Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Exhibiting Disaster

Not two years after the Great Easter 1913 flood, Dayton, Ohio, celebrated its comeback with an exhibit in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco—a city celebrating its comeback after the 1906 earthquake. 
The idea for a world’s fair in San Francisco, California, to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal had been batting around at least since 1891. By 1904 the city was committed to hosting the Panama-Pacific International 
Postcard of the Dayton Flood exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, 1915. The exhibit was one of the to 10 draws at the world's fair. Credit: Glenn Koch page 20 here.
Exposition. Two years later, on April 18, 1906, the San Andreas Fault abruptly let loose with a magnitude 7.8 earthquake, shattering the city and igniting firestorms so powerful that fierce, suctioning winds were felt clear across the bay. The calamity and its thousands of fatalities redoubled the determination of city fathers to show how San Francisco had powered back from wholesale devastation. How better to declare “We’re back!” than to press ahead with the enormous world’s fair?

The city leaders of Dayton, Ohio, after the Great Easter 1913 flood felt exactly the same way. They decided to herald the Ohio city’s rebirth after flood and fire at the exposition with an entire exhibit devoted to the 1913 flood in Dayton. Indeed, the Dayton Flood exhibit proved to be one of the fair’s top 10 draws.

I had never even heard of the Panama Pacific International Exposition when I first ran across a well-preserved souvenir booklet for the Dayton Flood exhibition in the collections of the Dayton Metro Library (shown at left) in December 2006 when I was doing research for my book The Great Dayton Flood of 1913 (Arcadia, 2008). 

But San Francisco has not forgotten the grand exposition. All this year and into 2016, various museums, historical societies, and other groups have collaborated to host events and exhibits in San Francisco commemorating the centennial of the exposition—a 635-acre city within a city
in what is now the Marina District, which ultimately attracted nearly 19 million visitors from around the globe from February 20 through December 4, 1915. A very nice centennial website (see its logo at right) features links to its history, photographs, and other items of interest—including a 25-minute video with historical footage (alas, no glimpses of the Dayton Flood exhibit).

Many photographs and postcards depict the exterior of the Dayton Flood exhibit, which shows a mythological figure holding back gates against floodwaters trying to burst through. But I have never seen any images depicting the interior of the exhibit—likely in part to the prominent signs NO PICTURES (meaning no photography) posted to entering visitors. Nonetheless, snippets from newspapers and books give an idea of what went on inside.

One of Henry Elsworth's dramatic paintings that may have flanked the stage, from the Dayton Flood souvenir booklet.
From what I’ve gleaned from newspaper snippets, the interior of the Dayton Flood exhibit had seats arranged as if in a theater with a stage in front. The stage held a model of the city of Dayton, flanked by large, dramatic paintings depicting flood scenes. The flood was reconstructed in three acts. The first 
Official map of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition; location of the Dayton Flood exhibit in The Zone I've circled in red. Credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
showed the city the day before the flood; the second showed the flood itself and the fires it ignited, ending with rain and snow; the third depicted the floodwaters receding and leaving enormous piles of debris. As a man on stage narrated events, real water ran through the streets of the city model, and buildings burst into real flames. An epilogue depicted the city as harmonious and peaceful with a Wright airplane flying overhead, as if the flood had never happened.
The painting on the front of souvenir program from the Dayton Flood exhibit shows perhaps more successfully than the actual sculpture what the exhibit’s exterior was intended to depict. Inside are reproductions of paintings that may have been the scenes lining the stage around the model city. After so many 
years of seeing the flood in black-and-white photographs, the almost photographically realistic paintings are striking for how they bring the scenes to life in color.

Frustratingly, the 16-page booklet says nothing about the exhibit itself, nor gives any information about the painter, Henry Ellsworth—who also painted under the name of Harry Ellsworth Feicht. He appears to have had a studio with assistants in Dayton, and had attained fame for traveling with paintings he made depicting the passion of Christ as reenacted once a decade in the German town of Oberammergau; scenes from the passion play he sold as stereoopticon views

A wealthy promoter, Feicht a/k/a Ellsworth instantly recognized enormous opportunity in Dayton’s devastating 1913 flood of late March and early April for a concession at the planned world’s fair: by the end of May, he was off to San Francisco to select a site for his exhibit. 

