Kitty Hawk Flyer Almost Lost in Flood

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Others

The Kitty Hawk Flyer was in storage behind the bicycle shop when a horrendous flood enveloped Dayton including the Flyer, threatening its survival.

The hard rain began on Easter Sunday March 23, 1913. Most citizens were unconcerned even though Dayton had experienced flooding six times in its past because of its location at the confluence of the Miami, Stillwater and Mad Rivers.

The next day, March 24th, the rain became a deluge. The Miami River was rising rapidly at a rate of over 6-inches per hour. Milton Wright, 84, had a premonition that the rain was worse this time and could cause trouble. He wrote in his diary, “I apprehended a flood. Felt the danger of it.” His prescience would turn out to be right.

The next morning on Tuesday, the 25th, Orville and Katharine were late rising because they had just returned from a trip to Europe six days before. Unaware of the impending danger, they hurried off to keep an appointment leaving the Bishop home alone.

At 7 a.m. that morning an earthen dam collapsed upstream at Loramie Reservoir sending a wall of water towards Dayton. Factories blew warning whistles and church bells rang but most people didn’t know the reason for the noise and ignored it.

At 4 p.m. the levies protecting Dayton gave way to the roaring water. A wall of water 5-feet deep poured into Dayton. Observers say that more water poured into the city than over Niagara Falls. The water level climbed 12 to 14 feet in the downtown area.

Orville and Katharine were on high ground and safe, but they couldn’t return home. Electricity was out so there was no telephone service. They were greatly concerned about their father’s safety.

They were unaware at the time, but their next door neighbor rescued Milton by canoe and had taken him to safety at a house on Williams St. They had cause to be concerned because there was some eight feet of water at their home on Hawthorn St.

Fifteen square miles of the Dayton area now lay under 6 to 20 feet of water.

People scrambled to upper floors, rooftops and trees to escape the water. Some 15,000 people, nearly one-half of the city’s population had no shelter and were forced to endure rain and later sleet without shelter or drink. There was little food or drinking water. Swirling water, the consistency of pea soap, was contaminated from some 4,000 privies.

My father, then 12 years old, and my grandparents scrambled to their second floor.

A family at the corner of Herman and Taylor St. used a railing from a wooden bedstead as a battering ram to punch a hole through the 2nd floor ceiling into the attic. They then piled mattresses on a bed and placed a chair on top of that to climb into the attic. They then punched a hole in the roof to escape onto the roof.

All through the night the stranded people heard the firing of guns, shrieks and cries for help, some drowned, and buildings were tipping over. The floodwaters crested around midnight. The rain continued all night and it turned colder in the morning.

Orville posted signs asking for anyone who had news about Milton, to contact him. He and Katharine were relieved when they received word that he was safe.

Orville had new worries.

The terror of fire supplanted that of water. All over the city fires erupted from escaping gas. Some buildings blew up. The sky was filled with clouds of smoke. The entire business district was in danger of burning down. Orville could see buildings on fire hear his bicycle shop and believed it would all go up in flames.

The disassembled 1903 airplane was packed in crates in a shed behind the shop. Letters, diaries and their records of their glider trials, wind tunnel and propeller experiments were stored on the second floor of the bike shop.

On a shelf in a shed behind their house on Hawthorn St were stored the irreplaceable photograph negatives of their Kitty Hawk and Huffman Prairie flights, including the famous picture of the first flight.

Local government ceased to function. Into the breach stepped John H. Patterson, the president of the National Cash Register Company (NCR) and a friend of the Wrights. When he observed what was happening he converted the NCR, that was on higher ground and not flooded, to making flat bottom boats. The employees made some 275 boats at the rate of one every 15 minutes. Thousands of people were rescued by the boats from rooftops and windows.

The NCR buildings and a hastily built tent city on the surrounding ground were used to house and care for the refugees. Each person received a cot, pillow and blanket. The tents had wooden floors. They also received dry clothes, hot meals and medical attention.

Ohio Governor Cox sent National Guards Soldiers to Dayton and placed the troops under the command of Patterson who was given the rank of Colonel.

The NCR with 7,100 employees spent almost $2 million, 2/3rds of their company profit for the year, on the rescue. Patterson sought no reimbursement or tax deduction for the expenditure.

Orville wrote, “I do not suppose there has ever been a similar calamity where relief was so promptly afforded with so little waste. Dayton was very fortunate in having a man with the ability of Patterson to take this work in hand.”

The waters receded on March 30. It had been 5 days of hell and everywhere there was ruin, waste, destruction and mud. It was estimated that 371 people died and there was close to $1 million property damaged including 14,000 homes destroyed or damaged.

There was wreckage piled almost to the roofs of houses, animals were stranded on roof tops, overturned street cars, wrecked grand pianos, 1400 dead horses, waste lumber, asphalt rolled into huge bales like carpet, horrible filth and pungent smell. Men waded through mud above their knees.

The Northwest Tower of Steele High School where Katharine had been a teacher collapsed under the pressure of the water.

Orville and Katharine returned home to happily find that their home and the bike shop survived. The records had little damage. The glass plate negatives had some water damage but were not a total loss. The famous photograph of the first flight was slightly damaged on the lower left corner.

The shed behind the bike shop survived intact and the Flyer was partially protected by a layer of mud. Orville cleaned off the top of the crates and put them back in the shed.

Orville wrote, “My personal loss has been slight, somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000. Hundreds of families and merchants in the city lost practically everything they had. This is probably the greatest calamity that has ever happened to an American city, as insurance policies do not provide coverage for damage by flood.”

Milton returned home on April 4th after the house was cleaned. He recorded in his diary; “I walked home after dinner. Found Orville drying his bonds.”

Previous post:

Next post: