Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Wireless to the Rescue! Birth of Emergency Radio

Not only was 2013 the centennial of the 1913 flood, but also of the birth of emergency radio. No coincidence: It sprang to life during the flood from swift, spontaneous, heroic action of high school and college ham radio operators in Ohio and Michigan providing emergency communications

“S.O.S.  S.O.S.” With steady hands, despite the roar of surging floodwaters all too audible from his bedroom window, 15-year-old Herbert V. Akerberg, begins tapping the telegraph key of his hastily assembled ham radio apparatus. “Hilltop Business Men’s
The raging Scioto River tore through the Broad Street bridge, isolating the west side of
Columbus, Ohio, from the rest of the city. Source: Ohio Historical Society
association wants city to send boats. Supplies will last until about tomorrow. Men are hanging on trees. Send supplies. Water is receding. Try and get us water and gas. People are suffering. Send this to Mayor Karb at once. S.O.S.”

From that moment Wednesday afternoon, March 26, 1913, through the long night and into Thursday morning, the high school student does not leave his battery-powered new-fangled electrical “wireless telegraphy” equipment. His mother brings meals to him in his room and silently takes away the last tray so her son could uninterruptedly send appeals for help and report on the tragic conditions of the submerged west side of Columbus, Ohio— from which no word had been heard until his youthful fingers begin tapping out Morse Code. As darkness falls Wednesday evening and pounding rain turns to snow, Herbert recounts how women and children marooned in trees since Tuesday night are in danger of freezing in the dropping temperatures. 

Akerberg's first message in
the March 26 Columbus Citizen
His signals, transmitted from his long antenna through the very air itself, are received by another wireless telegraphy station atop the Harrison Building in downtown Columbus. Word also gets to newspaper reporters at the Columbus Evening Dispatch, who laboriously ford their way by boat through the raging current to the Akerberg house on Midland Avenue, managing to reach the house Thursday morning and pound on the door. The group includes two experienced wireless telegraphy operators, who relieve the exhausted teenager from his all-night vigil and begin transmitting news of rescues and names of missing persons for the newspaper.

Akerberg’s first message—preserved verbatim in the competing newspaper Columbus Citizen—is often cited as the first use of radio technology in a national emergency. Perhaps that is because Akerberg himself grew up to be a pioneer in radio and television (among other things, a decade later he invented a mixing panel for adjusting the levels of three separate studio microphones when recording performances, and also invented a mobile car radio for a railroad district superintendent that could send and receive messages when driving 50 miles per hour). 

But the boy was not the only ham radio operator alerting the world to the horrific flood raging through Ohio and elsewhere in the Midwest. Nor was he the first that fateful flood week, as ample evidence reveals (sorry to be a myth-buster!). 

Map of Columbus flood district shows levee
breaks and direction of current. Long nearly
horizontal line is Broad Street. Red X shows
approximate position of Akerberg's house
on dry land to west of the flood district.
Map: Ohio State Board of Health, May 1913.
Upstart technology, lawless behavior
Wireless telegraphy seemed like magic. 

Ever since 1888, when Heinrich Hertz demonstrated that it was possible to produce and detect electromagnetic radiation through the air, Italian-born Marchese Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937) became possessed with the idea of creating a practical system of wireless telegraphy: the transmission of telegraph messages through the air through what was then called “Hertzian waves” (radio waves) instead of through wires. In December 1901, after several failures, he dramatically succeeded:  from St. John’s, Newfoundland, he faintly but distinctly heard the repeated Morse Code symbol for the letter “S” (three dots or short closures of the finger-operated key that closed the telegraph circuit) transmitted by an assistant with equipment in Cornwall, England. The news that wireless telegraphic signals had been bridged the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean was nothing short of, well, electrifying; for that achievement, Marconi shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics. 

By the turn of the twentieth century, the telegraph invented by Samuel F. B. Morse in the 1840s was a well-established commercial wireline technology. The newer wireline technology of the telephone, carrying the actual sound of the human voice over wires, was rapidly expanding into businesses and homes. But conquering the airwaves—that was a whole new frontier with potentially a revolutionary financial model: All you needed were transmitters and receivers without a whole expensive infrastructure of thousands of poles and tens of thousands of miles of wires. And unlike telegraph or telephone, which was strictly point-to-point from one end of a wire to the other, wireless signals radiated from an antenna in all directions—thus opening a brand new and almost unimaginable potential of broadcasting from one transmitter to many receivers at once. 

