Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Mailing (and Faking!) Disaster

Postcards published and sold just days after the 1913 flood sent actual photographsand faked images!!of Dayton’s destruction, and that in other Ohio cities, to friends and family all around the nation.

Out of the blue some weeks ago, on March 21 (2018)—105 years to the day after the horrific Good Friday windstorm decimated wireline communications and set up Ohio and the Midwest for much greater destruction without warning two days later, on Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913 (see “The First Punch)—I received a brief email message from one Elaine Luck: 

 I just shared a picture postcard of John Bell from my personal postcard collection in the Ohio Vintage Postcard Group and would like permission to share a link to your online article: “Our National Calamity” with the Group. Also if you like, since a lot of our members collect postcards from the 1913 Flood, I would be happy to tell our members about your book The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. If you are on facebook, please take a look at our Group. I am very impressed with your work and invite you to join us.

  Pleasantly surprised, I replied:
Thank you for your kind words. I trust you mean the story of John Bell in “Heroism of the ‘Hello Girls’”? More information about what John Bell actually, physically did is in one of the very early posts “The Governor’s Ear.
It dawned on me then that people in the Ohio Vintage Postcards Group might have other picture postcards depicting the 1913 flood around Ohio—and that they might be seeking more information about the individual scenes photographed. So, with Elaine’s encouragement, I posted an invitation to the group, inviting them to contact me “if you would like me to delve into the background of particular postcards you may have.”

Some of the resulting detective sleuthing ended up uncovering big surprises. Jil Loewit posted an image of a fire over the flood, asking, “I would like more info about this postcard please.
This RPCC, uploaded by Jil Loewit, depicts a scene
that was faked a century before PhotoShop!

No one was more surprised than I with what emerged from my research. I replied:
After 3-4 hours of sleuthing, I’m pretty confident in stating that the scene in this image never happened – or at least, not in the way depicted. For a fact, fires from gas explosions broke out in Dayton, and for a fact people used cables in rescues (see “High Wire Horror) – but this view of both happening in one scene is almost surely a pre-Photoshop doctored image. What initially suggested that was the fact that I already possessed a thumbnail image I found years ago that varies in details (see below).
Note how the image is cropped differently and the smoke billows higher into the sky and the colors differ.
But today I also found what appears to be the original photo of the scene in Marshall Everett’s 1913 instant book Tragic Story of America’s Greatest Disaster. Now, these instant disaster books are problematic in their own way (see “Profiting from Pain), but in this case the photo reveals how the postcard is a doctored image. Even though the photo (from the copy of the book I own) highlights a cable rescue, no boat of figures is shown using the cable.
Note how the grouping of people at left is nearer and smaller. Most importantly, there is no burning building in the background because the street has a sight-line all the way to the horizon, where some figures are standing atop some wreckage. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen other variants on this scene as well!
Jil also posted another image that puzzled her. She asked: “Can you please tell me who these men were? Is one of them Patterson?” 

By ‘Patterson,’ she was referring to John H. Patterson, founder and head of National Cash Register (NCR), Dayton’s largest employer (locally nicknamed “the Cash”); thousands flooded out of their homes climbed to the hilltop corporation to safety—a rescue story that instantly went viral around the nation, and that ultimately rescued Patterson himself from doing time in Federal prison. I replied:

None of these men is John H. Patterson, who was 69, slight, vigorous, with a bushy white moustache (see “The Villain Who Stole the Flood,” third photo down – Patterson is the older gentleman in the center, wearing a dark coat).  It’s barely possible, however, that the middle figure on the rooftop could be Patterson’s right-hand man, Edward A. Deeds, who succeeded him as head of NCR – a good photo of both Patterson and Deeds is at the Dayton Metro Library’s Flickr site.
Jil Loewit also posted a picture postcard of people being rescued in a flat-bottomed boat, noting, “Dayton Flood of 1913. Happened this week 105 years ago!”

She added a modern photo of a museum exhibit, writing, “Here is a reproduction of what those boats looked like. I assume none of them survived. This photo was taken at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio. They have a whole building dedicated to the Dayton Flood of 1913. The man in the photo lost his life while rescuing others.”

Those flat-bottomed boats were likely the most significant thing Patterson did through NCR, as they saved thousands of lives. Their story started around 6:45 AM on Tuesday, March 25, 1913, after Dayton had been deluged with 48 hours of record rainfall since Easter Sunday. Patterson and a group of executives climbed to the roof of the NCR building to survey the swollen Miami River, whose level they saw was dangerously nearing the tops of its containing levees. 

