Sunday, November 8, 2015

Grisly Souvenirs

After the Great Easter 1913 tornadoes and flood, big money was made by selling photographic souvenir booklets portraying death and destruction

[Note: Apologies for being a few days late with this post. I was unable to complete and upload it by the first of the month because of intense work on a major—and grim—investigative special report on the California drought for an engineering magazine, to be published near the end of December. (Strange to write on the drought after having been so imbued with flood literature!)]

During the centennial of the 1913 flood in 2013, I closely examined more than half a dozen “instant books” that were churned out by dodgy authors, usually 
Photographic flood souvenir booklets, such as this one from Paducah, KY, were issued by the thousands just a few weeks after the devastating Great Easter tornadoes and flood. This particular one I have not seen and would be very grateful to assistance from readers in locating a copy. see description below under Kentucky. Image credit: Worthpoint.
writing under pseudonyms, who played fast and loose with copyright laws (see “Profiting from Pain”). A year later, I showed how marketing wizards took advantage of the national calamity to push products ranging from movie cameras to tornado insurance with an astounding tin ear for human suffering (see “Advertising Disaster”).

Another type of post-disaster publication for sale were souvenir photographic pamphlets or booklets produced within a few weeks of the disaster(s). Ranging from 16 to 64 pages, many were small, about the size of a postcard (3.5 x 5.5 inches), saddle-stitched with the staples on the short side so that each page is horizontal. Usually one photo was shown per page, although some of the booklets also had text. Others were larger with significant text, all the way up to a full letter-sized sheet of paper (uncommon). The photos were usually lithographed halftones not of great quality.

Some of these photographic souvenirs were produced and sold by newspapers with images and information compiled from their local coverage 
The Omaha tornado was as much a subject for booklets published in Nebraska as the flood was in different cities in other states. See description below for the Gideon booklet from Omaha.
of the tornadoes or flood. If sales claimed are to be believed, sometimes a single newspaper could sell out printings of 10,000 in just a matter of weeks. Most ranged in price from 10 to 50 cents, the equivalent today of a few bucks to about $25.

Like calendars or playbills, the pamphlets were printed in great numbers and so were once common, but many were also discarded. Thus, it’s an irony of history that throwaway items once so commonplace are now so rare (just try now to find a direct-mail calendar of the year you were born!).

Below are nearly a dozen that I’ve found referenced, listed alphabetically by state and city, with links to digital copies online where available. Where I have not seen a copy of a work myself, I would love to hear from libraries or individuals with copies. I strongly suspect this listing is not complete—so if readers know of other 1913 tornado or flood souvenir booklets not listed, please make me smarter—please email me!

At least two souvenir booklets were published in the Hoosier state. One is  
Terre Haute’s Tornado and Flood Disaster: March twenty-three to thirtieth, nineteen hundred and thirteen, published by the Terre Haute Publishing Co. Digital scans are available from both Indiana State and the Vigo County Public Library.

The other booklet I have not yet seen in any form: Twelve Views of the Indianapolis Flood of March 1913, taken by a daring photographer during the 
worst of the horrible catastrophe. Worldcat says it was published by C.A. Tutewiler. The closest I’ve come to it is this tiny image of the cover from an ebay seller.

Flood Souvenir, Paducah, Kentucky, is another elusive booklet (see opening image at the top of this post). I’ve seen two slightly differing covers, one from ebay and one from Worthpoint, but there is no information for the document in Worldcat. The Worthpoint seller indicated it was 6.25 x 8.25 inches, but did not give a page count. I’m especially curious as to whether the booklet portrays the flooding of Paducah as the calamity it was, or downplays it as merely a “water carnival” (see “Spurning Disaster Aid”).

One 32-page pamphlet with a dramatic photographic cover, published by the  
Omaha Bee, was The Track of the Tornado that struck Omaha at 6 P.M. Easter Sunday March 23, 1913. This one I consulted in a library.

A competing booklet was published by The Omaha Daily News, which made up for its plain red cover and stark word Tornado by having 64 pages and being slightly larger than most of these souvenirs. Printed by the Mogy 
Publishing Co., it is also one of the few that claims an author, in this case, Charles B. Driscoll. The title page differs slightly from the cover, reading Complete Story of Omaha’s Disastrous Tornado. This one I consulted in a library, which itself had only a photocopy.

A third competitor, published by the Omaha Tribune, was a 40-page German booklet with the English title Omaha Tornado – Album. This one I consulted 
in a library, but all the German pages plus an English translation appear at the Mardos Memorial Library of Online Books and Maps (from where I also obtained this cover image, which is better than my copy). 

A fourth pamphlet was The Omaha Tornado, Easter Sunday, Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.A. March 23, 1913, published by John L. Gideon (see second image near the top of this post). You can read a not-great Google scan online, but not download a PDF with the illustrations.

No surprise, entrepreneurs in hard-hit Ohio produced numerous souvenir photographic pamphlets and booklets, some of them very informative. 

The 24-page postcard-sized pamphlet Flood Views of Chillicothe, Ohio, March 26, 1913 was published for the Chillicothe News Co. by the Emmel Publishing 
Co. It consists of 22 images and minimal introductory text. I consulted a library copy.