One of the levee breaks along the Scioto River,
March 26. Source: Ohio Weather Library
Scientists and engineers immediately recognized the technical possibilities, even if financial backers did not immediately grasp the commercial possibilities. Moreover, the wireline telegraph and telephone companies immediately recognized an up-and-coming potential threat, and sought legislation to limit the new wireless technology. 

After plans for a build- this-at-home battery-powered “ham” radio station were first published in several electrical hobbyist magazines, the genie was really out of the bottle. Across the nation literally thousands of putterers and tinkerers—many of them boys (and even some girls) as young as nine—became enraptured by the sheer challenge and romance of instant communications across hundreds of miles with equipment they could cobble together from parts carried at local hardware stores.

Within a decade of Marconi’s first transatlantic signal, the air waves became a veritable wild West of unregulated behavior, where anyone anywhere could—and did—transmit and receive on any wavelength at any power. Some amateur operators had better equipment than the U.S. Navy, which was increasingly troubled by loud interference with ship-to-shore communications. Many amateur operators were hardly more than children, giving a bad name to the whole field in general with their bad Morse code and bad manners, and even outright rudeness. More than a dozen times, each time with increasing anxiety and urgency, the commercial wireline interests, ship captains, and others leaned on Federal legislators to bring order to the airwaves (at the least) and silence the lawless amateurs (at the best). 

Floodwater released down Broad St. in Columbus
by bursting levee was so forceful it toppled houses.
Source: Model T Ford Forum
Heavy hand of Federal law
Their wish came true in August 1912, when the U.S. Congress passed “An Act to regulate radio communication,” signed into law a week later by President William Howard Taft. Slated to take effect before year end, the 1912 Radio Act (as it was called for short) specified various classes of wireless operators that were now required obtain licenses and operate only at certain power levels and wavelengths, under penalty of hefty fines and revocation of their licenses. The new law also specified that the distress call to be used in times of disaster would be the international signal “S.O.S.,” which letters in Morse Code consist of three short, three long, and three short (…---… ).

The fifteenth section of the 1912 Radio Act targeted amateur operators, although not by name. It specified: “No private or commercial station not engaged in the transaction of bona fide commercial business by radio communication or in experimentation in connection with the development and manufacture of radio apparatus for commercial purposes shall use a transmitting wave length exceeding two hundred meters, or a transformer input exceeding one kilowatt.” Since at that time the prevailing belief that the longer the wavelength the better, amateurs felt being confined to 200 meters or shorter (frequencies higher than 1,500 kilohertz) as a serious blow. An even greater blow was the restriction to a transmitter power only a fifth that of some amateur rigs. Given the technology at the time, the effect of the 1912 Radio Act was to restrict amateurs’ effective range to under 100 miles.

Although some amateurs immediately complied and duly applied for licenses and modified or dismantled their equipment, others couldn’t believe the worst had happened and continued to operate their old rigs in open defiance. 

Hurricane force winds snapped telegraph and telephone
poles from Canada to Mexico during Good Friday windstorm.
Source: Bell Telephone News, May 1913
Then, less than three months after the new radio law took effect, on Good Friday, March 21, 1913, came the monumental wind and ice storm that swept the eastern half of the United States from Ontario, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. Its hurricane-force winds snapped telephone and telegraph poles by the hundreds, and the weight of ice pulled down thousands of miles of wire. The windstorm instantly and severely crippled telegraph and telephone communications across great portions of the eastern United States, both preventing the weather service from gathering information about the megastorm system moving in from farther west, and issuing timely warnings (see “The First Punch”). 

48 hours later, on Easter Sunday, March 23, the dozen deadly tornadoes killed some 250 people in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Indiana, and record sustained torrential downpours centered on Indiana and Ohio—precipitating the turbulent rising waters of the monumental Great Easter 1913 flood. 

