This letter was written on April 13, 1913, by my grandfather, John M Macpherson, to his mother and sisters in Scotland. Grandfather had recently emmigrated to the US and was working at NCR when the flood occurred.
1611 Emerson Place
13 IV 13
Dear Mother, and all my friends in the homeland:
Now that the great catastrophe has done it's devastating work, and the worst is over, it may be possible for me to collect a few scattered thoughts and give you a little idea of the great calamity that has befallen the Gem City of the Buckeye State.
All the world knows that one of the greatest floods that ever happened, has swept the Miami Valley in the State of Ohio, and that the beautiful city of Dayton has suffered the greatest loss. The city that it's citizens were planning to make a greater and better Dayton, the city of a thousand factories as it is known to the commercial world, the home of the National Cash Register, with it's illustrious president, has slipped from it's moorings and been floated in a great flood.
When the waters had reached their greatest height and the mad seething current was rushing over the roof of many a home, and pulling others with it in its grasp, while monster tongues of flame were shooting skyward in the different parts of the city, and the howling wind was helping them to devour building after building, home after home, and brave rescuers were standing on the banks, defied by whirlpools, floating debris and all the elements of a wintry storm, to reach the screams for help that came from many a roof and attic window, it looked in the falling darkness as if Dayton were to pass into eternity and be left like the ruins of some great ancient city.
But our worst fears were not realised. New hope and fresh courage are rising with the dawn of each succeeding day, and the citizens are being assured that Dayton is already rising on a flood of prosperity, to be a greater, safer and still more beautiful city.
Happily, it has been my lot, along with my folks in Dayton, to escape the ravages of flood and fire. Our home, as well as places of business, are on the hill. Nor were we among the hundreds of noisy spectators who crowed into the flood districts to see the sights, and were cut off by the rising waters from home and kindred.
The first intimation of any trouble or distress came to me at six oclock on Tuesday morning, March 25th, while sitting at breakfast. I had just asked my aunt if the clock was right, for it pointed to the time I generally leave for work. Just then the Cash whistle blew and I thought sure it was the 6:20 warning, and prepared to run. However, instead of blowing one minute as usual, it kept on blowing at least five minutes. Thinking it to be a fire alarm, I looked out expecting to see some sign of fire, but everything looked as usual. I hurried on to work, and found very few people had gathered at the factory. The cause of the alarm was not thought to be very serious, although North Dayton was already under water.
We started to work at 6:3- as usual, and after working for an hour, the recall was sounded and everybody picked up their tools and hiked. It was everyman for himself then. Along with two other Cash men, I started out to see the flood. On the way down town, I passed along streets that two hours later were covered with water from fifteen to twenty feet deep. We reached the corner of 3rd and Wayne when the water was beginning to come past in torrents and carrying everything in front of it. We beat a hasty retreat and found our way blocked at many points which we had passed on our way down.
The situation then began to be serious, and the water rose rapidly till at noon the people who had thought they would be safe at least on their second story, were crawling out on the roof and calling for help.
They had started to make boats in the Woodworking Dept. at the Cash and turning one out every eight or ten minutes. These were hurried to all parts of the city and manned with willing rescuers, but soon they were found to be useless and they could not be navigated in the rushing torrents. A few canoes were on the scene, and with other river boats did good service with great risk and daring. The water kept rising all day and ever increasing in its mighty rush. People who had chosen to stay with their goods and had thought everything secure on their second floor, must have had many a pang of despair, as the water kept creeping upward and darkness stole in to hide them from each other in their awful fate.
The storied I have heard from those I know personally are very heart rending, and many a one prayed that night who had no thought of prayer before. It was a bitter cold night, and heavy rain pouring all the time. What a night of agony and suspense it must have been for those who lay on the rafters, hungry and cold, wishing for the morning, and the awful terror of those hemmed in by flood, pursued by fire, passing from one building to another by rafts and ropes which needed steady nerve and ready wit to use and control before they were landed in a place of safety.
That afternoon I say men who had climbed the telegraph poles and traveled stridelegs over two electric cables, suspended in mid air, and landed helpless and numb at the edge of the flood. One man came this way the length of two city blocks, with his baby in a sack on his back and his wife following behind. There were about sixty of us who pushed several big railway trucks over the hill from the NCR on the street car rails, with the hope that by this means we could make a bridge and reach out a helping hand to those in distress. But a house which had floated into the middle of the street and got stuck there, stopped the waggons and made this scheme useless.
It was very pathetic the first afternoon of the flood, to see the many brave horses that were making a noble effort to keep their heads above water and reach a place of safety. Some were hitched to rigs in full harness, and others had been let loose when their stables had floated on the water. One horse and a mule I saw on Burns Ave., were partners on the roof of a house, having climbed there for safety, but the vast majority which were caught in the flood, went down to a wattery grave.
