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.)