Heedless of personal danger, a handful of police officers from the Indianapolis Police Department rescued over 600 people in devastated West Indianapolis during the Great Easter 1913 Flood. By guest author Patrick R. Pearsey
[The extraordinarily powerful and monumental-scale storm system that engulfed the Midwest beginning Easter weekend, March 1913 (see “The First Punch” and “Be Very Afraid...,”) swept Indianapolis with winds topping 60 mph and dropped more than 6 inches of rain in five days. That volume of rain, augmented by the high runoff of torrential rains elsewhere falling on unfrozen, saturated soils that could not absorb the water, rapidly swelled the White River, whose non-navigable west fork wanders through Indianapolis. The low-lying “Valley” section of West
Indianapolis was the city’s hardest-hit area. Patrick R. Pearsey, a 36-year veteran civilian employee of the Indianapolis Police Department (renamed the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department in 2007), pieced together a timeline of how IPD men responded to the crisis—notably young Captain George V. Coffin and Sergeant Harry M. Franklin. –T.E.B.]
The rain that began in the early morning of Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, just kept falling without letup.
Monday, March 24
By 8 AM on Monday, March 24, the west fork of the White River through Indianapolis had risen 7 feet in just 12 hours, and was nudging closer to the record high set in 1904. However, the Indianapolis Star stated the danger was not imminent, based on observations of two officers sent out from the headquarters of the Indianapolis Police Department (IPD) to inspect both banks of White River for a critical 3-mile stretch of low-lying land from West Morris Street to West Michigan Street Upon their return, beat patrolmen were ordered to keep an eye on the streams in their areas and raise an alarm as soon as dangerous conditions were seen.
Still, the downpour continued in Indianapolis--indeed, across Indiana and beyond.
By just a few hours later (Monday noon), the situation was clearly getting grave. Water blocked by the West Washington Street Bridge—the main thoroughfare (on the old National Road) connecting West Indianapolis on the west side of the White River with the downtown of the main city of Indianapolis on the river’s east side—had risen so far that it began cutting into the banks on both sides of the river, flooding tenement buildings on low-lying land. A corps of mounted police and other police officers—likely bicyclemen (officers on bicycles)—rode up and down the streets of West Indianapolis, warning residents of the danger. Some residents started packing to evacuate but others just greeted them with laughs.
The IPD called out its police reserve with boats. When the boats arrived by automobile, Captain George V. Coffin led a squad to direct rescues of people from the tenements around West Washington Street and elsewhere west of White River. At age 37, Coffin had an impressive resume. He had served in the U.S. Army, including during the Philippine Insurrection and in China during the Boxer Rebellion. He also had experience in desperate rescue efforts: in August 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, he had helped fight the way into Peking [Beijing] as part of the China Relief Expedition sent to rescue imprisoned U.S. citizens and foreign nationals.
|West Washington Street Bridge an hour before it collapsed. Credit: Indiana Historical Society|
Coffin had been appointed to the IPD in 1906 and rose rapidly to sergeant (1908), detective (1909), captain (1910—one of IPD’s youngest). His leadership style inspired loyalty: he didn’t order officers to do things, he said ‘follow me, we’re going to do this’. As the turbulent floodwaters kept rising, Coffin and his men worked tirelessly far into the night, rescuing people in by boat.
Tuesday, March 25
Despite the undercuts at both ends, the West Washington Street Bridge across the roaring White River was still standing, but its structure was so clearly threatened that before noon traffic across it was suspended except when imperative for rescues. Policemen stationed to guard each end were forced to fight to keep back spectators and anxious relatives, estimated at 30,000.
Still, the rain kept falling and the angry waters kept rising. By boat, Captain Coffin surveyed the situation all around West Indianapolis, telegraphing his findings to Chief of Police Martin Hyland at IPD HQ across the river. Assisted by Sergeant Harry M. Franklin, Coffin developed plans to help the population of West Indianapolis survive the disaster. Franklin, five years older than Coffin, had served in the Spanish-American War and the Indiana National Guard before being appointed drillmaster for the IPD, drilling its mounted and bicycle officers.
Late Tuesday, Sgt. Harry Franklin was dispatched from IPD HQ to take sandwiches and coffee to all the men, women and children huddling in School No. 16, and to relieve Coffin and his men. A West Indianapolis boat merchant sent his entire stock of 32 new boats to the West Washington St. Bridge to put them at the disposal of the police and newspapers. When a large, rugged steel Mullins motorboat (this 1913 ad says they were built like “government torpedo boats”) was unloaded, from the crowd an Indianapolis lawyer Cass Connaway and two other men volunteered to drive the boat and man the tiller for Sgt. Franklin.