At that moment, Patterson predicted great disaster to Dayton and famously stated, “I now declare NCR out of commission, and I proclaim the Citizen’s Relief Association!” and he began barking out orders to make preparations. Just hours later, the levees burst, sending walls of water through the streets of downtown Dayton. 

Among Patterson’s orders barked out was a command to NCR’s carpenters to start building as many rescue boats as possible. Working night and day and turning out several per hour, the NCR carpenters ultimately constructed nearly 300 flat-bottomed boats. They had a shallow draft and were very stable, allowing half a dozen people at a time to be rowed to safety. 

Re the replica in the Carillon Museum and Jil’s speculation about no surviving originals: I’m pretty sure that at least one of the actual boats may still exist. In 2007, when I was in Dayton doing photo research for my book The Great Dayton Flood of 1913 (Arcadia, 2008), I spent several days poring through flood photos at the NCR archives preserved at Dayton History. At that time, local historian Curt Dalton (author of several books on the 1913 flood) showed the surviving boat to me where it stood against a wall. What struck me was how, even though the rather battered craft had been roughly cleaned for storage, small patches of flood mud still seemed to be visible.
Walter Jung: “Third Street East, After the Flood and Fires,
March 25, 1913, Dayton Ohio - unused real photo postcard.

Comment from Elaine Luck: “I've never before seen a
1913 flood card showing the aftermath. Great Card!”

The memory of the 1913 flood is alive and well in Dayton, whose story has a happy ending because of the monumental Miami Valley Conservancy District’s mammoth flood-protection system (see “Morgan’s Cowboysand “Morgan’s Pyramids). In 1922, Engineering Record awarded the Miami Conservancy District’s flood protection system its distinguished Project of the Year Award, placing it in the company of such other international engineering design feats as the Brooklyn Bridge (1883) and the Eiffel Tower (1889), as well as the later Golden Gate Bridge (1937), the Gateway Arch (1965), and the Channel Tunnel (1994). And in 1972, the five earthen dams were designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

Beyond Dayton 
But the 1913 flood did not stop at Dayton’s city limits. Neither did postcard photographers. Worse hit than Dayton in terms of flood deaths per capita population was Hamilton (Butler County) farther down the Great Miami River. 
This flood scene of downtown Hamilton, a postcard uploaded to Ohio Vintage Postcards by Greg Eyler, could easily be mistaken for downtown Dayton because of the similarity of the building architecture and globe street lamps. Note Hamilton’s partially submerged Butler County Soldiers, Sailors, and Pioneers Monument at the end of the street
The official death toll in both cities was about 100, but Hamilton had less than a third of Dayton’s population; death tolls everywhere were widely underestimated (see “‘Death Rode Ruthless’); and a tally by long-time Hamilton historian Jim Blount indicates the death toll in Hamilton might have been closer to 300).

Greg Eyler uploaded a real picture postcard (RPPC) of Hamilton taken on the second day of the deluge, March 26, 1913 (above). He wrote:

Downtown’s High Street looking west at the intersection of High and Third Streets. Image taken from the First National Bank Building. On the left side of this postcard the Masonic Building and the Rentschler Building -which is located on the southeast corner of High and Second Streets - are standing strong. In the next block the front of the Butler County Courthouse is visible. Water is from 7 to 12 feet deep on the city’s main public thoroughfare, flowing about 20 miles an hour. You will notice the water stands halfway up the lampposts. This photograph was produced by Jacobi and Berry, a photography studio operating out of 308 High Street. Information Source: Hamilton's Disastrous Flood - 100 Photographic Views (a picture booklet), published by C. S. Jacobi, First National Bank Building, Hamilton, Ohio. Copyright 1913

Mark Kittinger uploaded a slightly different view taken a few days later after the floodwaters had somewhat receded, writing, “Here's a RPPC I recently found showing the aftermath of the 1913 flood in Hamilton, Ohio. A National Guardsman with rifle can be seen standing in the rubble near the trolley tracks.” Note the torn-up pavement.
Piqua and Troy north of Dayton, some 25 miles up the Great Miami River, also were hammered a day earlier than Dayton. Elaine Luck uploaded an RPPC she described as “Piqua Ohio, Miami County, RR. Bridge, probably 1913 Flood.” Indeed, it is. It shows the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge, looking toward East Piqua, a residential area.
Railroad officials tried to keep the bridge from being swept away by parking heavy freight cars on it—a tactic used in many locales and that often worked. In this case, work previously done on the railroad weakened the earthen approach to the east. When that gave way, new concrete piers installed for a replacement bridge diverted the river into the adjacent residential area. After the flood, many residents filed lawsuits against the railroad. RPPC from Elaine Luck.
But the flood was also far vaster than the Miami Valley. It engulfed much of the entire state of Ohio. Indeed, the 1913 flood and associated tornadoes devastated parts of 15 states (one major focus of my research for 15 years has been to determine its full extent and consequences). Postcards from cities around Ohio document the extent of its widespread destruction. 

