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Culver’s legendary life-saving, 100 years later

April 16, 2013

- CULVER STUDENTS MADE HEADLINES SAVING 1,400 IN THE 1913 FLOOD IN LOGANSPORT -- AND EARNED THEIR SCHOOL AN ICONIC GATE IN THE PROCESS -

It was one hundred years ago, in March 1913, that two flood-swollen rivers converging in Logansport, Indiana, would ravage the city and threaten the lives of thousands. Converging with that natural disaster was a courageous group of Culver Military Academy cadets and faculty who answered a call for help and ended up saving nearly fifteen hundred men, women, and children, from that inundated city.

The heroic actions of these Culver teenagers and their teachers quickly gained national attention, but perhaps more importantly, the story of their exploits came to play a key role in the life of their school. The account of the Logansport Flood became the stuff of legend and continues to influence the lives and actions of students and staff to this very day.

A year later, the grateful people of Logansport raised the money to erect brick pillars at the western entrance of the campus as a way to thank Culver. The Logansport Gate immortalizes the exploits of those brave men and boys and since 2003 has been the site of the Matriculation Ceremony that welcomes new students into the Culver fold.

The account of the Logansport Flood has acquired almost mythic status at Culver; it is one of the key stories that explains what it means to be a Culver graduate. In fact, according to Colonel Kelly Jordan, the current commandant, “all new cadets must learn the history and lessons of Logansport as part of becoming full members of the CMA Corps of Cadets.”

How did what happened in the cold, snow-blown floodwaters of the Eel and Wabash rivers come to play such a significant role in the life of a school one hundred years after the event?

The story of the dramatic rescue began in March when early spring rains hit the Ohio Valley, falling in such quantities that virtually every river in Indiana and Ohio reached flood stage. By the time the waters receded they left in their wake six hundred dead, a quarter of a million homeless, and damages to roads, railways, dams, and property estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars – making it at the time one of the worst natural disasters in United States history.

Despite the rain, life at Culver was slowly returning to normal after the excitement of the participation of the Black Horse Troop and Corps of Cadets in their first Presidential Inaugural Parade earlier that month. It was March 26, 1913 – three days after Easter – and a gala concert by the renowned opera diva Madam Schumann Heink had concluded when Superintendent Lieutenant Colonel Leigh Gignilliat received a frantic phone call from Logansport Mayor David Fickle. The mayor asked Gignilliat to send as many Naval cutters as he could via railway to his beleaguered city, located about forty miles to the south. During the night, the Wabash and Eel rivers had crested, submerging much of Logansport’s business and residential districts. Homes were being swept away and many of the twenty thousand residents were trapped in their houses by the raging water and had been without food and water for almost two days, prompting the mayor’s plea for help.

It was twenty-four degrees and snowing. During the day the water levels in the streets of Logansport had risen nearly five feet; the rivers were twenty feet over their normal level. The flooded area was a mile and a half wide. Almost every bridge had been washed away.

Culver’s summer Naval cutters were twenty-eight-foot boats weighing a ton each and requiring a skilled crew of ten oarsmen plus the helmsman to navigate them. Gignilliat realized that the cutters needed crews familiar with handling them, so he chose to send the boats as well as volunteering Culver cadets and faculty to man them. The irony of the mayor’s request was that a Logansport newspaper had recently lampooned Culver for purchasing Naval cutters for use on an inland lake.

Gignilliat summoned Captains Robert Rossow, Harold Bays, and two other faculty members to be in charge of the four cutters to be transported via the Pennsylvania Railroad. Each faculty officer was given a pistol and told to fire three shots if his boat was in trouble. Gignilliat and his officers then chose some sixty cadets – teenagers – to man the boats. The superintendent selected only cadets who had worked with the cutters in the summer Naval School.

“The record,” according to Jordan, “is very clear that many other cadets wanted to participate, and that those who were not chosen were quite disappointed. Gignilliat mollified those not chosen by telling them that he did not know how long Culver’s participation would last and that those remaining behind needed to be ready to serve as replacements and/or as a second group of rescuers.”

One of those volunteers, sixteen-year-old Elliot White Springs was deemed too young and too small for the task and was told to stay behind. Rossow had the cadets and the Academy boat crew move the boats from storage (near today’s White-DeVries Rowing Center) to the Academy railroad spur (behind the current Uniform/Laundry building). It took twenty cadets to carry each boat more than a half-mile across the snow-covered ground in the dark to be loaded onto flatcars.

