Dayton Under Construction

Sunday night, holed up in the Tumbleweed, waiting for the late-spring blizzard-of-’13 that wasn’t. A ratty stuffed coyote yawns above me, next to a raven and a bighorn sheep wearing mardi gras beads, and another coyote. Across the horseshoe bar on the brick wall opposite hangs a huge elk head above a banner proclaiming this ‘the best saloon east of the Mississippi.’

I’m leaning over a brass rail, elbows propped on a cheap pine-strip bar, behind which there’s an uninspired stack of liquor, coolers of Miller Lite and Bud Light and Yuengling, and a refrigerator full of not-so-exotic ‘imports’ like Great Lakes and Blue Moon. A cuarenta y tres machine and coffee maker, bowls of cut limes and cherries in the Monster mini-fridge, a stack of the T-weed’s signature jello shots in over-sized plastic syringes. And snarky bumper stickers slapped on most surfaces — ‘Pull your pants up’ from Glenn Scott’s Tattoo Team; ‘My tits are real (so is my penis)'; and the standard ‘Dayton’s alright… if you haven’t been anywhere else.’

The weather app on my phone has issued progressively less dire warnings about impending overnight accumulations. The preemptive cancellations scrolling under the television news are getting sluggish, hung up on that uncertainty. Fitful sleet and snow spit outside and flash across the large security monitor above one corner of the bar that tracks sixteen feeds in separate boxes.

So the mega-storm is petering out, it seems, but the bar is dead quiet anyway — voluble regulars like Len and Pancake have taken tonight off, karaoke starts tomorrow, and Cherry Bomb returns on Tuesday. The only sound is the once-a-rotation creak the Jameson’s bubble-sign has picked up recently, which is more like a far-off operatic warble, just haunting enough to stop conversations and provoke the same ‘can’t we unplug that?’ comment every 45 seconds or so from the handful of subdued patrons. Nobody thinks to summon the jukebox to drown it out — it would disturb the snowscape silence.

In this frozen pause, it almost makes sense that a couple of guys in jeans and beards wander in and ask Kristin to change the channel to ThinkTV (the local PBS station) for an airing of a documentary on the Great Flood of 1913. Stock recollections of the Miami Valley’s signature catastrophe have bounced around the news all week — reminiscing old-timers in La-Z-boys and slow-panned archival photos on an endless loop. This spring Wright State re-staged 1913: The Great Dayton Flood, an ‘epic parable with gospel blues’ about ‘Dayton’s defining moment,’ featuring voice overs from famous Daytonians. And a permanent exhibition commemorating the flood was installed at Carillon Historical Park, where a clutch of relocated log cabins and barns and taverns stand for 19th century Dayton.

This town is stuck on that flood.

Dayton, like any river town, has a complicated history with water — and with the infrastructure designed to hold it back. Downtown bulges into the northern bend of an S-curve traced by the Great Miami River below the point where the Mad River joins it from the east, not far south of where the Stillwater River flows in from the north, and just north of where Wolf Creek slips in from the west; altogether that’s a lot of water pouring into a shallow little river. Floodwaters washed over the city the very year it was incorporated (1805) and on an every-23-year-give-or-take schedule through 1898. Predictably, the residents of Dayton dealt with this inconvenience by building ever-higher levees.

You can guess what happened next. In the days leading up to ‘Flood Tuesday’ — March 25th, 1913 — it rained. The documentary quotes the same line that every account of this flood does, from Allan W. Eckert’s 1965 A Time of Terror: ‘Several times during the morning the sky had brightened and the sun seemed on the verge of peeping through, but then the heavy black masses of odd-looking clouds would sweep across the sky shooting out jagged bolts of lightning and sounding an almost continual roll of thunder over the city.’

All this on already snow melt-saturated ground. It was all great fun to watch — and crowds did — until the embankment on the south side of the Miami-Mad River convergence gave way at St Clair Street. The disused bed of the Miami and Erie Canal channeled the water down a secondary course in what the papers surely called a ‘mighty torrent,’ and the hernia that described downtown was erased behind a new water’s edge about a half mile east of the old one.

People stranded on rooftops, dead pigs in floating in the water, and the New York Times breathlessly predicting 5000 dead. (In the event the death toll was just 360.) And it turned out that somebody forgot to turn off the gas main, and downtown started burning, especially when flames reached the Lowe Brothers Paint Store on 3rd and Jefferson Streets. Fiery islands and towers of black smoke soaring into the frigid air above the 15 feet of water in the streets, and people scurrying out onto roofs to escape the flames. There were heroic rescues and disease and ‘never again’ promises made in crowded attics. After the water receded, cameras caught sideways houses, men in boats, dead horses (1400 of those) wedged in storefronts, streets hip-deep in mud, and a couple of national guardsmen usually taken to signify ‘martial law.’