The four men battled treacherous currents to steer the motor boat filled with sandwiches and cans of coffee some two miles to the school. “Suddenly the boat was seized by a powerful current rushing like a mill race under the elevated tracks at the Belt,” wrote the Indianapolis Star, referring to the Indianapolis Belt Railroad that circled the city. “The little motor churned the water furiously, but it was an unequal task. They shot through the subway and landed on the shore” on the far side of the tracks from West Ohio Street where they needed to be.
The West Washington Street Bridge after its collapse; it was Indianapolis’s main thoroughfare crossing the White River (part of the old National Road). Credit: Indiana Historical Society
When the men appealed to a nearby firehouse for help, Fire Captain Marion B. Kemper at Hose Company 18 disobeyed direct orders from his superiors and refused to use firehouse equipment haul the motorboat the needed three blocks to get past the dangerous current. The men managed to borrow a horse and outright stole a wagon from the Belmont Telephone Exchange—grand larceny committed by a lawyer and police sergeant to complete their rescue mission of getting provisions to School No. 16. Reported the Star: “Their boat was soon churning the muddy waters of the night around Ohio street.”
Wednesday, March 26
It wasn’t until around 1 AM Wednesday morning that Franklin and his volunteer companions finally arrived at School No. 16, completely worn out but with the provisions. With Coffin were Patrolmen John Hostetter, Victor Houston, and William Cox, and Sergeant Harley Reed. Thus, along with Franklin, there were scarcely more than half a dozen IPD officers west of White River in the area of Indianapolis’s heaviest flooding. On Wednesday this group dispersed to repeatedly rescue residents.
Some of the rescues were themselves harrowing. On one trip, a man Coffin rescued—apparently driven insane by the trauma of the flood—attacked, and Coffin had to fight him off, the fight lasting all the way to the school. In the same boat were a retarded youth and a blind girl, along with the insane man’s companion, who was rowing. But in the scuffle, the companion fell overboard and was swept away. When the newspapers learned of the incident and wanted details, Coffin—upset at the companion’s drowning—refused to discuss the story further because he wanted to forget it.
Worse, if possible, when he reached School No. 16, he saw with sick dismay that the school, full of wet, cold and hungry people, was no longer a refuge: it was itself now surrounded by rising water. In trips carrying between three and six persons, he ferried them to houses on Washington Street and the Vandalia railroad tracks. Breaking into a grocery store to get them food to eat, Coffin obtained oil stoves, provisions and blankets for people who were being cared for in churches located at Miley Avenue and West Washington Street and at New York Street and Elder Avenue. For the first time in three days, he was able to make contact with Chief of Police Hyland at IPD HQ and requested bread.
|Unloading supplies for flood refugees near Coffin's temporary headquarters. Credit: Indiana Historical Society|
The floodwaters crested overnight Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, when the White River reached a height of 25.7 feet, blasting through the previous record of 19.5 feet set on April 1, 1904, and sweeping away the government river gauge. About 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, almost all rescue work in West Indianapolis was stopped, because of the swiftness of the floodwaters’ current, the exhaustion of the workers, and poor visibility due to now-heavy snow. Many persons remained stranded on the roofs of their homes or in the upper stories. Wails of distress were widely reported to be heard in the early hours of the night. As the night wore on, the cries became ever more feeble until around 3 AM a dismal silence hung throughout the area above the turbulence of the floodwaters churning in the river and through the streets.
The night was also punctuated by the horrific roar of bridges collapsing, isolating West Indianapolis. About 8 PM Tuesday night, the Indianapolis & Vincennes railroad bridge was swept away. The Vandalia railroad bridge, south of West Washington Street, began being undermined by the water at 11 p.m. In a desperate effort to weigh it down and save it, the railroad company ran five coal cars out on top of it, two filled with bricks. Too little too late: the Vandalia bridge collapsed at 12:20 a.m. Wednesday.
Remains of the West Washington Street Bridge looking east toward downtown Indianapolis from West Indianapolis, after the floodwaters had receded and the White River was back within its banks. Credit: Indiana Historical Society
The West Washington Street Bridge—then (and still) the major thoroughfare in Indianapolis—was under severe strain, its girders having been struck repeatedly by tons of debris. The floor began slowly crumbling in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Just before 6 AM, the east span fell into the White River with a crash. The east end of the bridge tore loose from the pier, the road bed sinking beneath the water. The middle span of the bridge also crashed into the river.
