Sunday, May 1, 2016

‘Clevelanders Responding Nobly...’

Although crippled and without power itself during the Great Easter 1913 Flood, Cleveland rushed aid to Dayton and Zanesville. And with telegraph and telephone wires downed, the Plain Dealer became the principal information lifeline across flooded northern Ohio.

[On Saturday morning, April 23, 2016, terrific fortune led to my being picked to go up on stage and play the second quiz during Michael Feldman’s fun live radio show Whad’Ya Know? So when Feldman asked about my current work in front of a Cleveland Playhouse Square audience of ~2,500 plus broadcast listeners across the nation, I talked about my research on the 1913 flood and how Cleveland was the state’s first responder in the emergency (listen beginning at 1:33:24 here). To anyone who heard that show and is thus looking here, welcome! Here is Cleveland’s story!  –T.E.B.] 

In late March 1913, Cleveland was a vibrant, proud, burly, bustling boom town: largest in Ohio and sixth largest in the country, with a 1910 census central city population of  

Credit: Cleveland Leader, March 28, 1913, p. 2

560,663 (75 percent larger than it is today and fast on its way up to a 1930s peak of over 900,000). The city was home to some of the nation’s major industrial revolutionaries and benefactors including John D. Rockefeller (possibly the richest man in the world, with a net worth then equivalent to four times that of Bill Gates) and Warner & Swasey (world famous since the 1880s for not only their turret lathes and other heavy equipment but also for their innovative designing and mounting of the two then-largest telescopes in the world at the Lick [1888] and Yerkes [1893] observatories). Cleveland boasted art, culture, and philanthropy equal to those of Chicago or New York City. 
Four brawling newspapers vied for readers’ attention: the morning Cleveland Leader, then still the largest but being contested by the fast-rising morning Plain Dealer, the two being run by former Plain Dealer partners now turned competitors: Charles Kennedy at the Leader and Elbert H. Baker at the Plain Dealer—which Baker was fast turning into one of the best newspapers in the land; plus there were the evening News and the Press. Cleveland was also home to a large contingent of Ohio’s National Guard.

Then, with no warning, disaster struck.

Cleveland’s worst flood
On Easter Sunday March 23, 1913, torrential downpours began pounding Ohio, dropping literally three months of normal rainfall in less than a week right over the east-west range of hills that crosses the northern quarter of the state just south of Akron. Bubbling up out of that range of hills are the sources for all five of Ohio's
The most intense rainfall in Ohio—over 11 inches in four days—fell over the east-west continental divide in the northern third of the state. Also, between Easter Sunday, March 23 and Thursday morning March 27, Cuyahoga County (location of Cleveland on the shore of Lake Erie) itself received more than 7 inches of rain. Credit: Alfred J. Henry, The Floods of 1913 (U.S. Weather Bureau Bulletin Z, 1913)
major river systems plus Indiana’s Wabash. Moreover, that range of hills is a continental divide. Such concentrated rainfall at that position caused every major river in Ohio to overflow from source to mouth with the speed of flash floods. On Tuesday and Wednesday, March 25 and 26, literal walls of water—some up to 20 feet high—funneled down onto Sandusky, Tiffin, and other northern Ohio cities as well as onto Dayton, Columbus, Chillicothe, and cities to the south. 

These headlines in the March  27 Cleveland Leader say it all (page number on the microfilm was unreadable)
Megatons of water rushing through city streets scoured channels as deep as eight feet under the foundations of brick office buildings, sweeping away entire houses, trains, and bridges, and inundating riverside power plants and factories. Powerful floodwaters twisted railroad track, scraping topsoil from farm fields and leaving worthless river rocks in its stead (see “Like a War Zone”). 

All around the state, the terrible waters drowned at least 600 Ohioans, injured thousands more, and drove hundreds of thousands into attics or into trees, clinging to branches and shivering with terror and near-freezing temperatures for days—a perch so precarious they dare not sleep for fear of falling into the raging current just feet below (see “‘Death Rode Ruthless…’). Above the water line in downtown Dayton and other cities, inaccessible as if surrounded by a giant moat, lurid flames from enormous fires billowed black smoke, consuming landmarks and lives.

The Cuyahoga Lumber Co. in the Flats in Cleveland was owned by Archibald C. Klumph, president of the Cleveland Rotary Club, and on Wednesday, March 26, the swollen Cuyahoga River swept much of its wood out to Lake Erie. See “Service Above Life” for how the 1913 flood gave Rotary it humanitarian mission—in part through Klumph. Credit: Cleveland Public Library
In Cleveland itself, more than 3 inches fell in just 20 hours on the Monday and Tuesday after Easter, followed by another 4 inches before week’s end. On Tuesday, March 25, the city suffered its worst-ever flood in the Cuyahoga River valley and in the Flats—the local name for the river’s flood plain near its mouth. In 1913, the Flats were filled with lumber yards and steel mills (today the Flats are home to trendy bars and restaurants and stores—hello, folks, it’s not called flood plain for nothing…!).

