Virtually all books, videos, and other works about the Great Easter 1913 Flood focus on its monumental death and destruction, most often in the context of one locality. Few encompass the multistate geographical scale of the natural catastrophe, and almost none explore its human toll through time as families struggled to come to terms with total loss.
That all changed February 8–10, 2019, with the world premiere of an ambitious original opera called The Flood—giving three performances to a packed Southern Theatre (seating capacity 900) in Columbus, Ohio.
The project was supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts; the music was composed by Korine Fujiwara, commissioned by OPERA America’s Opera Grants for Female Composers program; the libretto was written by Stephen Wadsworth (who, among other things, had written A Quiet Place with Leonard Bernstein). It was co-produced by Opera Columbus and ProMusica Chamber Orchestra. The singers’ backgrounds included education at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and the Juilliard School in New York City (among others), and performances with the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra.
Warning: plot spoilers ahead.
The Flood is set in two Columbus neighborhoods: Franklinton—hardest hit by the 1913 flood—and Hilltop. Although librettist Wadsworth had immersed himself in the history of the flood in Columbus—whose death toll was equivalent to that in more famous Dayton—the story is much more universal. Thus, the fictional characters and their situations are composites, and knowledge about specific historical settings is not critical to understanding the drama. More important is how the tragedy of loss ricochets through four generations of an extended family over a century: 1913, 1940, 1970, and 2014.
In the new opera The Flood, tragedy befalling a woman in the 1913 flood (left) plays out in the later life of her former lover in 1940 (right). Photo: The Wall Street Journal
The eras are not depicted successively in acts. The opera unfolds in one act, with the different eras depicted in four interiors on the stage simultaneously—especially poignant in revealing how trauma from the past can cripple love for the present or future, can engender future pain(or forgetting), and can trigger how people wrestle with ghosts. Time is fluid, and future interacts with past. It is a substantial, meaty work; I truly wish I could have seen it twice—once to absorb the plot and a second time to more closely follow the complexities of the loves and losses and rediscoveries.
The father in 1940 (left), who had lost his first wife and children in the 1913 flood, rejects the daughter of his second marriage, who ends up in an insane asylum by 1970 (middle). She leaves the asylum to marry, and eventually dies, but years later her own daughter discovers her mother’s tragic secret in 2014 (right). Credit: Columbus Underground
Because the play is in no way a history of the 1913 flood, the Friday and Saturday evening performances and the Sunday matinee were all preceded by a scene-setting “talkback” by different guest speakers who recounted aspects of the history of the 1913 flood. Two (for Friday and Sunday) were local experts sketching its history in Columbus, and I (for Saturday night) outlined its wider context.
The Flood is a significant work, and to be highly recommended if it comes to your city. Reviews of the weekend’s performances were published not only in local outlets (including The Columbus Dispatch and Radio OSU) but also in The Wall Street Journal.
Police in Indianapolis
Patrick Pearsey, archivist for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, has expanded his research—some of it summarized for this research blog in April 2016 in his guest post “Men of the Hour”—into an entire book titled The Time of Heroes: The Great Flood of 1913 and the Indianapolis Police Department (no date, but privately published in 2018).
The book chronologically outlines what happened in Indianapolis during the 1913 flood from March 21 through 30, focusing on the especially disastrous days of March 25–27. In Pearsey’s words, “When the Washington Street Bridge collapsed on the 26th, the city was cut in two. Marooned on the west side of the raging White River was Captain George V. Coffin and a handful of police officers. Faced with rescuing, feeding and clothing over 7,000 people that week, what these men did became the Indianapolis’s Police Department’s finest hour.”
The large-print book is 425 pages long and features some 200 photographs. Print-on-demand copies can be purchased from Amazon.
A Day in Dayton
Corpses in Trees and Rats on a Raft: The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, compiled by Danny Z. Kiel, is a transcription of the special “flood edition” of the Dayton Daily News published on April 2, 1913. That issue was likely the first attempt by anyone in 1913 to summarize the drama of the flood in some kind of coherent narrative—preceding the “instant books” that began to appear in late April (see “Profiting from Pain”). The original newspaper issue was a makeshift affair, which resulted in many typesetting errors that Kiel has sought to correct in his 77-page transcript.
Published in 2016, the work does not appear to exist as a printed book. A 99-cent Kindle version is available on Amazon (along with a preview and introduction).
©2019 Trudy E. Bell
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.
[Note: I am in the midst of an unrelated book project that is currently claiming most of my time, but am posting here as often as possible. Feel free to contact me re the Great Easter 1913 natural catastrophe.]