The 64-page 6 x 9-inch A Pictorial History of the Great Dayton Flood March 25, 26, 27, 1913 by Nellis R. Funk—another of the few that claimed an actual 
author—was printed by the Otterbein Press. I consulted a library copy. A high-quality scan is online at 

Dayton: Being a story of the great flood as seen from the Delco Factory is a 32-page booklet from the viewpoint of the factory employees trapped inside 
for several days, but also seeking to rescue others in neighboring buildings. The text only is online at Dayton History and a centennial edition including all the images was published by Frank Miller in 2013 (details in my January 2015 roundup of books). I consulted a library copy of the original plus have the Miller reissue (which has a significantly different format).

The 52-page Great 1913 Flood, Dayton, Ohio by K. M. Kammerer and published by the Specialty Photograph Co. is horizontal like most of the 
photographic souvenirs, but about double postcard size, about 5 x 8 inches. It can be found online at With the exception of the first two pages, it is all images.

Historical Souvenir of the Fremont Flood March 25–28, 1913 is a 48-page booklet published by the Finch Studio that also says it was “Approved by the Relief Committee.” Online at the images look okay online but are 
disappointingly low-res in the PDF. Fremont was one of the areas hard-hit in northern Ohio, and half the booklet is text. I’ve not examined a copy in person, but it appears to be perfect-bound and even hardbound, which makes it unusual among these photographic souvenirs.

The city of Hamilton, downriver of Dayton, had only a quarter of Dayton’s population but suffered at least as many deaths—very likely many more, considering the violence of the flood. The Flood Disaster 1913 (Illustrated), 
available online through HathiTrust, has a title page that reads Flood Souvenir: View of Hamilton, Ohio During and after the Disastrous Flood of March 1913. It was printed by the Republican Publishing Co. Although it was only postcard sized, it has close to 100 images.

Photographic reproductions of the terrible flood of 1913: showing scenes in many Ohio and Indiana cities is a 32-page booklet with minimal text and with coarse halftones, but they include flood scenes from Buckeye Lake, Columbus, Dayton, Delaware, Hamilton, and Zanesville; despite the title, 
all the locations seem to be from Ohio (unless some were misidentified). The booklet was published by the Pfeifer Show Print Co. I wonder whether it might have been printed more than once, as the Delaware County Historical Society shows it having a green cover whereas the cover I photographed (shown here) was buff.

Zanesville in the Flood of 1913 by Thomas W. Lewis is a 96-page booklet. The 
digital scan on is of a photocopy, not or an original.

The only souvenir pamphlet I’ve found for Pennsylvania is the Official Souvenir History of the Shenango Valley Flood March 25, 26, 27, 28 1913, by C.B. Lartz and Z.O. Hazen, available online as a high-quality scan at (from which this image comes). This is one of the few that was printed in large 
format (8.5 x 11 inches) and had 40 pages of text of substantial length as well as photos. Interestingly, it is formatted like a yearbook, with ads sold against the text—obviously a money-making proposition, given the notation on the front cover than “only” 10,000 were printed.

One wonders what happened with the proceeds. Did they all go to the publisher (and perhaps authors)? Or did any portion of their sales get devoted to relief efforts? Some photographic souvenirs claim the money went to relief funds, but others are utterly silent on the question.

I hope this appeal to readers inspires some digging through grandparents’ attics—please do let me know what you find!

©2015 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Crisis Communications in a Communications Crisis

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami 
Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Day the Dam Broke?

One of the humorist James Thurber's most famous stories was inspired by a bizarre incident during the 1913 flood in Columbus, Ohio. The backstory…

“My memories of what my family and I went through during the 1913 flood in Ohio I would gladly forget,” recollected James Thurber in the opening line of Chapter 3 of his 1933 autobiography My Life and Hard Times, especially “that frightful and perilous afternoon in 1913 when the dam broke, or, to be more exact, when everybody in town thought that the dam broke.” 

Indeed, what Thurber described was a widespread panic inspired by someone
"Two thousand people were in full flight" is James Thurber's own caption to this drawing of his that first appeared in the chapter "The Day the Dam Broke" in his 1933 autobiography My Life and Hard Times. This image is a screen shot from a reading of the short story by Keith Olbermann on YouTube.
shouting a rumor that a drinking-water storage dam north of Columbus had broken. Thousands of people along High Street began running east, fearing they would be “overtaken and engulfed by the roaring waters,” Thurber wrote. But “when the panic had died down and people had gone rather sheepishly back to their homes and their offices,…city engineers pointed out that even if the dam had broken, the water level would not have risen more than two additional inches in the West Side,” which was, Thurber noted, already under 30 feet of water. “The East Side (where we lived and where all the running occurred) had never been in any danger at all.”

The chapter “The Day the Dam Broke” received instant fame when it was published in The New Yorker on July 23, 1933, as part of the magazine’s serialization of the autobiography. Today it is often read in high school English classes, where students are learning about Thurber and humor in literature. Alas, often the lesson stops there, sometimes with tacit or explicit assumption that the tale—and indeed the monumental flood itself—was purely imaginary.

But it wasn’t. That panic along High Street in Columbus really happened, and 
Columbus Dispatch, March 27, 1913, p. 8.
largely as Thurber described it—although Thurber, ever the humorist, never let key pesky historical facts stand in the way of a great story and may have even deliberately exaggerated for effect. 