University students to the rescue
On Easter Monday, March 24—two days before Herbert Akerberg gets his apparatus working on the Hilltop—University of Michigan undergraduate B.N. Berglund in Ann Arbor is busily relaying routine wireless messages to other wireless stations when he hears a distress signal from an unfamiliar wireless operator in Fremont, Ohio, southeast of Toledo. “The city of Fremont is under water!” the Ohio operator’s dots and dashes spell out. “The captain of the Port Townsend Life Saving Station has drowned trying to rescue people. All telegraph and telephone wires are down! Wireless is the only communication we have to the outside world! Whoever hears this, please send us help!” 

1913 flood in Columbus is reconstructed in this centennial
2013 graphic. Source: The Columbus Dispatch
Berglund can scarcely believe his ears. Yes, the rain pounding on the Michigan station roof is heavy, but could it be true that such a monumental disaster is raging through Ohio?? Shortly, another transmission arrives from D. A. Nichols at Wapakoneta, Ohio (call letters 8IM according to the 1914 Wireless Blue Book) in the western part of the state southwest of Lima, urgently describing how that city is cut off from the world and the flood is doing great damage.

Convinced of a major flood sweeping the state of Ohio, Berglund instantly broadcasts a general call at the highest power the Michigan station could muster to all wireless operators within the flood district: “Anyone with important messages related to flood sufferers, use the wavelength and power best suited to your set to get word out to the world! We at the University of Michigan will do all we can to get help.”
Within a radius of 500 miles of Ann Arbor, amateur wireless stations large and small hear Berglund’s call and immediately respond. A Mr. Umbarger in Mansfield (in north central Ohio), Mr. J. B. Hyatt in Mt. Vernon (between Mansfield and Columbus), the Ohio State University (OSU) wireless station in Columbus, and Mr. McGregor at Springfield (between Columbus and Dayton) all report their cities inundated and in frantic need of rescue and basic supplies. Alarmed, Berglund asks the OSU station to relay a message to Ohio Governor James M. Cox: “One hundred Michigan students in readiness. Can you use them in rescue work? Signed, University of Michigan.”
Beginning of article in The Ohio State
University campus newspaper The Ohio
State Lantern
of relaying the two wireless
telegraphy messages from University of
Michigan and Mt. Vernon to Governor Cox.
Meantime, in Columbus, OSU student and wireless operator J.A. Mercer receives an urgent message from J.B. Hyatt about the horrific plight in Mt. Vernon, also directed to the governor: “Great flood: 100 lives lost, railroad lines all down; outside world cut off; thousands of dollars damage; Pennsylvania, Baltimore and Ohio railroads have miles of track washed out.”

Governor Cox, himself marooned in the Ohio State House and doing business by torchlight (see “The Governor’s Ear”), welcomes the OSU student's contact. He himself has almost no long-distance wireline communication with the outside world aside from a single phone line to Dayton—crippling his knowledge of what areas of his state are severely hit and need resources. So upon receiving a local telephone call from OSU relaying Hyatt’s call for help, Cox immediately commands that provisions and other supplies be started toward Mt. Vernon.

OSU operator Mercer remains at his radio key for 70 hours straight without sleep, eventually collapsing. But by then reinforcements in the form of wireless operators from Ohio National Guard and the U.S. Army Signal Corps—with five portable wireless sets from the War Department—have finally been able to get trains through to the stricken region. 

Two hundred miles north of Columbus in Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan station also remains manned round the clock. For seven straight days from Monday, March 24 through noon the following Monday, March 31, Berglund and three other students take rotating shifts, handling messages among all many points in the flood districts and to and from the Western Union telegraph service. Newspaper reporters who could not travel into the flooded areas set up camp inside the Michigan wireless telegraphy station to gather news printed later that day.

Birth of emergency radio
In recounting his experiences in the April 1913 issue of the wireless telegraphy magazine Modern Electrics, Berglund concludes: “As a class I wish to praise the amateurs. They have shown to the world that wireless can be of the greatest service when called upon.”

