Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Day the Dam Broke

James Thurber (1894–1961)
From James Thurber: Writings & Drawings

“Two thousand people were in full flight.”
© 1933 James Thurber. Image reproduced by arrangement with Rosemary A. Thurber c/o The Barbara Hogenson Agency.
A curious article appeared in The Columbus Citizen on March 27, 1913, concerning a bizarre event the day before:

Like a flash, business on High street was paralyzed, the whole city was thrown into a panic, rescue work in the flood district was hurriedly abandoned, the river’s east brink from a mile was cleared of humanity, when, at 4:30 Wednesday afternoon, someone shouted: “The storage dam has burst.”

Never before in the history of Columbus was there such a scene of panic, even consternation. Through alleys, down street, down stairways, out of windows, people hurried, tumbled ran, shouted and fairly fought each other in their almost mad rush. . . .
The story was mostly buried by the local press; The Columbus Dispatch reported the chaos on page 8—perhaps because many of the newspaper’s employees had themselves fled the scene. One reporter sheepishly admitted to biographer Harrison Kinney, “There was a silent agreement among us on the paper that the panic run was best forgotten.”

To be fair, this non-catastrophe was overwhelmed in the news by the actual devastation surrounding it: five days of cataclysmic rainfall had flooded the Midwest and, in particular, Ohio. The death toll in eleven states exceeded 650, more than half of which were in the area around Dayton. In Columbus, the neighborhoods west of the Scioto River were rapidly inundated when the levees failed; some blocks were soon under seventeen feet of water. “Houses were bowled off their foundations and people who had gone to the upper stories were thrown in the water and drowned,” wrote Columbus historian Osman Castle Hooper a few years later. “Thousands of people were imprisoned in their homes for three or four days; others escaped, leaving all their possessions behind, only to find that they were swept away or otherwise destroyed by the water.” Ninety-three people in Columbus were killed by the floods.

The east side of Columbus, including downtown, was largely untouched by the rising water, although many of its inhabitants participated in relief and rescue efforts. Twenty years later, when James Thurber was writing a series of vignettes about his youth in Columbus, he plucked from oblivion the forgotten story of the panic of 1913—the only part of the disaster he, a high school student on higher ground, experienced directly.

In eight short autobiographical pieces written for The New Yorker between July and September 1933, including such popular stories as “The Night the Bed Fell” and “The Dog That Bit People,” Thurber whimsically celebrated not only his hometown but also his own family. Even before he set them to paper, the episodes he collected later that year as My Life and Hard Times had provided their author with material for impromptu performances in homes and speakeasies around lower Manhattan. St. Clair McKelway, a writer who joined The New Yorker staff that year, told Kinney about the night Thurber showed up in his apartment and entertained his friends with a story “about the night the bed fell. He threw himself into the act. He’d climb under the table to illustrate the bed falling on him, would slam doors and change his voice to imitate his mother, brothers, and the barking dog.”

Although embellished and exaggerated for comic effect, “The Day the Dam Broke” is generally accurate. The date and time are off: Thurber places the incident two weeks too early and in midday rather than late afternoon. A reader might quibble over Thurber’s statement that “even if the dam had broken, the water level would not have risen more than two additional inches.” Yet Thurber was on relatively firm ground: an article in the Citizen quotes engineers who dismissed the idea that Griggs Dam could have ever failed from a flood, because its foundation is so wide and water as a matter of course flows over the top. One of them stated that even if the impossible had somehow happened “the river would not have risen more than two feet, and it had dropped [that day] over three feet,” so the water wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the flooded area of the city—and wouldn’t have even touched the east side.

Where the story begins to depart from reality, however, is in its depictions of the zanier antics of individuals, including family members, during the panic. In 1951 he told an interviewer, “There’s a book in every family, in every person, in mothers, fathers, children, the front yard, the dog, the porch.” For the most part his family had resigned themselves to their reluctantly public roles as nutty yet lovable eccentrics but, when he met with resistance later in his career, he reminded them, “In writing any story, it is necessary to make up a few things, and I hope you won’t be too literary about minor facts.” As for many of the sillier incidents he had shared with the world, even the true ones, he tried to reassure them that “nobody in the world believes I didn’t make it up.”

Still, as Harrison Kinney relates in his biography, there was enough truth about mass hysteria in Thurber’s account of the Afternoon of the Great Run of 1913 to impress at least one important reader. General William M. Hoge, who experienced the ill effects of rumor and panic during the Battle of the Bulge, read “The Day the Dam Broke” shortly afterward and “required every member of his staff to do the same.”

Notes: The Columbus newspaper articles quoted in this introduction are reproduced at “Our National Calamity”: The Great Easter 1913 Flood, a site managed by science writer Trudy E. Bell.

Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate Army general during the Civil War. The American ship Mary Celeste (often incorrectly referred to as Marie Celeste in contemporary reports), sailing from New York to Genoa with a cargo of alcohol, was found adrift midway between the Azores and the Portuguese coast in December 1872, with no crew members aboard and its cargo intact. Various explanations, many extremely fanciful, have been proposed for the ship’s abandonment. William S. Hart was one of the most popular silent film actors of the late 1910s and 1920s; he was known particularly for lead roles in westerns. Thurber is employing a little creative anachronism here, however, since Hart didn't begin acting in movies until 1914. Irving Berlin’s “In My Harem” was a popular song in 1913.

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My memories of what my family and I went through during the 1913 flood in Ohio I would gladly forget. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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