Out of the rubble, mud, and ashes of Easter 1913 tornadoes and floods that devastated a third of the United States, Rotary discovered its mission of humanitarian service. Unpublished letters and meeting minutes discovered in Rotary’s archives reveal the backstory.
[Brief primer for non-Rotarians: Rotary International is is perhaps the largest humanitarian service organization in the world with 1.2 million members worldwide, dedicated to eradicating polio and providing disaster relief through its nonprofit Rotary Foundation. But it wasn’t always that way. In 1913, eight-year-old Rotary was still a small, business-oriented fraternal organization somewhat in search of a purpose. The Great Easter 1913 tornadoes and flood changed everything…]
In the gray dawn, two Cincinnati doctors and a motorboat pilot board their big rescue motorboat and push themselves into the flood-swollen Miami River
|Cincinnati Rotarians organized relief efforts for Dayton. Carl Merkel, A. Nielsen, and Edward H. Thompson were among them. Credit: The Rotarian, March 1913.|
south of Dayton, Ohio, towing a boat-trailer of medical supplies. Weary and bleary-eyed from three long days of hauling flood victims out of frigid water and ministering to endless broken bones, lacerations, and near-drownings, the three men fail to see the submerged concrete dam near the town of Franklin until the torrential muddy current carries the motorboat right over it.
With a sickening crunch, the heavily-laden boat-trailer rams against the upstream side of the dam. In an instant, the motorboat on the downstream side capsizes, throwing out the three men. The pilot Carl Merkel and young A. Nielsen, who couldn't swim a stroke, get clear, saved by their life preservers. But a small rope loop dangling from the motorboat's stern wraps around the left ankle of the other doctor Edward H. Thompson.
Dayton Rotary club doctor H.H. Herman told of one family who walked five blocks over telegraph and telephone cables to reach high ground, the father carrying his baby in a pillow tied around his neck. Note the mother on hands and knees on the wires. Herman himself personally treated at least 4,000 flood victims at the National Cash Register (NCR) Co. and established relief stations around the stricken city. Credit: Miami Conservancy District.
Engine roaring full throttle, the motorboat spins over and over in the frigid depths, crashing against the submerged concrete dam. With every flip, the rope thrashes Thompson helplessly around and around, his head held above water by his life preserver. Powerless against the churning water, Thompson cannot reach his foot to release the rope. The freezing current strips his heavy leather coat from his back and pours into his hip boots until they feel weighted with lead.
In a flash, Thompson remembers his pocket knife. With his teeth, he pulls off his leather automobile gloves--only to be dismayed when the water's force drags the sleeves of his bulky sweater down over his hands. Desperate, Thompson literally chews through the sweater sleeves to free his numbing fingers, finds his knife in his pocket, manages to open it, and renews his struggle to reach the rope.
Suddenly, the battered buoyancy air chambers in the motorboat let go. The heavy boat sinks like a stone, plunging Thompson to the bottom with it. Resisting the urge to inhale the filthy floodwaters, Thompson finally reaches his left foot and cuts the rope. He shoots to the surface. The moment he reaches air and gasps for breath, his lungs feel as though they explode in agony. He retches and vomits as he is swept downriver, held afloat by his life preserver and stabilized upright by his water-filled hip boots. Just as he loses consciousness, he becomes dimly aware of people running alongside the riverbank, shouting that Nielsen is floating some distance ahead.
The next thing Thompson knows, he is lying on a cold riverbank slippery with mud, with six doctors frantically working over him. He and Nielsen had been pulled from the current by two athletic rivermen, who also rescued Merkel upstream where he had fetched up onto an island of debris caught in half-submerged tree branches. The big motorboat, the boat-trailer full of surgical instruments and other supplies, two cameras, and hundreds of exposed photographic plates were all irretrievably lost.
The angry floodwaters won that small round in the early morning of Sunday, March 30, 1913. But before needing rescue themselves, the three men had heroically saved the lives of nearly 200 people and relieved the suffering of countless others. The big motorboat, fully equipped for rescue work, had been sent to Dayton by Cincinnati Rotarian Rudolph H. Wurlitzer, violinist and violin collector with the well-known Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., maker of organs and other musical instruments, along with Wurlitzer employee Merkel. Thompson himself, one of the best-known physicians and surgeons in the city of Cincinnati, was a member of the Cincinnati Rotary Club.