Once loaded with cutters, cadets, and faculty, the train set off on a journey that took it across bridges that had been dangerously weakened by the flood waters. Unbeknownst to the Culver team, Springs had smuggled himself aboard the train, taking cover under the tarpaulin of one of the cutters. The stowaway was discovered along the way.

The train arrived at Logansport at three o’clock in the morning. The city was in darkness. All electricity had been knocked out by the raging waters. The boys and faculty officers unloaded the boats; the floodwaters were nearly level with the flatcars so it was relatively easy to push the boats into the water. Each boat had a crew of ten, plus the helmsman and a faculty officer. At Mayor Fickle’s request, each boat also carried a Logansport policeman. When sufficient light allowed, they set out, wet snow falling on them.

Gignilliat placed Springs in his own boat. Despite his small size the youth performed well on the river.

Gignilliat’s description of what happened after they launched the first cutter was a grim foreshadowing of the next thirty-six hours the cadets and faculty would spend in the icy waters.

“At first we progressed nicely in a column of cutters, but as we came nearer to the river, the boat that I commanded was caught in a whirlpool at a street crossing and spun around like a top. Before I could give the orders to pull us out of the whirlpool, two of the heavy oars were snapped like toothpicks against a telegraph pole. Fortunately we had brought along spares.”

From then on, Gignilliat wrote in an aide-memoire, “the Culver cadets and faculty engaged in a hard day and a half battle with swift currents and foaming eddies dangerously complicated with wires and treetops. Snatching a mouthful of coffee occasionally as they came to shore, the cadets worked unceasingly.”

Navigating the cutters through the flood waters was dangerous business, Rossow described in a later account. “We swept into the flood, one, two, three blocks, the heavy fourteen-foot oars clunking in the thwarts with exact precision, the sweeps catching the water in beautiful timing. They rowed like veterans of a racing shell, their reaches forward, between strokes, smooth and effortless. . . . Most of them were boys whom I had had personal contact. I knew what was in them.”

Rossow soon realized the current flowed much stronger through the intersections, as the Wabash flows from north to south. “As we pushed deeper into the area, these currents began, more and more, to sweep us sideward as we crossed one street after another.

“Suddenly, as the prow of our heavy cutter nosed into the intersection of one of the last north and south streets that we would have to cross, a current of unbelievable force careened the craft diagonally across the street. Red Drake [a cadet], caught unawares and off-balance, was nearly swept overboard by the suddenly jibing lone tiller,” Rossow wrote.

At one point, Gignilliat’s boat was pushed into a huge guy wire by the current, causing the craft to tip dangerously. “Nearly pulling their young arms out of their sockets, and with the help of a boy in the bow with a boat hook, who, without orders from me, did just the right thing on his own initiative, they extricated us from the guy wire.

“One of the calmest and most cheerful of those rescued was a woman with a one-day-old baby. In another case, a woman passed out a bundle saying, ‘Please, be careful of my baby.’ The bundle shortly thereafter (revealed) a pet poodle.” From the sublime to the ridiculous!

Gignilliat also wrote of a particularly poignant rescue: “One helpless old man in the arms of his cadet rescuer said, ‘I am not afraid for you to carry me down the ladder, comrade. This is the third time that I have been carried by a soldier – twice when wounded in the Civil War.’”

Gignilliat was amazed at the way the cadets treated the flood victims:

“I shall never cease to marvel at the strength and endurance of those teenaged boys, who labored at the oars for two days with scant time for food or rest. Something else that I shall not forget about those boys was their tenderness with the old and the young and the sick. Maybe it was a woman with a baby, maybe a bed-ridden old woman with the stoicism of age, maybe a shivering, frightened child. All were helped into the boat with the solicitude those boys might have shown their own mothers or grandmothers or little sisters in distress.”

Logansport resident John Beatty added additional praise by writing, “I want to say that Logansport owes a debt of thanks and gratitude to the brave boys of Culver Academy. How our hearts leaped with joy when they appeared on Linden Avenue with strong boats Wednesday morning. When the storm beat down upon them, they worked with cheerfulness, willingness and tenderness that invoked our admiration.”