The latest report issued says over 1090 dead horses have been removed from the streets of Dayton.
On Wednesday morning the tide had turned and rescuers were making desperate efforts at early dawn to reach the many calls for help. I went down to the edge of the flood on Wayne Ave., and meeting some of the church folks, it was decided to open the church which was less that 100 years from the water when it was at its height, in order to provide a home for those who were brought out of the flood. I had my keys with me and opened the church on this occasion, and it was not long when the kitchen in the basement of the church was like a regular cook shop, and the cold and hungry ones rescued were being fed and cared for. Supplies of food and clothing were coming in from directions by this time.
Going to the Cash I brought the first consignment of goods that came to our church, and were distributed through our agency. I worked that day between the flood line and the church, and the pitiful sights I saw were enough to melt the hearts of the most unsympathetic of men. Invalid women had to be carried from the boats on cots, and even the men were helpless and had to be assisted into automobiles and other vehicles which were waiting to take them to homes which had been thrown open for refugees. Among others I helped from the boats to the Emerson School, was a little girls whom I carried in my arms, wet, cold and dirty, with attic dust, and her great concern was for her daddy, who could not be taken into the boat and was left behind to wait his turn.
Wednesday night the fire was raging fiercely down town, and many thrilling stories have been told how people crossed from one building to another until they were beyond the reach of the flames. Down in the business section many dined like princes and shared luxuries they seldom enjoyed at home, those who were fortunate enough to be stranded where choice eatables were stored, but the greater majority were only kept from starving by the kindness of their more fortunate brethren who strung ropes across the streets and passed baskets of provisions across in this way, until the boatmen were able to take them to more comfortable quarters. Some hundred who were marooned at the depot, were only kept from starving by what they were able to fish out of the water as it came floating past them.
By Thursday the water had fallen considerably and the currents had quieted down. Rescue work was carried on with greater diligence, and those who had passed tow days and nights in their flooded homes were being brought more speedily to terra firma. On Thursday morning when people were just beginning to control their nerves again, a false alarm was raised which almost resulted in a panic. It is thought to be the work of some looters who wanted to get the people away from their homes in order to get some booty. The cry went around like wild fire, that another reservoir had burst and people were told to run to the hills for safety.
You can imagine those excited people were ready to see anything by this time, and without stopping to think it seemed as if everybody, even those who lived on high land, had picked up a suitcase, rammed their valuables into it and rushed for the hills. The exodus of the children of Israel could not have been a greater sight. I felt no cause for alarm and was on the water edge all the time watching closely to see it the water made any effort to rise again, but nothing happened.
The Wayne Ave. Hill was actually packed with people. Like High Street on the race day, they sat down on the lawn banks expecting to see the water which never came. The Kimmels who took our house by storm on the first night of the flood, (the water was within 20 yard of their home on Adam St.), all came back again and were in a most amasing state of excitement.
They all slept three a bed that night, and Joe Kimmel, the one who promised to visit Newport when he was in London, slept at Aunt Jeans home. It was amusing in a way, everybody was so easily scared and even the people who were almost helpless and were lying on beds in the church, got up and ran for dear life.
It was with great difficulty that people were persuaded to go back and protect their homes again, and many stayed away until the gathering darkness made them seek a covering for shelter. All the refugees who had made a home at our church, had run at the first warning, but this proved to be a good stunt, for it cleared the way for more who were brought in during the afternoon. Most of my time was spent at the church, sometimes day and night. There were so many to care for and we supplied coffee and sandwiches for the soldiers who were on picket duty all night.
Our Sunday School room was like a regular dormitory, both down stairs and in the gallery and the Primary Dept. was like a regular clothing store supplying dry clothes and new blankets that had been sent for the sufferers from the surrounding cities. Men who were doing rescue work were supplied with a good breakfast at 5 am, which meant an early start for those who prepared it, and we had the reputation of serving better eats than could be had at any other rescue station, and remember everything was free.
The newspapers which I have sent home, will give you a better account of the general happenings that anything I could write, but it seems to me that no one could realise what a flooded city means until they have had some actual experience. When you remember the greater majority of homes in America are lumber frames just set up on a concrete foundation, and then think of the water rising and floating house after house, then carrying them with the street to wreck them at some street corner, maybe miles from their foundations. This is something that could not happen in our own substantial Scotland.
Without the least exaggeration, though it would seem so, coming as it does from Yankee land, I stood on the playground at Emerson School, and not 50 yards away, down Burns Ave., the houses (Large two story houses), were floating over the tree tops. Chickens went past standing on the wreckage, costly horses swimming bravely, cats and dogs in all sorts of comical conditions, and even rats were floating past on planks.
To me the most gruesome stories are those told by the men and women who had to flee from building to building in front of the flames, and yet as far as has been reported, no one lost their life by fire and no bodies have been found under the falling walls.