Facts and figures
Thurber was born in Columbus on December 8, 1894, so at the time of the Great Easter 1913 flood in late March, he was an 18-year-old high school senior. That following September, he entered The Ohio State University in Columbus, writing for both the campus paper The Ohio State Lantern and the campus humor magazine The Sun Dial. He left the university in 1918 without a degree and worked for a couple of years for the U.S. State Department in Paris, before returning to Columbus to a three-year stint as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch. Then he bounced back to Paris for a couple more years writing for the Chicago Tribune and other papers, before moving to New York City in 1925. Eventually he ended up on the staff of The New Yorker. His short autobiography, written at age 39, was the book that put him on the literary map.

So what actually happened during the High Street panic? What was the dam that so scared everyone, and why? 

It is actually possible to fact-check Thurber’s famous story because local reporters covering the 1913 flood described the actual panic in the Columbus Citizen and the Columbus Dispatch.

“The Columbus, Ohio, broken-dam rumor began, as I recall, about noon of 
About 15 hours before the panic, the Scioto River swept away
the Broad Street Bridge. Credit: Ohio Historical Society
March 12, 1913,” Thurber wrote. “High Street, the main canyon of trade, was loud with the placid hum of business and the buzzing of placid businessmen arguing, computing, wheedling, offering, refusing, compromising.”

Sound the buzzer: after two decades, Thurber misremembered both the date and time: the Columbus Dispatch put the panic at around 4:30 PM, Wednesday, March 26 (see “'Dam Has Broken' Rumor is Cause for a Wild Panic” above left), a date and time corroborated by the Columbus Citizen.

Thurber’s “canyon of trade” description of High Street is wonderfully evocative, but the hum was likely not at all placid. On that Wednesday, the waters had fallen only two feet from their record crest two days earlier, and rain was still falling in torrents. Around 1 AM that very morning, the swollen Scioto River had swept away the span of the Broad Street Bridge, isolating the city’s low-lying West Side (see photo above). Moreover, levees had also burst along the Scioto with the force of breaking dams. The West Side was under 17 feet
In reality, Columbus received almost 7 inches of rain by
Wednesday afternoon and much more had fallen upriver.
Credit: Horton and Jackson, p. 20.
of turbulent floodwaters, and telephone and telegraph communications were crippled. Indeed, the first word from the submerged area was an urgent S.O.S. transmitted from 15-year-old’s new-fangled home-built ham radio—one of the first uses of emergency radio. The Columbus Statehouse itself was surrounded by floodwaters, where Ohio Governor James M. Cox and his staff were working night and day. In Columbus, some 93 people had been swept to their deaths—very close to the death toll of hardest-hit Dayton. In short, with sights and sounds of death and destruction all around, Ohio’s capital city was already near or at the edge of panic.

Thurber describes how the panic started with isolated individuals possibly running for their own personal reasons, until “Two thousand people were abruptly in full flight” along High Street and on side streets heading east. “Black streams of people flowed eastward down all the streets leading in that direction,” he wrote, …”housewives, children, cripples, servants, dogs, and cats…shouting and screaming.” He recalls how his mother shut off the stove and carefully took a dozen eggs and two loaves of bread into her arms before she, teenaged Thurber, and his grandfather joined the surge of humanity, urged along by policemen and children crying, “Go east!”

Columbus Citizen article on March 27 is almost Thurber's plot.
The Columbus Citizen in an article about the panic published the next day (Thursday, March 27) on page 9, described the scene in a hauntingly similar way: “Cross streets leading from High street were instantly black with people, crowding, jamming, running, and some even crying, in the grand scramble to places of higher ground.” In fact, that whole article is full of absurd perspectives—telephone girls fainting, men turning pale: “Automobiles, all kinds of horse-drawn vehicles, delivery wagons and heavy trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, kids on roller skates, women with baby buggies, peanut vendors with push carts, and one man leading his horse on a gallop—all were seen in the swiftly moving throng of panic-stricken humanity that poured into Third street from High street and the river front.” That both contrasts somewhat but also confirms Thurber’s own recollection: “A funny thing was that all of them were on foot,” he wrote. “Nobody seemed to have had the courage to stop and start his car; but as I remember it, all cars had to be cranked in those days, which is probably the reason.”

Map of flooded region published in the Columbus Dispatch on March 28, 1913, p. 5 (right) shows that High Street indeed was  not flooded, nor were the areas where people ran in panic (red ovals). The area plotted by the newspaper is shown as the rectangle on the modern Google map (left) along with the position of Griggs Dam (arrow at upper left). Credit: Trudy E. Bell
Thurber makes the entire panic stretch six miles along High Street before the crowd melted away. That may be an exaggeration for effect. From the streets cited in the newspaper articles, the real distance was probably more like a mile (see red ovals on the map above). He himself recalls slowing with exhaustion when he reached Grant Avenue, a north-south street parallel to High Street about six blocks east, and eventually reaching Ohio Avenue, at an even greater distance even farther east. We-ell, maybe. 

According to both newspapers, the police and the Ohio National Guard were part of the problem, not part of the solution, charging into stores and public places ordering people to flee for their lives until (as the Citizen reporter wrote) “pandemonium reigned in the absolutely safe districts because of the blundering methods employed in spreading the alarm before waiting for verification.” 

The alleged perp: Griggs Dam
The dam whose supposed breaking ignited all the panic was the Griggs Dam across the Scioto River completed less than a decade earlier upstream
Griggs Dam around 1918. Credit:
of Columbus, also locally called the “storage dam.” It was built to create the city’s first reservoir of drinking water, and was the only drinking-water reservoir serving Columbus for two decades. 

