Monday, September 1, 2014

Spurning Disaster Aid

Why did so many 1913 tornado and flood victims refuse disaster relief—even when their homes and livelihoods were utterly destroyed? And what moved one hard-hit city's leaders even to downplay the devastating flood as a water carnival”?

Several days after the violent Easter tornado had roared through downtown Omaha, Nebraska, on Sunday, March 23, 1913 (see “’My Conception of Hell’”), relief workers checking ruined houses in the city’s West Center Street district were appalled to stumble on a heart-rending discovery. In a rain-soaked bed, they found a sick mother 
Booklet issued by The Omaha Bee documents the half-mile-wide swath of destruction through Omaha, Nebraska, Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, instantly destroying the homes of thousands of residents. More images of the devastation left by what is still Nebraska's deadliest tornado are here.
cradling her infant daughter who was ill with tonsillitis, while her husband—clad in only an undershirt—huddled in the basement. Despite the family’s acute need, the relief workers reported in the March 28 Omaha Evening World-Herald that they “had to actually pull the mother into a carriage and bring her to [the disaster relief center] in the Auditorium.” There the ill young woman selected just one change of clothing for her baby, her husband, and herself before seeking to escape back to the ruins. 

After horrific natural disaster had destroyed home and possessions, killed or maimed breadwinner or children, and swept away one’s savings and means of livelihood, why would men and women refuse disaster relief, to the point of hiding from aid workers and resisting their ministrations when found? Indeed, why were such cases sufficiently common that newspapers across the tornado-devastated and flood-stricken region from Nebraska to Ohio ran articles encouraging disaster victims to make their need known?

And if contaminated floodwaters had inundated seven-eighths of a city’s businesses and homes up to eight feet deep for more than a week, as happened in Paducah, Kentucky (see clipping at right), why would a mayor and other city leaders not only refuse all outside aid, but also publicly boast that they had refused it—and also be publicly praised for refusing it? Indeed, why would a real estate agent scoff at residents' ruin by calling the horrific flood a "water carnival"?

First aid—federal, state, and private
In late March and early April 1913, after 19 violent tornadoes and widespread record flooding devastated parts of 15 states and killed over 1,000 people (see “Like a War Zone” and “’Death Rode Ruthless…’”), disaster relief was rushed to afflicted areas in spontaneous outpourings of sympathy.
At the federal level, newly inaugurated President Woodrow Wilson issued the following nationwide appeal for money and supplies to be sent to the Red Cross, which was widely printed on the front pages of newspapers across the land: 
Appeal for contributions of goods and money from all U.S. citizens issued by President Woodrow Wilson was printed in various forms in newspapers across the nation. His appeal is the first that calls the natural disaster a "national calamity," words later adapted for the title of an instant book published weeks later, and also for the title of this research blog.

Backing words with action, President Wilson sent Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison to Columbus and Dayton—two of the largest Ohio cities hard-hit by the flood—in charge of sanitation and medical relief. The U.S. Navy sent several steamships down the Ohio River, including a complete field hospital, to minister to the injured. Temporary military headquarters were set up at Louisville and Paducah, Kentucky, both cities being strategic ports and railroad crossroads. Separately, to relieve tornado victims, the Army sent personnel and supplies to Lower Peach Tree, Alabama (see “The First Punch”), and Omaha, Nebraska.

Nebraska legislators voted to extend aid to Omaha
in just one of many examples of state response.
At the state level, the governors of Ohio, Indiana, and Nebraska mobilized the state National Guard, declared martial law as needed in the hardest-hit areas, and took temporary charge of the railroads and telephone lines so as to direct the deployment of relief supplies.
At the private level, the 1913 tornadoes and flooding represented the first widespread major disaster offered assistance by two fledgling service organizations: Rotary and the Boy Scouts of America (both to be the subjects of future installments to this research blog). Meantime, many individual newspapers set up relief funds to collect moneys to be forwarded to the Red Cross. By April 1, eight days after the Easter tornadoes, the Red Cross had received $800,000 in cash (equivalent to about $17.5 million today) and for the next four or five days its relief fund continued to grow at about $100,000 per day. Moreover, expressions of sympathy and offers of aid poured in to Dayton, Omaha, and elsewhere from mayors of other cities, governors of other states, and even leaders of other nations.

Aid rebuffed
To twenty-first century ears, some responses to this spontaneous outpouring of sympathetic generosity may sound baffling if not downright bizarre. As reported in The American Red Cross Magazine for July 1913, the governor of Indiana declared: “The citizens of Indianapolis, with a proper pride, at once decided to take care of their own flood sufferers.” Similarly, the State of Illinois indicated that through its Adjutant General of the National Guard, it was providing emergency relief in an ample way, and that nothing would be needed from the Red Cross. When the steamer J. R. Ware, laden with Federal officials and supplies, handed at Ashland, Kentucky, and offered assistance, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported: “Mayor A.H. Moore declined the offer and told them that Ashland was able to take care of her people with ease.”
Even before the flood crest and aid made it west to Paducah, Kentucky, a front-page headline of that city’s News-Democrat preemptively announced on April 1: “Paducah Will Finance and Control Its Own Measures of Relief; No Necessity for Outside Aid is Felt.” Similar refusals were expressed by the Kentucky towns of Brookport, Carrollton, and Sturgis, even though water was standing several feet deep in houses and driving families from their homes, some of whom sought temporary refuge on or under bridges.