From there, the documentary — and every local retelling on TV and in newspapers and museums — jumps past recovery to a legacy a bit grander than muddy streets and crowded rooftops. After lending the National Cash Register Company’s flatboats and factory premises to the rescue effort, the company’s owner, James Patterson, and what was later known as ‘the barn gang’1 resolved to think beyond levees to head off the next flood. Urged on by James Cox, a Dayton newspaperman then serving as Ohio’s 46th governor, The  Dayton Citizens Relief Commission hired Arthur Morgan to design a series of far-off dams to control the water long before it reached the Great Miami confluence.

Funding that venture was a challenge in the era before coordinated efforts like the Tennessee Valley Authority, so Patterson planted an enormous cash register downtown to spur locals into donating the $2 million it would take to tame the rivers. While ‘our national calamity’ (as a streak of 1913 Easter week meteorological nastiness was dubbed in a book published that same year by Logan Marshall) was still fresh, that register clicked off local contributions right up to the goal in just ten days that May.

And so the flood narrative ends, in photos of Patterson and Cox and the rest posing in front of freshly poured concrete barriers and spillways and newly dedicated and sometimes-lacustrine park land behind. And rightly so: the five dams of the Miami Valley Conservancy did save Dayton — they’ve checked upstream water for eight decades and kept river mud off of downtown streets.

With the ‘barn gang’ still standing in front of them, though, the dams fix civic nostalgia on the legacy of those 1913 innovators. That documentary on at the the Tumbleweed opens with a boom town Dayton cresting on Wright brothers-inspired aeroplane technology, driven by the manufacturing engines of NCR and the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (which replaced the barn gang and completed work on the self-starter), and anchored on massive rail yards at the junction of east-west and north-south trunk lines that had already supplanted the canal.

This remembered Dayton was a once-frontier town poised for industrial greatness, and locals are stuck on that memory, too. Everyone acknowledges that some of the initial promise has evaporated. NCR no longer makes cash registers here, and it shuttled its corporate headquarters off to Atlanta four years ago. Deeds and Kettering sold DELCO to United Motors (in turn acquired by GM) for $9 million in 1916. And though downtown still shudders against heavy freights every 20 minutes, the trains don’t stop to pick up or offload cargoes anymore, and the engine works and rolling stock assemblies of 1913 are gone.

The Dayton-Wright Airplane Company and Deeds’ McCook Field research station live on, though, in an aerospace industry now effectively sheltered by the research-heavy Wright-Patterson AFB. And if the multinationals are gone, the city is still peppered with specialized industry, local shops with names like Cyberteknic, Dayton Winair, Industrial Grinding, Armstrong Hydraulic, Precision Machine Tools, Chemineer, Hohman Plating, Dayton United Metal Spinners, and Pyramid Injection Molding.

The city has moved on in every other concrete sense as well. Industry has come and gone and fragmented and realigned, postwar suburbs have redrawn demographics, and interstates have remapped the way people navigate those suburbs. Moreover, the lazy narrative of decline has prompted a lively resistance from Daytonians fiercely proud of what their hometown offers — to take just one example, the ‘girl about town‘ looks to ‘showcase the best of Dayton’ by visiting and reviewing delis and cafes and pubs.

Yet for many boosters, the route to civic restoration detours through the flood era. WYSO’s Reinvention Stories project leads with a fake old-timey postcard that spells the letters D-A-Y-T-O-N as windows on a long-lost downtown that still featured the ‘NCR’ logo on an office block. Below that, a ‘city of inventors’ slogan. And lest you miss which inventors they mean, the first words you read on the website — a video compilation of Daytonians refusing to get swept away by the current recession — are ‘birthplace of the airplane, cash register, and pop top can.’

So an earnest effort to promote a revived and resilient Dayton grounds that optimism in inventions dating to the start of the last century, once-breakthrough technologies all of which peaked in the 1960s. And even if local industry is captained by lesser titans now, the names plastered on business-angled branch campuses and technology corridors are yet Wright, Patterson, and Kettering. The ropes that locals think could drag Dayton through its current slow-rusting catastrophe, are, then, knotted on moorings on the other side of those huge earthen dams. Restoration is innovation, then construction. What threatens Dayton now, though, is harder to hold back than floodwaters.