Tenderness is not always associated with heroic behavior, nor is it often viewed as a strong masculine trait – yet it struck a rescued man that the cadets had shown precisely this quality while rescuing his family. Jordan uses examples like this to portray the ideals of Culver graduates to his cadets.

Despite the mythic proportions the Logansport Flood has attained, these events did happen. But such an epic experience is not likely to happen again. No contemporary head of school would dare take the risk that Gignilliat took. In later years he questioned whether he should have volunteered the cadets for such a dangerous situation.

“I am considerably older today,” he wrote, “. . . I wonder if now I would dare risk the lives of boys entrusted to my care without asking their parents’ consent in advance.”

Yet, in 1913 Gignilliat took that chance and the Logansport Flood became a part of Culver and Indiana history. Almost a quarter of a century later, when another flood swept parts of Indiana and a similar request went out for the Culver boats, Academy authorities sent the cutters and the adult boat crew, but denied a request by the cadets to accompany the boats. Times had changed.

Asked about the wisdom of Gignilliat’s decision, Head of Schools John Buxton said, “At Culver we teach our students to do the right things, always! However, we also teach them that the challenge of ethical decision-making is that in certain situations – in many, in fact – there are two rights and no wrong, yet a decision must still be made. To send cadets to Logansport or to decide that the risk is too great? What is the righter, right? When does the requirement to serve others outweigh the threat of personal injury or harm? You would have to have been there to know . . . but you clearly know what Culver did.”

TELLING THE TALE

Telling of the story of Culver at Logansport began almost immediately. Two days after returning, Springs sent a long letter to his father about the flood, omitting the fact that he had stowed away in order to take part in the rescue. Gignilliat and Rossow both wrote accounts of the flood shortly after returning to Culver. The 1913 yearbook, Roll Call, however, makes only three references to the flood:

• Allan “Bud” Garrett Fisher of Tacoma, Washington, was described as “the ‘Hero of Logansport,’ his many feats of daring and strength won him this well-deserved title.”

• The item on Charles “Blackie” Blackburn Lawton of Miami, Arizona, reads: “To be serious, C.B. is undoubtedly the worst sufferer of the Logansport flood, for while he wasn’t there in person he knows the name and address of every damsel that was.”

• Joseph “Jimmie” Ezra Logsdon of Shawneetown, Illinois, “made a name for himself as a second-story man of cutter No. 13 in Logansport. The way he tossed babies and children around almost looked as though he was used to it.”

Logansport Gate also has taken on greater symbolism. Long a reminder of the historic event and the gratitude of the Logansport community, with the addition of the Leadership Plaza in 2002, the area represents the virtues and attributes personified by the cadets at Logansport – courage, justice, duty, honor, wisdom, service, moderation, and truth.

This gate marks the location of the formal opening of every academic year as the site of the Matriculation Ceremony at which new students are formally welcomed to the Academies. The students form up on Academy Road and, as their names are called, pass through the gate and are greeted by Head of Schools John Buxton and his wife, Pam, the commandant and dean of girls, and the regimental commander and senior prefect. Commencement parallels this event when students exit through the Iron Gate or the Graduation Arch, joining the ranks of The Culver Legion.

A few years ago the administrative team realized that many students did not know the significance of the Matriculation Ceremony or the deeper meaning of the school’s role at Logansport. Hearing about that incident was deemed not enough. Now, on the morning of matriculation, new cadets undergo an experience which brings them more in touch with the original event. They climb into modern versions of the Naval cutters and learn to use them on Lake Maxinkuckee.

Following that, the nearly three hundred new cadets and girls are bused to Logansport to see where this event happened. It is not unusual at more than one point to see students gawk when they see the lines drawn above their heads on the sides of buildings marking the high point of the 1913 flood waters. Following the tour of the town, the students eat lunch in a city park along the Wabash River, often welcomed by the mayor or a representative of the city of Logansport.

Jordan says the leadership lessons of the Logansport episode are legion.

“We use this trip as a leadership opportunity for our current students. The adults help set the stage and provide context for the event, but during the trip we have upper-class boys and girls lead discussions among the small groups from each unit/dorm to help identify and discuss the leadership issues related to various parts of the event,” Jordan said. “The trip culminates by having each group of new students provide reports to their peers about the leadership lessons they learned to help each other connect the students to their heritage.”