It wasn’t that cities that escaped severe damage refused aid so as not to take supplies more urgently needed elsewhere. On the contrary, refusals were expressed by some cities hardest hit by flooding, including Cincinnati, Ohio, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Even in Omaha, devastated by a tornado that still ranks as Nebraska’s single deadliest twister, the Evening World-Herald reported that the Omaha Commercial Club—which was alarmed by exaggerated newspaper reports around the country that claimed the city had been destroyed—issued a formal statement to the Associated Press that said
in part that Omaha “is able to care for all immediate relief work.” The article (see its headlines at right) noted that at that meeting, “Praise of the independence and heroism of residents of the stricken district was frequent and the oft expressed opinion was that charity was not needed, save in few cases. The great need, it was said, was for an immediately [sic] although probably temporary credit.”

Even when aid was accepted, some cities made a point of returning at least part of the money to the donor, although their residents were still in dire need. For example, in Dayton, Ohio—the veritable Katrina/Rita-scale devastated New Orleans of 1913—the Dayton Rotary Club, after having received $4,403.50 from Rotary Clubs spanning the nation from California to New York, in March 1914 returned $478.50 of funds not disbursed (a modern equivalent of about $10,000) to the Rotary General Fund. Similarly, by mid-April Paducah sold the government rations left in the city and remitted the proceeds back to the Federal government, even though as late as May 4 many Paducah citizens still could not yet return to their ruined homes.

Moreover, just as towns returned part of aid they had accepted, so did individuals. One Red Cross account reported how a Roxbury, Ohio, housewife who was drying flood-soaked mattresses “declined a new mattress with the explanation that so much had been done for them that she did not want to request anything further.” Another reported how an elderly mechanic spent only half the rehabilitation payment to which he was entitled to replace tools swept away by the flood, and returned the other half to the Red Cross.

Fear of charity
What was that “proper pride” that deterred both communities and individual disaster victims—even those seriously ill from exposure—from accepting disaster relief? It appears to have been due to prevailing Northern cultural norms regarding pauperism, and a widespread suspicion that accepting disaster relief was tantamount to accepting alms.
In The Work Ethic in Industrial America 1850–1920, historian Daniel T. Rodgers demonstrates that the Protestant work ethic was unique to the American North because its roots originated in the Puritan tradition that “work was the core of the moral life.” Throughout the nineteenth century, the work ethic became freighted with the conviction that individuals also controlled their future and destiny. “In this free country no man endowed with average abilities need remain all his life poor. ... If he has thrift, self-restraint, and perseverance, he will pass from the ranks of labor to the ranks of capital,” Rodgers quoted one 1886 Atlantic Monthly writer. Through popular literature and sermons throughout the nineteenth century, Rodgers noted, the U.S. North became imbued with a “certainty that hard work would bring economic success”—a cultural conviction of determinism that prevailed well into the twentieth century.

Moreover, according to the Calvinist teaching of unconditional election, “prosperity could indicate God’s favor and the blessed state of an individual's soul,” observed historian Annette Atkins in Harvest of Grief, an eloquent examination of responses to public assistance during the devastating grasshopper plagues of the 1870s.

These convictions, however, had an insidious aspect: their converse was also widely accepted as certain. Rodgers noted that Abraham Lincoln himself wrote: “If any continue through life in the condition of a hired laborer; it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, or folly, or singular misfortune.” Yet, as Atkins demonstrated, farming and other high-risk professions “did not bring unparalleled rewards. ...Any American could identify dozens of people who worked hard but went unrewarded.” She continues:

Instead of accepting the evidence that work did not guarantee success, Americans looked at those without money and decided that since they lacked money they must not have been successful. And if they were not successful they must not have worked hard enough. ... As Americans came to measure worth by money, they measured lack of worth by lack of money... Because a slim wallet indicated a short supply of American virtues, the poor, whether immigrant or native born, stood accused of possessing a weakened moral fiber.
In other words, nineteenth-century attitudes held the needy responsible for their condition.

In addition, the late nineteenth century was the era of the “scientific charity” movement, which during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era strongly influenced how Americans regarded and responded to poverty. One view, widely espoused by Oscar C. McCulloch, minister of the Plymouth Congregational Church in the Indianapolis who gained national prominence in the 1870s, held that the chronically poor—which he branded with the term “paupers”—were “degraded forms of life,” that is, “social parasites” in whom “the instinct of self-help has disappeared.” According to historian Brent Ruswick, because paupers were regarded as biological degenerates beyond hope of reformation, McCulloch held that charitable relief to them should be restricted rather than increased, because public aid only made them even more dependent by rewarding them for their biologically determined laziness. Paupers were the “unworthy poor” who supposedly preferred to live off charitable relief that they obtained through deception.

Through McCulloch's writings, noted Ruswick, “the term ‘pauper’ went from being defined as a nuisance to a menace.” In more than 100 American cities between 1877 and the 1890s, scientific charity reformers established Charity Organization Societies to act as administrative clearinghouses for screening applicants for aid, specifically to separate the morally worthy poor from the morally unworthy pauper.

