Moderator: There’s been a high degree of interest in an event that happened 100 years ago. Why do you think that is?
Andy Snow: What I’ve found at the DAI exhibit, and what I love about it, is that people come up to me and start telling me their stories — the flood stories they’ve heard from their grandparents, great aunts and uncles. There’s such tremendous interest because people feel a deep family connection to the flood through family stories and narratives. It’s embedded in the DNA of the community; it’s the reason this community is the community it is. We do things to help our neighbors, we take care of ourselves. Somehow, that is part of the consequence of the flood and the flood relief fund.
Jim Blount: I would agree. In Hamilton, there are people who have lived there all their lives and who have these family stories passed down, and then there are people who’ve moved in years later and heard the flood stories from neighbors and c-workers — and what we’re doing now is finally putting them in perspective for them.
Sam Ashworth: It was such a widespread event, too. It was so massive it affected everybody, and left so many memories.
Janet Bly: And the people who lived through it documented it all so well, too, in photographs, letters, journals.
Snow: And it was a regional event, and regionalism is an important idea today. The river was the highway of life at that time, the thing that made us more than just a little collection of communities.
Ashworth: It became a very famous event pretty quickly, too. In 1915, at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, the world’s fair in San Francisco, they had an exhibit on the Great Dayton Flood, with a miniature city and the water rising.
Moderator: How long did it take for the news to get out?
Blount: Almost instantly. Hamilton was flooded on a Monday, and I’ve seen New York papers that had it on Tuesday.
Geoff Williams: The telegraph and the wire services moved comparatively quickly.
Blount: It became known as the Dayton flood because Dayton had the first communication with the outside world.
Williams: Plus, it hit Dayton worst. Dayton lost the most people, and had 20-foot-deep water downtown. It became the real face of the event.
Brady Kress: The initial coroner’s report for the city of Dayton was 92 deaths, but you had a lot of lingering effects. They understood the dangers of the aftermath, too. People wrote that they’d made it through the flood, but now it was the waterborne illness they feared.
Bly: You had people who died weeks later, too.
Williams: And suicides, which went uncounted. And people who died of disease.
Blount: There were more deaths than we realize. There was a tendency to under-count, at the time. We did a project in the 1970s, working with the coroner, and came up with at least 285, probably almost 300. Now I think it’s around 400, across the region.
Moderator: With so much death and destruction, how did it change the community and the region? If it had never occurred, what would these communities be like now?
Bly: It would have flooded, eventually. We did build a huge flood-protection system, but we know of times when the river would have flooded without it. People forget that many of our beautiful Five Rivers MetroParks exist because of the flood system, that they grew up around where the dams were built, and that we have our wonderful river-corridor bikeways because it’s public land along the river, thanks to the control system. A lot of communities don’t have such a thing.
Blount: Well, Hamilton had developed a downtown plan in 1910 to turn the area from the courthouse to the river into a civic center. That never happened. The river became something to fear. Hamilton to this day doesn’t take advantage of the river. It turned its back on the river. Ideas were proposed for fountains in the river in the 1980s and were crushed in a referendum; we have a low dam now, but when one was proposed in the 1930s and ’70s, it was defeated by voters both times. Even in the 1920s, a planner the city hired said Hamilton was missing an opportunity, with a river running through the middle of the city, that other communities would pay dearly for. We might’ve looked a lot different. It’s a shame.
Ashworth: It’s a paradox, really — Hamilton has a river right through the middle of town, so it was hit hard. While in Middletown, the flood plain is so wide, there was just about 3 or 4 feet of water downtown. But now, when we want to connect our downtown to the riverfront, it’s hard because it’s so far away, and it’s easier for Hamilton.
Kress: While Dayton certainly hasn’t done everything it can to embrace the river since the flood, it’s worth remembering that (NCR chief) Edward Deeds spent his whole life trying to get the community back to it — working with the Olmsted Brothers on the city’s park plans, building Carillon Park — the whole southern corridor of Dayton happened because of the flood and him trying to embrace the river again. He even built the Miami Conservancy District offices right on the river, to show his faith in the protection system he created, to prove it was safe.
Blount: As a child, I was not allowed to go near the water, and never learned how to swim, not until college. I was raised with a fear of water; a lot of people in my age group have told me the same thing.
Moderator: If the same storm hit today, what would happen?
Bly: Well, the areas designed to be protected should be protected. There are some areas where there has been building in flood plains since the dams were built, and so you’d probably see some flooding there. But also, when the retention basins fill up, people don’t realize how far that water will go. It won’t just be in the parks; it will flood some farmland, and you would see a lot of water up along I-70.
Moderator: Are there any weaknesses to the dams?
Bly: I hope not. But, of course, any infrastructure that is man-made can develop weaknesses, which is why at the conservancy we take our maintenance responsibilities very seriously. So I don’t want to say never, but our goal is that they hold.
Moderator: How did the flood affect local economies?
Kress: Some businesses were simply wiped out. Before 1890, the Barney and Smith rail car works was Dayton’s largest employer, but by 1921 they were gone. Bankrupt. At their works along Valley Street, they lost one million linear feet of South American mahogany down the river. They had not made the transition to metal rail cars, but still made wooden, hand-inlaid cars. Some businesses survived OK. Over at Delco, they pretty much pumped the water out and kept going. There was natural selection, of a sort.