Indeed, for the first time since Rotary was founded eight years earlier, hundreds of Rotarians spontaneously risked their own lives in the ultimate service of saving thousands during the Great Easter 1913 natural disaster across the Midwest. Ruined were steel mills, manufacturing plants, shipping ports, water treatment plants, roads, canals, railroad yards, bridges, schools, churches, and other assets of the industrial North. Tornado and flood victims and property damaged were not only rural farms and immigrant poor, but regal homes and office buildings of affluent titans of industry. Nor was the flood yet done with the country: throughout all of April and into early May, the flood crests surging down the Mississippi River burst levees in Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee, and Arkansas, and set new record heights all the way down to New Orleans.
The disaster also electrified and transformed Rotary.
Service above self, indeed
Hardly a week earlier, on the evening of Easter Sunday, March 23, George J. Duncan, secretary and treasurer of the two-year-old Omaha Rotary Club had just sat down to Easter dinner with his mother and sister. When at 11 minutes before 6 PM Duncan heard a sickening freight-train roar of a massive tornado crunching granite and uprooting trees rapidly approaching, he knew he had just seconds to act.
|Credit: The Rotarian, May 1913|
Grabbing the wrists of the two women, the 40-year-old advertising manager of the Omaha Bee hastened them down wooden stairs into the damp unfinished cellar of their house. Quickly seeing that the floor joists over one small room in the basement seemed especially well braced, he helped them over low a partition into the crowded space. Just as he was struggling to climb in after them, the Omaha tornado smashed the house off its foundations with a scream of splintering timbers and shattering glass. The next instant, Duncan was crushed beneath falling wreckage. In horror and grief, mother and sister watched the life ooze from this genial storyteller of a son and brother who had laid down his own life to rescue them.
That same moment, Omaha club president Daniel J. Baum, caught outdoors with his little daughter just four blocks away from the tornado, witnessed the terrifying jet black whirling mass fill the sky and then roar past, leaving just rubble and fires and the piercing wails of grief-stricken wives and mothers mourning the sudden loss of husbands and children. As torrential rains began to fall onto the ruins, Baum realized the scale of relief and reconstruction needed by the injured and homeless far exceeded the capabilities of Omaha's Rotary Club, which had fewer than 70 members.
Immediately, Baum both telegraphed and wrote a formal letter to Chesley R. Perry, secretary of the International Association of Rotary Clubs in Chicago:
It is beyond human power to describe. A path [eight] miles in length and one-half mile in width was swept out of this city through the most thickly populated section. ... Those of us who are here today are here only through an act of Providence, and it brings us to the true realization that we owe a great deal to humanity in a time of such intense need. ... I would like to ask you to send a copy of this letter to every Rotarian outside the city of Omaha, requesting a cash subscription of, at least, five dollars [equivalent to about $125 today] and as much more as they can spare, to a relief fund... The spirit of Rotary now has this opportunity of being widely felt.
By the time Perry received Baum's appeal from Omaha, other Rotarians had telegraphed their own appeals from the depths of the flood to the east. “The
|Credit: Rotary archives|
storm and its effects have been so wide spread that one hardly knows which way to turn either to secure or to distribute relief funds,” Perry replied to Baum. “...it would seem as tho [sic] we might have to call upon Omaha to contribute rather than to pay money into Omaha. I am sure you will appreciate my desire to get into touch with President Mead” in Philadelphia, although there were practically no telegraph, train, or postal services east of Chicago.
By Saturday, March 29, Rotary’s president Glenn C. Mead telegraphed Baum: “Have wired all clubs to aid Rotary and other sufferers in Omaha and Dayton. Understand some clubs have already responded. Duncan's death terrible shock, energy of yourself and club splendid. Command us.”