Charity could encourage pauperism, according to one preacher
in Henderson, KY six weeks before the flood--illustrating
that McCulloch's older views about relief persisted in 1913
By the end of the nineteenth century McCulloch reversed his convictions, and after 1900 the scientific charity movement turned away from punishing paupers to recognizing factors such as mental illness and providing adequate relief for all poor. Nonetheless, earlier stigmatizing perceptions about paupers lingered in popular culture for decades to come (and indeed, still persist to this day).

Was disaster relief charity?
As revealed in 1913 newspaper and magazine articles about the victims of the Great Easter tornadoes and floods, views toward pauperism influenced perceptions of disaster relief—even though sufferers were rendered destitute by forces completely outside their control. Remarkably often, aid was offered with suspicion, and was also suspiciously accepted, revealing that donors and recipients alike were ambivalent as to whether disaster relief was constituted charity, and therefore whether its needy recipients had been instantly transformed into paupers. As explained by business professor R. L. Hines in The Survey in 1914,

A high-spirited man, though in distress, would rather suffer long than receive gifts. Free food and raiment dull the sense of independent thrift. Your relief measures are, therefore, an evil... When the clamor for help was greatest in one of our floods, a man whose spirit of charity was large, exclaimed that we should have a mission dollars to “do for these people what they need.“ “Yes,” said one of better judgment, “if you had resources enough you would change that population of industrious farmers into a race of professional beggars.”

Nowhere, perhaps, was the equating of disaster relief with charity and its recipients with paupers stronger than in Paducah, Kentucky. Before the flood crest of the Ohio River reached the city, the editor of The News-Democrat sounded a clarion call on April 1 in an editorial titled “Men and Mice:” “…[W]e must show the stuff in us. We must be men and not mice. …Talk of outside aid is foolish. We need no militia tents. We need no government rations. In no portion of the residence section [of] the city will the water be over four feet deep...”—itself an astounding standard for not needing aid, as four feet of floodwater invading a home would have enough mass to move a house from its foundations, and would leave every surface covered in muddy silt contaminated with animal waste.

Even after the Ohio River swelled much higher than expected and inundated seven-eighths of Paducah with water up to eight feet deep, even cutting off access to the refugee camp built on higher ground, the News-Democrat downplayed the severity of the disaster on April 16 by characterizing the flood as a “water carnival,” scoffing that
the city “has lost nothing save some wallpaper and the money paid for a few john-boats.” The nadir of Paducah’s sympathy for the thousands rendered suddenly destitute—most of them laborers and “negroes” whose homes lay on lower ground—was expressed by Sheriff George W. Houser, who let it be known on April 3 (see article above left) that idle men would be kept in the relief quarters. “They must work or get out of Paducah and McCracken county,” said Sheriff Houser. “Those whose homes are washed away and whose resources have been exhausted should not expect to idle away their time while being housed and fed by the city.”
Yet, three days later, under a subhead “Need Not be Ashamed,” a front page article in the same newspaper reported: “The relief and commissary committees will be glad to help all who are worthy. Those who are not need not apply. Every case is being investigated.” In short, Paducah’s thousands of flood sufferers were made to realize that others suddenly might view them differently as a result of their instant ruin.

That Paducah’s official act of refusing aid was regarded as mainstream in 1913 rather than as being callously uncompassionate is revealed by praise the city received. “Red Cross Scout Applauds the Way Paducah Handled Her Problem Without Aid,” declared a front page headline in The News-Democrat on April 16, with the subtitle “Captain Morris…Says the Whole World Should Know How Real Men Meet An Emergency” (see front page headlines below):

Four days later, after receiving itemized bills for the construction of the refugee camp and its feeding of up to 1,000 flood sufferers for about a week, The News-Democrat ran another front-page story whose headline announced, “Three Thousand Dollars for the City, Same for County is Flood Cost,” although many legitimate damages—mostly to residents' homes, businesses, and private property—were clearly excluded. In an accompanying editorial titled “It is to Laugh, to Applaud,” the editor concluded,

We can laugh at the pessimists, now. Their predicted fifty thousand dollars has dwindled some. But while we laugh at them, we are throwing our hats in the air and shouting our applause for the accomplishment.
Paducah’s view on refusing outside aid may have been mainstream, but it was not universal. Six hundred miles northwest in the heart of tornado-devastated Omaha, on March 27, the Evening World-Herald wrote an editorial bluntly criticizing the Omaha Commercial Club and its motives for refusing outside aid as “a sad mistake:”

But more important than local pride, dearer event than our credit ratings, are our suffering people. When their cries for help pierce the skies every other consideration becomes secondary to the duty of relief that shall be as prompt as it is generous. … To allow false pride or dwarfed imaginations or stunted sympathies to stand in the way of that relief, whether it come from outside the city or inside, would be little short of criminal folly. The World-Herald is not ashamed to sound the cry for help. It is thankful that it has the power to make that cry heard over wide spaces...

