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.



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