Blount: In Hamilton, there was a lot of industry at the time, most of it non-union, so when the flood came, people just lost their jobs. Some were hired back to rebuild the plants where they’d worked. It’s hard to imagine today that you’d have so many people in your workforce who would have all the different skills you’d need to put them to work that way.
Kress: But also, if you look at the next 50 years after the dams were built, you have a realization that now you have this incredible water source and this very safe waterway, and so you have tremendous growth. Before the flood, Dayton was known as a city of 1,000 factories, but it’s not a national powerhouse. But by 1970-80, we were one of the largest industrial centers in the country. So that was a huge impact on Dayton.
Williams: Also, there was no flood insurance in 1913, so people didn’t have that safety net. There were plenty of fundraisers, and neighbors helping neighbors, but a lot of personal economies were lost.
Bly: And there was no FEMA. No trailers for people to live in.
Williams: The Red Cross and National Guard came out, so they had relief in that sense.
Kress: And it was Rotary International’s first relief project.
Moderator: Would it play out the same way today?
Kress: The absence of a government agency like FEMA required people to take matters into their own hands, to clean up and fix the problem. And they did a great job. I don’t know if we have leadership in the region today like a John Patterson.
Snow: Plus, everyone back then having the expertise to use a hammer and saw, and all the tools needed to repair everything. Today we can use cellphones. I think there’d be panic in the streets.
Bly: They raised $2 million in just two months for the dams — 1913 dollars. I don’t know if you could do that today.
Snow: It was self-reliance. It’s a different time, and a different culture now.
Kress: If you look at Hurricane Katrina, it seemed you didn’t have the same local response because people were waiting for somebody to come in and do something. In 1913, it was not even on people’s minds that help would come from somebody else. They realized that at the end of the day, nobody else will fix this.
Williams: Dayton was lucky to have John Patterson, who became de facto mayor. I agree, today we might panic, but I would like to think we would rally and rise to the occasion. You read about Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and you hear about neighbors helping neighbors, rich helping poor, people helping each other. But it would be interesting. I hope we never find out.
Kress: But you know, a few years ago when the giant windstorm came through and so many people lost power, there was a sense of community that came out. People said they hadn’t talked to their neighbors in years, but they were all out grilling meat together because they had to use up what was in their freezers, and families were playing board games together, and people sharing water. It was hard, but there was a certain degree of, hey, this is nice.
Snow: In 1913, people weren’t that far from the days when they were without technology, anyway.
Williams: And back then, you had people who said it might be good to get back to simpler times, because people were relying too much on modern conveniences. It sounds exactly like what people are saying now. Human nature doesn’t change. God forbid if it happened, but I think it would play out much the same way today.
Blount: One thing that was different, banks back then were local. The ones that stepped up and made things happen were from here. There’s no face or name on bank X, Y or Z now — I think there would be a leadership void. Same with big industries and businesses; they’re all national, and in some ways they have no heart or soul for the local community.
Moderator: How long did it take to get things back to normal?
Bly: You get conflicting stories on that.
Ashworth: Middletown cleaned up immediately. Armco went back to work in about two weeks — they had more mud than debris. They’d been worried that the flood would cause big explosions when the water hit furnaces with molten steel, but it never happened.
Snow: When did the water recede in Dayton?
Bly: Within about six days.
Williams: Faster than that. It hit on a Monday, and by Friday they had trains running.
Kress: People wrote about being able to see grass in their yards in two days. And when you look at the photographs from about eight weeks later of the flood fundraising drives downtown, it’s pretty well cleaned up. But there were certainly long-term effects — the farm community, for one. Tons of gravel washed into fields. Who knows how many acres of tillable farmland were devastated, or how long it took for that to come back?
Blount: Plus, creeks that rose eroded and took out large chunks of tillable land. That’s really an untold story. I knew a family who told how they shoveled sand and gravel out of their fields for three years, loading it into a wheelbarrow and throwing it back in the creek.
Bly: And people are still finding flood mud in old houses.
Blount: It’s a valuation commodity in Hamilton.
Snow: You can buy it on eBay.
Kress: We’ve got a light bulb filled with flood water in our new flood exhibit, from the DP&L collection.
Moderator: In doing your research, did you all learn something you hadn’t known?
Kress: Yes — I had no idea that the conservancy district completed the dams so efficiently that they returned the $2 million that was raised from the community. Everyone got their money back. I don’t think that’s widely known.
Bly: That’s true. They kept very good records and paid back everyone’s donation.
Snow: I learned so many things, lots of personal connections. I learned I had a distant cousin who was a photographer in West Carrollton, Noah Elwood Weaver. Two of his flood pictures are included in the book I just did.
Blount: I was surprised to learn how many families still cling to old letters and relics, like the flood mud, from that time.
Snow: I was surprised at how many photographs there are. It’s amazing. Hundreds and hundreds of them. It’s incredible. For that time, it speaks to how this region embraced technology, learned it and figured it out. It’s another piece of the DNA of of this region. We still do it.
MEET OUR ROUNDTABLE PARTICIPANTS
Janet Bly, general manager of the Miami Conservancy District, the agency charged with managing the region’s flood-control system.
Andy Snow, a Dayton photographer who provided the photos for “A Flood of Memories,” newly published by the Conservancy District.
Brady Kress, executive director of Dayton History and Carillon Historical Park.
Jim Blount of Hamilton, a member of the Butler County Historical Society.
Sam Ashworth of Middletown, a member of the Butler County Historical Society.
Geoff Williams, a Loveland resident and the recent author of “Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America’s Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed it Forever.”