Beginning the day after the Easter tornado, invoking a verbal image for communicating the true spirit of pitching in for the benefit of all, the Evening World-Herald began running daily articles appealing for donations to its relief fund—beginning with its own seed of $1,000 (a hefty donation equivalent to about $22,000 today)—with the rallying cry: “The tow-line is out! Won't you grab hold and pull to help Omaha?”
In editorial cartoons that visually depicted that there but for the grace of God go any of us in the face of natural disaster and that emphasized tornado victims were no different from the lucky who escaped harm, Omaha's Evening World-Herald appealed to residents to help their neighbors.

By the next day, the Commercial Club had realized how badly it had miscalculated the severity of the damage and the human suffering, and reversed itself in a March 28 public statement:

In order that there may be no misunderstanding of the attitude of Omaha towards outside assistance in tornado relief work, we wish it to be understood that while Omaha is undertaking to handle the situation locally, a great many outside cash contributions have come in voluntarily. In every case these have been accepted and acknowledged with gratitude. There is no intention to decline money received. COMMERCIAL CLUB OF OMAHA.

Why such fear of charity?
How could a cultural norm against accepting charity be so powerful that a mother would lie in a ruined house on a rain-soaked bed and endanger the life of her baby, even to the point of physically resisting rescuing aid workers? Such refusals were not mere token resistance or hyperbole. Individual men and women were terrified that disaster relief equated to charity—and that charity symbolized a stigma far worse than physical destitution.
My long-lived mother at 90 in 1999
was a child of 4 in 1913. Living in
poverty in Ohio, she embodied
the pride of spurning charity.
A personal anecdote from my mother, which in my youth puzzled me whenever she told it, delivers insight. My mother, Arabella J. Bell—more than four decades older than I—was born in 1909 in Danville, Ohio, four years before the 1913 flood. Her mother Alice Beum Russell Newton and grandmother Arabella Beum took in lace curtains and fancy clothing to launder for the regional wealthy. Although in such poverty that my mother had literally one dress to wear to school, she fought back by scoring all A’s and fiercely ranking top of her class in every grade. “Whenever my sister Kate and I went out to play, Mama used to say to us, ‘Now, if a neighbor lady asks, “Would you like a cookie?” you may take it’,” my mother recounted. “’But if she asks, “Are you hungry?” you refuse that cookie no matter how hungry you are.’ We were dirt-poor, but we were raised with pride: we knew we may take a cookie that’s offered as a gift, but not one that’s offered as charity.”

For individuals, the very act of accepting aid—much less seeking it—put them at risk of being perceived as paupers: that is, of being branded as “biological degenerates” of “weakened moral fiber” who were “beyond redemption,” to use phrases of the day, under a very public spotlight. Newspaper entreaties with titles such as “Need Not be Ashamed,” or social workers quoted as saying “It is no disgrace to be in need at such a time,” clearly reveal that disaster victims felt profoundly ashamed and disgraced at their instant pennilessness and nakedness—regardless of cause beyond their power or control.

Worse, after the first urgent days of emergency relief when all were fed and sheltered, applying for longer-term disaster rehabilitation meant needing to come up before judgment exactly as one would for charity. The Red Cross and other charitable organizations explicitly stated they were screening exclusively for “worthy” character, and newspaper accounts (see example at left from the April 9 Paducah News-Democrat) reported that fully a quarter of applicants were being turned away as “undeserving” of aid. That label alone would brand applicants as paupers.

Diminishing the disaster
For businesses, the motives for refusing aid—or partially reimbursing accepted aid as though returning a loan—appears to have originated from a different motive: wanting to look fiscally strong rather than weak. Articles in many cities’ newspapers reveal that local boards of trade, commercial clubs, chambers of commerce, and other civic leaders feared that newspaper stories about damage to a city might turn away orders for manufactured products, dry up credit, depress property values, and allow competitor manufacturers in other cities an edge.

Thus, in the weeks following the tornadoes and flood, civic leaders in Louisville, Omaha, Dayton, and other cities devastated by the flood put amazing spin on a terrible situation to create enduring myth of fast recovery and even lack of harm.

On April 15, a front-page headline of The News-Democrat asserted that conditions in Paducah were “normal” (see above) and the next day an editorial scoffed that “Paducah was not injured any more than a smoothly-running machine is injured when it slows down for oiling” (see left). The likelihood of these claims that the Kentucky city was fine just two weeks after inundation may be judged against a Red Cross report published in The Survey on May 2, 1914, which noted that in Dayton “four months after the catastrophe...many houses [were] not yet...sufficiently dry to make it safe to repaper.”

Nor was it just Paducah. Dayton Rotary Club members, determined to project a prompt business-as-usual image, took out a 19-page special advertising section for Dayton businesses in the June 1913 issue of The Rotarian that urged Rotarians nationwide, “If what you want is not advertised, send your order anyway, because if anything is worth while making, it is MADE IN DAYTON.”  

In the following weeks and months, booster articles with such titles as “The Valley That Found Itself” were published in national magazines, coming just short of explicitly asserting that the flood was actually good for business and communities because it encouraged new, modern construction. And in Omaha, the World-Herald published a “Tornado Anniversary Section” on Sunday, March 22, 1914 (see left), that sought to equate triumph over disaster with patriotic grit. Titled “The Spirit of the Pioneer,” it began:

As the pioneers of the old days... battling... a hostile wilderness, built this city, so have Omaha men and women, crushed by an awful calamity, risen hopeful, undaunted out of the wreck and built anew their shops, their churches and their homes.