Judging from credit given on the program booklet’s title page (shown at right), he may also have had some support—or at least tacit consent—from John H. Patterson, president of National Cash Register, Dayton’s largest employer, whose rescue work during the 1913 flood saved him from Federal prison for his thuggish monopolistic business practices (see 
The Villain Who Stole the Flood”). Ellsworth didn’t miss a bet in publicizing the exhibit, either, taking out display ads in newspapers promoting it as “The Scenic Production With a ‘Soul’” (see left).

The Dayton Flood exhibit, along with the rest of the fair, closed on December 4, 1915. 

Today, the only building that remains from the PPIE is San Francisco’s magnificent Palace of Fine Arts. It almost didn’t survive. According to historian 
Philip Fradkin in his wonderful book on the 1906 earthquake, all the buildings from the world’s fair were immediately razed and the land fill on which it was built was turned into a city dump including charred remains of buildings ruined by the earthquake. Eventually the land was reclaimed as the Marina District. However, mystifyingly after the massive earthquake, San Francisco’s building codes were weakened. When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989, the fill land turned to jelly and fires raged in that section of the city, put out by water from around the Palace of Fine Arts. 

©2015 Trudy E. Bell

Selected references
The single best book I’ve read on the 1906 earthquake is Philip L. Fradkin, The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself, University of California Press, 2005. 

For images of the devastation to Dayton of flood and fire, see “Like a War Zone.” For links to movies of the hauntingly similar devastation of San Francisco seven years earlier, see “Screening Disaster.”

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.)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Grisly Souvenirs

After the Great Easter 1913 tornadoes and flood, big money was made by selling photographic souvenir booklets portraying death and destruction

[Note: Apologies for being a few days late with this post. I was unable to complete and upload it by the first of the month because of intense work on a major—and grim—investigative special report on the California drought for an engineering magazine, to be published near the end of December. (Strange to write on the drought after having been so imbued with flood literature!)]

During the centennial of the 1913 flood in 2013, I closely examined more than half a dozen “instant books” that were churned out by dodgy authors, usually 
Photographic flood souvenir booklets, such as this one from Paducah, KY, were issued by the thousands just a few weeks after the devastating Great Easter tornadoes and flood. This particular one I have not seen and would be very grateful to assistance from readers in locating a copy. see description below under Kentucky. Image credit: Worthpoint.
writing under pseudonyms, who played fast and loose with copyright laws (see “Profiting from Pain”). A year later, I showed how marketing wizards took advantage of the national calamity to push products ranging from movie cameras to tornado insurance with an astounding tin ear for human suffering (see “Advertising Disaster”).

Another type of post-disaster publication for sale were souvenir photographic pamphlets or booklets produced within a few weeks of the disaster(s). Ranging from 16 to 64 pages, many were small, about the size of a postcard (3.5 x 5.5 inches), saddle-stitched with the staples on the short side so that each page is horizontal. Usually one photo was shown per page, although some of the booklets also had text. Others were larger with significant text, all the way up to a full letter-sized sheet of paper (uncommon). The photos were usually lithographed halftones not of great quality.

Some of these photographic souvenirs were produced and sold by newspapers with images and information compiled from their local coverage 
The Omaha tornado was as much a subject for booklets published in Nebraska as the flood was in different cities in other states. See description below for the Gideon booklet from Omaha.
of the tornadoes or flood. If sales claimed are to be believed, sometimes a single newspaper could sell out printings of 10,000 in just a matter of weeks. Most ranged in price from 10 to 50 cents, the equivalent today of a few bucks to about $25.

Like calendars or playbills, the pamphlets were printed in great numbers and so were once common, but many were also discarded. Thus, it’s an irony of history that throwaway items once so commonplace are now so rare (just try now to find a direct-mail calendar of the year you were born!).

Below are nearly a dozen that I’ve found referenced, listed alphabetically by state and city, with links to digital copies online where available. Where I have not seen a copy of a work myself, I would love to hear from libraries or individuals with copies. I strongly suspect this listing is not complete—so if readers know of other 1913 tornado or flood souvenir booklets not listed, please make me smarter—please email me!

At least two souvenir booklets were published in the Hoosier state. One is  
Terre Haute’s Tornado and Flood Disaster: March twenty-three to thirtieth, nineteen hundred and thirteen, published by the Terre Haute Publishing Co. Digital scans are available from both Indiana State and the Vigo County Public Library.

The other booklet I have not yet seen in any form: Twelve Views of the Indianapolis Flood of March 1913, taken by a daring photographer during the 
worst of the horrible catastrophe. Worldcat says it was published by C.A. Tutewiler. The closest I’ve come to it is this tiny image of the cover from an ebay seller.