Meantime, individual Rotarians were already ahead of that official call. Earlier that week, as soon as the first appalling headlines screamed from newsboys' extras about the swath of death and mutilation wreaked across Omaha (the 1913 tornado still ranks as Nebraska’s single deadliest) and the flood destruction of Dayton (first major city to get news of the floods out to the world), Rotarians sprang into action. In Omaha, they assisted not only with immediate relief but also with comprehensive plans for rebuilding the city. In Columbus, the Rotary club provided shoes and underwear to local poor children whose families had lost everything. Individual members of the Indianapolis Rotary Club contributed cash, clothing, furniture, and personal labor. Although Cincinnati itself had also been swept by the floodwaters, the Cincinnati Rotary Club rushed money, food, clothing, and medicines by motor trucks (then an uncommon vehicle) to hard-hit Hamilton and other stricken Ohio towns and rural areas.
The scale of some Rotarians' relief efforts was truly staggering. On Thursday, March 27, just hours after hearing the first news out of Omaha and Dayton, nineteen key Syracuse businessmen put together a joint committee of the
|Syracuse's University Block|
Syracuse Chamber of Commerce and the Syracuse Rotary Club. The joint Chamber/Rotary committee established a temporary relief headquarters on the ground floor of the University Block (a large downtown building constructed in 1897 to hold Syracuse University's College of Law), downstairs from the Chamber of Commerce.
From there, the joint committee launched what it called a campaign “with cyclonic rapidity” modeled on the then-new, exciting, and wildly successful “whirlwind” fund-raising technique pioneered in the previous decade by Charles Sumner Ward and Lyman Pierce for the YMCA. The committee's goal: within 24 hours, to raise as many donations as possible of money, blankets, medicines, food, and other relief supplies for filling a special train to be sent to Dayton and Omaha the next night, Friday, March 28.
Chaired by jeweler and Rotarian Charles H. Howe and with two treasurers (James M. Gilbert of the Syracuse Trust Co., a member of the Chamber of Commerce, and Frank L. Barnes of the Syracuse National Bank, a member of the Rotary Club), the joint Chamber/Rotary committee sent announcements to the local newspapers, took out at least one newspaper display ad, and with a newly installed telephone (phone number Warren 60) began telephoning merchants and other leading citizens to solicit donations.
Syracuse residents rose to the occasion with impulsive enthusiasm. The ice skating arena donated all its proceeds for that day to the cause; the Grand Opera House announced a benefit performance for Sunday with all vaudeville actors and house employees donating their labor. A continual stream of individual donors brought clothing and other supplies to the University Block, while eight “auto trucks” (then an unusual vehicle) drove every city street to
pick up larger donations from residents. Three more trucks carried accumulated supplies to the freight rail yards to a big Merchants Dispatch refrigerator car. The New York Central and other railroads offered to transport all the supplies into stricken flood areas free of charge, assuming all the risk of track washouts and other mishaps.
“ The downtown section of Syracuse...took on the appearance of a supply post for a besieging army...,” recounted Syracuse’s Post-Standard:
Business was practically suspended while great quantities of food and clothing were being gathered from all parts of the city. Merchants and manufacturers contributed goods in boxes and bales. Prominent business men worked like laborers crating loose articles. School children gave their pennies. Those who had nothing to offer financially went to the supply station in the University Block and offered their services. ...A large crowd watched the work of loading the trucks in front of the supply station [at the University Block]. Bales and boxes piled high on the curbs and trucks were loading and unloading supplies on the busy corner all day.
Friday night, March 28, the train car of supplies left Syracuse over the New York Central lines, consigned to the Mayor of Dayton in care of the American Red Cross, and miraculously managed to get its precious cargo through the floodwaters and into Dayton overnight. Meantime, $2,000 in cash was wired to the Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The effort was so wildly successful that the joint committee decided to continue the work for another few days, setting up additional relief stations at local schools, sending out two additional train cars of supplies by Wednesday, April 2. The eventual tally of goods and cash raised in a week through the efforts of the Syracuse Rotary Club was $7,125—equivalent to some $175,000 in purchasing power today.