Most efforts to (re)build Dayton track the vogue for shifting the American downtown from business hub to tourist destination and gentrified chic — here with a targeted date. Across the Third Street bridge is Inner West, a once-derelict neighborhood just across the river from the glass-and-steel district. This is where you go to look at 1913, the ‘where innovation happened’ version. Third Street runs here for a few blocks past the Ellis Human Development Institute and a Sunoco and an engine parts warehouse and some empty lots, then into the renamed Dunbar-Wright Business District. Streetlamp banners encourage us to ‘live the legacy,’ and, high up on a light standard, a small green sign emblazoned with the Wright flyer profile marks the aviation heritage trail.

A handful of neatly restored facades line this old secondary downtown — the Pekin Theater, the Marietta, a grand old concrete neo-classical bank on the corner. The Innerwest Priority Board occupies the Booth building at the east end of these two refurbished blocks, and there are as many signs pointing toward its parking lot as there are for the historical sites that anchor the neighborhood. Presumably that’s the development authority responsible for the banners and clay-toned sidewalks and granite pavers that register local names that run a predictable gamut from obscure to faded to next-to-famous to huh-I-had-no-idea-he-was-from-here.

That formica remembrance disrupts whatever muddy horse-drawn streetcar chaos the restoration is meant to conjure. That and the hushed routine. The RTA Route 1 bus rumbles by in each direction every 25 minutes or so, but nobody gets off. Erase the bus and the skyline and it’s pretty much a county seat-caliber Ohio downtown. A handful of empty storefronts with blueprints and could-look-like-this sketches posted hopefully in windows; a state farm agent; Sweet Dots Bakery Cafe, with a band of pink cupcakes stenciled on the windows; the Family Stone Cafe (chicken and fish sandwich specials jaggedly painted in fluorescent pink and green); Chase Bank opposite the Ohio Loan Corporation and its collection of guitars and lawnmowers on caged display; and all crowded into one smallish shop: Her Vision Graphic & Design and Tammy’s Personalized Creations & Gifts advertised on one window, In His Image Christian Books, Balloons, Floral Shop, Gifts & More and Janitorial Services on the next one.

Zik’s Family Pharmacy is the only place open on a Monday early evening, but it does a brisk business a couple doors down from PriMed Physicians. Still a surprising break from the Walgreen’s-CVS duel everywhere else in the urban mid-west.

But this isn’t Urbana or Xenia or Eaton or Circleville. EbonNia, V-Jap Fashion Inc. (‘Fashions for the unique woman’), and the Shango Center for the Study of African-American Culture pull Dunbar-Wright back toward the west Dayton heart of the black community in Roosevelt, Arlington, and Drexel, into which Third Street climbs from here. Grassy lots and abandoned houses behind the ‘promenade’ keep Dunbar-Wright still just out of reach from the present. The past stops just as abruptly beyond Broadway — no old buildings stand farther west on Third Street. There’s an empty parking lot on one side, and on the other a sidewalk meanders through a park that marks the site of the workshop where Orville Wright worked for thirty-six years after Wilbur’s death.

In one corner of the park there’s a brick wall with empty windows and a door, behind which a small bronze man poses with a propeller next to an interpretive sign. There isn’t much evidence that his Wright Aeronautical Laboratories accomplished much. He did consult on the design of the Kettering Bug, built by the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company in 1918 and designed to fly over ‘enemy lines’ (this was WW I, after all), crash, and explode. Partially blocking the view of all this, however, is a standalone drive-up Chase ATM.

Behind the opposite corner is the brick-and-screen-printed glass of a National Park Service interpretive center, tacked onto the back of the Hoover Block building, and a two-story studio on Williams Street that the Wright brothers rented from 1895 to 1897 for their oft-relocated ‘Wright Cycle Company.’ That’s not where Orville and Wilbur moved on from ground transportation and started experimenting with airfoils — that happened later, down the street at 1127 West Third, now across from Zik’s. The actual building, though, is missing, and in its place an empty grass lot with a wrought iron fence and another interpretive sign. It went missing in 1937, when Henry Ford (with Orville’s blessing) dismantled, moved, and then reassembled it in his surreal invention town, Greenfield Village in Dearborn.

Ford’s collector’s impulse has emptied the neighborhood beyond as well. 7 Hawthorn Street is where the Wright bachelors spent much of their lives in some sort of communal arrangement with siblings. All that’s left here are foundations traced in concrete in the grass behind a picket fence. There’s one reconstructed corner of the wraparound porch, and photos of how it looked when the flyers slept there. It too was spirited away by Mr. Ford, and one of the signs here sheepishly promises that Dayton would never let this heritage theft happen again.

