His life in treacherous danger, a telephone engineer patched together an emergency circuit from Dayton to Columbus. In the Ohio Statehouse, newly inaugurated Governor James M. Cox—and publisher of the Dayton Daily News—used the blockbuster story of Dayton’s flooding to save Ohio.
Seeing black floodwaters cascading down the steps into the basement where vast ranks of batteries power Dayton’s telephone system, John A. Bell at the Main Exchange of the Central Union Telephone Company knows he has only moments to act. Praying that the torrent will not pull him off balance, Bell slogs down the stairs, now invisible in the darkness under the veritable waterfall. By a lantern’s flickering flame, more by feel than by sight In the dimness, Bell disconnects several of the large batteries. Feeling the icy water at his calves and rising fast, he loads the heavy batteries into his arms, and begins climbing upstairs against the strong current.Then, hands shaking with adrenalin, Bell grabs a telephone circuit test set and climbs alone to the slippery roof of the Main Exchange. Pelted by freezing rain, fingers growing numb and clumsy with cold, he manages after several hours to establish an emergency communications circuit to Phoneton—a small Ohio village eight miles north of Dayton with a huge role in the nation’s growing Bell Telephone system. Before 1899, the hamlet had been scarcely more than a crossroads, without so much as a post office or even its own name. But through pure luck of geography, the location was right where the rapidly expanding American Telephone & Telegraph Company’s long-distance telephone network needed a repeater station to boost the strength of signals carried on wires stretching from Pittsburgh to Chicago. So in the midst of vast farmland, AT&T built a three-story communications nerve center that rapidly became one of the largest communications hubs in its long-distance network. Bustling with more than 40 employees, in rooms filled with the humming of the mammoth vacuum-tube amplifier for the repeater, the ceaseless clicking of telegraph keys fed news and updates to the AP, UPI, and other newswires. Homes and businesses sprang up into a town quickly dubbed “Phonetown” for its major industry, then just as quickly shortened to Phoneton—a name that became synonymous with the AT&T facilities there.
Most importantly for the night of Tuesday March 25–Wednesday March 26, 1913, Phoneton had telephone circuits and lines dedicated to emergency communications.Relieved at last to hear, through crackling static, a welcome female voice on the patched emergency circuit, Bell asks that a call be put through to newly inaugurated Ohio Governor James M. Cox at the Statehouse in Columbus. Soon Bell—District Plant Chief for Central Union, but still basically a telephone operator—is talking directly to the governor himself. Not only that, but Cox asks Bell to keep the line open and to describe in accurate detail everything he sees through Central Union’s rain-streaked windows of the deep and terrible flood now surging through downtown Dayton.
Why should a state governor care what a telephone operator can see? Cox was also publisher of the Dayton Daily News, which he had purchased at age 28 and systematically built into a powerful regional newspaper for southwest Ohio. Early on Tuesday, March 25—the morning Dayton’s levees burst and walls of water up to 10 feet high surged through downtown—Cox had received a frantic phone call from his managing editor, reporting that the muddy floodwaters had invaded the first floor of the Daily News building and were submerging the newspaper’s brand new three-deck press. In the midst of the editor’s call, the line went dead.Absolute silence follows. No word out of Dayton—not about the newspaper, the city, the deaths, the scale of the flood—nothing.
Then—comes Bell’s unexpected emergency telephone connection through Phoneton. That thin copper wire is the first direct link from Dayton to the outside world, and the only telephone line working between Dayton and the state capitol. As both veteran journalist and first-term governor, Cox asks detailed questions and Bell methodically answers them, while walking from window to window and even climbing to the Central Union rooftop to scan the city skyline with binoculars. By day, Bell reports seeing periodic explosions and fires igniting from burst natural gas lines, and counts the number of people he sees running across rooftops to escape the flames. By night, he describes how the flames luridly light up the clouds and reflect off the waters churning through the streets below. Bell keeps up a running account of all he observes, until he himself if forced to sign off and escape when the Main Exchange itself seems threatened by fires coming ever nearer. “No ancient bridge famed in song and legend was more tenaciously held than was that telephone line from Dayton to Phoneton by plucky John Bell,” declared the Flood Edition of the Bell Telephone News.Bell is not the only telephone man having the governor’s ear. Another is Central Union Division Toll Wire Chief Thomas E. Green, who is troubleshooting at a long-distance test board in Columbus when a call breaks in: “We must have help or we’ll be wiped out!” Dangerously high water is inundating the town of La Rue and coursing down the Scioto River toward Columbus. Green puts a call through to the Statehouse, and from then on—despite the fact that Green’s wife was under the knife for an emergency operation—keeps lines open for the governor to direct the National Guard, command the movements of relief trains, and call for Federal life-saving crews to make their way into flood zones.