Technically, Griggs Dam is a curved (somewhat arched) concrete overflow gravity dam. A gravity dam is one whose cross section is shaped like a wedge or triangle with a wide base; the sheer weight of all the concrete in its massive base resists the horizontal pressure of the water it holds back. An overflow dam is one where a significant part of its length is basically a giant spillway. In the case of Griggs Dam, the curved spillway—fully 500 feet long—is half the 1,006-foot length of the dam: if the Scioto River reaches flood stage, the excess water just rolls over the top by design. Absent an earthquake (rare in Ohio), overflow gravity dams rarely fail catastrophically. Adding to the stability of the basic design, Griggs Dam is low, only about 35 feet high; nonetheless, the reservoir it impounds extends upstream for six miles, offering recreational fishing and sailing both then and now.

Dam breaking rumors spread all
around Ohio. Akron Beacon-
, March 27, 1913, p.1.
If Griggs Dam was so newly built and of such a strong design, why were people so ready to believe that it had catastrophically failed? Answer: Just 24 years earlier—well within many people’s living memory—the 72-feet-high earth-and-rock-fill South Fork Dam in Pennsylvania had suddenly failed, releasing a wall of water that swept some 2,200 people to their deaths in the city of Johnstown and other towns downstream. Indeed, to this day, the Johnstown flood remains the United States’ worst-ever dam disaster. Never mind that the South Fork Dam was twice as high, of a wholly different design, much older, and poorly maintained for years—people in Columbus were understandably leery about any dam constructed upstream of a major city. 

They weren’t the only ones. Elsewhere around the state, people were apprehensive about the soundness of other dams during this unprecedented Easter 1913 flood, leaving their homes in St. Mary’s and Celina in in western Ohio, fearful for the dam impounding the Grand Reservoir (now called Grand Lake St. Mary's, and the largest man-made lake in the world when it was completed in 1845) as well as smaller dams in Akron and Kent. And rumors were flying everywhere—assisted by even being printed as front-page news (see the Akron Beacon-Journal above right).

“Order was restored and fear dispelled finally by means of militiamen riding about in motor lorries bawling through megaphones: ‘The dam has not broken!’” Thurber wrote. “All the time, the sun shone quietly and there was nowhere any sign of oncoming water.” The map of the flood region in Columbus (see comparison map above) and the streets named both in the story and in the newspaper articles indeed confirm that the regions from High Street east were free of floodwaters. But Thurber was just plain wrong about the sunshine: Columbus got an inch of rain that Wednesday, on top of nearly 6 inches over the previous three days. He was also wrong about the depth of inundation on the West Side: it was a horrific 17 feet instead of 30, but at those house-crushing depths, who’s counting—it’s all ruin.

The Columbus Citizen reported that Julian Griggs—who had been the city engineer when the dam was constructed, and for whom the dam was named—issued a statement Wednesday evening a few hours after the panic: “That dam will not give way. It’s a scientific impossibility for it to give way.” (See left.)

“That dam is only 32 feet high, on a foundation built for a 50-foot dam,” added James Westwater, the dam’s prime contractor. “No matter what the volume of water, that dam can’t break.”

This article also points out a final error in Thurber’s story, which the humorist either misremembered or perhaps purposely exaggerated for comic effect: his assertion that had the dam actually broken, the water level in the inundated West Side would have risen only two inches. As revealed in the Citizen article quoting the engineers, Griggs had actually said two feet; another engineer said maybe three feet. Oh, well, what’s a factor of 10 or 15 among friends…

The last word
Regardless of historical details and context, “The Day the Dam Broke” showcases Thurber’s vivid story-telling plus his skill in capturing the essence of an event in a few deft pen strokes in the accompanying cartoons—as well as recollecting a remarkable afternoon from his youth. You can read the original text of “The Day the Dam Broke” as published in My Life and Hard Times here. Also, check out two five-minute YouTube videos of Keith Olbermann reading the short story aloud (Part I is here and Part II is here.


©2015 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Crisis Communications in a Communications Crisis

Selected references
In addition to the articles cited above from the Akron Beacon-Journal, Columbus Citizen, and Columbus Dispatch, a few other sources were useful for fact-checking the story:

Griggs, Julian, “The Recent Flood at Columbus, Ohio,” Engineering News 69(15): 744–748. The panic even warrants a brief paragraph on page 747, where Griggs also confirms its date and time as being 4:30 PM on Wednesday, March 26.

Horton, A. H. and H. J. Jackson, The Ohio Valley Flood of March–April, 1913, Including Comparisons with Some Earlier Floods, (Department of the Interior, United States Geological Survey, Water-Supply Paper 334, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1913).

McCampbell, E. F., “Special Report on the Flood of March, 1913,” Monthly Bulletin Ohio State Board of Health 3(5):299–445, May 1913. 

A brief bio of Thurber (plus another cartoon from "The Day the Dam Broke") is “Happy Birthday, Mr. Thurber!” at Ohio Memory.

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Service Above Life

Out of the rubble, mud, and ashes of Easter 1913 tornadoes and floods that devastated a third of the United States, Rotary discovered its mission of humanitarian service. Unpublished letters and meeting minutes discovered in Rotary’s archives reveal the backstory.

