Saturday, March 1, 2014

Screening Disaster

News reels of the 1913 flood raging through Indiana and Ohio may be the first motion pictures ever shot of a natural disaster still in progress—and some original footage can be viewed online

When news of the devastating floods sweeping Ohio and Indiana first breaks in Chicago, a veritable army of 50 special writers, correspondents, and press photographers immediately charter an official newspaper train to make their way straight into the heart of the disaster. Onboard is a lone moving picture cameraman, Charles Kaufman of Chicago-based Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. When 
"Hope on the Hill," which may be viewed on YouTube, is one of the few surviving examples of film footage shot while the 1913 flood was still raging in Dayton, Ohio. It is not possible from the information online to tell what company shot it, but the momentary titles throughout indicate it was likely for a news weekly intended for moving picture theaters. The original film is housed in the Glenn R. Walters collection in the University Archives and Collections, University of Dayton.

Kaufman is forced to leave the train in Peru, Indiana, where flooding had reached an alarming height, he isn’t about to lose this moving-picture scoop of a lifetime: he slogs on through driving rain by automobile, wagon, and boat, arriving in Dayton 28 hours after the news had broken, and begins shooting footage.

Twenty-four hours later, three other Essanay cameramen—who had just returned to Chicago from Omaha, Nebraska, where they had been filming the horrific track of ruin and carnage left through the city by the powerful Easter Sunday tornado—catch the first government relief train out of Chicago, as by then all commercial rail service had been suspended. Riding caboose behind 16 cars of foodstuffs and other emergency supplies, they endure a circuitous route through Fort Wayne, Indiana and Crestline and Columbus, Ohio, to avoid washouts and rail accidents. Although the three arrive in Dayton 36 hours after maximum flood stage, streets are still half-submerged by the receding floodwaters.

Universal claimed to be the first out with footage of the 1913 flood in Dayton, but if this claim was referring to its Animated Weekly No. 56, that was released April 2 whereas Essanay and others released their footage to theaters on April 1. (The references to "1-sheets," "3-sheets," and "6-sheets" specified the sizes of posters motion picture exhibitors could obtain.) Universal could legitimately claim to be the first (and only) film manufacturing company to take out a two-page spread ad in the April 12, 1913, issue of The Moving Picture World.
Over the next 24 hours, the three cameramen—Fred H. Wagner, C. A. Laperti, and G.T. Dillon—climb over wreckage, ride in boats, and wade through waist-deep floodwaters thick with slimy mud to capture Dayton’s plight on film. Meantime, Kaufman had left for Chicago hand-carrying his first batch of precious negatives.

Getting back to Chicago themselves in time to get the film developed and ready for the next week’s release to nickelodeons and motion picture palaces is no mean feat. Dayton is under martial law. Even before the sun sets, curfew is 6 PM sharp; troops standing guard at every street corner have orders to shoot to kill any moving figure who looks like a potential looter. One time a warning bullet whizzes past the men’s ears when they do not hear an order to halt. At last, a captain who realizes the importance of rushing news footage to the public assigns them an armed guard, but the necessity of changing the guard every block for half a mile delays the cameramen enough to miss the last passenger train out of Dayton that night.

The Dayton Flood Film Co. was actually a spinoff(?)
from the Buckeye Film Co. in Cincinnati, which
claimed to have had cameramen on the ground
three hours after news of Dayton's plight
reached the outside world.
April 12, 1913, issue of The Moving Picture World

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Seeing a military freight at the station bound for Columbus, the Essanay cameramen wait until dark. Then they surreptitiously load their equipment into an empty coal car and stow away, lying in the open car atop their cameras and tripods in the coal dust to avoid being seen by patrolling guards. Only after the train pulls out of the station and begins bouncing over storm-damaged uneven track, can the men dance in the open coal car to try to warm their stiff arms and legs in the frigid wind. At Xenia (20 miles southeast of Dayton), when they are climbing down out of the car, the blinding beam of a railroad detective’s electric flashlight catches them, and they find themselves staring down the barrel of a revolver. 

After explaining their mission, the three coal dust-covered cameramen are released. Although Xenia is thronging with flood refugees, they miraculously manage to secure a hotel room and catch their first sleep in 48 hours. The next day they make Columbus, film the flood damage there, and depart Sunday night, March 30, for Chicago. 

Within 48 hours, their negative film is developed, edited and given titles, printed onto film stock, and released to the world on Tuesday, April 1, 1913 in two reels—one on the aftermath of the Omaha tornado and the other on the destructive flooding still in progress in Ohio.
Lubin advertised that its film of the Dayton
flood was released April 2.
April 12, 1913, issue of The Moving Picture World

On April 1, however, the floodwaters are still peaking in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Cairo, Illinois. So in those pioneering early days of moving picture technology—even as people and their homes and businesses are still being swept away— audiences in theaters ranging from low-budget nickelodeons and lavish motion-picture palaces from New York City to Milwaukee to Los Angeles are being held spellbound by horrific scenes of death and devastation almost in real time.

Setting the scene
In March 1913, motion pictures were starting to become mainstream entertainment. The dramatic feature silent film was not yet called a “movie” but called a “photoplay” as generally one fixed camera filmed a short stage play. Hotly debated in Motography and The Moving Picture World (the trade magazines of the day) was the big question whether audiences would even sit still for a story that took more than one reel (about 10 minutes of footage) to unfold; the first U.S. feature-length film had been released in scarcely two years earlier (although Australian and European features had come out a few years before) and D.W. Griffith’s infamous Birth of a Nation was still two years in the future. Actors, then called “photoplay stars,”  were not even credited by name, although that tradition was giving way with the screen star power of “America’s sweetheart” Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters Lillian and Dorothy. Although dramatic films were starting to produce multi-reel features, many photoplays were still one-reel shorts churned out of studios at a prodigious rate—often one per week—and quickly distributed to theaters around the country through a network of rental exchanges. Moreover, only a third of films shown in the U.S. by 1913 were American-made; many more came from the booming film industries in England and France, notably by the Pathé Brothers Company (Société Pathé Frères).

