Saturday, February 1, 2014

High-Wire Horror

Harrowing photographs from the 1913 flood capture desperate men and women edging their way along icy telephone wires swaying above the raging torrent…

Sobbing half-hysterically, George W. Timmerman gasps out his nightmarish experience. Tuesday morning, March 25, he had not gone to work as usual at National Cash Register (NCR) atop a hill just south of downtown Dayton because Wayne Avenue outside his boardinghouse was flooded ankle-deep and the downpour was torrential. About 9 AM, without warning, a great wall of waterreleased when the levee on the Mad River north of the city collapsedcharges down Wayne Avenue and bursts into every dwelling.

Desperate to escape flames raging behind them from a gas explosion, survivors in Dayton brave rain and sleet to make their way along telephone and telegraph wires to safety above angry torrents of floodwaters surging through the streets below. Note the middle figure is a woman in her long skirts crawling on hands and knees. Thronging in the foreground are crowds stranded at the hilltop fairgrounds or the National Cash Register (NCR) plant. Photo credit: Miami Conservancy District
Timmerman and four other boarders—a woman and her three children—sprint to the second floor, but the rapidly rising floodwaters force them into the attic. Time after time, the victims cry out for help through the roar of the churning torrent. Eventually a small boat makes its way to them, and with great difficulty the five crawl in. The boat whirls into the main current where the two men barely manage to keep the craft from colliding with splintered logs, buggies, the bodies of horses, and human corpses. After repeatedly trying to anchor, they finally grasp the top of a porch; Timmerman along with the women and children clamber into the attic of a small house.

Hardly had they caught their breath when a deafening explosion directly across the street blows the roof off a grocery store and the walls collapse. Within moments, flames belching from the store’s windows engulf the ruins, spread to a nearby stable, and ignite a mow full of hay. In minutes, other houses are on fire. Screaming over the roar of the fire brings no help—not even the bravest of rescuers dare risk the ferocious current of the floodwaters coursing through the street.

Driven by “the awful thought of being cremated in the flames that approached us from the rear,” Timmerman helps the woman and her crying children pick their way through the driving rain across the roofs of a dozen adjoining houses. At the end of the block, however, a greater horror awaited. “The only thing in reach was  drift wood, a possible body of horse or cow or human being, and the telephone wires.” 

This story on page 2 of the March 29, 1913, issue of the Cleveland Leader details the high-wire horror of George W. Timmerman. Photo credit: Trudy E. Bell.
Timmerman instantly decides to brave the wires. The woman, whose three small children were clinging to her long, water-logged skirts, equally quickly decides she will take her chances and stay put on the roof of the last house. Fervently promising to send back help for the quartet should he survive, Timmerman steps out onto the slippery telephone cables. He knew that hilltop NCR was likely a refuge—but NCR was also six long blocks of high-wire walking distant.
High above the raging torrent, Timmerman sets one foot in front of the other. “Long before I came to dry land my friends had sighted me and were shouting words of encouragement. Time after time I thought I would have to give up,” he tremblingly recounts. “Once I dropped my cap and the spectators gasped as they thought my time had come. After repeatedly resting as best I could on the swaying wires, I finally came to the pole that grounded on dry land.” He climbs down the pole and collapses into waiting arms, and is carried into the warmth and bustle and fragrance of bubbling soup within NCR.  True to his word, he urges help be sent to the woman and three children, who themselves were finally rescued. 

It is impossible to know exactly where Timmerman started walking the telephone wires or the route he took to NCR. The Cleveland Leader reported his boardinghouse address as 413 Wayne Avenue. And on Tuesday morning, a gas main in the basement of Ollie Saettel’s grocery store at Main and Vine Streets exploded, igniting fires in surrounding homes. Moreover, the current from the collapsed levee on the Mad River would have carried the small boat carrying him and the woman and children in that very direction. So likely his nightmare high-wire act started at Main and Vine.