From the windows of the Statehouse in Columbus, Cox sees with his own eyes how badly Columbus also is inundated. The Statehouse itself is plunged into darkness when raging floodwaters submerge the power plant. For 38 hours straight, in the midst of chaos, Cox is an island of calm. Working by the flickering light of candles and military torches, he calls for the Ohio State Legislature to appropriate $250,000 in emergency aid (equivalent to about $11 million today), he declares a 10-day bank holiday to shore up financial markets, and he appeals to newly inaugurated U.S. President Woodrow Wilson for Federal help.Cox appeals to President Wilson because Cox is one of the first to grasp the truly epic scale of the natural disaster that is sweeping over the entire state of Ohio. As an editor and publisher, he welcomes newspaper and wire-service reporters into the Statehouse. Not only does Cox give detailed daily press briefings—many citing the heroic actions of Bell and Green—but he asks the entire nation to open hearts and wallets for donations of money, clothes, and goods. Newspaper accounts with Cox’s appeals flash around the world, exciting national attention and a veritable flood of sympathy about the plight of Dayton and Ohio.
After the floodwaters recede, Cox moves swiftly to immortalize the heroism of John Bell and Tom Green, by awarding each young man a gold medal.©2012–2013 Trudy E. Bell. For permission to reprint or use, contact Trudy E. Bell.
Next time: Be Very Afraid...
Captions to second, third, and fourth images:Telephone circuits the long way around flood zones. Map shows how Wire Chief Thomas Green and other AT&T toll line experts had to route lines on five connections for Governor Cox. Although Zanesville is only 54 miles from Columbus, circumventing the downed lines and poles in Ohio’s vast flood zones required patching together lines totaling 601 miles. The route between Columbus and Dayton via Phoneton needed to be “only” 143 miles to cross a distance of 68 miles. (Credit: Flood Edition, Bell Telephone News, p. 24)
Ohio’s chief executive an island of calm. Praise for fast action by Governor Cox in responding to the statewide devastation of the 1913 flood made newspaper headlines. Articles such as this one (far right two columns) in the Cleveland Leader (Saturday, March 29) praising his executive ability doubtless helped Cox seven years later in 1920 when he ran against Warren G. Harding for U.S. President. Although Cox himself did not win, his Vice Presidential running mate—none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt—eventually did. Cox returned to his journalistic roots and formed Cox Enterprises, Inc., the media company still thriving today that includes Cox Communications for internet and cable TV.Bird’s-eye view of Ohio’s greatest natural disaster. The Cleveland Plain Dealer very early (Thursday, March 27) printed a dramatic illustration fully a newspaper page wide depicting the vast statewide scope of the 1913 flood sweeping Ohio from Lake Erie to the Ohio River.
Selected referencesBackground about publisher, governor, and unsuccessful U.S. Presidential candidate James M. Cox as well as his personal recollections of the 1913 flood can be found in:
Cebula, James E., James M. Cox: Journalist and Politician, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985.Cox, James M., Journey Through My Years: An Autobiography, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946.
Detailed information about Phoneton’s role in the AT&T long-distance network is in the long history Deeter, Judy, “Phoneton – The Village Founded by a PhoneCompany,” Miami County News blog May 2012. For that role, Phoneton is also commemorated with historical markers. See “Marker#30-55 Phoneton,” Remarkable Ohio: Marking Ohio’s History, Ohio Historical Society, and the program from the “Unveilingof the Ohio National Road Phoneton Interpretive Sign,” September 6, 2011, [at U.S. Route 40 and Ohio State Route 202].
Newspapers: issues from the Cleveland Leader and the Cleveland Plain DealerBell, 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)