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‘Washed Away’ captures 1913’s flood of memories

On March 23, 1913, an outbreak of severe weather across the Midwest cut swaths of destruction through parts of Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana and other states. In Omaha, Neb., a tornado wrecked thousands of buildings and took 140 lives. These grim events were horrifying harbingers of what would transpire in Dayton on the following day.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Great Flood of 1913, we are grateful that our meteorologists can now reliably predict severe weather. On Monday, March 24, 1913, the residents of cities such as Dayton, Indianapolis and Columbus had no inkling of what lay ahead for them. Children on their way to school that morning in Dayton passed through streets that were already ankle deep with rainwater.

And the rain just kept coming down. Geoff Williams describes the terrible events of that day in his book “Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America’s Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever.” Williams, a freelance journalist based in Loveland, Ohio, scoured newspaper archives to reconstruct the unleashing of this watery cataclysm as it engulfed numerous communities throughout the heartland of this nation.

Here in the Dayton area we often refer to it as the Great Dayton Flood.

The disaster that hit Dayton garnered significant newsreel footage during that time. The flooding was widespread. The floodwaters swept through many communities across the Midwest in a devastating surge.

Williams provides hundreds of accounts of the incredible things that transpired. Houses floated by and some smashed into bridges. There was a hysterical tone to some of the news reports. One Michigan newspaper’s headline declared that “Dayton’s Awful Story Lies Beneath Seething Sea; Even 10,000 May Have Perished Dayton is Burning!” Fortunately that headline was an exaggeration, and the death toll was not as great as it could have been.

The author writes that on that day “John H. Patterson wasn’t preparing for a flood. He was preparing to go to jail.” Patterson, the founder of the National Cash Register Company, had established a virtual monopoly in the cash register business through some aggressive business dealings.

Patterson had been tried, convicted and sentenced to serve a year in jail for his offenses. He had not yet been incarcerated when the deluge came. As the rising waters inundated Dayton Patterson’s leadership of NCR was crucial in saving lives and providing relief for many survivors. His reputation went from tarnished to burnished, and he ultimately avoided going to jail.

There were heroes and villains. Some rescuers were relentless in their efforts to rescue citizens stranded on rooftops and clinging to floating debris. Others, possessing fewer scruples, extorted bribes from desperate flood victims. The author cites the example of one such hooligan who demanded a hundred dollars, a huge sum, in exchange for providing an escape for a stranded victim. The intended victim refused to pay and was left behind. A little while later that enterprising thug drifted by again in his boat, he was dead. Apparently someone else had replied to his extortion demand with a fusillade of gunfire.

Dayton recovered. Arthur Morgan enacted flood control measures, alleviating the likelihood that such a terrible thing will ever happen again.

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