Thursday, March 27
By Thursday, the floodwaters were clearly receding. But they were uncovering the muddy wreckage of entire neighborhoods. Many weeks of cleanup and reconstruction lay ahead.
When local newspapers found Coffin on Thursday, he was in his makeshift headquarters in a shack on Belmont Avenue at the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton railroad tracks. Coffin was storing meat, flour and other provisions in churches and other buildings. He was feeding the hungry and giving clothes to the naked. Asked what day he first came out into the flood, he replied, “Let’s see – What day’s today? I’ve lost count.”
Roll of Honor (and infamy)
In the days following the Great Flood of 1913, Captain George V. Coffin came in for adulation. But his first impulse was to turn the spotlight on the heroic actions of other police officers. He credited about 10 men with responsibility for the effective rescue work done despite West Indianapolis’s isolation at the peak of the disaster. One of these was IPD Sgt. Harry M. Franklin.
On April 9, 1913, Coffin submitted a report of the efforts during the flood to the Board of Safety. It included a list of names of police officers who would eventually have their names added to “The Flood Roll of Honor.” Medals were issued to these men. Eight months after the flood, in November 1913, Coffin himself was appointed Superintendent (Chief of Police). Franklin became instrumental in organizing and serving as marshal in virtually every important parade through Indianapolis for the next two decades until his death in 1935.
|Roll of Honor mentioned in the Indianapolis Star, April 10, 1913|
Some men were also brought up on charges for shirking their clear humanitarian duty. IPD Sergeant Harry M. Franklin filed paperwork which led to charges being filed against Fire Captain Marion B. Kemper by his superiors for disobeying orders in refusing to transport Franklin’s motor boat of provisions past the ferocious currents at the Belt. That three-block trip might have taken 15 minutes.
Neither Franklin nor the men assisting him were charged with theft of the wagon in completing their rescue mission, nor were Coffin or his assistants charged for breaking into grocery stores or boxcars to obtain provisions and blankets for flood refugees. Everyone recognized the extraordinarily desperate time called for desperate measures.
Pearsey’s reconstructed 1913 flood roll of honor of IPD officers who served anywhere in the flood zones in Indianapolis (not just where Coffin and Franklin were), based on newspaper accounts and IPD sources.
Unfortunately, today no complete list of the names on the Flood Roll of Honor exists anywhere within the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. The purpose of this historical account is in part, to make sure these officers are forever recognized for what they did in the worst catastrophe to ever strike the city of Indianapolis.
Patrick R. Pearsey is a third-generation member of his family to serve with the Indianapolis Police Department: his grandfather, father, uncle, and brother all were/are IPD officers from 1922 to the present. Hired as a civilian employee in 1980, Pearsey supervised the unit that typed police reports until 2011 when they closed them down. Now he corrects police reports. Interested in the history of the IPD for more than three decades, he has become a de factor historian of the department, along with several others who are working to preserve the department’s history. His interest in the 1913 flood also was handed down through his family, who lived just north of the 1913 flood zone; his great aunt Naomi (Pearsey) Page was a schoolgirl and vividly remembered how she and other family members having to dash across the Michigan Street bridge as floodwaters (which carried swimming rats) began covering it. To contact Pearsey, please e-mail me.
©2016 Patrick R. Pearsey
Next time: Crisis Communications in a Communications Crisis
The 1913flood in Indianapolis extended miles farther north, south, and west than recounted by this focused guest post, submerging the water works, power plant, and gas works, as well as parts of downtown Indianapolis and elsewhere on the east side of the White River. This story of Capt. Coffin and Sgt. Franklin is just one part of a much more extensive history of the IPD’s actions during the 1913 flood (and biographies of many other IPD police officers) in an 87-slide PowerPoint presentation compiled by Pearsey, based on (among other sources) accounts in the Indianapolis News, the Indianapolis Star, the IPD archives, and the unpublished 423-page PDF Indianapolis Police Department Chiefs of Police 1854–2006 by former IPD police chief Michael T. Spears.
Brossmann, Charles (consulting engineer, Indianapolis), “Effects of the Flood in Indiana,” Engineering Record 67(14): 372–374, April 5, 1913. Despite the title, the article’s primary focus is Indianapolis.
There are many ways to convert the value of historical sums of money. Officer, Lawrence H. and Samuel H. Williamson, “Measuring Worth is a Complicated Question;” for the actual calculator, see “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to Present.”See also their discussion “Choosing the Best Indicator to Measure Relative Worth,” using the cost of constructing the Empire State Building as an example for an infrastructure project.
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. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or order from the publisher.