Article in March 27 Plain
reporting Rep. S.J.
Bulkley's declaration to
support a bill in Congress
for emergency radio on land.
Nor was that perspective lost on The Powers That Be. Almost instantly, members of Congress became fans instead of foes of wireless telegraphy. Floodwaters were still cresting on Wednesday, March 26—and young Herbert Akerberg in Columbus had only just begun his own transmissions from Hilltop—when Rep. S. J. Bulkley of Cleveland declared that the Ohio delegation to Congress would join in the introduction of a special session of Congress asking the War Department to submit estimates and plans for extending wireless telegraphy to the interior of the nation. After all, Bulkley pointed out in an article published in the March 27 issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Navy already ran extensive ship-to-shore wireless telegraphy communications along the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines as well as for communications with Alaska and Hawaii. How hard could it be? 

The next day, the Plain Dealer itself ran a short editorial “Wireless on Land” supporting his cause:

A vessel sinking in the midst of the Atlantic, can, no matter how desperate her plight, make known her distress to the world and send forth her call for help. An inland region overwhelmed by a disaster greater than any sea horror, has been compelled to remain almost inarticulate. The question naturally arises as to why the wireless telegraph, which is of such utility at sea, should not be established on land, that there may be no place in the United States beyond its reach. … The lesson of the Ohio floods certainly proves that the subject is worth thought and investigation.

Furthermore, that weekend, after the floodwaters had receded and left the state of Ohio knee-deep in mud and ruin, U.S. Congressman William Graves Sharp of Elyria (and later ambassador to France under President Woodrow Wilson), addressed a large gathering at Grays Armory in Cleveland, declaring: “The recent flood disaster has brought the need of wireless telegraphy to a prominent place in the minds of the public.” Sharp advocated the use of wireless telegraphy as a means of summoning aid, as well as the use of “aeroplanes” to deliver mail and supplies to areas isolated by wrecked railroad lines or bridges. 

Happy centennial, emergency radio!
If amateur operators were to be effective in major regional disasters akin to the 1913 flood that spanned thousands of square miles, something had to be done to augment each station’s limited range. 

Happy centennial, American Radio Relay League!
The ARRL will commemorate its centennial at its
national convention July 17-19, 2014.
Almost exactly a year after the flood, in early March 1914, engineer Hiram Percy Maxim came up with the idea to organize the informal system of relaying messages as amateurs had long been doing ad hoc, through creating an organization called American Radio Relay League (ARRL). It was an idea whose time had come, and instantly spread. Within two months, the organization was operating, with scores of radio clubs around the nation eager to participate. By September, ARRL published a map of the U.S. showing 237 relay stations in 32 states and Canada. That fall, Maxim went to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Commissioner of Navigation of the U.S. Department of Commerce to secure special wavelengths and establish ARRL in official circles. In December 1915, the ARRL began publishing a monthly magazine called QST. Both the ARRL and QST are still going strong today. Thus, this year 2014 is the ARRL’s own centennial.  

Meantime, in March 1915, there was another flood in the Ohio River valley—thankfully not anywhere near the magnitude of the colossal disaster of two years earlier, nor did it disable wireline communications. But it was alarming enough that J. F. Dillon, the Department of Commerce’s radio inspector in charge at Cleveland, supervised the operation of commercial and amateur stations in the flood district to cooperate with authorities to expedite the relaying of emergency messages. Dillon also inspected many stations with a view to organizing chains of stations for emergency communications should a 1913-scale calamity befall the area again. Upon his recommendations, several special licenses for special wavelength and signal power were granted to amateur stations.From then on, amateur radio operators were integral to emergency radio communications, including during the Mississippi River flood of 1927 and the Ohio River valley flood of 1937.

The ARRL's Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES),
is crucial to communications in natural disasters
through its agreement with the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA)..
In 1984, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) signed a memorandum of understanding with the ARRL for amateur radio operators to provide electronic communications for state and local governments in times of disaster. Meantime, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has licensed over 600,000 U.S. amateur radio operators, some 80,000 of whom have registered their availability for emergency communications in disasters through the ARRL’s Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES), founded in 1935.

