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Ohio author Geoff Williams tells gripping story of 1913 flood in new book

Geoff Williams' new book "Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America's Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever" tells the story of the Flood of 1913 in the Midwest, including Fort Wayne. (Courtesy photo)

Thursday, March 21, 2013 - 12:01 am

Geoff Williams had heard stories about it often while growing up in Middletown, Ohio.

The Flood of 1913 had swept into Middletown, causing severe damage, and had devastated Dayton farther north. But he didn't think the flood had the drama to make a good subject for a book — until he started researching it.

“I honestly think this flood deserves to be remembered the way the Titanic is remembered and the way the (1906) earthquake in San Francisco is remembered,” said Williams, 43, a full-time freelance journalist whose work has appeared in major newspapers and national magazines.

His book, “Washed Away,” which was published in February (Pegasus Books, list price $28.95), tells the story of the Flood of 1913 through the lives of people who lived during it, focusing heavily on Fort Wayne, Dayton and New Castle, Pa.

Williams, who now lives in Loveland, Ohio, northeast of Cincinnati, collected information by spending countless hours poring over newspaper reports from the day, he said in a telephone interview. He contacted various historical societies to get copies of letters and diaries written by flood survivors. He also read books, memoirs and census records from that time.

In addition, he contacted the sons, daughters and grandchildren of some people who lived through the flood.

“It is like putting a puzzle together,” said Williams, whose younger brother, Kevin Williams, is editor of the Amish Cook column that is published Tuesdays in The News-Sentinel.

In 1913, the problems began with ground that was saturated with moisture from snow, Williams said. Then a major storm system moved in, and it kept raining — hard — for three days.

Just about every town in Indiana and Ohio suffered flooding unless it was located on high ground, he said.

One of the most gripping stories he discovered took place in Fort Wayne.

The quickly rising floodwaters soon surrounded the Allen County Orphan's Home, which stood near the location of today's Sears Pavilion along the west side of the St. Marys River just south of the bridge Bluffton Road bridge.

Rescuers used boats to reach the orphanage so children and staff could be brought to safety on higher ground. The first rescue boat capsized, however, and the raging water swept away four girls.

“The orphanage really captured my imagination,” Williams said.

He found other stories of tragedy and triumph as well:

•A man who may have been drinking appears to have been the first fatality in Fort Wayne. Despite being unable to swim, he went out in a boat to try to warn people to evacuate, Williams said. The boat sank, and he drowned.

•The mother of actress and Fort Wayne native Carole Lombard was reported to have opened her home to shelter people who had been chased from their houses by floodwaters.

•In Hamilton, Ohio, a woman folded one carpet into three thicknesses, and then she and others inserted long poles into the carpet to create a bridge they used to cross over the water from their rickety house to a sturdier one.

•In Indiana and Ohio, there were numerous reports of people who escaped the water by climbing into trees, where they clung for days in frigid weather.

Probably more than 700 people died in Indiana and Ohio as a result of the flood, Williams said. In some areas, people starved to death in their house or houseboat because they could not get to food. Others died from injuries suffered while cleaning up after the flood, or from diseases caught during the flood or cleanup. Some committed suicide.

Williams said he was inspired by the many stories he found of neighbors helping neighbors or strangers helping others.

The bravery of many rescuers left him in awe as he read how they rushed off to save others without thinking of the danger to themselves.

“I loved working on the book,” he said. “I think 1913 is worth visiting, ... I think all history is worth visiting.”