One of the most dramatic images was on this RPPC of Lods Street in Akron (Summit County) along the Little Cuyahoga River, posted by Elaine Luck (at right). The photo itself testifies to the sheer force of the floodwaters through Akron, some 200 miles northeast of Dayton. Moreover, the postcard was postmarked April 5, 1913. Now, the floodwaters had not receded most places until around March 28 or even later, indicating that photographers already had developed their film or glass plates, printed postcards, and distributed them for sale in just days. 

Interestingly, that Akron postcard was addressed to a recipient in Seville (Medina County), which itself also suffered during the flood, as shown in another postcard Elaine posted (at left).

Mary L. McClure wrote: “One of the 1913 flood stories I read involved Silver Lake Park near Akron/Cuyahoga Falls. Water flooded the bear pits, where the famous Silver Lake black bears were housed. The park's owners retrieved the bears and put them in their home until they could be safely returned to their rightful place.” McClure is herself an Arcadia author, having written the book Silver Lake Park (2014).

All these 1913 flood postcards from Ohio Vintage Postcards Group members inspired me to search for more on my own. Knowing that Zanesville was hard hit, I Googled on the city’s name and found this postcard of men rowing down the city’s flooded streets for sale on ebay (at right).

I found way too many to mention in this one ONC post, but one I cannot resist, in part to correct the record. This famous image of the freighter William Henry Mack destroying Cleveland’s West Third Street Bridge (see Clevelanders Responding Nobly’) was turned into a RPPC:

The postcard’s caption is erroneous. The freighter itself destroyed the bridge. The Mack broke away from its moorings upriver and was swept downstream, getting wedged under the bridge; the powerful turbulence of the Cuyhaoga River kept pitching the bow of the freighter like a lever arm, in about four hours prying Cleveland’s West Third Street Bridge off its supports and into the river. Credit: The Cleveland Memory Project 

On the Ohio Vintage Postcards Group, Robert Gardner marveled, 

It is almost unbelievable how many cities and towns in Ohio (maybe other states also) that were flooded during the 1913 flood. The canal system was permanently put out of commission from it. The post cards of the day are really the only reminder of it. Thank god the computer wasn't invented yet or all the pictures would be obsolete by now as they would have been stored in a format that no modern computer could read.
Elaine Luck uploaded this image of tumbled houses, identifying it as, “Columbus Ohio, Franklin County, 1913 Flood View, PU1913 with a message on back referring to the casualties.” To which David Fry commented: “These are such surreal images. What these poor people had to endure.” More about Columbus is in "Wireless to the Rescue! Birth of Emergency Radio"
He is absolutely right. Without  much effort, I found RPPCs of the 1913 flood from Ashtabula County to Portsmouth to a gold mine of 1913 flood postcards in and around AuGlaize (Defiance County)
Antwerp (on the Maumee River near the Indiana border),
from Elaine Luck

Statewide disaster, indeed.

Altogether, the Ohio Vintage Postcards Group generously posted some 30 or 40 RPPC images of the 1913 flood and its aftermath, far more than I can mention and display in this one blog post. But you can view them all, along with the full online conversation and people’s comments, from this link—as well as e-meet Elaine Luck, the group’s administrator, and perhaps join and upload RPPCs of your own! Let me know if you do!
Dave Sapienza uploaded this image, noting: “1913 flood disaster,
Marietta Ohio.
” To which Judnick Postcards commented,
“Photos taken during a flood put the photographer at
considerable risk. They are therefore much better than the aftermath shots.”

P.S. For 139 more postcard images of the 1913 flood, many from Ohio, see this major site by Ray Thomas; his two pictorial overviews show thumbnails of all the images that you can click to enlarge. Moreover, this month’s single ONC post doesn’t begin to explore postcards from Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, and so many other states also devastated by the 1913 tornadoes and flood. If you wish to share your own Great Easter 1913 natural disaster images from states other than Ohio, I’d love to hear from you

Keep those cards and letters coming, folks!

©2018 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Desperate Medicine

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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