Every year, April 18—celebrated as the birthday of the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU), founded in 1925—is known as “World Amateur Radio Day,” which each year has a different theme. Last year (2013), in time for the centennial of both the 1913 flood and the birth of emergency radio, the theme for World Amateur Radio Day was “Amateur Radio: Entering its Second Century of Disaster Communications,” commemorating Herbert Akerberg’s use of amateur radio to do yeoman duty in Columbus in calling for help during the Great Easter 1913 flood—symbolizing the work of a host of other dedicated amateurs, many of whom were just teens. 

Amateur radio still needed today?
In today’s world of ubiquitous cell phones, wireless internet access, and social media, do amateur radio operators still have a useful role? 

“Certainly!” declares Hans van Groenendaal in his online article “Second century of disaster communications” and explains: 

Immediately after a disaster, such as an earthquake or a tsunami, if the formal communications systems are not destroyed, they crash due to extreme overload. Radio amateurs with a transceiver and some copper wire get communication going from just about anywhere in no time. Earthquakes in Japan, India and Hawaii have proved that the first communication from a stricken area comes from radio amateurs. This agility is possible because radio amateurs are widespread and can set up their own radio relay links to meet whatever conditions exist at the time.

Not mentioned is another important consideration: emergency ham radios may be compact, mobile, and battery powered and thus able to keep transmitting and receiving even if regional power is lost in a massive power failure—a situation that would render many cell towers and internet servers just as mute today as the downing of the telegraph and telephone wires and electric power plants did during the Great Easter storm system of 1913. 

Happy centennial, ARRL!

©2014 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Three Dam Myths and the Johnstown Flood

Selected references
The most detailed account I have found so far of the University of Michigan amateur radio operators is “The Wireless Amateur in Times of Disaster,” Modern Electrics, April 1913, page 218.

AARL at 100: a Century of Ham Radio is a 25-minute instructional YouTube video about the history of amateur radio and the mission of the Amateur Radio relay League, narrated by the managing editor of QST, but it gives only the briefest nod to its key role in disaster relief around minute 21 with a reference to work during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Coile, Russell C., “The Role of Amateur Radio in Providing Emergency Electronic Communication for Disaster Management,” New York City Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Service, February 2, 2013, excerpts the text of the FEMA memorandum of understanding with ARRL.

DeSoto, Clinton B., wrote several key works. For general history and context as well as scattered references to the 1913 flood, see his book Two Hundred Meters and Down: The Story of Amateur Radio (West Hartford, Conn.: The American Radio Relay League, Inc., 1936). For later work of amateur radio operators during the 1937 flood, see his nine-page article “In the Public Interest, Convenience and Necessity: A Detailed Account of the Amateur Emergency Work in the Flooded Ohio River Valley: January 21st–February 5th,” QST April 1937.

Galbreath, Charles B., “Herbert V. Akerberg,” History of Ohio (in five volumes), (Chicago and New York: American Historical Society, 1925) Vol. III, pp. 172–173 has the most detailed biography I have found among all the sketchy and contradictory biographies of Akerberg and accounts of what he did during the 1913 flood. Galbreath reports that “for about three days and nights, practically continuously for seventy-two hours, young Akerberg remained on duty at his radio set” (p. 173) but no start or end dates are indicated. The March 27 issue of the Columbus Citizen, which gave the full text of Akerberg’s S.O.S. text, clearly indicates his message was received “Wednesday afternoon”, i.e., March 26, a claim repeated on page 10 and also in an article the same day on page 6 in the competing Columbus Dispatch. That latter article specifically states that “Wednesday afternoon he rigged up his apparatus and was able to send out a number of messages” but “his outfit, gotten together hurriedly, was not working well until Wednesday night.” Even the content of Akerberg's own message indicates he was transmitting late Wednesday, as he stated the water was receding, and any earlier than then it would have been cresting or even rising. It is very possible that Akerberg did remain on station for 72 hours from Wednesday through Saturday, but by then there were so many amateur operators already communicating that it is highly doubtful that he was the first, not even in Columbus. That fact does not, however, diminish the important local role the 15-year-old boy played in securing help for the submerged west side of the city.

Hinds, Condrade C., Columbus and the Great Flood of 1913: The Disaster that Reshaped the Ohio Valley (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2013) is a centennial book published sometime last year of which I was unaware until I stumbled on it while researching this installment. I have not yet seen a copy; it can be previewed and ordered online .