The rapidly rising Cuyahoga flooded railroad tracks and toppled boxcars filled with coal and foodstuffs, so quickly that some workers trying to save the cargo were stranded atop the cars. The rising river spread into the factories and quenched blast furnaces in the steel mills, and swept expensive lumber from lumber yards out into
Official map of the flooded Flats and other regions of Cleveland along the Cuyahoga River in 1913. Credit: Report of the Special Committee of the Council Appointed to Investigate and Report on the Improvement of the Lower Cuyahoga River, July 1913
Lake Erie.The thundering 20-mph current yanked tugs, barges, and steamships loose from their moorings and swirled them downriver like chaff. The stern of the 366-foot-long steamship William Henry Mack wedged under the lower West Third Street Bridge. The swollen river’s powerful turbulent floodwaters kept pitching the stuck freighter like a relentless lever arm for four and a half hours, until the freighter literally pried the iron drawbridge off its concrete piers and threw it into the raging Cuyahoga.
Altogether property damage in Cleveland was estimated to be in at least $3.5 million dollars (1913 dollars, equivalent to hundreds of millions of dollars today). Electricity was lost city-wide when the power plant was flooded, stopping elevators and darkening lights. Still, aside from flooded basements, Cleveland’s downtown office area—on bluffs well above the Flats and Lake Erie—escaped major destruction. The city was also fortunate in that it still had two telegraph lines operating into and out of the metropolitan area.
The 10-year-old Mack, owned by the Jenkins Steamship Co. in Cleveland, had a load of corn aboard at the time. The freighter’s hull was repaired and continued service, but was sold the next year to a Canadian company, which changed its name to the Valcartier. It was finally scrapped in 1937. More history appears here. Credit: Library of Congress

Burden on Cleveland’
Until rail transportation was at least partially reestablished across the Midwest in early April, allowing Federal troops to penetrate into the state's worst flood zones in southern Ohio and contributions of aid to be received from elsewhere around the country, Ohio was physically isolated. Moreover, other major Midwest cities were preoccupied with their own share in the widespread natural disaster and suddenly needy populations: Omaha and Terre Haute had been half-leveled by tornadoes, and Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Louisville were as paralyzed by flood as Dayton.

On Wednesday, March 26, newly inaugurated President Woodrow Wilson issued a nationwide appeal for goods and money, widely published in newspapers across the country:
President Wilson’s appeal to the nation is the first that calls the natural disaster a “national calamity,” words later adapted for the title of an instant book published weeks later, and also for the title of this research blog
Taking up Wilson’s plea, that same day the Plain Dealer urged its readers: “The floods that have now afflicted so many towns and cities in Ohio are ... matters of general concern. ... A disaster at Columbus or Dayton is Cleveland’s concern.” Similarly, a Cleveland Leader editorial observed three days later: “Here is the richest and most populous city in Ohio. It has escaped with relatively insignificant losses… These facts throw much of the burden of relief on Cleveland.”

Indeed, Cleveland was uniquely positioned to be first responder. Just three months earlier, on January 7, the city’s Chamber of Commerce—2,200 members strong—had made national headlines for founding the Cleveland Federation for Charity and Philanthropy. In that Industrial Revolution era of fascination with efficiency and productivity, time and motion studies, organized social work, and “scientific” charity, the city had just concluded a five-year study of its benevolent associations. The Federation was an innovative experiment for simultaneously increasing the number of donors (principally by setting up methods of appealing to smaller donors), increasing the efficiency of good works (principally by eliminating duplication), and protecting donors from con-men. By instituting a streamlined structure, the new Federation hoped to do the greatest possible good with every gift, and organize Cleveland into becoming “The City of Good Will.” 

With local fanfare, the Federation had begun weekly meetings in early March, just a few weeks before the flood. This—the first modern Community Chest—was co-led by Martin A. Marks, a leader in Jewish benevolences, and Homer H. Johnson, the president of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce (incidentally, also the father of Philip Johnson—7 years old in 1913who would grow up to be an influential American architect). 
Description of the innovative Cleveland Federation--the first modern Community Chest. Credit: The New York Times, April 6, 1913

The 1913 flood became the first trial-by-water of Cleveland Community Chest’s machinery for federated fundraising and aid. Immediately after Wilson’s appeal, a citywide relief fund was established. Daily progress in fundraising reported in all the newspapers kept excitement high. Within 36 hours, more than $31,000—equivalent to close to $700,000 today—flowed into the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce and was rushed to Dayton. By the end of March, Cleveland had raised some $100,000—equivalent to just under $2.5 million today (or, more accurately, in 2014 dollars, based on the consumer price index). “Clevelanders are responding nobly” Johnson declared on April 1.