American Feature Film Co. also claimed to be
first, in Dayton by Thursday evening, March 27.
But other cameramen were there by then as well.
April 12, 1913, issue of The Moving Picture World
Interspersed with the dramatic shorts screened in theatres were weekly single-reel summaries of news events around the world, called “weeklies” as the word “newsreel” had not yet been coined. Weeklies were produced by the same studios around the country that created dramatic films (in 1913, Hollywood was not yet the center of American film production). Weeklies regularly screened in the U.S. in 1913 included the England- and France-based Pathé’s Weekly and the Animated Weekly of the year-old Universal Film Manufacturing Company (yes, the original name of today’s Universal Studios, Inc.), then based in New York City and Fort Lee, New Jersey. Other U.S. production studios at the time included the American Feature Film Company (Chicago), Buckeye Film Company (Cincinnati), Thomas A. Edison Inc. (New York City), Lubin Manufacturing Company (Philadelphia), The Selig Polyscope Company (Chicago), and of course Essanay, with most having offices in several cities around the country.

The 1913 flood was not the first time the aftermath of a major natural disaster was documented in film footage. Certainly one of the earliest (if not actually the earliest) pieces of motion picture footage after a natural disaster slowly pans the wreckage of a shipyard of Galveson, Texas, after the September 8, 1900 hurricane; it was shot by an Edison crew on September 24, more than two weeks after the catastrophe. Six years later, one or more film companies documented the widespread devastation after the San Francisco earthquake and fire (see, for example, this footage shot from a camera anchored to the front of a cable car proceeding through streets, and this footage, which better conveys the magnitude of a city laid waste and suddenly homeless victims reduced to standing in long breadlines). 

What may be unique about the footage shot during the 1913 flood, however, is that the disaster was still unfolding. In other words, it was certainly one of the earliest occasions—and perhaps even the very first time—that motion picture film documented a major natural disaster in the act.

Surviving 1913 flood footage
Now, a century later, some of these original prints of the 1913 flood in progress still survive—no mean feat, since typically prints of news weeklies were discarded like yesterdays’ newspapers after being screened for a week, and other prints that were archived might have self-destructed (as happened with many early films) because they were produced on flammable nitrate film stock.

Moreover, some of this silent-film footage of the 1913 flood in Dayton is now online for 
This 7-minute silent film on Streamica of the smoking ruins in Dayton as well as still-flooded areas and how flood sufferers coped is eminently worth watching in its entirety. The titles are extremely useful in identifying individual scenes (and likely also existing still images as well). The film production company cannot be identified just from info online. Although the footage was clearly professionally produced, the print was apparently found in an unidentified person's attic. The background piano music is not too obtrusive.

viewing today. It is of varying quality, and some modern film editors have chosen to include annoying—sometimes even jarringly inappropriate—musical sound tracks or preface it with irrelevant advertising. Judging from the type font of the occasional titles describing the action, the footage originated from at least two different companies, although positive identification of which companies is not possible from the information online.

Also tantalizing are allusions in the trade magazines to footage not (yet?) online and perhaps permanently lost to posterity. For example, The Moving Picture World notes that Universal’s Animated Weekly No. 56 “The Fearful Flood” also includes footage of the flooding in Cleveland and of the swath of devastation from the Omaha tornado; Pathé’s Weekly No 16 apparently also included tornado damage. An Omaha-based  film manufacturing company called Hartman Bros. also filmed the tornado’s path of destruction, Selig apparently filmed the flood’s devastation in both Indiana and Ohio, and Lubin shot footage also in Hamilton, Ohio. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find online any original footage that Essanay shot of the flood or its aftermath in Columbus, as described in the April 19 issue of Motography, or Essanay’s—or any other studio’s—original footage of the aftermath of the Omaha tornado, which was screened in Chicago as early as March 28. 

If any reader should run across any of the footage described above online or anywhere else, I would greatly appreciate knowing where: please do e-mail me.

©2014 Trudy E. Bell

Next: Wireless to the Rescue! Birth of Emergency Radio 

Selected references
Much valuable early film history is available online from the detailed AMC Filmsite written and edited by Tim Dirks, especially at “The History of Film: The Pre-1920s—Early Cinematic Origins and the Infancy of Film,” the five-part introduction beginning here  (block the annoying pop-up ads).

The amazing story detailing the experiences of the four Essanay cameramen, including of the three who stowed away in the open coal car of the military freight train, was published in the anonymous article “Filming the Dayton Flood: Cameramen’s Lively Experiences” in Motography 9(8)283–284, April 1913.

Various issues of The Moving Picture World, a weekly trade magazine, from April to June give snippets of information about the release of the reels by different companies and their content. Especially revealing are the full-page ads by the film companies for their news weeklies, as well as discussion inside the industry about screening motion pictures in benefit events to raise funds for flood and tornado victims.

Most of the footage available online appears to be of Dayton. There is also some (precious little) footage of the 1913 flood in Indiana assembled by The Star and Ball State University Libraries indiscriminately intermixed with scenes from the 1937 flood; judging from the automobiles and the style of men’s hats, most of the 1913 footage seems to play behind the two narrators before they cut to the full video. Although the original films were silent, for whatever reason the modern editors chose to back the scenes of horrific devastation by cheerful music including Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” 

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.)