Lippmann, Stephen, “Boys to Men: Age, Identity, and the Legitimation of Amateur Wireless in the United States, 1909–1927,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 54(4), 2010, pp. 657–674 explores the “boy problem” and the interference of juvenile ham radio operators in the context of early 20th-century society.  

“The Ohio Flood,” Radio Service Bulletin, No.3, March 1915, page 7, is a too-brief three-paragraph account of J.F. Dillon’s inspections of amateur radio stations with an idea of organizing a chain of stations for emergency radio communications in times of disaster.

Ohio State University, The, The Ohio State Lantern (student newspaper), April 2, 1913, printed the full text of the offer of help from the 100 University of Michigan students.

van Groenendaal, Hans, “Second century of disaster communications” online article for EngineerIT (January 17, 2013 ) is here.

White, Thomas H., United States Early Radio History is fundamentally a thorough reference book online. Relevant to this post on the birth of emergency radio is section 12 “Pioneering Amateurs(1900–1917).” The full text of “An Act to regulate radio communication” of August 1912 is here.

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 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me.)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Screening Disaster

News reels of the 1913 flood raging through Indiana and Ohio may be the first motion pictures ever shot of a natural disaster still in progress—and some original footage can be viewed online

When news of the devastating floods sweeping Ohio and Indiana first breaks in Chicago, a veritable army of 50 special writers, correspondents, and press photographers immediately charter an official newspaper train to make their way straight into the heart of the disaster. Onboard is a lone moving picture cameraman, Charles Kaufman of Chicago-based Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. When 
"Hope on the Hill," which may be viewed on YouTube, is one of the few surviving examples of film footage shot while the 1913 flood was still raging in Dayton, Ohio. It is not possible from the information online to tell what company shot it, but the momentary titles throughout indicate it was likely for a news weekly intended for moving picture theaters. The original film is housed in the Glenn R. Walters collection in the University Archives and Collections, University of Dayton.

Kaufman is forced to leave the train in Peru, Indiana, where flooding had reached an alarming height, he isn’t about to lose this moving-picture scoop of a lifetime: he slogs on through driving rain by automobile, wagon, and boat, arriving in Dayton 28 hours after the news had broken, and begins shooting footage.

Twenty-four hours later, three other Essanay cameramen—who had just returned to Chicago from Omaha, Nebraska, where they had been filming the horrific track of ruin and carnage left through the city by the powerful Easter Sunday tornado—catch the first government relief train out of Chicago, as by then all commercial rail service had been suspended. Riding caboose behind 16 cars of foodstuffs and other emergency supplies, they endure a circuitous route through Fort Wayne, Indiana and Crestline and Columbus, Ohio, to avoid washouts and rail accidents. Although the three arrive in Dayton 36 hours after maximum flood stage, streets are still half-submerged by the receding floodwaters.

Universal claimed to be the first out with footage of the 1913 flood in Dayton, but if this claim was referring to its Animated Weekly No. 56, that was released April 2 whereas Essanay and others released their footage to theaters on April 1. (The references to "1-sheets," "3-sheets," and "6-sheets" specified the sizes of posters motion picture exhibitors could obtain.) Universal could legitimately claim to be the first (and only) film manufacturing company to take out a two-page spread ad in the April 12, 1913, issue of The Moving Picture World.
Over the next 24 hours, the three cameramen—Fred H. Wagner, C. A. Laperti, and G.T. Dillon—climb over wreckage, ride in boats, and wade through waist-deep floodwaters thick with slimy mud to capture Dayton’s plight on film. Meantime, Kaufman had left for Chicago hand-carrying his first batch of precious negatives.

Getting back to Chicago themselves in time to get the film developed and ready for the next week’s release to nickelodeons and motion picture palaces is no mean feat. Dayton is under martial law. Even before the sun sets, curfew is 6 PM sharp; troops standing guard at every street corner have orders to shoot to kill any moving figure who looks like a potential looter. One time a warning bullet whizzes past the men’s ears when they do not hear an order to halt. At last, a captain who realizes the importance of rushing news footage to the public assigns them an armed guard, but the necessity of changing the guard every block for half a mile delays the cameramen enough to miss the last passenger train out of Dayton that night.