Another high-wire rescue. (The original negative of this photograph was accidentally double-exposed with another flood scene.) Photo credit: Miami Conservancy District.
Timmerman was not the only one walking telephone or telegraph wires to safety. Nor was he the first. Well before the explosion, another NCR employee John Scott climbed a telegraph pole and guided a dozen men, women, and children across the swaying bridge of wires to safety before the anxious eyes of hundreds of onlookers thronging below. The powerful concussion of the gas explosion, however, knocked Scott from the pole into a tree. He was last seen crawling along the tree branches and struggling to get into the window of an abandoned house right in the path of the advancing flames. 

At least two women made the dizzying journey. One, young Norma Thuma, had the presence of mind—or the time and capability—to don a man’s trousers to cross the perilous cable unhampered by skirts. Accompanying her were Ralph Myers and his wife. Myers preceded his wife for one interminable block along a cable while holding onto two other thin wires, carrying their three-month-old infant in a meal sack tied over his shoulder. Photographs also exist of an anonymous woman in a white blouse and sodden long skirts inching her way along the wires on hands and knees (see top photo in this story).

Walking the wires wasn’t the only way that people in danger used telegraph and telephone cables to escape to safety. Nor was Dayton the only city. Twenty-four hours later (on Wednesday, March 26) and more than a hundred miles north, in Tiffin, Ohio, a different drama plays out. Under the direction of wire chief Otto Gauthier, telephone linemen slung cable-riding carriages—basically, baskets rigged to hang from pulleys that roll along telephone wires; with ropes, a lineman could pull himself hand-over-hand to trapped flood sufferers, help one or two people into the basket alongside him, and pull his passengers to safety.

Account of rescues by "Sailor Jack" Willis as
recounted in the instant book Tragic Story
of America's Greatest Disaster
Marshall Everett,
Quite a few people were rescued via cable-riding carriage around Tiffin by other men. One called himself “Happy Hooligan” (presumably after a popular Sunday comic strip character by Frederick Burr Opper, the first comic to introduce regular use of speech balloons and also a film short shown in moving picture theaters). The other was “Sailor Jack” Willis (not a lineman but a professional wrestler, of whom much was made in at least four of the instant disaster books published a few weeks later and widely sold around the nation).

A particularly harrowing high-wire rescue in Tiffin was that of five women and two men huddled for shelter in the ornate brick Noble barn, which began disintegrating around them as the angry Sandusky River churned ever higher around its foundations. As recounted by Lisa Swickard in her 2010 book Calamity and Courage about the 1913 flood in Tiffin, the episode is worthy of an action docudrama. When a foreman of telephone linemen standing nearby hesitated sending his men out in a cable-riding carriage because he doubted the poles would hold the weight, bystander Reginald “Whitey” Lee declared he would rescue every person inside. He was so inexperienced he first started the cable-riding carriage backwards, and then inched across, bringing back one woman two hours later.
Immediately on Lee’s return, an out-of-work experienced lineman, 22-year-old Robert Baird Jr., quickly shimmied up a telephone pole and sped the carriage through pelting sleet along the cable across the raging river. As he reached the barn and Dorothy Knott started to step into the carriage, one wall of the barn collapsed. Dorothy, terrified, insisted that Baird also take her mother. Praying the poles would stay standing under the weight of three people, Baird pulled the two women to safety, then went back for more. There he was faced with obese Mary Miller and her daughter, whose combined weight topped 410 pounds. But by this time the barn was crumbling fast. Baird knew everyone had to move fast. The women squeezed into the basket and Baird started gamely back across the river in the cable carriage. The two men still stranded inside the barn were convinced that waiting for Baird to return would be courting certain death. So unassisted, they crawled across the telephone cable on their hands and knees. Ten minutes after they left, most of the rest of the barn collapsed. 
Ohioans were not the only ones walking the wires to safety. Belatedly, I found this close-up of a high-wire rescue in Kokomo, Indiana,posted by the Kokomo Tribune. The caption reads "Rescuing flood-stricken women and children in Kokomo. Photo courtesy of Howard County Historical Society."
Stories of other telephone and telegraph cable rescues are mostly mere snippets mentioned in newspapers. But clearly, during the 1913 flood, the wires were literal lifelines for at least several dozen people. No account I have found so far details an experience from the viewpoint of a woman or child. 