What Ford left is a stubborn shabbiness that historical designations and new bricks don’t quite hide. Nobody bothered to rebuild on the cycle shop lot; that this was underwater in 1913 likely explains the general emptiness between the historic district and Wolf Creek to the north. Scrappy houses and a shiny new elementary school take up most of the space traced by Third Street, James McGee Boulevard, and the creek.

The Innerwest Priority Board was busier in the Wright brothers’ old neighborhood — the Victorians still standing here (the Wright house was built in 1868) are gaily painted in vintage yellows and pine greens and magenta-and-gray striped porch pillars — but all are clad in old clapboard or re-wrapped in cheap vinyl. No sturdy brick grandiosity so close to the once-menacing river even then. Already in the 19th century the moneyed classes were inching uphill to Dayton View and Grafton Hill.

So something half-finished and time-indistinct lingers in this effort to conjure 1913. Densely built Victorian blocks, bracketed by more abandoned lots, the never-really-coming-back commercial district, and a four-lane parkway named after Edwin Moses. It’s like some theme park 19th century mapped by dart throw. The one brick-cobbled street is lined with bright-white sidewalks and new old-timey streetlights, and fresh concrete alleys cut through each block. Leafy saplings call attention to a jarring nakedness of old houses left unshaded; every time I look up I’m surprised to see ornamental moldings stark against open sky.

Concrete posts block off bricked walks that snake through dandelions to a concrete shell of a park down by the parkway, but new houses planted on old foundations are outnumbered by empty lots, and green utility boxes sit alone in lots gone weedy. Detached garages and plastic swing sets and late model Land Cruisers mark a stalled suburban intrusion, with a few boxy pioneers standing bravely at the edge of brownfields where burned-out shells and walls oozing fiberglass lurk.

Tucked between neatly gardened rehabs are part-renovated and now abandoned houses with still-stickered windows but peeling paint, and even the tidier sections likewise look more county seat than city, probably because of green verges between houses and the open space surrounding everything. A sumac jungle encroaches from the south, pierced by a narrow asphalt path that leads nowhere and hemmed in by a disused rail line that wraps around behind the Morton Salt plant. Lee’s Sandwich Shop (or The Number, depending on which sign you take as most recent) squats at 1300 West Fifth Street behind garish pink-painted plywood over windows and chain-link fencing tacked over that for good measure. Beyond there are the vaguely overgrown streets that strike out into the Appalachia-in-Dayton that spreads through once flooded lowlands.

1913 is still here, though not the one Daytonians have tried to re-build.

Other revitalize-the-city infrastructure looks away from the past and toward less ambitious fixes: a glossily painted imitation gaslight-lined bridge over the Wolf Creek, repaved bike paths that are used mostly by fishermen who compete with seagulls at the low dam in front of the art museum. I-75 is undergoing a decade-long overhaul that will straighten roller coaster curves and herd a maze of exits to something more orderly, a project that follows on the complete replacement of the I-75 / I-70 interchange up north, now (of course) with airplane logos affixed to overpass abutments.

Downtown there’s a new bus terminal, a brightly-lit and sculpture-enhanced walkway that connects Fifth Third Field and the Oregon district along the canal bed, and MetroParks continues to improve RiverScape — new bathrooms, a permanent bandshell that doubles as a wintertime skating rink. More whimsical are the rainbow-illuminated piers under the Stewart Street bridge across the Miami, and cool blue lights tucked under US-35 where it climbs over Jefferson and Main Streets.

But it’s still the river that attracts more visionary efforts. In mid-October the ‘River Run’ project met its $4 million funding goal — no downtown cash register this time, and a stack of matching grants made this less citizen-driven than the dams — so this summer crews will dismantle the low dams and dump a few hundred tons of rocks in the stretch of river that passes under the Main Street bridge. (Supporters are careful to point out that these structures have nothing to do with flood control.)

For the first time since the flood there will be whitewater on the Great Miami and squadrons of kayakers paddling through a downtown attraction the likes of which no other Ohio city can claim. The mayor calls it a ‘game changer,’ predictably, and the general manager of the Miami Conservancy District (the dams people) droned, ‘This river has brought triumph and tragedy to the city, We’re working to bring to the city the next triumph.’ (She has to sign off on removing those low dams.)

It’s hard to picture the sluggish Miami roiling and eddying like some mountain run. For a long time, it hasn’t done much other than deposit logjams on top of those low dams and turn its indistinct banks to marshy mush in the spring.

Stirring up that muddy water in order to save downtown…the river abides.

  1. An after-hours engineering geek-out that started when NCR whiz kid Charles Kettering (initially hired to electrify the cash register) started tinkering on the self-starting ignition in a barn behind the Dayton house of NCR chief of development ‘Colonel’ Edward Deeds in 1908.