One or two pictures I have taken, will give you and idea of what the fire did to both church and store, and you will notice where it shows distinctly on the frame dwelling houses, how the fire burned level with the water, and left nothing standing above water but the brick chimneys. As soon as the water had left the streets, everybody was anxious to get down town to see what was left of the ruined city. Martial law having been established, no one could go beyond the flood zone without having a pass signed by the chairman of the Relief Committee, J. H. Patterson. I was fortunate to receive a pass, and my first trip was to the cable office to send a message home. What a crowd was there trying to get in touch with those whom they knew would have anxious hearts, but the wires were in bad shape and they could only promise to send off as soon as possible.
I knew the first news of the flood would sound bad to you, and the suspense of waiting for news would be terrible, but you know the conditions and the best possible was achieved. Yours, with Uncle Davids were among the first to leave Dayton. I wrote them both out, and Uncle Dan was with me. It cost us nothing, but they said they would charge it to us later. You did not have to wait much longer than some of the people here. You will know who I mean when I say Ruth Roepkens brother Casten, was down town in one of the burned buildings when the flood came, and his folks did not hear from him from Tuesday morning till Friday, when he came stepping home all safe and sound, but you can imagine the suspense it was for his folks.
It is beyond description to try and tell you of the sights down town, every store suffered and almost every glass front was gone. There was actually from 3 to 4 inches of mud (dirty slimy mud) every place the water had been. Think of a jewelers store full of mud. One firm had $20,000 worth of jewelry lying on the sidewalk, and I actually saw them scrubbing the watches in a bucket of water. In the shoe stores they just turned the fire hose on the shoes, trying to save what they could, and in the dry goods stores they just had to wheel the goods to the street and let them go to the dump. Oh, what a mess, you could find furniture anywhere. It had floated out of the broken windows and taken a road of its own.
I went down town as a body guard, with a lady friend of mine, who is stenographer and book-keeper in one of the largest furniture stores in the city. She hoped to find some articles she prized in her desk, but alas the mud in the store was too deep to risk an entrance, and through the broken windows we could see the office desks had changed their location and turned turtle on the way.
But, I have not said anything yet as to the spot that touches our hearts the closest, and thats where our own folks are concerned. We ourselves in Dayton suffered very few privations considering the conditions of others. Uncle Dans store was open for business all the time. Definite news just reached us yesterday how Aunt Bella and her family fared in Hamilton. Doubtless you have heard of their sad experience, and it can scarcely be exaggerated. We feared the worst for them for the first of the flood, and I tried hard for a whole week to get news concerning them. But all communication was cut off and we had just to wait.
There is no railway connection as yet between Hamilton and Dayton, and there is so much red tape to go through in transportation, that I was forced to stay in Dayton, although very anxious to go and see them and try to help them if I could. The first warning Aunt Bella got was the water rushing into the basement of her home, and before 20 minutes it was on her first floor. Poor Ron Marr spent a whole night on a coal pile, and he along with Helen, who was marooned in a strangers home, were separated from their mother and knew not how each other fared for three whole days and nights. They have moved back to Lindenwald, but must be scarce of furniture and clothing, as they were flooded right up to the second floor.
Relief work is being carried on so thoroughly that no-one is in dire straits, and the flood fund is swelling so generously that every sufferer will be able to get a little help and started into house-keeping again.
Saturday afternoon I met P. J. Wortman down town, and if he had not spoken, I would not have know him. He was rough shod, just like a navvy, and has been shoveling mud for two weeks. Thats the stuff all of the Americans are made of, and even a lawyer like him in good standing, can take his share of the shovel and pick when need be. His own residence was left untouched, but all his property is ruined. He told me he had lost $1500, and was almost swamped. His European trip is cancelled, and his dear wife is helping him to clean up, with his tennants.
Many, many poor people have lost their all in this great washout, but surely a good many will be led to think of other riches by the severe lessons which have been taught at no great expense. When all our worldly treasures and possessions are gone, we have lost nothing but what we will have to leave at last, and if we have a store in the bank of Heaven, where neither flood or fire can destroy, we will be sorry bankrupts indeed, when character alone will be the true estimate of our worth.
Dayton will arise to flourish in her manufacturers, and no doubt the suns of a few summers will make her bloom again as the beautiful Garden City, and enable her to retain her reputation as the Gem City of the Buckeye State. The Word of Truth saith, "Here we have no continuing city, " and as pilgrims and strangers here journeying to a better country, to that city which hath a foundation whose builder and maker is God. It behoveth us to see that our citizenship there is secure, and among the mansions which Jesus said He went to prepare for them that love him and keep his commandments, may we all find a home beyond the range of time and change, which nothing can destroy.
Thanking all for your kind inquiries, my heart goes out in longing for the friends at home, and with fondest love to "My Ain Folk",
Yours as ever,
John M. Macpherson