[Brief primer for non-Rotarians: Rotary International is is perhaps the largest humanitarian service organization in the world with 1.2 million members worldwide, dedicated to eradicating polio and providing disaster relief through its nonprofit Rotary Foundation. But it wasn’t always that way. In 1913, eight-year-old Rotary was still a small, business-oriented fraternal organization somewhat in search of a purpose. The Great Easter 1913 tornadoes and flood changed everything…]
In the gray dawn, two Cincinnati doctors and a motorboat pilot board their big rescue motorboat and push themselves into the flood-swollen Miami River 
Cincinnati Rotarians organized relief efforts for Dayton. Carl Merkel, A. Nielsen, and Edward H. Thompson were among them. Credit: The Rotarian, March 1913.
south of Dayton, Ohio, towing a boat-trailer of medical supplies. Weary and bleary-eyed from three long days of hauling flood victims out of frigid water and ministering to endless broken bones, lacerations, and near-drownings, the three men fail to see the submerged concrete dam near the town of Franklin until the torrential muddy current carries the motorboat right over it. 

With a sickening crunch, the heavily-laden boat-trailer rams against the upstream side of the dam. In an instant, the motorboat on the downstream side capsizes, throwing out the three men. The pilot Carl Merkel and young A. Nielsen, who couldn't swim a stroke, get clear, saved by their life preservers. But a small rope loop dangling from the motorboat's stern wraps around the left ankle of the other doctor Edward H. Thompson. 

Dayton Rotary club doctor H.H. Herman told of one family who walked five blocks over telegraph and telephone cables to reach high ground, the father carrying his baby in a pillow tied around his neck. Note the mother on hands and knees on the wires. Herman himself personally treated at least 4,000 flood victims at the National Cash Register (NCR) Co. and established relief stations around the stricken city. Credit: Miami Conservancy District.

Engine roaring full throttle, the motorboat spins over and over in the frigid depths, crashing against the submerged concrete dam. With every flip, the rope thrashes Thompson helplessly around and around, his head held above water by his life preserver. Powerless against the churning water, Thompson cannot reach his foot to release the rope. The freezing current strips his heavy leather coat from his back and pours into his hip boots until they feel weighted with lead. 

In a flash, Thompson remembers his pocket knife. With his teeth, he pulls off his leather automobile gloves--only to be dismayed when the water's force drags the sleeves of his bulky sweater down over his hands. Desperate, Thompson literally chews through the sweater sleeves to free his numbing fingers, finds his knife in his pocket, manages to open it, and renews his struggle to reach the rope.

One of the ironies of flood is fire. Dayton Rotarian Charles S. Kennedy, who happened to be in California at the time of the flood, lost his Lowe Bros. Paint Company to the flood and fire. In this photo, the ruins are still pouring smoke and firemen’s hoses snake across the brick street. The overhead wires were for Dayton’s electric streetcar system. Credit: Dayton Metro
Suddenly, the battered buoyancy air chambers in the motorboat let go. The heavy boat sinks like a stone, plunging Thompson to the bottom with it. Resisting the urge to inhale the filthy floodwaters, Thompson finally reaches his left foot and cuts the rope. He shoots to the surface. The moment he reaches air and gasps for breath, his lungs feel as though they explode in agony. He retches and vomits as he is swept downriver, held afloat by his life preserver and stabilized upright by his water-filled hip boots. Just as he loses consciousness, he becomes dimly aware of people running alongside the riverbank, shouting that Nielsen is floating some distance ahead.

The next thing Thompson knows, he is lying on a cold riverbank slippery with mud, with six doctors frantically working over him. He and Nielsen had been pulled from the current by two athletic rivermen, who also rescued Merkel upstream where he had fetched up onto an island of debris caught in half-submerged tree branches. The big motorboat, the boat-trailer full of surgical instruments and other supplies, two cameras, and hundreds of exposed photographic plates were all irretrievably lost.

The angry floodwaters won that small round in the early morning of Sunday, March 30, 1913. But before needing rescue themselves, the three men had heroically saved the lives of nearly 200 people and relieved the suffering of countless others. The big motorboat, fully equipped for rescue work, had been sent to Dayton by Cincinnati Rotarian Rudolph H. Wurlitzer, violinist and violin collector with the well-known Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., maker of organs and other musical instruments, along with Wurlitzer employee Merkel. Thompson himself, one of the best-known physicians and surgeons in the city of Cincinnati, was a member of the Cincinnati Rotary Club. 

Rotarians themselves were hard-hit by the 1913 flood. The Cuyahoga Lumber Co. in the Flats in Cleveland was owned by Archibald C. Klumph, president of the Cleveland Rotary Club, and the swollen Cuyahoga River swept much of the wood out to Lake Erie. Four years after the 1913 flood, Klumph established an endowment that became today's Rotary Foundation. Credit: Cleveland Public Library
Indeed, for the first time since Rotary was founded eight years earlier, hundreds of Rotarians spontaneously risked their own lives in the ultimate service of saving thousands during the Great Easter 1913 natural disaster across the Midwest. Ruined were steel mills, manufacturing plants, shipping ports, water treatment plants, roads, canals, railroad yards, bridges, schools, churches, and other assets of the industrial North. Tornado and flood victims and property damaged were not only rural farms and immigrant poor, but regal homes and office buildings of affluent titans of industry. Nor was the flood yet done with the country: throughout all of April and into early May, the flood crests surging down the Mississippi River burst levees in Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee, and Arkansas, and set new record heights all the way down to New Orleans.

The disaster also electrified and transformed Rotary.