From commercial to humanitarian
Meanwhile at the Chicago headquarters of the International Association of Rotary Clubs, Perry and other officers were nonplussed. Rotary clubs worldwide had been founded for fellowship among business professionals and to explore the exciting new “Rotary idea” of service as being “no less than the Golden Rule applied to business.” Members were still experimenting with catch-phrases to encapsulate that idea: an October 1912 article in The Rotarian explored service as “enlightened selfishness” and a January 1913 article was based on the text “He who serves best, profits most.”
|Ultimately, all 57 Rotary clubs in |
existence donated goods and services
to 1913 disaster relief. Credit:
The Rotarian, August 1913
Given the commercial context, disaster relief and humanitarian aid was not part of the organization's charter or original concept of service. Indeed, the International Association of Rotary Clubs “had never contemplated in engaging in any such work,” explained the anonymous May 1913 article in The Rotarian about Duncan’s death, “and due precaution had to be exercised by its officers lest they act too hastily or ill-advisedly under the impulse of the moment and thereby embarrass the Association in the future.”
Thus, on Saturday, April 5, 1913, the Executive Committee convened in Chicago—a meeting that also included Rotary founder and former president Paul P. Harris. At that extraordinary gathering, the International Association of Rotary Clubs voted to send initial emergency relief funds totaling $7,000—equivalent to over $160,000 today: $2,000 each to Omaha, Dayton, and the National Red Cross, plus another $1,000 to the flood-stricken capital of Ohio, Columbus.
With that vote, Rotary officially shouldered the mantle of humanitarian relief.
Eventually, that total swelled to some $25,000. Every affiliated Rotary club worldwide forwarded money or goods collectively totaling some $25,000—an amount equivalent in purchasing power today of nearly $620,000. Fifteen clubs raised at least $500 (equivalent to nearly $12,500 today).
Ultimately, every one of the International Association's 57 clubs donated either cash or supplies either to the international headquarters or directly to the stricken cities. As best as Perry could tally the numbers, by August both headquarters and individual clubs had raised and disbursed some $25,000 in 1913 dollars. The exact amount will likely never be known: “It was easier to get them to give money than it was to get them to tell of their good deeds,” Perry grumbled. Since in 1913, Rotary was about 10,000 strong, that translated to about $2.50 per member (equivalent to about $62.50 today); more significantly, the total relief fund was literally 150% of the International Association's total 1912–1913 annual budget of about $16,000!
Baum immediately recognized the significance of that vote. Days after that vote and two weeks after the Omaha tornado, he wrote to The Rotarian:
...countless other cities in the middle west are calling for aid, and Rotary is one of the first organizations of wide scope to hear the call. Our work has just begun; a new field of endeavor has been opened up to us, and our byword “SERVICE” takes a new meaning. Service applied commercially is well understood. Service applied along humanitarian lines...means...the good to be accomplished in the future has force behind it never before felt.
|Credit: Rotary archives|
Furthermore, as early as June 1913, Baum already had an idea for establishing a permanent disaster relief fund for Rotary. In a letter to Perry on June 23, he wrote:
As to the balance of $2,000.00 which still remains in the General Relief Fund, I would suggest that it be kept on deposit…[it] is a mighty good nucleus for a General Fund for general relief or aid purposes in the future…for use in the future wherever relief or assistance might call for national help. Think this over a little more.
The experience of going through the 1913 flood, orchestrating relief efforts, and conversing with others likely influenced a number of key Rotarians to think deeply. In 1917, Arch C. Klumph—president of The Cuyahoga Lumber Co. in Cleveland, whose lumber was swept down the Cuyahoga River and into Lake Erie by the 1913 flood, and also president of the Cleveland Rotary Club in 1913—proposed setting up an endowment “for the purpose of doing good in the world.” In 1928, the endowment was renamed the Rotary Foundation, today sponsoring international programs for humanitarian purposes.
©2015 Trudy E. Bell
Next time: The Day the Dam Broke?
A decade ago, I read that the 1913 flood had been Rotary’s first service project, a fact that even appeared in the timeline of Rotary’s new-member literature, plus I kept running across articles in newspapers on microfilm in many cities about relief efforts organized in part by Rotarians. So
after I became active in Rotary in 2008, I dived deeply into Rotary’s history, not only through microfilmed copies of its monthly magazine, but also through contacting Rotary International’s archives and working with archivists Robin Dillow and Susan Hanf, who finally found key letters, minutes, and an official report in long-undisturbed off-site storage. Historical sleuthing doesn’t get better than that! My feature article “The Great Flood of 1913” was published in the March 2011 issue of The Rotarian, but far too many great stories and too much essential history couldn’t be included—hence this installment. (Note for non-Rotarians: the post’s title is a nod to Rotary’s motto “Service Above Self.”)
