On this day 100 years ago, Daytonians awoke to a cacophony of fire sirens, church bells and factory whistles, but few had any notion that it would be the deadliest day in city history —what would be known forever afterward as the Great Dayton Flood.
The night before, many had taken a stroll along the riverbank, convinced the levees would withstand the onslaught of the storm as they had at least 10 times before. By this Tuesday morning, many of the city’s 117,000 residents still acted as if the circus were coming to town, as if the rising waters of the Great Miami River were an vaudeville act devised strictly for their entertainment.
It was a diversion that would prove fatal for many, and nearly fatal for many more.
Margaret Kender, 104, was only four years old, but she still remembers that day as she watched the high waters with her parents and other members of her thriving Hungarian community in West Dayton. “I remember standing on the railroad tracks looking down on Dakota Street when the water came over the tracks. We had to flee up the hill to a great big firehouse at Euclid and Third.”
The same scene was re-enacted all over the region, as thousands fled for their lives in Franklin, Hamilton, Middletown, Piqua and Troy. In downtown Dayton, the scene was chaotic as the levees burst near Monument Avenue, Taylor and Webster streets.
Judge Walter D. Jones, visiting from Piqua, described walking on the busy streets of Dayton at 8 a.m., when “all is serene and secure.” After dropping his bag in his room at the Beckel Hotel, he looked out the window where he witnessed “a seething, foaming torrent was rolling down Main Street.”
Tens of thousands of citizens faced split-second decisions that would mean the difference between life and death. More than 360 were lost throughout the region, with 123 dead in Dayton, 100 in Hamilton, 44 in Troy, and 16 in Piqua, according to National Weather Service estimates.
Henry Colson, 12, nearly lost his life because, as he recalled years later, “My Dad was a very stubborn old German. He said the waters would go down like all of the other times. By the time he realized the seriousness of it, we had to move upstairs. It was the most amazing and scary thing I ever experienced as the water in the house got higher and higher. We did not know if we were going to get out.”
Colson’s granddaughter, Debbie Colson of Huber Heights, recorded his recollections word for word. “The first canoe took my younger brothers and sisters,” he told her. “In a matter of minutes the currents were worse. Dead horses and items were floating down the streets. The younger children made it to safety. No one wanted to come back to get us.”
Colson said that NCR founded John H. Patterson, in the area surveying the damage, saw the remaining children in the upstairs window and commanded the rescuers, “You can’t just leave them there!”
Patterson threw off his coat, clambered into a canoe with another man and rescued Colson’s pregnant mother, Goldie, and a neighbor woman. Goldie later told her granddaughter, “I was afraid the boat would tip over and the baby would not be born.”
Henry recalled, “Two other men followed and rescued me, my dad and our dog, Hans, a smooth-haired fox terrier. We climbed out the upstairs window into the boat. I never thought we would make it. It was a nightmare. The men could not control the canoe very well. The water was so swift sucking up life in its path. I prayed we would make it. The elderly lady in the canoe next to ours stood up and panicked. She fell out and drowned.”
The family was so grateful that Goldie named her baby “John H.” in Patterson’s honor.
Patterson mobilized a massive relief effort at NCR headquarters at 6:45 a.m., before the flooding even started. In a 15-minute meeting, he transformed his carpenters into boatbuilders and other employees into cooks and rescue workers. “He was the type of man who didn’t waste any time,” said University of Dayton history professor Paul Morman.
At the time, Patterson, along with 27 other major NCR leaders, had recently been convicted of violations of the Sherman Anti-trust Law. Patterson was facing a one-year jail sentence, but Morman doesn’t believe that factored into his actions that day. The NCR chief had long been concerned about the likelihood of Dayton flooding. “He was well aware of the potential and recognized the seriousness of the situation very quickly,” Morman said. “He essentially took charge of the situation and put his entire operation and his resources into the relief effort and organized his factory and personnel to deal with a disaster.”
By 10 a.m., the first of the flat-bottomed NCR rescue boats hit the water. By noon, the NCR Wood Working Department was turning out a boat every 15 minutes, eventually building 300 in almost two days.
Mother Nature’s timing also helped to save lives. “If the levees had failed two or three hours later, the schools would have been full of children, and more people would have been at work,” said Mary Oliver, director of collections for Dayton History.
By early afternoon, a number of natural gas explosions rocked the city, destroying local landmarks, such as Rotterman Drug Store and Saettel’s grocery at Main and Stout streets, two blocks north of the Montgomery County Fairgrounds. Hundreds watched helplessly as grocer George Saettel, 65, and his clerk, Mary Schunk, 30, fought for their lives after the force of the explosion knocked them from the building.
Saettel clung to a floating roof in the middle of Main Street for about an hour, according to witness H.W. Lindsey: “His plight was pitiful and our very helplessness nearly drove us to distraction. We had a steel boat tied to the porch, but we dared not embark, and if we had done so, we could never have reached him. As each bit of driftwood, and parts of houses shot by the frail roof or raft with terrible force, it would break off a piece. Eventually the remnants were insufficient to keep the old man afloat and he finally sank below the surface.”
Mary Schunk caught hold of the spikes on a telegraph post. As Lindsey recalled, “She was torn, lacerated and mutilated almost beyond recognition. Her clothes were literally torn off. Crying for help, she looked beseechingly from one group of helpless persons to another as we fairly shook with pity. She would call the spectators by name, asking them to send assistance.” Two young men tried and failed to rescue her. “Finally her strength failed her and she sank,” Lindsey wrote.
A brutal survival
There were, however, unlikely tales of survival. Hamilton historian Jim Blount said the Hepting family survived after their home floated away, becoming lodged against a box car and crane. The father and his two daughters climbed to the top of the crane, where they remained perched for 36 hours before being rescued. “Imagine spending all that time on top of a six-foot crane, pelted by rain and snow, with no food and soaked clothing,” Blount marveled.