It is thus my hypothesis, which I am continuing to investigate, that these and other social and economic factors—which led to a deliberate downplaying of the 1913 storm system, violent tornadoes, and flood, and even some level of cover-up—precipitated a diminution in public perception of the true scale and severity of the natural disaster. That ultimately contributed to the forgetting of this national calamity over the following century.

Next month: An Earth-Shaking Mystery

Selected references

Atkins, Annette, Harvest of Grief: Grasshopper Plagues and Public Assistance in Minnesota, 1873–78  (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1984).

Bell, Trudy E., “The Great Flood of 1913,” The Rotarian 189 (9): 30–37, March 2011. (Issue of the magazine is available through Google books but there is no direct URL to the article, so scroll to page 30)

Foster, Gaines M., The Demands of Humanity: Army Medical Disaster Relief (Washington D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1983); book is online.

Rodgers, Daniel T., The Work Ethic in Industrial America 1850–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

Ruswick, Brent, Almost Worthy: The Poor, Paupers, and the Science of Charity in America, 1877–1917. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013)

Ruswick, Brent, “The Measure of Worthiness: The Rev. Oscar McCulloch and the Pauper Problem, 1877–1891,” Indiana Magazine of History (March 2008).

“Scouts Respond to Needs of Flood Sufferers.” Scouting 1 (April 15, 1913): 8. See also Owen Brown, “What Boy Scouts Did for Flood Sufferers,” Boys' Life, September 1913, 8–10.

Sing, Travis, Omaha's Easter Tornado of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2003.

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.


Friday, August 1, 2014

36 Hours: From Boys to Leaders

In a day and a half, five dozen high-school–aged boys from Culver Military Academy rescue more than 1,400 residents of flooded Logansport, Indiana—and transform both city and school. By guest author Richard Davies, Ph.D.

[The compelling story of how some 60 teenaged cadets from Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana, tirelessly rescued more than 1,400 men, women, and children in the city of Logansport during the 1913 flood demonstrates how the very young can rise to triumph at a life-and-death mission of monumental endurance. This guest installment is a condensation of a longer article in the Spring 2013 issue of the Culver Alumni Magazine by retired Culver faculty member Richard Davies, Ph.D. Gratitude is also expressed to the magazine’s editor Doug Haberland for additional materials. –T.E.B.]


Surprised to receive a telephone call near midnight, Culver Military Academy Superintendent Lt. Col. Leigh R. Gignilliat picked up the receiver. He was even more surprised when the operator connected him long-distance to David Fickle, mayor of 
Each of the four Culver cutters were manned by 11 teenagers (10 rowers and a helmsman) accompanied by an adult member of Culver’s military staff and a Logansport policeman. The rescue boats could accommodate another 30 to 40 people. This is cutter No. 13, under command of Captain Robert Rossow, Culver's director of horsemanship (man standing at right in cutter). Credit: Culver Academies Archives
Logansport, a city 40 miles south of Culver. In a frantic voice, Mayor Fickle desperately asked for help. Logansport lies at the junction of the Wabash and Eel rivers. Both rivers were cresting, creating a flood region a mile and a half wide that was submerging Logansport’s business and residential districts. Houses were being swept away. Many of the city’s 20,000 residents were trapped by the raging waters, some without food or clean water for almost two days. It was now 24 degrees and snowing. Mayor Fickle pleaded with Gignilliat for Culver to send its Naval cutters via rail to Logansport for rescuing people.

Gignilliat agreed instantly and hung up the phone. But he knew that Logansport would need far more than just the four man-of-war cutters Culver had borrowed from the U.S. Navy for cadets’ summer naval instruction on inland Lake Maxinkuckee. Each big craft was 28 feet long and 8 feet abeam (across), weighed 1.5 tons, and required 10 skilled oarsmen plus a navigating helmsman. For instruction, Culver also included a faculty officer. Thus, Gignilliat knew Logansport would need not only the boats themselves but also skilled crews to handle them in the turbulent floodwaters.

Fully loaded, cutter No. 13 makes its way to safe ground in order to disembark its rescued flood victims before heading out for more. The Culver cadets worked non-stop for 36 hours, plucking nearly  1,500 Logansport residents from attics, rooftops, and second-story windows. Credit: Culver Academies Archives
Gignilliat summoned Captain Robert Rossow and other faculty officers to supervise getting the four cutters to the Pennsylvania Railroad. Gignilliat and his officers then awoke some 60 cadets—all teenagers who had worked with the cutters in Culver’s summer Naval School—to man the boats. Working by the light of lanterns, the cadets loaded the heavy cutters onto railroad flatcars, an arduous task requiring 20 boys to carry each boat from winter storage half a mile across snow-covered ground in the dark to the Academy railroad spur. 

After finishing around 3 A.M., the crews were issued rations and clambered into the caboose. The locomotive pulled away into the darkness, slowly feeling its way along tracks, over culverts, and across bridges weakened by the force of rushing floodwaters.

