Flood stories still harrowing 100 years later

Ralph Kretzer, manager of Springfield’s Lyric and Hippodrome theaters, was in Columbus in March 1913 when the flood waters began to rise.

The 40 motor boats brought from nearby Buckeye Lake gave the Columbus crews a huge advantage over rescuers in Dayton, who had only rowboats and their arms with which to fight against the sea of troubles the flood brought.

The boats from Buckeye Lake played a part in one of the oddball stories Kretzer shared with the Springfield Daily News when he returned to Springfield.

As though watching a matinee, Kretzer looked on as men stranded in the Sun Manufacturing Building in Columbus escaped by leaping from upper windows onto the roof of a house floating by beneath them.

“The current carried them down the stream for several (blocks)” until it rammed into a railroad bank “and dumped the occupants out onto gravel and sand, Kretzer told the paper. “Here they were stranded … until one of the motor boats managed to come to their aid.”

Although the Daily News provided coverage from around the state, Springfielders were focused on the goings on in Dayton.

It not only was closer, but the situation was more desperate there with greater loss of life. When Springfielders took up a crucial and heroic role in the relief effort, that led to yet more coverage.

A story about that will appear on Page B1 of Monday’s paper.

Today, I offer two stories as appetizers, one admittedly much more appetizing than the other. Both, however, involve former Springfielders who were working for National Cash Register, the once prominent Dayton company whose history there is now water under a bridge.

The more uplifting of the stories involves Karl Neu, who left his mother’s house at 1414 W. High St. in Springfield to search for a Dayton relative who had gone missing.

He found his way to the downtown with two brothers and “launched a light boat,” leaving his brothers behind on dry land.

The brothers apparently made the wiser, if less courageous, choice. Karl made it just six blocks in the swift current “when the boat struck a pole and wrapped around it,” the Springfield newspaper reported.

Out of sight of his brothers, he was thrown into the cold waters, and only managed to save himself, at least temporarily, by grabbing a guy wire and dragging himself to the top of a pole.

That happened at 4 p.m. on that cold March day. He was still on that pole at 8 p.m., hanging on in the chill rain in the pitch dark of a city that had lost all power.

There he might have stayed until hypothermia robbed him of the strength to hold on had it not been for another brother, Herman, who worked at NCR.

Herman later told the Daily News that “some force drew him to the Third Street waters,” where he found his brothers still awaiting Karl’s return.

When he asked them where Karl was, the paper said, “they mutely pointed toward the flood.”

Herman talked a man with a boat into starting a search. But in conditions that during the daytime had capsized Karl, the boatman decided it was too dangerous to go farther than a pole holding what likely were overhead wires for streetcars.

Herman scaled it with the help of metal climbers, then continued his search by shimmying along the cable wire through the dark and calling Karl’s name.

“Just as he was about to abandon the hunt,” the paper said, “he heard a faint response. He located a voice to his right and in a few seconds the brothers were in conversation across the water.”

“Unable to see each other, it was agreed that each should climb down the pole until the water was touched by their feet,” the paper said. “A rope about Herman’s waist was cast wildly into the darkness and after almost an hour of this the rope finally struck Karl in the face and he caught it with his hands.”

The frustration and desperateness that hour must have held is left to the reader’s imagination.

With both of their lives in the balance and the water rushing beneath, the brothers “fastened the rope about the pole which each was on” and began crawling toward one another.

When they met, “Herman seized his brother.”

But the drama wasn’t over.

“Another hour was required to rub life back into the benumbed Karl,” the story said, and only then did they crawl back along the cables and lower themselves into the still waiting boat.

The story ended leaving both Karl and his family with a warm feeling.

Not so the story involving former Springfielder Charles Sheets, a foreman of the tool department at NCR.

Recently convicted felon and company leader John H. Patterson rescued not only his reputation but many of his fellow citizens by transforming NCR into a relief organization when the waters came.

Sheets either volunteered for or was assigned the grim duty of collecting the dead.

“Mr. Sheets and a companion deputized as NCR policemen … discovered the dead body … while out in a boat and brought it to shore,” the paper said.

“They spied another body, went out after it and were returning when they noticed a man bending over and searching the pockets of the body they had left on the shores. Mr. Sheets covered the man (the paper described him as “a ghoul”) with a revolver (and) warned him not to move.”

He then held the man until Ohio National Guardsmen arrived.

Armed with the authority to dispatch swift justice to looters, the guardsmen apparently were willing to perform it. Describing a scene that seems lifted from a Monty Python script, Sheets told the newspaper the guardsmen’s “cheerful greeting” to their prisoner was: “It is our duty to shoot you.”

Sheets didn’t argue. But perhaps having seen enough of death for the day, he “pleaded” with the soldiers “to conduct the man to some excluded spot before performing their duty,” the paper said.

They agreed.

“Some minutes after, while waiting for an ambulance to call for the two bodies,” the paper said, “Mr. Sheets and his companion heard a shot. They did not see the guards after that but the shot told them enough.”

One hundred years later, we may think it tells us too much.

But that, too, is a part of the history of the Dayton flood.

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