Flood Souvenir, Paducah, Kentucky, is another elusive booklet (see opening image at the top of this post). I’ve seen two slightly differing covers, one from ebay and one from Worthpoint, but there is no information for the document in Worldcat. The Worthpoint seller indicated it was 6.25 x 8.25 inches, but did not give a page count. I’m especially curious as to whether the booklet portrays the flooding of Paducah as the calamity it was, or downplays it as merely a “water carnival” (see “Spurning Disaster Aid”).

One 32-page pamphlet with a dramatic photographic cover, published by the  
Omaha Bee, was The Track of the Tornado that struck Omaha at 6 P.M. Easter Sunday March 23, 1913. This one I consulted in a library.

A competing booklet was published by The Omaha Daily News, which made up for its plain red cover and stark word Tornado by having 64 pages and being slightly larger than most of these souvenirs. Printed by the Mogy 
Publishing Co., it is also one of the few that claims an author, in this case, Charles B. Driscoll. The title page differs slightly from the cover, reading Complete Story of Omaha’s Disastrous Tornado. This one I consulted in a library, which itself had only a photocopy.

A third competitor, published by the Omaha Tribune, was a 40-page German booklet with the English title Omaha Tornado – Album. This one I consulted 
in a library, but all the German pages plus an English translation appear at the Mardos Memorial Library of Online Books and Maps (from where I also obtained this cover image, which is better than my copy). 

A fourth pamphlet was The Omaha Tornado, Easter Sunday, Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.A. March 23, 1913, published by John L. Gideon (see second image near the top of this post). You can read a not-great Google scan online, but not download a PDF with the illustrations.

No surprise, entrepreneurs in hard-hit Ohio produced numerous souvenir photographic pamphlets and booklets, some of them very informative. 

The 24-page postcard-sized pamphlet Flood Views of Chillicothe, Ohio, March 26, 1913 was published for the Chillicothe News Co. by the Emmel Publishing 
Co. It consists of 22 images and minimal introductory text. I consulted a library copy.

The 64-page 6 x 9-inch A Pictorial History of the Great Dayton Flood March 25, 26, 27, 1913 by Nellis R. Funk—another of the few that claimed an actual 
author—was printed by the Otterbein Press. I consulted a library copy. A high-quality scan is online at archive.org. 

Dayton: Being a story of the great flood as seen from the Delco Factory is a 32-page booklet from the viewpoint of the factory employees trapped inside 
for several days, but also seeking to rescue others in neighboring buildings. The text only is online at Dayton History and a centennial edition including all the images was published by Frank Miller in 2013 (details in my January 2015 roundup of books). I consulted a library copy of the original plus have the Miller reissue (which has a significantly different format).

The 52-page Great 1913 Flood, Dayton, Ohio by K. M. Kammerer and published by the Specialty Photograph Co. is horizontal like most of the 
photographic souvenirs, but about double postcard size, about 5 x 8 inches. It can be found online at archive.org. With the exception of the first two pages, it is all images.

Historical Souvenir of the Fremont Flood March 25–28, 1913 is a 48-page booklet published by the Finch Studio that also says it was “Approved by the Relief Committee.” Online at archive.org the images look okay online but are 
disappointingly low-res in the PDF. Fremont was one of the areas hard-hit in northern Ohio, and half the booklet is text. I’ve not examined a copy in person, but it appears to be perfect-bound and even hardbound, which makes it unusual among these photographic souvenirs.

The city of Hamilton, downriver of Dayton, had only a quarter of Dayton’s population but suffered at least as many deaths—very likely many more, considering the violence of the flood. The Flood Disaster 1913 (Illustrated), 
available online through HathiTrust, has a title page that reads Flood Souvenir: View of Hamilton, Ohio During and after the Disastrous Flood of March 1913. It was printed by the Republican Publishing Co. Although it was only postcard sized, it has close to 100 images.

Photographic reproductions of the terrible flood of 1913: showing scenes in many Ohio and Indiana cities is a 32-page booklet with minimal text and with coarse halftones, but they include flood scenes from Buckeye Lake, Columbus, Dayton, Delaware, Hamilton, and Zanesville; despite the title, 
all the locations seem to be from Ohio (unless some were misidentified). The booklet was published by the Pfeifer Show Print Co. I wonder whether it might have been printed more than once, as the Delaware County Historical Society shows it having a green cover whereas the cover I photographed (shown here) was buff.

Zanesville in the Flood of 1913 by Thomas W. Lewis is a 96-page booklet. The 
digital scan on archive.org is of a photocopy, not or an original.