The Dayton Flood Film Co. was actually a spinoff(?)
from the Buckeye Film Co. in Cincinnati, which
claimed to have had cameramen on the ground
three hours after news of Dayton's plight
reached the outside world.
April 12, 1913, issue of The Moving Picture World

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Seeing a military freight at the station bound for Columbus, the Essanay cameramen wait until dark. Then they surreptitiously load their equipment into an empty coal car and stow away, lying in the open car atop their cameras and tripods in the coal dust to avoid being seen by patrolling guards. Only after the train pulls out of the station and begins bouncing over storm-damaged uneven track, can the men dance in the open coal car to try to warm their stiff arms and legs in the frigid wind. At Xenia (20 miles southeast of Dayton), when they are climbing down out of the car, the blinding beam of a railroad detective’s electric flashlight catches them, and they find themselves staring down the barrel of a revolver. 

After explaining their mission, the three coal dust-covered cameramen are released. Although Xenia is thronging with flood refugees, they miraculously manage to secure a hotel room and catch their first sleep in 48 hours. The next day they make Columbus, film the flood damage there, and depart Sunday night, March 30, for Chicago. 

Within 48 hours, their negative film is developed, edited and given titles, printed onto film stock, and released to the world on Tuesday, April 1, 1913 in two reels—one on the aftermath of the Omaha tornado and the other on the destructive flooding still in progress in Ohio.
Lubin advertised that its film of the Dayton
flood was released April 2.
April 12, 1913, issue of The Moving Picture World

On April 1, however, the floodwaters are still peaking in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Cairo, Illinois. So in those pioneering early days of moving picture technology—even as people and their homes and businesses are still being swept away— audiences in theaters ranging from low-budget nickelodeons and lavish motion-picture palaces from New York City to Milwaukee to Los Angeles are being held spellbound by horrific scenes of death and devastation almost in real time.

Setting the scene
In March 1913, motion pictures were starting to become mainstream entertainment. The dramatic feature silent film was not yet called a “movie” but called a “photoplay” as generally one fixed camera filmed a short stage play. Hotly debated in Motography and The Moving Picture World (the trade magazines of the day) was the big question whether audiences would even sit still for a story that took more than one reel (about 10 minutes of footage) to unfold; the first U.S. feature-length film had been released in scarcely two years earlier (although Australian and European features had come out a few years before) and D.W. Griffith’s infamous Birth of a Nation was still two years in the future. Actors, then called “photoplay stars,”  were not even credited by name, although that tradition was giving way with the screen star power of “America’s sweetheart” Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters Lillian and Dorothy. Although dramatic films were starting to produce multi-reel features, many photoplays were still one-reel shorts churned out of studios at a prodigious rate—often one per week—and quickly distributed to theaters around the country through a network of rental exchanges. Moreover, only a third of films shown in the U.S. by 1913 were American-made; many more came from the booming film industries in England and France, notably by the Pathé Brothers Company (Société Pathé Frères).

American Feature Film Co. also claimed to be
first, in Dayton by Thursday evening, March 27.
But other cameramen were there by then as well.
April 12, 1913, issue of The Moving Picture World
Interspersed with the dramatic shorts screened in theatres were weekly single-reel summaries of news events around the world, called “weeklies” as the word “newsreel” had not yet been coined. Weeklies were produced by the same studios around the country that created dramatic films (in 1913, Hollywood was not yet the center of American film production). Weeklies regularly screened in the U.S. in 1913 included the England- and France-based Pathé’s Weekly and the Animated Weekly of the year-old Universal Film Manufacturing Company (yes, the original name of today’s Universal Studios, Inc.), then based in New York City and Fort Lee, New Jersey. Other U.S. production studios at the time included the American Feature Film Company (Chicago), Buckeye Film Company (Cincinnati), Thomas A. Edison Inc. (New York City), Lubin Manufacturing Company (Philadelphia), The Selig Polyscope Company (Chicago), and of course Essanay, with most having offices in several cities around the country.