Timmerman’s first-person account, however, reveals the horror he suffered afflicted him with recurring flashbacks suggestive of the symptoms of acute PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Even after being reunited with his wife and daughter in the home of relatives, Timmerman shuddered: “All night long I could see nothing and feel nothing but the swaying telephone wires beneath my feet and over my head. The swishing of the infuriated water sounded in my ears until I thought I would lose my mind.”

©2014 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Screening Disaster 

Selected references
Timmerman’s detailed first-person account is given in “Walks Swayng Wires Over Raging Torrents, Fleeing Before Blaxe,” The Cleveland Leader, Saturday, March 29, 1913, 67(88): 2. The experiences of John Scott, Norma Thuma, and Ralph Myers are sketched in The Columbus Citizen, Wednesday, March 26, 2923, p. 2. A typical snippet is in “Tells of Rescue Over Phone Wires,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Thursday, March 27, 1913, p. 13.

The role of Otto Gauthier is described briefly in “Tiffin, Ohio,” Bell Telephone News 2(10): 20, May 1913 (Flood Edition). This issue recounts snippets of several other rescues where telephone linemen and others used cables to get boats, supplies, or rescued people from one location to another, not only in Ohio but also in Kokomo, Indiana, where they rigged up a "breeches buoy" similar to a cable-riding carriage or to a device used to rescue shipwrecked people, to convey several women from pole to pole and thence to dry land (page 43).

Sources differ on whether the gas explosion occurred in Saettel’s grocery or in a saloon in the same building. Both are implicated in the first two letters in part of a transcription of the book Dalton, Curt, Through Flood, Through Fire: Personal Stories from Survivors of the Dayton Flood of 1913. Oregon Printing. Dayton, OH. 2002. The George Saettel mentioned was Ollie’s 75-year-old father. The second letter vividly describes the explosion.

The direction of the current through Dayton from the collapse of levees on the Mad River is shown in McCampbell, E. F., “Special Report on the Flood of March, 1913,” reprinted from Monthly Bulletin Ohio State Board of Health, May 1913; pp 299–445, Fig. 24 (the map opposite p. 393).

Swickard, Lisa. Calamity and Courage: Tiffin’s Battle During Ohio’s Deadly 1913 Flood. Virgin Alley Press, 2010, pp. 60–68.

The four 1913 instant books in which almost identical accounts of the telephone cable rescues in Tiffin by “Sailor Jack” Willis appear: America’s Greatest Flood and Tornado Calamity. Authentic Story of these Appalling Disasters. Memorial Edition. Edited by Thomas Herbert, M.A. “Journalist and Educator” and J. Martin Miller “Member National Geographical Society, Author of ‘The Italian Earthquake,’ ’The Great Martinique Disaster,’ Etc.” No publisher, no city. Copyrighted by: Thomas H. Morrison. pages 169–170.
Story of the Great Flood and Cyclone Disasters: America’s Greatest Calamity. Edited by Thomas H. Russell, A.M., LL.D. “Author and Journalist” with “Special Message of Spiritual Consolation” by Fred S. Miller. No publisher, no city. Copyrighted by: Thomas H. Morrison. pages 169–170. Tragic Story of America’s Greatest Disaster. Complete. Authentic. Tornado Flood and Fire in Ohio, Indiana, Nebraska and Mississippi Valley States.By Marshall Everett “The Great Descriptive Writer.” J. S. Ziegler Company, Chicago, Illinois. Copyrighted by: Henry Neil. page 139. Rasende Fluten und Tobende Stürm. By Thomas H. Russel [sic], A.M., LL.D., translated by Max Heyer. Laird & Lee, Chicago. Copyrighted by: William H. Lee. page 184. Just who these shyster authors were and what those instant books were is detailed in the February 24, 2013 installment “Profiting from Pain.” 

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 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me.) Photographs of wire rescues appear on page 39 and info about the explosion at Ollie Saettel’s grocery is on page 72.