The only souvenir pamphlet I’ve found for Pennsylvania is the Official Souvenir History of the Shenango Valley Flood March 25, 26, 27, 28 1913, by C.B. Lartz and Z.O. Hazen, available online as a high-quality scan at archive.org (from which this image comes). This is one of the few that was printed in large 
format (8.5 x 11 inches) and had 40 pages of text of substantial length as well as photos. Interestingly, it is formatted like a yearbook, with ads sold against the text—obviously a money-making proposition, given the notation on the front cover than “only” 10,000 were printed.

One wonders what happened with the proceeds. Did they all go to the publisher (and perhaps authors)? Or did any portion of their sales get devoted to relief efforts? Some photographic souvenirs claim the money went to relief funds, but others are utterly silent on the question.

I hope this appeal to readers inspires some digging through grandparents’ attics—please do let me know what you find!

©2015 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Crisis Communications in a Communications Crisis

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.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Day the Dam Broke?

One of the humorist James Thurber's most famous stories was inspired by a bizarre incident during the 1913 flood in Columbus, Ohio. The backstory…

“My memories of what my family and I went through during the 1913 flood in Ohio I would gladly forget,” recollected James Thurber in the opening line of Chapter 3 of his 1933 autobiography My Life and Hard Times, especially “that frightful and perilous afternoon in 1913 when the dam broke, or, to be more exact, when everybody in town thought that the dam broke.” 

Indeed, what Thurber described was a widespread panic inspired by someone
"Two thousand people were in full flight" is James Thurber's own caption to this drawing of his that first appeared in the chapter "The Day the Dam Broke" in his 1933 autobiography My Life and Hard Times. This image is a screen shot from a reading of the short story by Keith Olbermann on YouTube.
shouting a rumor that a drinking-water storage dam north of Columbus had broken. Thousands of people along High Street began running east, fearing they would be “overtaken and engulfed by the roaring waters,” Thurber wrote. But “when the panic had died down and people had gone rather sheepishly back to their homes and their offices,…city engineers pointed out that even if the dam had broken, the water level would not have risen more than two additional inches in the West Side,” which was, Thurber noted, already under 30 feet of water. “The East Side (where we lived and where all the running occurred) had never been in any danger at all.”

The chapter “The Day the Dam Broke” received instant fame when it was published in The New Yorker on July 23, 1933, as part of the magazine’s serialization of the autobiography. Today it is often read in high school English classes, where students are learning about Thurber and humor in literature. Alas, often the lesson stops there, sometimes with tacit or explicit assumption that the tale—and indeed the monumental flood itself—was purely imaginary.

But it wasn’t. That panic along High Street in Columbus really happened, and 
Columbus Dispatch, March 27, 1913, p. 8.
largely as Thurber described it—although Thurber, ever the humorist, never let key pesky historical facts stand in the way of a great story and may have even deliberately exaggerated for effect. 

Facts and figures
Thurber was born in Columbus on December 8, 1894, so at the time of the Great Easter 1913 flood in late March, he was an 18-year-old high school senior. That following September, he entered The Ohio State University in Columbus, writing for both the campus paper The Ohio State Lantern and the campus humor magazine The Sun Dial. He left the university in 1918 without a degree and worked for a couple of years for the U.S. State Department in Paris, before returning to Columbus to a three-year stint as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch. Then he bounced back to Paris for a couple more years writing for the Chicago Tribune and other papers, before moving to New York City in 1925. Eventually he ended up on the staff of The New Yorker. His short autobiography, written at age 39, was the book that put him on the literary map.

So what actually happened during the High Street panic? What was the dam that so scared everyone, and why? 

It is actually possible to fact-check Thurber’s famous story because local reporters covering the 1913 flood described the actual panic in the Columbus Citizen and the Columbus Dispatch.

“The Columbus, Ohio, broken-dam rumor began, as I recall, about noon of 
About 15 hours before the panic, the Scioto River swept away
the Broad Street Bridge. Credit: Ohio Historical Society
March 12, 1913,” Thurber wrote. “High Street, the main canyon of trade, was loud with the placid hum of business and the buzzing of placid businessmen arguing, computing, wheedling, offering, refusing, compromising.”

Sound the buzzer: after two decades, Thurber misremembered both the date and time: the Columbus Dispatch put the panic at around 4:30 PM, Wednesday, March 26 (see “'Dam Has Broken' Rumor is Cause for a Wild Panic” above left), a date and time corroborated by the Columbus Citizen.