According to Jordan, “the new cadets/students come out of the event with a greater appreciation of the sacrifices of their predecessors and what it means to be a Culver student, and the upper-class cadets/students acquire a deeper understanding of the history and heritage of their school and what is expected of Culver graduates.”

The first year that this event occurred, an elderly woman approached a group of Culver cadets while they were lunching in the park and asked whether they were from Culver Military Academy. Told that they were, the woman shared that her great-grandmother had been rescued by Culver in 1913. The cadets later accused the commandant of having set up this encounter; Jordan replied in all candor that he had not. The Culver boys had been brought face to face with living history.

Back on campus, Jordan tells the students that Culver will ask much of them during their time at the school, and that “the lesson of Logansport is to do what is asked of you while at Culver, even if it is hard, and to do all you can to help others, especially if it involves using what you’ve learned at Culver.”

Jordan urges the students to use the Logansport flood as an example and guide for them to do their best personally and as groups in the challenging times. The final act on campus is to replicate the Culver cadets’ departure from Logansport in 1913 with a rousing cheer of fifteen “rahs” for the residents of Logansport, completing a physical, intellectual, and emotional connection to the past for contemporary students.

Buxton wrote that developmental psychologist Howard Gardner “believes that the ultimate impact of a leader depends on the stories he or she communicates to others. Sometimes these stories become the stories of the school, providing the sense of identity and coherence that hold things together. We could not possibly imagine a better story than the Logansport Flood story. It speaks to preparedness, courage, determination, service, and leadership. This story reminds all of us why Culver makes a difference in the world.”

The significance of the flood and the gift of the Logansport Gate will be commemorated by the Academies at the August 26 Matriculation Ceremony, which will officially initiate the 2013-2014 school year. The mayor of Logansport will be invited at the ceremony will be an opportunity “to build on the Culver values,” says Kathy Lintner, the principal and dean of faculty.

“Lending a helping hand when neighboring people were in peril was the right thing to do,” Lintner said. “The ideals of leadership, social responsibility, character, endurance, and compassion that were the backbone of Culver’s mission became living realities.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Richard Davies retired in May 2008 after 42 years with the Academies. During his career he taught history and humanities, coached crew, was Troop A counselor, coordinated the Ninth-Grade Program, directed the World Spirituality Series, and held the W.A. Moncrief Jr. Chair of American Democratic Heritage. He and Principal Kathy Lintner developed the Myth & Lit course, which has garnered national attention. Using the campus as a backdrop, Davies has authored three novels integrating European and Native American lore.

READ MORE ABOUT IT:

While many familiar with the story of Culver's role in the Logansport flood of 1913 may assume the flood was limited to that city and general area, the "Great Flood" of 1913 was the nation's most widespread natural catastrophe and has been called "the standard by which all other floods are measured in Indiana," and was the greatest natural disaster in the history of the state of Ohio, where the city of Dayton was especially devastated.

The Easter weekend (March 23 through 27) event began with a dozen tornadoes (including one still ranked as Nebraska's deadliest tornado), causing record flooding across all or parts of 15 states, crippling nationwide industrial production, and killing at least 1,000 people. The flood occurred along the Ohio, Wabash, and several other rivers, severely affecting a number of Indiana cities including Indianapolis, Peru, Terre Haute, Muncie, Carmel, Danville, and Shelbyville. The widespread flooding caused an estimated $25 million of damage statewide in 1913 dollars.

Commemorations of the event are taking place across the Midwest, including a "You Are There" interactive exhibit in which visitors interact with "floodvictims" (actors in period costume) at the Indiana Historical Society Museum in Indianapolis.

An online source seeking to collect stories of the flood and compile coverage of present-day centennial events and publications is located at nationalcalamityeaster1913flood.blogspot.com.

A PBS-aired documetary ("Goodbye, The Levee Has Broken") on the flood's impact in Ohio may be viewed online at video.thinktv.org/video/1434869494.

Culver’s role in the flood is examined in depth in Robert Hartman’s 1994 book, “Logansport, March 1913: The Flood,” which compiles several first-hand accounts of the effort. It may be read online at http://digitalvault.culver.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/publication...

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