Heroism, tragedy color story of Fort Wayne's worst flood in 1913
Here's a picture of Coombs Street and Cochran Street during the Flood of 1913.
By Andrew Jarosh of The News-Sentinel
It's a story of heroism, tragedy, romance and water, water everywhere.
A year after the Titanic sank, taking with it more than 1,500 passengers, Fort Wayne suffered a lesser, but nevertheless horrific, catastrophe when its worst flooding ever killed seven people.
By the time the floodwaters of Fort Wayne's St. Joseph, St. Marys and Maumee rivers receded from their record highs the last week of March 1913, four orphan girls drowned in an ill-fated attempt to take them to dry ground; one man drowned and another died rescuing residents from their homes; and a 4-year-old Scottish lad was swept away from his mother to a watery death in the swollen Spy Run Creek.
Pieced together from interviews, accounts from three daily newspapers and an exhaustive search of birth, death, funeral home, cemetery, census, city directory and other personal and genealogical records, these are the victims' tales:
One for the record books
The worst flood in Fort Wayne's history occurred March 23-27, 1913.
Cities throughout Indiana and Ohio suffered from the effects of two heavy rainstorms that broke over a broad region within a few hours, causing numerous drownings. On March 24, rainfall of 2.76 inches, after heavy precipitation March 21, raised the waters of the rivers within Fort Wayne to such a height that by March 25, 2,000 homes were submerged.
A total of 4.75 inches of rain fell between 7:25 a.m. March 23 and 9:45 p.m. March 25.
The rapidity of the rise could be seen in the fact that on March 23 -- Easter Sunday -- the river downtown stood at 6.7 feet. The next morning, water had risen to 19.6 feet. The crest of the flood came on March 26 at 11 p.m., when the Maumee registered at 26.1 feet, more than 11 feet above flood stage.
Doris Byanski, 81, remembers hearing tales about the flood from her grandmother, Emma Magers. Three neighbor families stayed in the Magers home at 2015 Hillside Ave., near St. Joseph Boulevard, after flooding forced them out.
A postcard from Magers' husband, Casimir, described the enormity of the flood to a relative:
"The awful flood makes it bad here -- the highest ever known. It is impossible to get to Lindenwood so can make no definite arrangements for the funeral. The R.R. are all out so that Lyda could not get here. Mama is penned in and I'm penned out -- can't get either way. Water over Spy Run Avenue from State St. to Superior and from Walton Ave. to Bloomingdale. Will not reach our house but is in Smith's yard and up to Muerers."
Byanski also remembers another relative talking about how she had to crawl through the upstairs windows of a house on Tilden Avenue, north of the Maumee near Lakeside Park, to get outside to a waiting rowboat and safety.
At the flood's worst point, the Nebraska, Bloomingdale and Spy Run neighborhoods were under 4 feet of water. The dike in Lakeside broke in four places, causing the St. Joseph to quickly inundate the residential neighborhood; many had difficulty escaping from their homes.
The force of the flood washed away much of the first pier of the Columbia Street bridge. A 30-foot section of the Maumee dike just east of the Columbia Street bridge was destroyed.
Fort Wayne's lighting and power plant was flooded, causing the city to be without electricity. Three city pumping stations were closed. It left only the city reservoir to supply water to Fort Wayne customers. Drinking water was rationed and had to be boiled before use.
In all, 5,500 homes and businesses were damaged by water. The floodwaters' devastation left about 15,000 people homeless and caused about $4.8 million in damage. A relief organization, created during the catastrophe, gave assistance to 11,187 individuals.
The first death was Tuesday evening. At about 6 p.m., Herbert Snow, a city laborer, drowned near the Main Street bridge. City Attorney Harry Hogan was in a rowboat with Snow, just west of the bridge. They were shouting evacuation warnings to people who were water bound in their homes.
Snow apparently had been recommended to Hogan as an expert oarsman. A single man, Snow was active in rescue work and wore a red ribbon badge that admitted him to the districts roped off by police. He and Hogan had started west on Main in the boat. After a short distance, Snow turned toward the southwest. When the current, swift at this point, caught the boat and dipped a little water into it, he jumped from the boat, despite warnings from Hogan.
Snow then tried to clamber onto the boat, the craft filling to the gunwales with water as he climbed over. The boat immediately sank. He was never seen again by Hogan.
Hogan, meanwhile, swam until he reached a tree. The first limb he grabbed broke. Handicapped by heavy boots and an overcoat, Hogan had to struggle, but managed to reach a limb that supported him. Meanwhile, two men came in a boat to rescue Hogan. Hogan pointed them in the direction of Snow. Despite twice seeing Snow floating down the river, the rescuers were unable to reach him.