Many cadets had eagerly volunteered for the rescue mission, but only a few were chosen. Contemporary accounts indicate that 60 cadets made the trip: 45 who had prior experience with the boats in the Naval School and another 15 burly football players. Gignilliat assured the others remaining behind that they needed to be ready to serve as replacements or as a second group of rescuers depending on how long flood conditions lasted. However, 16-year-old Elliot White Springs—deemed too young and 
Naval cutter No. 10 rowed by Culver cadets makes its way through flooded Logansport to rescue more flood-stranded residents. Note the snow on the roofs. Credit: Cass County Historical Society
small for the demanding task—refused to take no for an answer: smuggling himself aboard the train, he took cover under the tarpaulin of one of the cutters. When the stowaway was discovered en route, Gignilliat assigned Springs to his own boat.

The train reached Logansport just as day was breaking. The city was in darkness. All electricity had been knocked out by the raging waters. Here contemporary accounts differ. According to Gignilliat in his book Arms and the Boy, the cadets skidded their boats off the flatcars, and then slid them down streetcar tracks for a couple of blocks to the edge of the floodwaters where they floated. According to an account by another faculty participant, Captain Robert Rossow as well as Gignilliat himself in a different account, the floodwater was deep enough right around the tracks that the cadets slid the cutters off the flatcars directly into the flood. At Mayor Fickle’s request, each boat carried not only its Culver crew of 12, but also a Logansport policeman.

Third Street Bridge in Logansport over the swollen
Wabash River, before it was destroyed by the 1913 flood,
Credit: Cass County Historical Society
The next 36 hours in the icy waters were grim and dangerous. “At first we progressed nicely in a column of cutters, but as we came nearer to the river, the boat that I commanded was caught in a whirlpool at a street crossing and spun around like a top,”  Gignilliat wrote. “Before I could give the orders to pull us out of the whirlpool, two of the heavy oars were snapped like toothpicks against a telegraph pole. Fortunately we had brought along spares.” From then on, “the Culver cadets and faculty engaged in a hard day and a half battle with swift currents and foaming eddies dangerously complicated with wires and treetops. Snatching a mouthful of coffee occasionally as they came to shore, the cadets worked unceasingly.”

Third Street Bridge after it was destroyed in the 1913 flood,
testifying to the fierceness of the currents against which
the Culver cadets were rowing.
Credit" Cass County Historical Society
In another boat, Rossow soon realized that because the Wabash flows from north to south, the floodwaters’ current was particularly fierce through intersections with north-south streets. “As we pushed deeper into the area, these currents began, more and more, to sweep us sideward as we crossed one street after another,” Rossow wrote. “Suddenly, as the prow of our heavy cutter nosed into the intersection of one of the last north and south streets that we would have to cross, a current of unbelievable force careened the craft diagonally across the street. Red Drake [a cadet], caught unawares and off-balance, was nearly swept overboard by the suddenly jibing long tiller.” 

Likewise, the powerful current pushed Gignilliat’s cutter into a huge guy wire, causing the craft to tip dangerously. “Nearly pulling their young arms out of their sockets, and with the help of a boy in the bow with a boat hook, who, without orders from me, did just the right thing on his own initiative, they extricated us from the guy wire,” Gignilliat recalled.

Yes, the cadets had mastered their summer training well, Rossow observed: “We swept into the flood, one, two, three blocks, the heavy 14-foot oars clunking in the thwarts with exact precision, the sweeps catching the water in beautiful timing. They rowed like veterans of a racing shell, their reaches forward, between strokes, smooth and effortless.  . . .  Most of them were boys whom I had had personal contact. I knew what was in them.”

A tender touch
“I shall never cease to marvel at the strength and endurance of those teenaged boys, who labored at the oars for two days with scant time for food or rest,” Gignilliat wrote. “During the afternoon they kept steadily on, although half blinded by a driving snowstorm and with hands so cold they could, with difficulty, retain their grasp of the oars.”

Cutter No. 6, shown here, was in charge of Capt. Harold Bays, who directed Culver’s horse-drawn artillery. Each cutter was 28 feet long, 8 feet wide, and weighed 3,000 pounds. Credit: Cass County Historical Society
“Something else that I shall not forget about those boys was their tenderness with the old and the young and the sick,” Gignilliat continued. “Maybe it was a woman with a baby, maybe a bed-ridden old woman with the stoicism of age, maybe a shivering, frightened child. All were helped into the boat with the solicitude those boys might have shown their own mothers or grandmothers or little sisters in distress.” One particularly poignant rescue struck him: “One helpless old man in the arms of his cadet rescuer said, ‘I am not afraid for you to carry me down the ladder, comrade. This is the third time that I have been carried by a soldier—twice when wounded in the Civil War.’”

 Logansport resident John Beatty added his own praise by writing in a Logansport or Indianapolis newspaper, “I want to say that Logansport owes a debt of thanks and gratitude to the brave boys of Culver Academy. How our hearts leaped with joy when they appeared on Linden Avenue with strong boats Wednesday morning. When the storm beat down upon them, they worked with cheerfulness, willingness and tenderness that invoked our admiration.”

