In other circumstances, Springfielders might have been preoccupied with their own problems: with the industries closed down, the bridges washed out and the people wading through East Columbia and East North streets checking on their chilled, water-logged families.
But dramatic details of the degree of death and devastation in Dayton during the flood March 1913 were being delivered daily.
Some came from Springfielders who worked in the Gem City, others from Springfielders who had gone to help the relief effort and yet others by out-of-towners who streamed into Springfield to escape.
“It is simply awful,” said C.L. Simmons, of Arcanum, who was on the first Pennsylvania Railroad train that made it to town. “I saw horses, cattle and buildings floating down the streets … In every window were men, women and children calling for help.”
“I was on my way to the post office about half past 8 o’clock Tuesday morning when I noticed considerable commotion in the street north of where I was standing,” said O.P. Smith a collector for a magazine agency. “Presently I saw a great body of water bearing down upon the city and hastily took refuge in the Armory at the corner of Fifth Street and the canal,” one of about 500 to do so.
“We stood spellbound and watched the rapid rising of the flood until it forced us to the second floor of the Armory. We knew something terrible was happening but we did not realize the magnitude of the condition in which we were placed.”
The words “people trapped like rats” appeared in several accounts, though the desperateness of such struggles was told most graphically in a tale Springfield businessmen P.J. Shouvlin and Gus Sun brought back with them.
The men who said “death, sickness, misery, suffering, destruction abounds in untold quantity” described seeing a horse go into a house “after the residents had sought refuge in the second floor. When the water had become deep enough to swim, the horse attempted to climb to the floor above.”
Fearing the horse might trample them, “the people fought him back repeatedly and after fighting fiercely for two hours to gain the second floor the horse finally in a terrific effort crushed his head against the rafters and died.”
Even before some of this news arrived, Room 790 of The Arcade had become the collecting point for the Springfield committee gathering “clothes, food, money, lanterns, rubber boots, boats and in fact everything which the reported thousands of Dayton” needed, the paper said.
“Send all coffins you can,” came a telegram pleading for a grim necessity. “No estimate can be made of the dead.”
Asked to financially support the relief effort, Springfielders didn’t hesitate.
“Big, broad minded men approached the book, recording the contributions and placed their names opposite,” the paper reported. “Emotion filled their breasts. Love, sympathy, charity for men of their own blood – men of their own nation – wives and children descended from the fathers of this great country, prompted their efforts.”
The YWCA became the center for food contributions.
“Housekeepers of Springfield are urged to make bread and send it at once to the YWCA building Thursday and Friday,” the paper said. “Send meat, all kinds needed for sandwiches, peanut butter, jelly. Grapefruit and oranges will relieve thirst. All women and girls who will make sandwiches come to the gymnasium today and tomorrow.”
Also, it said, “Any resident who will take refugees into their own homes will please phone the YWCA, giving their address and number they will care for.”
Springfield Daily News Editor Edgar Morris underscored what the refugees were fleeing.
“Wives separated from their husbands, many forever, sons and daughters missing, and little babes crying for their parents, are only some of the intense sufferings witnessed in this city,” he wrote. “With flames sweeping through the business section, those who were spared their lives stand aghast, lest some of their relatives or friends might have met death by burning.”
Businessman Smith said that the group he had been marooned with had been calm, but “when the realization of a possible burning of our refuge took hold of the people, there was considerable display of fear.
“The glare of the flames uncovered horrible sights. Men, women and children were seen on the tops of the burning houses fighting the terrible flames only to fall beneath the waters within the walls of the swelling amidst screams for mercy and help.
“It is a sight I will remember to my dying day,” said Smith. “It was a sight to turn your blood cold.”
“Finally two other men and myself took a chance on drowning or burning to death,” Smith said. “The (Pennsylvania) railroad company had backed several box cars into the tracks and we were able to walk out on these, for about a mile. We did not know what would happen after we reached the end of these, but we would not turn back. When we arrived at the end of the cars we waded, swam and by aid of drift and ropes managed to get to the shore in an exhausted condition.”
There as part of the relief effort, Springfield’s Harry Gram, B.F. Downey said they saw “thousands of people” escaping on the tops of the railroad cars, many of whom needed help.
“We took them on our backs and carried them to dry land where they were clothed and fed. We finally made our way by boat to the point where the people were clinging on to the string of cars and assisted them the best we could to the top of the cars,” he added.
“In one instance we carried a man in a wheel chair about four (blocks) and placed him in a wagon. Likewise, we transported a blind woman and a man who depended on the use of crutches.”
The man also rescued 14 children stranded and shivering in the Associated Charities orphanage.
The Springfield Daily News praised relief workers as “they battle against the elements to save a man seen clinging to a chimney … a woman sitting in an upper story window of a floating house or a child crying in agony from hunger at the loss of its parents.
“Never before has brotherly love been so deeply recorded as it is now,” it added. “No one is above another. All are on an equal plane – the rich, the poor, the learned and the unlearned. All were working with one aim – rescue the sufferers and save as many lives as possible.”
Some of the refugees ended up at the 239 E. High St. headquarters of the Ladies Aid Society of Springfield’s St. Raphael Church.
“In the group at the home are young and old Americans and foreigners, but all are thankful for the kind treatment that is being shown them. The youngest members of the refugees is a babe 10 months old. There is also a young married couple in the party who have been married but one week and lost all their earthly belongings in the flood.”
Grateful for the hot baths and food given to them, they “could not do enough to help with the work” the ladies were themselves doing.
“One mother met her 14-year-old son who had not been home when the flood caught her in her home, and she never expected to see her son again.”
In all, the Springfield committee sent 19 freight car loads and 14 truckloads of relief supplies to Dayton, supplemented by six freight car loads and five truckloads from Masons. Water, coal, gasoline, clothing, lime, 1,500 loaves of bread and cots were among the donations.
Even Springfield’s poor gave what they could, prompting the newspaper to remark that one “remarkable feature of the work here was the help given the poor by the poor.”
In a flood that killed 123 in Dayton and 467 state wide, Springfielders’ relief efforts led to an outpouring of gratitude.
“Cheer after cheer greets each incoming train,” the paper reported. “The remarkable response of the Masonic bodies of this city has been the source of much praise in the distressed city. If present indications count for anything, Springfield has gained a place in the hearts of the Dayton people that will now long be remembered.”