Hogan was taken by boat to the Main Street bridge and, after changing his soggy, wet clothing, attended that evening's City Council meeting. Before it convened, he discussed the flood situation with the council, and it appropriated $5,000 for flood relief.
Hogan's watch had stopped just at 6 p.m., showing the time when he had fallen into the water.
Despite the tragedy, Hogan went on to play a prominent role in flood-relief efforts.
On Saturday morning, Snow's body was found 30 feet from the Main Street bridge. Letters in Snow's pockets were from a Viola Adams, and were mailed from Peru and Elkhart.
The first of the letters was dated early the previous year and was written to "My Dear Mr. Snow." It was followed by letters to "My Dear Friend" and then to "My Dear Herbert." The last letter was written to "My Darling." Most of the letters were signed "Your Sweetheart" or "Viola," and only one had the full name, indications of a budding romance.
The only other identification Snow had on him was a picture of a young woman, enclosed in a letter, that was believed to be Adams. Because of the apparent intimate nature of the letters, Coroner Edward Kruse decided it wasn't wise to make public their contents.
Allen County Orphan's Home
That same Tuesday evening, about 60 orphans as well as the attendants of the Allen County Orphan's Home moved to the second story of the building. Located at the curve of the St. Marys just over the Bluffton Road bridge where the Sears Pavilion in Foster Park stands today, the home housed boys and girls, many of whom had parents who were unable to raise them.
Two men arrived by boat that evening. The boat was small; it would have taken 13 trips to evacuate the building.
The following day, Wednesday, an attempt was made to evacuate the building because of fears the strong current might sweep away the building. The home had been surrounded by the raging waters dashing up from the bend in the river at that point. Water stood 11 inches deep on the first floor of the house.
At about 10 a.m., oarsman Charles Gephart who lived near the orphanage, teacher Theresa Hammond and six girls -- Esther Kramer, Ardah Woods and Alice Mannen, all 14; Della Sturm, 8; and Kittie Wise and Opal Jacobs, both 7 -- took off in the small rowboat toward an Allen County poor farm about one-fourth mile to the west.
The boat was loaded from the home's fire escape. A matron at the home paired off the children, an older one with a younger child.
The boat was just 100 feet from the home and still in sight on the trustees and other children at the orphanage when it was upset by a swift current and swirling eddies. The craft turned around before it struck a post and capsized.
Ardah Woods, whose parents were Lucy Woods of Sheldon, now known as Yoder in Pleasant Township, and Steven Cotton, of Ossian, was thrown from the boat while clutching the Bible she had been reading at the orphanage.
"I am going to take my friend with me," Ardah told her teacher when she climbed aboard the boat with her Bible minutes before capsizing.
Alice Mannen, the only true orphan, was described as the most loved and helpful of the children at the institution. Officials at the orphanage said the little girl not only was always willing to assist in work at the home but also did a lot of the work others refused to do.
Esther Kramer, meanwhile, was a swimmer who made an effort to save herself. But the current was described as so strong it "would have taxed the strength of a man." The current quickly overtook her and Esther was swept downstream.
Adopted at the age of 3 weeks, Esther was the foster child of Ernest Kramer of Germany and Anna Mish of Huntington. She was described as a very pretty girl. Because her mother had to be away from home most of the time, Esther was placed in the orphanage until she could take care of the child.
As a matter of fact, her foster mother had just completed arrangements to place Esther at St. Augustine's academy in Fort Wayne to complete her education when the tragedy occurred.
Kittie Wise, the daughter of Hugh Wise of Ohio and Hattie Shipman of Indiana, was described as a feebleminded child. When the boat capsized, she held onto Hammond's waist while underwater. Hammond said the girl could have survived if she had not opened her mouth and gulped quantities of water.
Gephart, described as a strong man who had seized Hammond, Opal Jacobs and Della Sturm and held them against a post after the boat capsized, saw Kittie under water and seized her clothing with his teeth in an attempt to raise her.
By that time, however, Kittie looked dead to Gephart, and in an effort to save the living, he let her go. She slipped from his teeth and was carried away by the muddy floodwaters.
Witnesses said they saw two of the girls swifty carried over the tracks of the Fort Wayne and Bluffton line. One of the children tried to grasp the rails as she was swept by, holding on briefly before being carried away to a big lake of water beyond the tracks.
During the pandemonium, a second boat that was being readied with more human cargo came to the rescue. Two men, -- George Moore, orphanage night engineer, and Mark Ormston, a volunteer -- arrived by boat. They were met by a screaming Hammond; one of the girls was heard crying, "Save me, save me!"