Cutter No. 13, with a second boat right behind, makes a return trip to rescue residents and row them to safety. Notice the men standing at the right on a wagon, either watching with interest or awaiting their turn. Credit: Culver Academies Archives
By the second evening (Thursday, March 27), under a hundred teenaged boys in four cutters had rescued more than 1,400 people—Rossow, with improbable precision, puts the tally at 1,492—from the inundated district, with no serious injuries to themselves. By then, the waters had receded too far to make it possible for the cadets to lug the boats back to the railroad for the return to Culver. Thus, after securing the cutters, the boys instead marched by a long detour back to the depot. En route, Gignilliat witnessed another miracle: “By all the laws of nature, they should have been exhausted, but they went their way with a swinging step, singing, and occasionally giving a school yell.”

The Logansport Gate
By April 1913, the waters had receded from Logansport. That spring and summer, the city embarked on the long slog of shoveling out the mud and devastation and starting to rebuild. But it did not forget Culver. In September 1913, the Logansport City Council voted $500—equivalent to about $11,000 today—to build a bronze and brick memorial gate at the entrance to Culver Military Academy as an enduring commemoration of the city’s gratitude for the valiant life-saving work of the Culver cadets.

An unidentified woman prepares
to christen one of the brick columns
that make up the Logansport Gate,
a gift of Logansport residents
in appreciation of Culver’s life-saving
service during the 1913 flood.
Credit: Culver Academies Archives
Work began on the gate in the fall of 1913. The completed gate was formally dedicated on May 20, 1914 with the celebration of “Logansport Day,” for which some 4,000 residents of Logansport—a fifth of its population—boarded two trains to journey 40 miles north to Culver to express their personal thanksgiving.

Mythic leadership power of story
Telling of the story of the brave and spirited Culver cadets at Logansport began immediately. Two days after returning, wiry young Springs—who had acquitted himself well in the emergency—sent a long letter to his father about the flood, omitting the fact that he had stowed away in order to take part in the rescue. Gignilliat and Rossow both wrote accounts of the extraordinary event shortly after returning to Culver, and in 1916 Gignilliat recounted the incident in his book Arms and the Boy

Bronze plaque on the Logansport Gate.
Credit: Culver Academies Archives
Since August 2003, every student entering Culver has passed through that Logansport Gate. The gate is the site of the formal opening of the academic year with the Matriculation Ceremony, at which some 250 new students are formally welcomed into the Academies (Culver Military Academy and Culver Girls Academy). With the addition of the Leadership Plaza in 2002, the area represents the virtues and attributes personified by the cadets at Logansport: courage, justice, duty, honor, wisdom, service, moderation, and truth.

Harvard professor of psychology Howard Gardner and his coauthor Emma Laskin, in their 1995 book Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, explore how leaders “markedly influence the behaviors, thoughts, and/or feelings of a significant number of their fellow human beings” by telling or embodying memorable stories that speak profoundly to other people, crystallizing a strong sense of identity, coherence, and purpose. 

“The story of the Logansport Gate is part of the stories that schools tell and pass along to others forming a known roadmap of their culture and history,” observed Culver’s current Principal and Dean of Faculty Kathy Lintner. Such stories “also show us what it means to be human and our responsibilities to one another. The phone call from the mayor of Logansport represented what mythologist Joseph Campbell terms ‘the call to adventure,’ which a group of teenage boys and their adult mentors answered. They endured physical hardships, hunger, and fatigue, but those faded against the backdrop of saving human lives and treating each person with tender care and respect. 

And they returned to Culver as changed people. The story of that flood and the symbol of the gate itself are reminders to us of the living ideals that have always been the bedrock of the school. When new students walk through Logansport Gate at matriculation, they make a commitment to enter a larger world and carry on the Culver tradition of responsible leadership.”

Living the history
A few years ago, Culver’s administrative team realized that many students did not know the deeper significance of the Matriculation Ceremony at the Logansport Gate or the school’s role at Logansport. Simply hearing about that incident was deemed not enough. 
New cadets take a surfboat out on Lake Maxinkuckee
to experience what it takes to handle the large boats
and to work together as a team. In 1913, however,
though the cadets were more experienced, the boats
were larger, and the raging waters of the swollen rivers
far more troublesome than the tranquil lake.
Creidt: Culver Academies Archives

Before school starts, new cadets visit Logansport
to see firsthand the extent of the flooding in 1913
and to better understand what Culver cadets faced and
. Credit: Culver Academies Archives
Now, on the morning of matriculation, new cadets undergo an experience which brings them more in touch with the original event. They climb into modern versions of the Naval cutters and learn to use them on Lake Maxinkuckee. Following that, the nearly 300 new cadets and girls are bused the 40 miles to Logansport to see where the flood and rescues happened. The young students gawk when they see the lines drawn above their heads on the sides of buildings marking the high point of the 1913 flood waters. Following the tour of the town, the students eat lunch in a city park along the Wabash River, often welcomed by the mayor or a representative of the city of Logansport. 

