsill of the Phillips House Hotel at the corner of Third and Main streets. “We watched men at the courthouse across the way trying to entice frantically swimming horses on to the raised lawn of the courthouse and into the building. A dining table floated by, set for a meal. The street car which had come to a stop in front of the hotel was gradually covered, and finally disappeared.”

Eight-year-old Kathryn Blakesly thought it seemed like the end of the world. “My Sunday school teacher always talked about the way the world would end, with fire and water, with Noah and the flood,” Blakesly told the Dayton Daily News in 1988. “And I thought that was what was happening. I thought this was it.”

Many escaped the flood waters that Tuesday morning only to find themselves fleeing fires after gas explosions rocked the city the next day. They escaped via telephone wires or the makeshift bridges of ironing boards or interior doors or bedding — anything that could enable them to reach safety at a neighbor’s home. “Many people were making the choice, ‘Do I drown or do I burn to death?’” noted Brady Kress, president and CEO of Dayton History.

Jennie Parsons pondered that very question while stranded in the attic of her boarding house on South Jefferson Street with her husband Jack and two children. “If we only had a revolver,” she said, “so we could all die quick.” The family survived.

Althoff, who died in 1962, wrote about her ordeal of being stranded for three days in the downtown public library. “When I think of the days and nights spent in the library during the Flood of 1913 — of the dangers from fire and water and floating wreckage, of the bitter cold and pangs of hunger that we suffered, the exhaustion and anxiety — all crowd back on me with a sense of oppression difficult to throw off.”

As the decades passed, people held on to treasured artifacts from the most dramatic event in their lives. Daytonians saved everything as mementos, even crusts of bread from the first relief baskets. “Flood mud” — which can still be found in Dayton basements — became a point of pride. “You don’t really rate in Hamilton unless you have flood mud,” Blount joked.

Theona Russell of Xenia cherishes the Greek religious icon that her father, John Dimitriou, plucked from the floating debris while stranded on a downtown rooftop. Dimitriou emigrated from Greece in 1912, escaping poverty and war to find a better life in Dayton. The icon, which portrays the Virgin Mary surrounded by the Apostles, is still caked with mud, but it remains a part of the family holy altar — a remembrance of her father as well as a symbol of faith in a dark time. “It’s important to me because it’s the only thing he had left from the flood,” Russell said.

Common themes

Each flood story is as unique as the families who have preserved them. But persistent themes have emerged among the hundreds of readers who shared their histories with the Dayton Daily News. It’s the courage of the survivors and the kindnesses they showed to neighbors and strangers alike.

Allison Bender French of Beavercreek hit upon that theme when telling about the rescue of her grandmother, Winifred Mae Bretz, and her parents and four older sisters from their home at First and St. Clair streets: “The water was rising up toward their roof so a man from the neighborhood assisted my great-grandmother and great-grandfather, and all five girls, including my grandmother, across a board connecting their house to the one across the street. My great-grandparents were terrified while crossing the board over the rushing water because the man helping them was drunk and not at all steady on his feet.”

But they made it.

So did Robert Ferneding, against all the odds.

After being rescued from the tree, the infant was lifted by an improvised rope pulley to the safety of the warehouse’s second story. He was fed with a whiskey-soaked rag as his clothes dried over an oil lamp. “I was told I didn’t cry throughout the ordeal, because I was the safest place I could be — with my mother,” he said.

Meanwhile, his father and two aunts faced a life-and-death struggle of their own. Their sturdy three-story brick house withstood the flood waters only to be threatened by fire when a paint company exploded nearby. The cedar shingle roof was hardly fireproof, and Frederick Ferneding stood on the roof to protect his property from the fiery debris. “He took his coat and beat the fire out,” Ferneding recalled.

After the flood, his father came looking for his family at a church on Mound Street near their home. “He thought we were lost because he learned that our boat had been upset,” Ferneding said.

He didn’t recognize his own wife when she tugged on his shirt. “She was banged up against the tree and her face was black and blue,” Ferneding said. “She kept pulling on his shirt, telling him, ‘I’m Emma!’”

Once they returned to their home, his mother would wake up at night screaming. “Mother had a nervous breakdown after the flood, and I couldn’t blame her — one wrong step and she would have drowned and so would I.”

Emma remained haunted all her life by the memory of her drowning boatmates, but she recovered eventually from her ordeal and was known throughout her life as a woman of uncommon strength and wisdom. She saved her young son’s life once again, five years later, when she nursed Robert and his father through the 1918 flu epidemic that claimed the lives of many of their neighbors.

The resilience and courage of people like the Fernedings are the reason the Great Dayton Flood has left such an enduring legacy.

You can feel it as part of the community fabric and, for a while longer, see it with your own eyes.

“Here I am from the 1913 flood,” Robert Ferneding marvels. “I made it this far.”



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