In parallel, Clevelanders ranging from wealthy industrialists to churches to fraternal and women’s groups mobilized mammoth rescue efforts to send necessities to Dayton, Columbus, Zanesville and other flood-devastated southern Ohio cities. Adults and school-children alike gathered blankets, food, clothing, water, medicines, boats, and even “auto trucks” to rush down to flood-devastated Dayton and Columbus by train, horse, and boat. 

National Guard to the rescue
Meantime, late Tuesday night March 25, Ohio Governor James M. Cox issued an order directing Brig. Gen. John C. Speaks to call out the entire Ohio National Guard to report to their nearest armory on Wednesday morning—a statewide total of some 6,500 strong young men. Included in that call were all four of the Cleveland-based companies of the Fifth Regiment, under the command of Col. Charles X. Zimmerman (often misspelled with one m), plus the Cleveland-based Fifth Infantry, Troop A cavalry, the naval reserves with their life-saving equipment and various boats, Engineers’ battalion, and auxiliary organizations. 
Credit: Plain Dealer, March 27, 1913, p. 8

Within 24 hours, troops were boarding the first relief train leaving Cleveland Wednesday morning to try to ford through treacherous veritable inland seas to reach Dayton and other flood-stricken regions. Zimmerman and his troops were put in charge of securing some of Dayton’s hardest-hit flood districts; by week’s end Zimmerman was also put in complete charge of securing even worse-hit Hamilton. In succeeding weeks, the Cleveland Engineers were crucial in the early reconstruction of both Dayton and Hamilton.

Lifeline—and scoop
During that terrible first week after Easter when telephone and telegraph communications were down across the Midwest, newspapers became the primary means of mass communication. All the Cleveland newspapers prominently ran official notices, such as warnings from the Ohio Board of Health urging citizens to boil all drinking water to prevent the spread of typhoid fever and other diseases, as well as progress reports of Federal and local rescue efforts and appeals for money and relief supplies. But flooding or loss of electricity had also shut down many newspaper publishers in flood-swept towns and cities around Ohio.

On Tuesday, March 25, the Plain Dealer announced it would seek missing Cleveland or Ohio people who were in Omaha or Terre Haute when the Easter tornadoes struck. The next day, as soon as the mammoth scale and severity of the 1913 flood was becoming evident, the paper set up bureau to collect frantic inquiries from Clevelanders anxious about flood-stranded relatives in some 50 cities around Ohio, including deluged Zanesville and Findlay, using its single fitfully working private telegraph connection. 
Cleveland newspapers competed in sending reporters into the flood zones. Cleveland Leader, March 20, p.1

Augmenting its already existing statewide network of correspondents, however, the Plain Dealer embedded three strong, ambitious reporters with the first relief train Wednesday morning carrying the first troops from the National Guard, “in the hope that once there, they will be able to relieve the fears of thousands of Clevelanders” about the safety of relatives and loved ones in Dayton, Miami, and elsewhere. The flood-beleaguered train finally reached Dayton around 5 PM Thursday evening—the same day as five competing reporters from the morning Leader and evening News arrived (each having taken a different train route) along with a photographer.

Armed with lists of names, re reporters’ overt mission was the humanitarian one of determining the safety and whereabouts of friends and relatives of Cleveland residents, which information the Plain Dealer published in column after column of tiny type. Block by block in Dayton, Columbus, and Hamilton and 45 other hard-hit cities, the Cleveland reporters as well as local correspondents canvassed what was left of neighborhoods, sleuthing frantic queries about some 2,500 families and individuals from 1,500 Cleveland-based friends and relatives.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer March 28, p. 7

But in tracking down Clevelanders’ loved ones, the reporters took unique photographs and collected first-hand accounts of tragedies and thrilling escapes. Their derring-do pursuing of news had the reporters piloting rowboats and riding “breeches buoys” on cables strung across raging rivers right into the heart of flood zones that exhausted refugees were fleeing, or—after the floodwaters had somewhat receded—skidding motorcycles through the muddy streets of Dayton to inquire after Cleveland relatives in every block. The Leader and Plain Dealer journalists, some of the most enterprising and physically courageous in the land, competed with each other in efforts to reunite flood victims with their Cleveland relatives even as they were filing “we were there” stories from the muck.