Thurber’s “canyon of trade” description of High Street is wonderfully evocative, but the hum was likely not at all placid. On that Wednesday, the waters had fallen only two feet from their record crest two days earlier, and rain was still falling in torrents. Around 1 AM that very morning, the swollen Scioto River had swept away the span of the Broad Street Bridge, isolating the city’s low-lying West Side (see photo above). Moreover, levees had also burst along the Scioto with the force of breaking dams. The West Side was under 17 feet
In reality, Columbus received almost 7 inches of rain by
Wednesday afternoon and much more had fallen upriver.
Credit: Horton and Jackson, p. 20.
of turbulent floodwaters, and telephone and telegraph communications were crippled. Indeed, the first word from the submerged area was an urgent S.O.S. transmitted from 15-year-old’s new-fangled home-built ham radio—one of the first uses of emergency radio. The Columbus Statehouse itself was surrounded by floodwaters, where Ohio Governor James M. Cox and his staff were working night and day. In Columbus, some 93 people had been swept to their deaths—very close to the death toll of hardest-hit Dayton. In short, with sights and sounds of death and destruction all around, Ohio’s capital city was already near or at the edge of panic.

Thurber describes how the panic started with isolated individuals possibly running for their own personal reasons, until “Two thousand people were abruptly in full flight” along High Street and on side streets heading east. “Black streams of people flowed eastward down all the streets leading in that direction,” he wrote, …”housewives, children, cripples, servants, dogs, and cats…shouting and screaming.” He recalls how his mother shut off the stove and carefully took a dozen eggs and two loaves of bread into her arms before she, teenaged Thurber, and his grandfather joined the surge of humanity, urged along by policemen and children crying, “Go east!”

Columbus Citizen article on March 27 is almost Thurber's plot.
The Columbus Citizen in an article about the panic published the next day (Thursday, March 27) on page 9, described the scene in a hauntingly similar way: “Cross streets leading from High street were instantly black with people, crowding, jamming, running, and some even crying, in the grand scramble to places of higher ground.” In fact, that whole article is full of absurd perspectives—telephone girls fainting, men turning pale: “Automobiles, all kinds of horse-drawn vehicles, delivery wagons and heavy trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, kids on roller skates, women with baby buggies, peanut vendors with push carts, and one man leading his horse on a gallop—all were seen in the swiftly moving throng of panic-stricken humanity that poured into Third street from High street and the river front.” That both contrasts somewhat but also confirms Thurber’s own recollection: “A funny thing was that all of them were on foot,” he wrote. “Nobody seemed to have had the courage to stop and start his car; but as I remember it, all cars had to be cranked in those days, which is probably the reason.”

Map of flooded region published in the Columbus Dispatch on March 28, 1913, p. 5 (right) shows that High Street indeed was  not flooded, nor were the areas where people ran in panic (red ovals). The area plotted by the newspaper is shown as the rectangle on the modern Google map (left) along with the position of Griggs Dam (arrow at upper left). Credit: Trudy E. Bell
Thurber makes the entire panic stretch six miles along High Street before the crowd melted away. That may be an exaggeration for effect. From the streets cited in the newspaper articles, the real distance was probably more like a mile (see red ovals on the map above). He himself recalls slowing with exhaustion when he reached Grant Avenue, a north-south street parallel to High Street about six blocks east, and eventually reaching Ohio Avenue, at an even greater distance even farther east. We-ell, maybe. 

According to both newspapers, the police and the Ohio National Guard were part of the problem, not part of the solution, charging into stores and public places ordering people to flee for their lives until (as the Citizen reporter wrote) “pandemonium reigned in the absolutely safe districts because of the blundering methods employed in spreading the alarm before waiting for verification.” 

The alleged perp: Griggs Dam
The dam whose supposed breaking ignited all the panic was the Griggs Dam across the Scioto River completed less than a decade earlier upstream
Griggs Dam around 1918. Credit:
of Columbus, also locally called the “storage dam.” It was built to create the city’s first reservoir of drinking water, and was the only drinking-water reservoir serving Columbus for two decades. 

Technically, Griggs Dam is a curved (somewhat arched) concrete overflow gravity dam. A gravity dam is one whose cross section is shaped like a wedge or triangle with a wide base; the sheer weight of all the concrete in its massive base resists the horizontal pressure of the water it holds back. An overflow dam is one where a significant part of its length is basically a giant spillway. In the case of Griggs Dam, the curved spillway—fully 500 feet long—is half the 1,006-foot length of the dam: if the Scioto River reaches flood stage, the excess water just rolls over the top by design. Absent an earthquake (rare in Ohio), overflow gravity dams rarely fail catastrophically. Adding to the stability of the basic design, Griggs Dam is low, only about 35 feet high; nonetheless, the reservoir it impounds extends upstream for six miles, offering recreational fishing and sailing both then and now.