Service above self, indeed
Hardly a week earlier, on the evening of Easter Sunday, March 23, George J. Duncan, secretary and treasurer of the two-year-old Omaha Rotary Club had just sat down to Easter dinner with his mother and sister. When at 11 minutes before 6 PM Duncan heard a sickening freight-train roar of a massive tornado crunching granite and uprooting trees rapidly approaching, he knew he had just seconds to act. 

Credit: The Rotarian, May 1913
Grabbing the wrists of the two women, the 40-year-old advertising manager of the Omaha Bee hastened them down wooden stairs into the damp unfinished cellar of their house. Quickly seeing that the floor joists over one small room in the basement seemed especially well braced, he helped them over low a partition into the crowded space. Just as he was struggling to climb in after them, the Omaha tornado smashed the house off its foundations with a scream of splintering timbers and shattering glass. The next instant, Duncan was crushed beneath falling wreckage. In horror and grief, mother and sister watched the life ooze from this genial storyteller of a son and brother who had laid down his own life to rescue them.

That same moment, Omaha club president Daniel J. Baum, caught outdoors with his little daughter just four blocks away from the tornado, witnessed the terrifying jet black whirling mass fill the sky and then roar past, leaving just rubble and fires and the piercing wails of grief-stricken wives and mothers mourning the sudden loss of husbands and children. As torrential rains began to fall onto the ruins, Baum realized the scale of relief and reconstruction needed by the injured and homeless far exceeded the capabilities of Omaha's Rotary Club, which had fewer than 70 members. 

Immediately, Baum both telegraphed and wrote a formal letter to Chesley R. Perry, secretary of the International Association of Rotary Clubs in Chicago: 

It is beyond human power to describe. A path [eight] miles in length and one-half mile in width was swept out of this city through the most thickly populated section. ... Those of us who are here today are here only through an act of Providence, and it brings us to the true realization that we owe a great deal to humanity in a time of such intense need. ... I would like to ask you to send a copy of this letter to every Rotarian outside the city of Omaha, requesting a cash subscription of, at least, five dollars [equivalent to about $125 today] and as much more as they can spare, to a relief fund...  The spirit of Rotary now has this opportunity of being widely felt.
By the time Perry received Baum's appeal from Omaha, other Rotarians had telegraphed their own appeals from the depths of the flood to the east. “The 
Credit: Rotary archives
storm and its effects have been so wide spread that one hardly knows which way to turn either to secure or to distribute relief funds,” Perry replied to Baum. “ would seem as tho [sic] we might have to call upon Omaha to contribute rather than to pay money into Omaha. I am sure you will appreciate my desire to get into touch with President Mead” in Philadelphia, although there were practically no telegraph, train, or postal services east of Chicago. 

By Saturday, March 29, Rotary’s president Glenn C. Mead telegraphed Baum: “Have wired all clubs to aid Rotary and other sufferers in Omaha and Dayton. Understand some clubs have already responded. Duncan's death terrible shock, energy of yourself and club splendid. Command us.”

Meantime, individual Rotarians were already ahead of that official call. Earlier that week, as soon as the first appalling headlines screamed from newsboys' extras about the swath of death and mutilation wreaked across Omaha (the 1913 tornado still ranks as Nebraska’s single deadliest) and the flood destruction of Dayton (first major city to get news of the floods out to the world), Rotarians sprang into action. In Omaha, they assisted not only with immediate relief but also with comprehensive plans for rebuilding the city. In Columbus, the Rotary club provided shoes and underwear to local poor children whose families had lost everything. Individual members of the Indianapolis Rotary Club contributed cash, clothing, furniture, and personal labor. Although Cincinnati itself had also been swept by the floodwaters, the Cincinnati Rotary Club rushed money, food, clothing, and medicines by motor trucks (then an uncommon vehicle) to hard-hit Hamilton and other stricken Ohio towns and rural areas. 

Syracuse’s whirlwind
The scale of some Rotarians' relief efforts was truly staggering. On Thursday, March 27, just hours after hearing the first news out of Omaha and Dayton, nineteen key Syracuse businessmen put together a joint committee of the
Syracuse's University Block
Syracuse Chamber of Commerce and the Syracuse Rotary Club. The joint Chamber/Rotary committee established a temporary relief headquarters on the ground floor of the University Block (a large downtown building constructed in 1897 to hold Syracuse University's College of Law), downstairs from the Chamber of Commerce. 

From there, the joint committee launched what it called a campaign “with cyclonic rapidity” modeled on the then-new, exciting, and wildly successful “whirlwind” fund-raising technique pioneered in the previous decade by Charles Sumner Ward and Lyman Pierce for the YMCA. The committee's goal: within 24 hours, to raise as many donations as possible of money, blankets, medicines, food, and other relief supplies for filling a special train to be sent to Dayton and Omaha the next night, Friday, March 28.

Chaired by jeweler and Rotarian Charles H. Howe and with two treasurers (James M. Gilbert of the Syracuse Trust Co., a member of the Chamber of Commerce,  and Frank L. Barnes of the Syracuse National Bank, a member of the Rotary Club), the joint Chamber/Rotary committee sent announcements to the local newspapers, took out at least one newspaper display ad, and with a newly installed telephone (phone number Warren 60) began telephoning merchants and other leading citizens to solicit donations. 

Syracuse residents rose to the occasion with impulsive enthusiasm. The ice skating arena donated all its proceeds for that day to the cause; the Grand Opera House announced a benefit performance for Sunday with all vaudeville actors and house employees donating their labor. A continual stream of individual donors brought clothing and other supplies to the University Block, while eight “auto trucks” (then an unusual vehicle) drove every city street to 
Led by a joint committee of the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce, the city of Syracuse donated three train-car loads of emergency supplies to the Dayton flood sufferers—a thrilling effort chronicled by several Syracuse newspapers between March 27 and April 1.
pick up larger donations from residents. Three more trucks carried accumulated supplies to the freight rail yards to a big Merchants Dispatch refrigerator car. The New York Central and other railroads offered to transport all the supplies into stricken flood areas free of charge, assuming all the risk of track washouts and other mishaps. 

“ The downtown section of Syracuse...took on the appearance of a supply post for a besieging army...,” recounted Syracuse’s Post-Standard:

Business was practically suspended while great quantities of food and clothing were being gathered from all parts of the city. Merchants and manufacturers contributed goods in boxes and bales. Prominent business men worked like laborers crating loose articles. School children gave their pennies. Those who had nothing to offer financially went to the supply station in the University Block and offered their services. ...A large crowd watched the work of loading the trucks in front of the supply station [at the University Block]. Bales and boxes piled high on the curbs and trucks were loading and unloading supplies on the busy corner all day.

Friday night, March 28, the train car of supplies left Syracuse over the New York Central lines, consigned to the Mayor of Dayton in care of the American Red Cross, and miraculously managed to get its precious cargo through the floodwaters and into Dayton overnight. Meantime, $2,000 in cash was wired to the Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The effort was so wildly successful that the joint committee decided to continue the work for another few days, setting up additional relief stations at local schools, sending out two additional train cars of supplies by Wednesday, April 2. The eventual tally of goods and cash raised in a week through the efforts of the Syracuse Rotary Club was $7,125—equivalent to some $175,000 in purchasing power today.

From commercial to humanitarian
Meanwhile at the Chicago headquarters of the International Association of Rotary Clubs, Perry and other officers were nonplussed. Rotary clubs worldwide had been founded for fellowship among business professionals and to explore the exciting new “Rotary idea” of service as being “no less than the Golden Rule applied to business.” Members were still experimenting with catch-phrases to encapsulate that idea: an October 1912 article in The Rotarian explored service as “enlightened selfishness” and a January 1913 article was based on the text “He who serves best, profits most.” 

Ultimately, all 57 Rotary clubs in
existence donated goods and services
to 1913 disaster relief. Credit:
The Rotarian, August 1913
Given the commercial context, disaster relief and humanitarian aid was not part of the organization's charter or original concept of service. Indeed, the International Association of Rotary Clubs “had never contemplated in engaging in any such work,” explained the anonymous May 1913 article in The Rotarian about Duncan’s death, “and due precaution had to be exercised by its officers lest they act too hastily or ill-advisedly under the impulse of the moment and thereby embarrass the Association in the future.” 

Thus, on Saturday, April 5, 1913, the Executive Committee convened in Chicagoa meeting that also included Rotary founder and former president Paul P. Harris. At that extraordinary gathering, the International Association of Rotary Clubs voted to send initial emergency relief funds totaling $7,000—equivalent to over $160,000 today: $2,000 each to Omaha, Dayton, and the National Red Cross, plus another $1,000 to the flood-stricken capital of Ohio, Columbus. 

With that vote, Rotary officially shouldered the mantle of humanitarian relief.

Eventually, that total swelled to some $25,000. Every affiliated Rotary club worldwide forwarded money or goods collectively totaling some $25,000—an amount equivalent in purchasing power today of nearly $620,000. Fifteen clubs raised at least $500 (equivalent to nearly $12,500 today).

Ultimately, every one of the International Association's 57 clubs donated either cash or supplies either to the international headquarters or directly to the stricken cities. As best as Perry could tally the numbers, by August both headquarters and individual clubs had raised and disbursed some $25,000 in 1913 dollars. The exact amount will likely never be known: “It was easier to get them to give money than it was to get them to tell of their good deeds,” Perry grumbled. Since in 1913, Rotary was about 10,000 strong, that translated to about $2.50 per member (equivalent to about $62.50 today); more significantly, the total relief fund was literally 150% of the International Association's total 1912–1913 annual budget of about $16,000!

Baum immediately recognized the significance of that vote. Days after that vote and two weeks after the Omaha tornado, he wrote to The Rotarian

...countless other cities in the middle west are calling for aid, and Rotary is one of the first organizations of wide scope to hear the call. Our work has just begun; a new field of endeavor has been opened up to us, and our byword “SERVICE” takes a new meaning. Service applied commercially is well understood. Service applied along humanitarian lines...means...the good to be accomplished in the future has force behind it never before felt.
Credit: Rotary archives
Furthermore, as early as June 1913, Baum already had an idea for establishing a permanent disaster relief fund for Rotary. In a letter to Perry on June 23, he wrote:

As to the balance of $2,000.00 which still remains in the General Relief Fund, I would suggest that it be kept on deposit…[it] is a mighty good nucleus for a General Fund for general relief or aid purposes in the future…for use in the future wherever relief or assistance might call for national help. Think this over a little more.
The experience of going through the 1913 flood, orchestrating relief efforts, and conversing with others likely influenced a number of key Rotarians to think deeply. In 1917, Arch C. Klumph—president of The Cuyahoga Lumber Co. in Cleveland, whose lumber was swept down the Cuyahoga River and into Lake Erie by the 1913 flood, and also president of the Cleveland Rotary Club in 1913—proposed setting up an endowment “for the purpose of doing good in the world.” In 1928, the endowment was renamed the Rotary Foundation, today sponsoring international programs for humanitarian purposes. 