Moreover, the Plain Dealer stood out for its enterprising distribution of newspapers. As soon as printed papers, ink still damp, ran off the presses, they were wheeled into the mail room, wrapped in waterproof bundles, and rushed into waiting special hired trains that steamed to the edge of the floodwaters. There, the bundles of papers were transferred into motorboats and rowboats, which newsboys paddled up to the second-floor windows of homes to sell issues to marooned flood victims. To frightened families feeling profoundly alone as they huddled in the sodden attics of homes that kept shuddering from impacts of downed trees carried in the muddy torrent raging only inches away on the other side of a wooden wall, reaching through a window to take a damp newspaper from the wet hands of a courageous newsboy must have felt as welcome as seeing a glimmering light in terrifying darkness.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer April 1, p. 1

By sheer ingenuity and perseverance, the Plain Dealer both discovered and spread breaking news about the statewide flood—including exclusives from within the flood zoneas far west as Toledo, as far east as Ashtabula, and as far south as Columbus. Indeed, for the worst of flood week, the Plain Dealer crowed that it “was the only newspaper in the country to invade scores of cities and towns in the flooded sections.” 

The extraordinary measures were kept up for more than a week, until waters receded and wireline communications were somewhat repaired. On April 4, the Plain Dealer announced: “With means of private communication re-established between Cleveland and the Ohio cities that were flooded, the Plain Dealer inquiry bureau goes out of existence”—although reporters stayed somewhat longer in Dayton and Columbus, whose communications infrastructure was still badly devastated.
Map of the Plain Dealer's reach across northern Ohio as an information lifeline during the worst of the 1913 flood. Cleveland Plain Dealer March 27, p. 6
National consequences of Cleveland’s heroism
“Cleveland has just passed through the worst flood in her history,” declared an editorial in the Plain Dealer on April 2. What were some of the 1913 flood’s long-lasting results for Cleveland and the nation?
People atop boxcars watching after the William Henry Mack had destroyed the lower West Third Street Bridge in Cleveland. Credit: Cleveland Public Library
Homer H. Johnson, the president of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce and co-leader of the Community Chest, was appointed by Governor Cox as one of the five commissioners of the Flood Relief Commission charged with overseeing the rebuilding of Ohio. The speed and efficiency of the Cleveland Community Chest in both raising funds and directing aid dramatically demonstrated the potential power of what came to be called “federated” fundraising and giving. The Community Chest, subsequently replicated in many cities around the nation, ultimately became one predecessor of today’s United Way. 

The yeoman efforts of the Ohio National Guard in securing Dayton, Hamilton, and many other Ohio cities under martial law and organizing their relief, sanitation, and reconstruction actually saved its very existence. Before the flood, there was strong agitation within the Ohio State legislature to slash appropriations for the Guard and do away completely with certain arms of it. The 1913 flood resoundingly demonstrated the value of having trained troops who could stand up at a moment’s notice in a major emergency. 

The extraordinary efforts of the Plain Dealer in its humanitarian efforts, its sending reporters into harm’s way to get news from almost impenetrable corners of the worst flood zones, and shouldering the task of being the principal information lifeline across thousands of square miles of flood-devastated Ohio helped establish it as a major national paper.
Men salvaging lumber from Edgewater Park after it was swept down the Cuyahoga River into Lake Erie. Credit: Cleveland Public Library
In 1917, Arch C. Klumph—president of The Cuyahoga Lumber Co. in Cleveland, whose lumber was swept down the Cuyahoga River and into Lake Erie by the 1913 flood, and also president of the Cleveland Rotary Club in 1913—proposed setting up an endowment “for the purpose of doing good in the world.” In 1928, the endowment was renamed the Rotary Foundation, today sponsoring international programs for humanitarian purposes.
©2016 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Crisis Communications in a Communications Crisis

Selected references 
There are many ways to convert the value of historical sums of money. Officer, Lawrence H. and Samuel H. Williamson, “Measuring Worth is a Complicated Question;” for the actual calculator, see “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to Present.”See also their discussion “Choosing the Best Indicator to Measure Relative Worth,” using the cost of constructing the Empire State Building as an example for  an infrastructure project.

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. 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.


  1. Trudy,

    I was tipped off that you appeared on Feldman's show. Glad you were able to be picked from the audience and be part of the broadcast. Several years ago I wrote an article for a local newsletter about the exploits of a local ham operator calling for help in Columbus. He's been since identified as the first use of amateur radio in the time of disaster. So many great stories link to this event. Keep up the great work!

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