Thompson's extraordinary near-drowning story after having been thrown from the motorboat is recounted in first-person detail in Carl Dehoney, "How Cincinnati Helped Her Neighbors," The Rotarian 3 (9): 26–28, May 1913.
Duncan’s death is described in "He Gave His Life to Serve Others," The Rotarian 3 (9): 13–14, May 1913 and in Allen H. Earl, History of the Rotary Club of Omaha, 1911–1961, Golden Anniversary Edition (vol. 1 History 1911–1935), p. 13. (Earl reproduces documents showing that the Omaha club was founded in 1911 but chartered as Rotary Club No. 37 in June 2, 1913. The first president Frank I. Ellick is also noted to have been an indirect victim of the tornado, working himself so hard during the relief effort that he suffered a breakdown.)
Daniel Baum Jr., "The Wrath of the Tornado," The Rotarian 3 (9): 19, May 1913.
Drummond, J.F. “The Service Idea.” The Rotarian 3 (5): 37. January 1913.
C.R.P. [Chesley R. Perry] "The Rotary General Relief Fund Report," The Rotarian 3(12): 59, August 1913.
Perry, Chesley R. “Rotarianism.” The Rotarian 3 (4): 51. December 1912.
Phillips, T.A. “The Evolution of an Enlightened Selfishness.” The Rotarian 3 (2): 17. October 1912
"Report of Secretary Chesley R. Perry," The Rotarian 4(1): 23–27, September 1913, including "International Association of Rotary Clubs. Statement of Business. For the period from 10th August, 1912, to 30th June, 1913" on p. 25.
Tidbits also appear in McDowell, John. From Flood to Fire: The History of the Indianapolis Rotary Club 1913–1969. Indianapolis Rotary Club. 1969.
Unpublished letters and documents in Subject Files box 431, folder D61R Disasters and relief Vol. 2, 1913-1938-39 (United States), barcode 975091, History and Archives of Rotary International:
Letter from Daniel Baum Jr. to Chesley R. Perry, March 24, 1913.
Letter from Daniel Baum Jr. to Chesley R. Perry, March 29, 1913.
Letter from Daniel Baum Jr. to President Glenn C. Mead, [April 1,] 1913.
Letter from Chesley R. Perry to Daniel Baum Jr., April 5, 1913. Paul Harris is not mentioned in the "Excerpt from Minutes of Meeting of Board of Directors of R.I. April 5, 1913, (Library Copy), Disaster Relief" but “former President Harris” is specifically mentioned as being "in conference" with the Executive Committee in this letter from Perry to Baum written that same day recounting the meeting.
R. F. Chapin. “Report Upon the Omaha Tornado Situation.” Unpublished report by Rotary’s International Treasurer. 1913.
Cutlip, Scott M. Fundraising in the United States: Its Role in America’s Philanthropy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. 1990.
Williamson, Samuel H. "Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present," MeasuringWorth, 2015.
"To Send Aid to Flood Sufferers," Syracuse Journal, March 27, 1913, p. 2.
"Syracuse to Send Relief to Dayton Flood Victims," The Post Standard, March 28, 1913, p. 6.
"Clothing and Money Ready for Dayton Victims," Syracuse Journal, March 28, 1913, p. 2; this article lists the 11 members of the Chamber of Commerce and the eight members of the Rotary Club who formed the joint committee.
"$2,000 in Cash, Car of Supplies Sent to Dayton," The Post-Standard, Syracuse, March 29, 1913, p. 6.
"Second Loaded Car Leaves for Dayton To-day," Syracuse Journal, March 29, 1913, p. 6.
"Nearly $5,000 is Raised for Flood Victims," The Post-Standard, March 31, 1913, p. 6.
"$2,800 More to Go to Dayton," Syracuse Journal, March 31, 1913. "5,265.13 Given by Syracuse to Dayton Sufferers," Syracuse Journal, April 1, 1913, p. 6.
"Nearly $6,000 Will Be Sent to Flood Sufferers," Syracuse Journal, April 2, 1913, p. 2.
Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.