The men managed to get Opal Jacobs and Della Sturm into the boat. Opal, who had been given Hammond's muff to keep her hands warm, kept her hands inside the muff through the ordeal, including the plunge into the water, and didn't pull them out until she was returned to the orphanage.
Meanwhile, Della, who also had a brother and sister at the home, looked like she would die after the plunge. Her eyes were rolled back, but with revival efforts from the staff and a doctor who had arrived by boat at the orphanage, she came to.
Another go at it
The crisis, however, was far from over.
Hammond was diagnosed in poor condition after her plunge and the doctor considered it best if she was taken from the orphanage to her home at 1201 Fairfield Ave.
Gephart, again manning the oars, took off with another man named Reynolds, Hammond and four orphan boys -- Harold Boggs, 14; Clyde Feightner, 11; and Glenn Baird and Burton Rhoades, both 10.
They made better headway this time, almost reaching the bridge at Broadway when the boat was seized by more swift current. It capsized, and Gephart and Hammond took their second icy plunge into the water, along with the other occupants.
Because the water wasn't as deep there, Gephart was able to stand and put the boys on the porch of a store. A neighbor who saw the capsizing came by boat and took in Hammond. She eventually made it, sick and wet but otherwise alive, to herhome.
Reynolds, meanwhile, was swept away by strong currents. He seized an outhouse that happened to be floating by, and tried to get on it. But every time he tried, the outhouse rolled over, like a barrel. Finally, another man was able to reach Reynolds by boat and take him to shore.
After the second mishap, authorities decided to abandon any more efforts to evacuate children from the orphanage.
The following day, Thursday, a lifesaving crew reached Fort Wayne from Chicago, responding to a request by Fort Wayne Mayor Jesse Grice for help. They brought with them a big motorized lake rescue boat with a capacity for 30 people.
In five trips, everybody was evacuated from the orphanage, including Della Sturm and Opal Jacobs. Opal was reported still trembling in fear when she was evacuated by the large motorboat.
It wasn't until Friday when Esther Kramer's body was finally found in a field near the orphanage. On Saturday, Kittie Wise was found lodged against a fence near the Broadway bridge. Alice Mannen and Ardah Woods were found the same day floating in a cornfield just west of the bridge and north of the tracks.
Esther was buried in Concordia Cemetery after her funeral at Emmaus Lutheran Church. Because Esther was at one time a ward of Emmaus' pastor, the Rev. Philip Wanbaganss, her funeral was heavily attended.
Ardah Woods was buried back in Sheldon, according to funeral home records, although conflicting accounts had her body taken to Antwerp, Ohio.
Alice Mannen and Kittie Wise, meanwhile, were buried at Lindenwood. They lie side by side in an unmarked lot that was given to the orphanage by the cemetery, and contains three other orphans as well.
Because the orphanage refused to let other children attend for fear of upsetting them, Alice and Kittie's funerals were attended only by officials from the orphanage. There were no family or friends.
Rescuer drops dead
The same Wednesday the girls drowned, a 41-year-old rescuer died because of the flood.
Peter G. Monnock, a farmer who lived on Miller Road west of the city, had spent the previous day helping people evacuate from rising waters. He apparently also helped five women move to high land, carrying each one of them on his back.
On Wednesday morning, Monnock, stopped by for breakfast at a neighbor's house. At the breakfast table, he complained of feeling ill, stood up and collapsed in the woman's lap.
His death was attributed to heart failure caused by overexposure.
One last victim
Fort Wayne's worst flood had one more victim to claim. On March 29, William Singer, not quite 4 years old, drowned after falling into the Spy Run Creek.
William, born in Scotland to Alexander P. -- chief engineer at the power plant at the Fort Wayne and Northern Indiana Traction Co. -- and Ellen Singer, was playing with friends near where Clinton Street crosses Spy Run.
Witnesses said the boy walked off the edge of the sidewalk into the water. Shouts from those who saw the accident aroused his mother, who rushed out from a home the family had been staying in temporarily on North Clinton after they evacuated their flooded home on Riverside Avenue. Ellen Singer waded out to reach her son, and only through the rescue efforts of a neighbor was she able to get back to shore alive.
The man, a Pennsylvania Railroad switchman named J.F. Heldrick, discovered the boy's body floating in the stream and with a pole drew it to the bank. William, near death, was taken to Heldrick's home, where initial efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.
Police were called, but the patrol wagon was late in arriving from a fire on West Main Street. Owing to the delay in reaching the home, the first test of a resuscitating device called a pulmotor was a failure. A doctor and Fort Wayne's police chief labored over William Singer for two hours, consuming two tanks of oxygen to no avail.
The boy is buried in Lindenwood. While his gravestone says William Singer died in the flood, he is "lost but not forgotten."