The 1913 flood was not the first time the aftermath of a major natural disaster was documented in film footage. Certainly one of the earliest (if not actually the earliest) pieces of motion picture footage after a natural disaster slowly pans the wreckage of a shipyard of Galveson, Texas, after the September 8, 1900 hurricane; it was shot by an Edison crew on September 24, more than two weeks after the catastrophe. Six years later, one or more film companies documented the widespread devastation after the San Francisco earthquake and fire (see, for example, this footage shot from a camera anchored to the front of a cable car proceeding through streets, and this footage, which better conveys the magnitude of a city laid waste and suddenly homeless victims reduced to standing in long breadlines). 

What may be unique about the footage shot during the 1913 flood, however, is that the disaster was still unfolding. In other words, it was certainly one of the earliest occasions—and perhaps even the very first time—that motion picture film documented a major natural disaster in the act.

Surviving 1913 flood footage
Now, a century later, some of these original prints of the 1913 flood in progress still survive—no mean feat, since typically prints of news weeklies were discarded like yesterdays’ newspapers after being screened for a week, and other prints that were archived might have self-destructed (as happened with many early films) because they were produced on flammable nitrate film stock.

Moreover, some of this silent-film footage of the 1913 flood in Dayton is now online for 
This 7-minute silent film on Streamica of the smoking ruins in Dayton as well as still-flooded areas and how flood sufferers coped is eminently worth watching in its entirety. The titles are extremely useful in identifying individual scenes (and likely also existing still images as well). The film production company cannot be identified just from info online. Although the footage was clearly professionally produced, the print was apparently found in an unidentified person's attic. The background piano music is not too obtrusive.

viewing today. It is of varying quality, and some modern film editors have chosen to include annoying—sometimes even jarringly inappropriate—musical sound tracks or preface it with irrelevant advertising. Judging from the type font of the occasional titles describing the action, the footage originated from at least two different companies, although positive identification of which companies is not possible from the information online.

Also tantalizing are allusions in the trade magazines to footage not (yet?) online and perhaps permanently lost to posterity. For example, The Moving Picture World notes that Universal’s Animated Weekly No. 56 “The Fearful Flood” also includes footage of the flooding in Cleveland and of the swath of devastation from the Omaha tornado; Pathé’s Weekly No 16 apparently also included tornado damage. An Omaha-based  film manufacturing company called Hartman Bros. also filmed the tornado’s path of destruction, Selig apparently filmed the flood’s devastation in both Indiana and Ohio, and Lubin shot footage also in Hamilton, Ohio. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find online any original footage that Essanay shot of the flood or its aftermath in Columbus, as described in the April 19 issue of Motography, or Essanay’s—or any other studio’s—original footage of the aftermath of the Omaha tornado, which was screened in Chicago as early as March 28. 

If any reader should run across any of the footage described above online or anywhere else, I would greatly appreciate knowing where: please do e-mail me.

©2014 Trudy E. Bell

Next: Wireless to the Rescue! Birth of Emergency Radio 

Selected references
Much valuable early film history is available online from the detailed AMC Filmsite written and edited by Tim Dirks, especially at “The History of Film: The Pre-1920s—Early Cinematic Origins and the Infancy of Film,” the five-part introduction beginning here  (block the annoying pop-up ads).

The amazing story detailing the experiences of the four Essanay cameramen, including of the three who stowed away in the open coal car of the military freight train, was published in the anonymous article “Filming the Dayton Flood: Cameramen’s Lively Experiences” in Motography 9(8)283–284, April 1913.

Various issues of The Moving Picture World, a weekly trade magazine, from April to June give snippets of information about the release of the reels by different companies and their content. Especially revealing are the full-page ads by the film companies for their news weeklies, as well as discussion inside the industry about screening motion pictures in benefit events to raise funds for flood and tornado victims.

Most of the footage available online appears to be of Dayton. There is also some (precious little) footage of the 1913 flood in Indiana assembled by The Star Press.com and Ball State University Libraries indiscriminately intermixed with scenes from the 1937 flood; judging from the automobiles and the style of men’s hats, most of the 1913 footage seems to play behind the two narrators before they cut to the full video. Although the original films were silent, for whatever reason the modern editors chose to back the scenes of horrific devastation by cheerful music including Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” 

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 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me.)