The note from Katherine Ziff was tantalizing.
It included a link. “When you get to where the link takes you,” she wrote, “type in Athens, Ohio, 1907.”
As a rule I do not follow links on the Internet just because someone suggests them. But in the case of Katherine Ziff I’m willing to make an exception.
Katherine is the author of "Asylum on the Hill," a history of the Athens Lunatic Asylum (and the same institution under its different names over the years), at the site now known as The Ridges. When she suggests looking at a website, following her advice is likely to be rewarding. It certainly was this time.
Clicking on it, I was led to the search section of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.
Andrew Carnegie spent much of his life building an enormous personal fortune and what we know as U.S. Steel, and the rest of his life apologizing for the latter by giving away much of the former. A club of which he was a member was in some measure responsible for the 1889 flood that killed 2,209 residents of Johnstown and nearby Pennsylvania villages. Whether that was connected with Carnegie’s establishment of his fund for heroes, which awards medals and gives cash grants, is unknown to me.
When I followed Katherine’s instructions, I got a list of 13 people, with links to their personal stories.
These were some of the people from Athens who showed great courage in rescuing or trying to rescue others during the Hocking River flood of 1907, which claimed 37 lives in Ohio and scores of homes in Athens and Athens County. They were recipients of the Carnegie fund medals.
An additional search produced the story of a Nelsonville man, who died in the flood during a rescue: “Robert J. Lurty, 33, laborer, died attempting to save Mary J. Marsh, 56, from drowning, Nelsonville, Ohio, March 14, 1907. In a rowboat, Lurty went 300 feet from land in the floodwaters of the Hocking River, where the current was 7 mph, and had taken Mrs. Marsh from the roof of her flooded home and started shoreward when the boat capsized. He grasped the woman and, clinging to a post, supported her for 45 minutes, when she died. He allowed her body to float away, and a few minutes later he was swept away and drowned.”
The language describing the heroic feats was not what would be used in our current politically correct times: “Halley M. Woods, 38, merchant, saved Nellie B. Dana, 37, and others from drowning, Athens, Ohio, March 14, 1907. Using a small boat, Woods rescued the people from houses that were being inundated by the surging floodwaters of the Hocking River. On one trip, he rowed a half-mile to a partly wrecked house standing in the path of a 12-mph current, got three excitable women aboard, and, skillfully avoiding telephone poles, trees and floating debris, rowed 1,000 feet across the current to land.” That’s the entire account, so we do not know whether the “excitable” women ever fulfilled that potential, though one supposes they did. You and I would have.
But the reality of the event is nothing to make light of. Athens County’s towns had been built along the river, and the river was now taking much of it back. There are pictures of Nelsonville, Glouster and Athens under water. It came after as much as a half-foot of rain fell on the area in March 1907. The bravery exhibited is unsurprising, coming as it did from people descended only a couple generations from the pioneers who settled the county.
Here’s what happened in Athens on March 14 of that year (I’ve edited out a few long phrases that appear in all of the accounts):
“Alonzo Barnes, 40, painter, helped to save Lydia S. Young, 26, and others from drowning… Barnes and a companion, in an 18-foot skiff, took Mrs. Young and five others from a house… 1,000 feet from dry land.” Barnes’ companion, Edward Swett, 33, a painter by trade, was joined by 48-year-old driver Charles F. Bearhs “in an attempt to save Ira C. Young, 28, machinist, and others from drowning.” After the rescue of Mrs. Young, while they “were taking Mr. Young and three others from the same point, the boat shot across an elevated street, where the water was rushing like over a dam. The skiff was capsized, all the occupants losing their lives.”
Sometimes the dam-like street was successfully crossed. “William A. Casley, 39, superintendent, helped to save Alvin L. Downard, 35, merchant, and others from drowning [when] Casley and a companion, in an 18-foot skiff, contended with the 9-mph current, avoided numerous trees, and crossed an elevated street where the water was rushing like over a dam, and rescued the people from houses that had been carried from their foundations and had lodged among trees 900 feet from dry land.”
“Otto Barth, 47, miller, helped to save Mary E. Dana, 60, and died assisting in an attempt to save John P. Dana, 60, auditor, and two others from drowning… In an old 16-foot boat, Barth and a companion went 150 feet from dry land and rescued Miss Dana from a house in the seething floodwaters of the Hocking River. While Barth and Carl J. Hibbard, 21, machinist, were trying to reach the Dana house again, their boat capsized. Barth was drowned, but Hibbard got into the house and was later rescued with the occupants.”
Some names are still familiar in the area.
“Pascal L. Traglio, 46, painter, helped to save Minerva M. Carsey, 40, and others from drowning… In an 18-foot skiff, Traglio and Frederick L. Guenther, 42, contractor, rowed out twice… rescuing Mrs. Carsey and six others from tree into which they had climbed from a wrecked house, and a man from a tree that he had gained on losing his boat while going to the aid of the others.” Both Traglio and Guenther were Carnegie medal recipients.
The man in the tree was “Jesse E. Patterson, 30, photographer, [who] attempted to save Minerva M. Carsey, 40, and nine others from drowning. In a small boat, Patterson rowed out in the floodwaters… the current being 10 mph, to some trees into which the people had climbed from a floating house. As he grasped a branch, his boat filled with water and was carried away with Patterson standing in it. He grasped the branches of another tree and drew himself up as his boat struck its trunk and broke in two.”
“Harry G. Seevers, 26, coal miner, helped to save James N. Carsey, 51, laborer, and Noah H. Martin, 46, carpenter, from drowning. Seevers and a companion, in a 16-foot skiff, rescued the men from a tree in the seething floodwaters, twice almost capsizing in their efforts to get the men into their boat.”
“Amanson Lewis, Jr., 30, stationary engineer, and James C. McMichael, 52, watchman, assisted in an attempt to save Nancy J. Simmons, 41, and others, from drowning. In a small boat, [they] put out in the floodwaters… to row 2,000 feet to the Simmons house, but their boat capsized and they had narrow escapes from drowning.”
There is a lot more to be said about the 1907 flood. I think the stories of heroism speak for themselves.
But it is worth stopping to remember that it all happened right here.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at email@example.com.