©2015 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: The Day the Dam Broke?

Selected references
A decade ago, I read that the 1913 flood had been Rotary’s first service project, a fact that even appeared in the timeline of Rotary’s new-member literature, plus I kept running across articles in newspapers on microfilm in many cities about relief efforts organized in part by Rotarians. So 
after I became active in Rotary in 2008, I dived deeply into Rotary’s history, not only through microfilmed copies of its monthly magazine, but also through contacting Rotary International’s archives and working with archivists Robin Dillow and Susan Hanf, who finally found key letters,  minutes, and an official report in long-undisturbed off-site storage. Historical sleuthing doesn’t get better than that! My feature article “The Great Flood of 1913” was published in the March 2011 issue of The Rotarian, but far too many great stories and too much essential history couldn’t be included—hence this installment. (Note for non-Rotarians: the post’s title is a nod to Rotary’s motto “Service Above Self.”)

Rotary references:

Thompson's extraordinary near-drowning story after having been thrown from the motorboat is recounted in first-person detail in Carl Dehoney, "How Cincinnati Helped Her Neighbors," The Rotarian 3 (9): 26–28, May 1913.

Duncan’s death is described in "He Gave His Life to Serve Others," The Rotarian 3 (9): 13–14, May 1913 and in Allen H. Earl, History of the Rotary Club of Omaha, 1911–1961, Golden Anniversary Edition (vol. 1 History 1911–1935), p. 13. (Earl reproduces documents showing that the Omaha club was founded in 1911 but chartered as Rotary Club No. 37 in June 2, 1913. The first president Frank I. Ellick is also noted to have been an indirect victim of the tornado, working himself so hard during the relief effort that he suffered a breakdown.) 

Daniel Baum Jr., "The Wrath of the Tornado," The Rotarian 3 (9): 19, May 1913.

Drummond, J.F. “The Service Idea.” The Rotarian 3 (5): 37. January 1913.

C.R.P. [Chesley R. Perry] "The Rotary General Relief Fund Report," The Rotarian 3(12): 59, August 1913.

Perry, Chesley R. “Rotarianism.” The Rotarian 3 (4): 51. December 1912. 

Phillips, T.A. “The Evolution of an Enlightened Selfishness.” The Rotarian 3 (2): 17. October 1912

"Report of Secretary Chesley R. Perry," The Rotarian  4(1): 23–27,  September 1913, including "International Association of Rotary Clubs. Statement of Business. For the period from 10th August, 1912, to 30th June, 1913" on p. 25.
Tidbits also appear in McDowell, John. From Flood to Fire: The History of the Indianapolis Rotary Club 1913–1969. Indianapolis Rotary Club. 1969. 

Unpublished letters and documents in Subject Files box 431, folder D61R Disasters and relief Vol. 2, 1913-1938-39 (United States), barcode 975091, History and Archives of Rotary International:

Letter from Daniel Baum Jr. to Chesley R. Perry, March 24, 1913.

Letter from Daniel Baum Jr. to Chesley R. Perry, March 29, 1913.

Letter from Daniel Baum Jr. to President Glenn C. Mead, [April 1,] 1913.

Letter from Chesley R. Perry to Daniel Baum Jr., April 5, 1913. Paul Harris is not mentioned in the "Excerpt from Minutes of Meeting of Board of Directors of R.I. April 5, 1913, (Library Copy), Disaster Relief" but “former President Harris” is specifically mentioned as being "in conference" with the Executive Committee in this letter from Perry to Baum written that same day recounting the meeting.

R. F. Chapin. “Report Upon the Omaha Tornado Situation.” Unpublished report by Rotary’s International Treasurer. 1913.

Non-Rotary references:

Cutlip, Scott M. Fundraising in the United States: Its Role in America’s Philanthropy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. 1990. 

Williamson, Samuel H. "Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present," MeasuringWorth, 2015. 

"To Send Aid to Flood Sufferers," Syracuse Journal, March 27, 1913, p. 2. 

"Syracuse to Send Relief to Dayton Flood Victims," The Post Standard, March 28, 1913, p. 6. 

"Clothing and Money Ready for Dayton Victims," Syracuse Journal, March 28, 1913, p. 2; this article lists the 11 members of the Chamber of Commerce and the eight members of the Rotary Club who formed the joint committee. 

"$2,000 in Cash, Car of Supplies Sent to Dayton," The Post-Standard, Syracuse, March 29, 1913, p. 6.

"Second Loaded Car Leaves for Dayton To-day," Syracuse Journal, March 29, 1913, p. 6.

"$1,632.12 Given To-day for Dayton Flood Sufferers," Syracuse Journal, March 29, 1913, p. 6.

"Nearly $5,000 is Raised for Flood Victims," The Post-Standard, March 31, 1913, p. 6. 

"$2,800 More to Go to Dayton," Syracuse Journal, March 31, 1913. "5,265.13 Given by Syracuse to Dayton Sufferers," Syracuse Journal, April 1, 1913, p. 6. 

"Nearly $6,000 Will Be Sent to Flood Sufferers," Syracuse Journal, April 2, 1913, p. 2.

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.