“All new cadets must learn the history and lessons of Logansport as part of becoming full members of the CMA [Culver Military Academy] Corps of Cadets,” said Col. Kelly Jordan, commandant from 2008 through June 2013, and originator of the Logansport trip. “We use this trip as a leadership opportunity for our current students. The adults help set the stage and provide context for the event, but during the trip upper-class boys and girls lead discussions among the small groups from each unit/dorm to help identify and discuss the leadership issues related to various parts of the event,” Jordan said. “The trip culminates by having each group of new students provide reports to their peers about the leadership lessons they learned to help each other connect the students to their heritage.” According to Jordan, “the new cadets/students come out of the event with a greater appreciation of the sacrifices of their predecessors and what it means to be a Culver student, and the upper-class cadets/students acquire a deeper understanding of the history and heritage of their school and what is expected of Culver graduates.”

Main text © 2014 Culver Academies
Author Davies at the Logansport Gate.
Credit: Culver Academy Archives
About the author: Richard Davies retired in May 2008 after 42 years with the Academies. During his career he taught history and humanities, coached crew, was Troop A counselor, coordinated the Ninth-Grade Program, directed the World Spirituality Series, and held the W.A. Moncrief Jr. Chair of American Democratic Heritage. He and Principal Kathy Lintner developed the Myth & Lit course, which has garnered national attention. Using the campus as a backdrop, Davies has authored three novels integrating European and Native American lore. 


Value of military training
To Gignilliat, the dramatic rescues of 1,400 flood-trapped residents by several dozen teenagers demonstrated not just leadership, but specifically illustrated the clear value of military training in schools and colleges, a viewpoint he explored in his 1916 book Arms and the Boy. “I do not mean to say that boys of a civilian school would not have been just as anxious to lend the aid that these cadets did, but what I mean to say is they could not have done it,” he asserted.  “Even if they had the physical endurance, they would have lacked the organization, the perfect coordination. Obedience had to be automatic; there were times when instant response to commands, absolute coolness, and absence of confusion meant, perhaps, the lives of a boat load of people.

“It was not the fact that these boys rendered this service but that they did it so effectively, without slip or accident and merely as a matter of course, that I consider it such a fine demonstration of military discipline,” Gignilliat continued. “The people of Logansport have erected in commemoration of this service a handsome gate at the entrance of the school. It seems most fitting that the cadets of this school, as they enter and as they leave, should have this reminder of the value of discipline and efficiency and the ideals of service to their fellow men.” –T.E.B.


Logansport flood and Culver rescues in photographs
For the centennial of the 1913 flood in Logansport, Indiana, the Cass County Historical Society issued a commemorative books of photographs. In 1994, for the school’s centennial, the Culver Academies published several first-person accounts of the Logansport flood in a single volume. The two books are:

Conrad, Thelma (compiler and editor). Rain and River: Remembering the Flood of 1913, Logansport, Indiana. Cass County Historical Society, 1004 East Market Street, Logansport, IN 46947. 2013. ii. 88 pages. Hardbound. Rich photographic record of the overflowing of the Wabash River and flooding of Logansport, Indiana, as documented principally by professional photographers from four photographic studios in the city. The book, compiled and edited by the CCHS’s Executive Director, features more than 160 images—the best of the CCHS’s collection of postcards and photographs—printed on coated paper with extended captions. Also included are notes and observations of observers trapped in buildings, quotes from newspapers, and excerpts of letters. No bibliography or index. Sold at the Cass County Historical Society; for ordering the book by mail ($25 per copy plus $5 for shipping and handling), contact the author at the society at 574-753-3866 or e mail

Gignilliat, Lt. Col. Leigh R., Capt. Robert Rossow, and Cadet Elliott White Springs. Logansport—The Flood, March 1913. Assembled and edited by Robert B. D. Hartman.  Culver Academies. 1994. 57 pages. The Second Century Series, The Culver Educational Foundation, Culver, Indiana, 46511. Three first-hand accounts of the dramatic rescue of more than 1,400 citizens of Logansport, Indiana, by a group of cadets and faculty of the Culver Military Academy (as it was then called). The story is recounted by then-superintendent Col. L.R. Gignilliat, by Black Horse Troop director (and war veteran, yarn-spinner and adventurer) Col. Robert Rossow, and by cadet Elliot White Springs, plus a brief excerpt from a letter by a Logansport woman. $13.95. Available at the Culver Military Academy campus bookstore or can be ordered online. –T.E.B.

Next time: Refusing Disaster Aid

Selected references
Guest author Richard Davies explores the power of myth and storytelling about the Logansport flood in greater depth in his full five-page illustrated feature article “Rising Above the Challenge: On the Flooded Streets of Logansport, Indiana” as published in the Spring 2013 Culver Alumni Magazine, online here, pages 28–32. This article also drew on information in the Culver Millitary Academy yearbook The Roll Call in the volumes for 1913 and 1914, plus in the school newspaper The Vedette, 1913. 

More about the meteorological particulars of the Logansport flood can be found on the website of the Silver Jackets. Details about the Logansport Gate as well as the Logansport flood and the Culver cadets’ rescues appear here

See also Col. L.R. Gignilliat, Arms and the Boy: Military Training in Schools and Colleges (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill,1916) especially pages 3–6 and 115. A facsimile of the entire book was printed in 2003 by Culver Academies, with a modern introduction by John N. Buxton, Head of Schools.

By the way, stowaway Cadet Springs went on to fame and fortune as a World War I ace pilot and textile magnate, creating the Springmaid brand of bed and bath linens still popular today. Histories of Springs Industries appear here and here.