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Photographic memories

March 25, 2013
By Vicki Johnson - Staff Writer ( , The Advertiser-Tribune

Many of today's residents are unaware of the devastation created by the Flood of 1913 that tore houses from their foundations and sent all but one of Tiffin's bridges careening down the Sandusky River.

The rain started Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, said Mark Steinmetz, assistant director of the Seneca County Historical Society.

Steinmetz is planning a presentation at the Seneca County Museum's Fort Ball Room at 7:30 p.m. today outlining flood details and events.

Article Photos

"I'll be sprinkling into the program some pictures," he said.

"I think that what some people may not understand is how big this was, not only to Tiffin but to the surrounding area," he said. "We had a lot of rain. We lost bridges. We lost people."

The flood affected areas from western Indiana throughout Ohio, mainly north of Dayton, to Pittsburgh and beyond, he said.

"It killed an awful lot of people," he said, "443 people in Ohio alone."

"Easter was early that year," Steinmetz said. "Even earlier than this year."

He said people were preparing for the holiday, which would turn into "all-out tragedy."

For information on the flood, Steinmetz said he used information from Tiffin author Lisa Swickard's book, "Calamity and Courage: Tiffin's Battle During Ohio's Deadly 1913 Flood."

"It's a great story," Steinmetz said. "Unfortunately, it's a sad story."

In the book, Swickard said people went to church that Easter morning under ominous skies.

"During the next four days, more than 400 people from Dayton northward would be dead. Tens of thousands were destined to become homeless as flood waters deluged more than 100 towns and cities. Ohio Gov. James Cox later estimated the damage at a then-astronomical $300 million.

"One meteorological report explained nature's wrath this way: from March 23-26, 1913, enough rain fell on Ohio to cover the entire state in a pool of water 7 inches deep."

Life went on Sunday and Monday and, though the rain kept falling, it simply made life a bit less comfortable.

People began to become concerned on the third day, March 25, when the river continued to rise.

According to "Calamity and Courage," Tiffin lost 19 people during the flood - 11 of them from the Klingshirn family who lived in a house along the river on East Davis Street.

In those days, Steinmetz said, families routinely took good furniture and valuables upstairs so it was safe from flooded lower levels.

"If the water started rising, they went upstairs, too," he said. "But the water came up so fast they didn't know what to do."

The father had gone to work and told his wife not to leave the house for any reason. She, her nine children, along with a fiance and a son-in-law, stayed too long and no one could get there in time to save them.

It was later determined the water at the Klingshirn house was 17 feet high.

Two more deaths were William and Addline Axline, who lived in the relatively new home on Water Street, now Frost Parkway. They chose to stay with their house despite the rising water.

"She didn't want to leave the place," Steinmetz said. "The husband rushed home from work, but he couldn't talk her out of the home so he stayed, too, and they both died."

The house was forced off its foundation by the rushing water, and the young couple along with it.

The book contains more stories of death, but also stories of rescues and people coming together to assist people in need.

The book relates many heroic efforts that were documented, such as getting people out of the Shawhan Hotel.

Another aspect of the flood was the influx of support Tiffin got from other areas.

"People jumped on trains and came to Tiffin to help," he said.

Some were from nearby such as Sycamore and some from further away such as Port Clinton.

The Red Cross and National Guard has stations set up.

"People from Chicago and other cities were sending donations of many things that were needed," he said. "It was a neat things to see that happening."

All the bridges in town were swept away, except for the railroad bridge, Steinmetz said. Someone at the railroad moved a train loaded with coal onto the bridge in hopes it would provide stability as water rushed by.

"It worked," he said. "The railroad bridge was the only one that stayed. And it was the only way of getting from one side of town to the other."

As the bridges began to succumb to the rushing water filled with debris, Steinmetz said some people created a dangerous "game" of trying to be the last person to cross a bridge before flood waters ripped it loose.

"Just to say they did it, I guess," he said. "The town didn't have the numbers of police needed to stop them. You were supposed to have enough common sense.

"People wanted to be the last to cross a bridge before it went under," he said. "All you'd be seeing is a sea of water coming at you."

And the museum now owns a bicycle purchased at a local sale believed to have been ridden by the last person to cross one of the bridges in town.

The bicycle is part of a display of flood-related items and information at the Seneca County Museum put together by Steinmetz, Brian Courtney and Tonia Hoffert.

"A lot of people know way more than I do," Steinmetz said. But he has researched through the Tiffin records and created a map that shows the most heavily affected areas.

Part of the program will show visitors the locations of houses now standing in Tiffin that used to be located along the river.

"Some enormous houses were picked up and moved after the flood when they widened the river," Steinmetz said. "That was a major accomplishment using the tools they had then, mainly horses and steam shovels."

It was a matter of jacking up these buildings and rolling them on logs, he said.

For example, in areas such as the vicinity of Frost Parkway, there was enough room for a house along the river to have a back yard.

Some of those houses were washed away during the flood, and some people were killed in them.

One of the houses moved was a four-apartment flat now on Miami Street called Keller Flats.

"But what more can we get out of this?" he said. "What I'm going to be talking about is what it looked like then and what it looks like today."

Steinmetz, who works for the city engineer's office, researched the city's flood plains and added those to an aerial view map of the city today.

"If we would have another 100-year flood we would have areas of town that would be under water including parts of The Ritz Theatre and other buildings downtown."

After the flood, Steinmetz said there was a political controversy over widening the river and erecting river walls.

"There was politics involved in coming up with the decision to put river walls up because of the expense," he said. "There was conflict among city council. We can be thankful to those people for the flood protection we have today."

While today's greater technology monitors the height of river water and warns people when flooding may happen, Steinmetz said few of those measures were in place in 1913.

"Part of the problem with so many people dying was there was not the technology we have today," he said. "And there was not much weather forecasting."

To make matters worse, he said, an ice storm a few weeks earlier had damaged communication lines with nearby towns, so Tiffin got little warning from other areas.

"Of importance, it was during this time in history the Browning camera came out," he said. "It was an affordable device that most people could afford."

"We have an enormous amount of documentation because people who had cameras were out there snapping away," he said. "History bugs can go back in time to see what the town looked like. It gives us awesome glimpses into what the town was like 100 years ago.

"From the pictures, you could just about put together the town of Tiffin in 1913," he said.

Steinmetz invited people to follow Tiffin's history on the society's website, or on its Facebook page.



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