Dam breaking rumors spread all
around Ohio. Akron Beacon-
, March 27, 1913, p.1.
If Griggs Dam was so newly built and of such a strong design, why were people so ready to believe that it had catastrophically failed? Answer: Just 24 years earlier—well within many people’s living memory—the 72-feet-high earth-and-rock-fill South Fork Dam in Pennsylvania had suddenly failed, releasing a wall of water that swept some 2,200 people to their deaths in the city of Johnstown and other towns downstream. Indeed, to this day, the Johnstown flood remains the United States’ worst-ever dam disaster. Never mind that the South Fork Dam was twice as high, of a wholly different design, much older, and poorly maintained for years—people in Columbus were understandably leery about any dam constructed upstream of a major city. 

They weren’t the only ones. Elsewhere around the state, people were apprehensive about the soundness of other dams during this unprecedented Easter 1913 flood, leaving their homes in St. Mary’s and Celina in in western Ohio, fearful for the dam impounding the Grand Reservoir (now called Grand Lake St. Mary's, and the largest man-made lake in the world when it was completed in 1845) as well as smaller dams in Akron and Kent. And rumors were flying everywhere—assisted by even being printed as front-page news (see the Akron Beacon-Journal above right).

“Order was restored and fear dispelled finally by means of militiamen riding about in motor lorries bawling through megaphones: ‘The dam has not broken!’” Thurber wrote. “All the time, the sun shone quietly and there was nowhere any sign of oncoming water.” The map of the flood region in Columbus (see comparison map above) and the streets named both in the story and in the newspaper articles indeed confirm that the regions from High Street east were free of floodwaters. But Thurber was just plain wrong about the sunshine: Columbus got an inch of rain that Wednesday, on top of nearly 6 inches over the previous three days. He was also wrong about the depth of inundation on the West Side: it was a horrific 17 feet instead of 30, but at those house-crushing depths, who’s counting—it’s all ruin.

The Columbus Citizen reported that Julian Griggs—who had been the city engineer when the dam was constructed, and for whom the dam was named—issued a statement Wednesday evening a few hours after the panic: “That dam will not give way. It’s a scientific impossibility for it to give way.” (See left.)

“That dam is only 32 feet high, on a foundation built for a 50-foot dam,” added James Westwater, the dam’s prime contractor. “No matter what the volume of water, that dam can’t break.”

This article also points out a final error in Thurber’s story, which the humorist either misremembered or perhaps purposely exaggerated for comic effect: his assertion that had the dam actually broken, the water level in the inundated West Side would have risen only two inches. As revealed in the Citizen article quoting the engineers, Griggs had actually said two feet; another engineer said maybe three feet. Oh, well, what’s a factor of 10 or 15 among friends…

The last word
Regardless of historical details and context, “The Day the Dam Broke” showcases Thurber’s vivid story-telling plus his skill in capturing the essence of an event in a few deft pen strokes in the accompanying cartoons—as well as recollecting a remarkable afternoon from his youth. You can read the original text of “The Day the Dam Broke” as published in My Life and Hard Times here. Also, check out two five-minute YouTube videos of Keith Olbermann reading the short story aloud (Part I is here and Part II is here.


©2015 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Crisis Communications in a Communications Crisis

Selected references
In addition to the articles cited above from the Akron Beacon-Journal, Columbus Citizen, and Columbus Dispatch, a few other sources were useful for fact-checking the story:

Griggs, Julian, “The Recent Flood at Columbus, Ohio,” Engineering News 69(15): 744–748. The panic even warrants a brief paragraph on page 747, where Griggs also confirms its date and time as being 4:30 PM on Wednesday, March 26.

Horton, A. H. and H. J. Jackson, The Ohio Valley Flood of March–April, 1913, Including Comparisons with Some Earlier Floods, (Department of the Interior, United States Geological Survey, Water-Supply Paper 334, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1913).

McCampbell, E. F., “Special Report on the Flood of March, 1913,” Monthly Bulletin Ohio State Board of Health 3(5):299–445, May 1913. 

A brief bio of Thurber (plus another cartoon from "The Day the Dam Broke") is “Happy Birthday, Mr. Thurber!” at Ohio Memory.

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.