In Hamilton, 13-year-old Pearl Zeek and her father clung to a utility pole when their home at 917 Lowell Street was washed away in the flood. Her mother, paternal grandmother, three little sisters and baby brother all perished. Pearl-Zeek Minning later became a prominent pathologist and medical researcher who taught thousands of physicians at the University of Cincinnati and died in 1991 at the age of 92.
Margaret Kender concedes it can be lonely being one of the last survivors. “They’re gone now,” she said, “and it’s so sad.”
Kender lives with her daughter, Shirley Skaggs, in Ocala, Fla., and goes out regularly for lunch and other outings. Another daughter, Marguerite Turner, lives in Kettering.
She is the only flood survivor interviewed for these stories who actually remembers the flood, but her memories are sharp and vivid as Kender herself. Her parents, Andrew and Elizabert Liphart, emigrated from Hungary and lived in a row of houses across from the railroad tracks on Dakota Street in West Dayton. Her father was a bricklayer who helped to build Holy Name Church.
“There were 20 houses with families that were Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, you name it,” she recalled. “We didn’t have anything — no running water, just a pump on the street, and no electricity. So we didn’t have a lot to lose.”
After the flood, Kender recalled, “When we went back to our home everything was dirty and muddy. My mother had to go back to work right away, at a department store on Third Street, and do some washing.”
Kender married a musician from the neighborhood, Joseph Balog, and their children heard stories about the flood all their lives. “It was a wonderful childhood,” Turner said, “and it’s so important to be able to pass these stories on to my grandchildren.”
After her first husband died, she married another man from her childhood neighborhood, William Kender, and moved to Florida.
Kender doesn’t know the secret to her longevity. “I think the good Lord just forgot about me,” she joked.
She only knows she is grateful to have lived through the Great Dayton Flood: “I’ve had a wonderful life, with two wonderful husbands and two wonderful daughters. The good Lord has blessed me.”
In Her Own Words
Dayton librarian Minnie Althoff wrote about the way that the survivors stranded in the library became emotionally invested in the survival of a young man stranded in a tree. “After trying vainly to save his horse, one man was forced to take his halter off and tie himself to a tree,” she wrote. “We could hear the man in the tree calling for help and making frantic appeals for someone to come to his rescue. The black waters swirled around the building with a deafening roar. How would it all end?” No one slept that night, she wrote, as “the intense cold, the boom and roar of the water, greater than the Niagara it seemed, only increased the mental strain….The men had arranged to alternate in going to the window to call out to the poor man in the tree. How we listened to hear if he would answer. All night long, every 15 minutes, someone would call to him, ‘All right, old man?’ ‘Hang on.’ “Is the water going down?’ ‘It will soon be morning.’ At times the voice would be so faint we scarcely hear, then it would come back, ‘All right!’ At last he was rescued after hanging 26 hours in the tree.”
To learn more about the flood:
Dayton Metro Library:
Library lectures: Retired librarian and local historian Leon Bey presents a one-hour Powerpoint presentation, “Remember Promises Made in the Attic in 1913: The 100th Anniversary of the Great Dayton Flood and the Legacy of that Event,” tonight at 6:30 at the Northmont branch; April 1 at the Belmont branch; May 7 at the East branch; and May 11 at the West Carrollton branch.
Historic photographs: View the Dayton Metro Library’s extensive collection of photographs at http://content.daytonmetrolibrary.org/cdm/search/searchterm/Floods—Ohio—Dayton
Wright State University Special Collections & Archives:
Exhibits: The exhibit “Dayton’s 1913 Flood according to the Neukom Family” will be on display in the library lobby through June. The library also has created a traveling exhibit that can be borrowed by area organizations for up to two weeks, free of charge. More information can be found at http://www.libraries.wright.edu/special/exhibits/1913_flood/
Read survivor stories: The library’s “Out of the Box” blog (http://www.libraries.wright.edu/community/outofthebox/)will include transcriptions of original letters and diaries written by flood survivors describing their experiences during the flood.
Great Dayton Flood Timeline: Tuesday March 25, 1913
At 6:50 a.m., the levees first break on the north side of the Great Miami River, flooding Riverdale and North Dayton.
At 7 a.m., the levee is overwhelmed along Monument Avenue, east of Main Street, and water surges into downtown Dayton at speeds as high as 25 mph.
At 8 a.m., the main levee of the Great Miami River breaks at Webster Street, causing a 10- to 20-foot wall of water to sweep through Main Street.
John Bell from the Central Union Telephone Company moves to a flood-free zone on a local roof and remains there throughout the storm, connecting into phone lines and providing the only source of communication between Dayton and the outside world.
At 10 a.m., the first of the flat-bottomed NCR rescue boats hit the water near Apple Street.
1:40 p.m., Burkhardt and Rotterman Drug Store, on the northwest corner of Third and St. Clair streets, blows up, its front wall collapsing into the street.
At 5:45 p.m., Gov. James M. Cox declares Dayton a disaster area and orders out the National Guard.
Follow the series: 100 years after the Great Dayton Flood
Sunday: An overview of the causes and events surrounding the historic flood.
Today: A hundred years ago on March 25, Dayton was hit with the worst disaster in its history. The Dayton Daily News follows the events of that tragic day through the written accounts of survivors, including the story of 104-year-old Margaret Kender, now living in Florida.
Tuesday: Flood survivors face new dangers as gas explosions rock the city.
Wednesday: Survivors remain stranded in their attics and on their rooftops, not knowing when rescue might come. Snowfall is a blessing because it extinguishes fires throughout the city.
Thursday: The water starts to recede and some victims are able to leave their homes and begin the massive task of rebuilding.