october 1913 flood

An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Fifty-Four

Above, spectators stand on the Navarro Street Bridge with the floodwaters lapping just below. Photograph from UTSA Libraries Special Collections

an ostrich-plumed hat

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Fifty-Three

Emma Bentzen Koehler, October 1913

“Sophie,” asks Bettie Stevens, “however did you manage to return your house to normal in time for this beautiful wedding? We still don’t have the mud cleared out of the first floor.”

“Many hired hands. The Colonel posted a notice at the brewery offering double pay to any worker willing to shovel, scrub and paint by lamplight after their shifts ended. I cried myself to sleep every night thinking that, after all the planning, we would have to ask Otto and Emma to host the celebration at their house.”

“And, of course,” says Emma, “you know we would have been more than happy to have Jennie wed there. But I understand the sentimental reasons for holding the wedding in your own home.”

John shakes his head. “Eight inches of rain. It was the most frightening night of my life. One day people were whining about not enough water in the river. The next night our whole household is huddled in the attic, hoping not to get washed away.”

“When the police chief came to check on us,” says the Colonel, “he couldn’t drive an automobile down River Avenue. Tried clinging to the roof of a bus to reach us but was forced to swim atop his horse. Right over there on Avenue B, Alderman Rische almost drowned. Recklessly attempting to wade out, he and his two-year-old were swept into a culvert. Sputtering in the dark, they miraculously managed to scramble out and stumble to his wife’s mother’s house on 13th Street.”

“Firemen found the Lockes standing on the top of their piano with water lapping at their toes,” says John. “They used fire hoses to pump out our basement in the morning.”

Floodwaters in the 200 block of East Travis Street, photograph from UTSA Libraries Special Collections

Bettie shudders. “The blackness of the night was the most terrifying part. No electricity. No telephones working. Just the sound of roaring wind and water all around us with no means of determining if we’d be safe.”

Emma shakes her head. “I cannot imagine the horror of it. When the storm knocked out the power, the pounding rain in the pitch black was alarming even in our neighborhood as high as it is.”

Of course, her husband’s central concern is the economic impact of the tragedy. “The fire chief thinks losses could rise as high as $600,000. Cleaning mud out is inconvenient, but the real damage is the loss of bridges. They say not one bridge remains over Leon Creek. The Ninth Street Bridge was twisted from its moorings like a pretzel.”

“Water flowed so heavily over the top of the bridges at Convent, Nueva and Presa,” says John, “that it appeared the streets were dead ends at the river. The crack in the Travis Street Bridge is enormous. Probably beyond repair. And the railway damage has left us with ten tons of mail piled up on the platform. We’ve been unable to get postal deliveries out to Boerne and Kerrville.”

“It took a major flood to get us there,” Otto smiles ruefully, “but there finally is water behind the Medina Dam. In twenty-four hours, the water behind the dam rose twenty-three feet. The reservoir now has the capacity to irrigate 15,000 acres of farmland downstream.”

The Colonel shakes his head. “Nobody in this neighborhood is going to need irrigation for a while. Maybe now someone will pay attention to Albert Steves. He’s been preaching about the need for a dam on the Olmos since before he was Mayor.” 

“Oh, and the Alamo woes,” says John.

“The rain finally let Missus Sevier get her way,” nods the Colonel. “She was unable to prevail in court against the efforts of Adina De Zavala and the Governor to preserve the ancient convent walls, but Mother Nature intervened. Left exposed to the elements after the Grenet Building was torn down, the adobe walls were like a sponge. As soon as the sun popped back out, the cracks grew up to ten feet in length.”

Otto adds, “The state’s Superintendent of Masonry, James Nitschke, really was left with no choice but to tear down much of the west wall and virtually all of the second floor before they came crashing down of their own accord and crushed some unsuspecting tourists.”   

Looking westward from inside the Alamo Convent walls before the second story was brought tumbling down. The rooftop of the Crockett Block can be seen on the left; the Maverick Building on the right. Photograph from UTSA Libraries Special Collections.

“Clara kept ranting to the Governor,” complains the Colonel, “that those walls had enclosed a whisky house at one time so shouldn’t be allowed to stand. What, as punishment? She claimed the convent disrupted the view of the chapel. She doesn’t care for the actual history; she simply wants to plant a beautiful rose garden.”

“I heard,” sighs Emma, “that poor Adina, after all of her hard work, had no idea the demolition was taking place. It only took a half-dozen men an hour or two to reduce the walls to a pile of rubble.”

John asks, “Colonel, have you broken the news to the Governor yet?”

“The news probably has reached him on his travels by now, but I was unable to contact him by telephone.”

Bettie pipes up. “Water still sits in the basement of the telephone company. Most people can’t make a simple telephone call. I honestly can’t imagine how you pulled everything together, Sophie, without being able to ring up the florist.”

Otto smirks. “It is astonishing that we managed to hear any news of the flood without the gossipy telephone girls to spread the word. If the eavesdropping telephone girls ever were angered, they could turn half our friends into bitterest foes.”

“Even more frightening,” the Colonel chuckles, “are the number of divorces those girls could cause.”

Determined not to let the pair take off on one of their low-brow vaudevillian dialogues, Emma shoots them a warning glance. She directs the conversation back to complimenting Sophie. “That mountain of white roses in the drawing room is stunning. The contrast with the banks of palms in the hall and the red geraniums and ferns surrounding the wedding gifts is perfect.”

“The delicate orange blossoms crowning Jennie’s trailing lace veil are my favorite.” Hettie joins them. “And her brocaded charmeuse robe is gorgeous.”

Otto clears his throat. “Before Hettie gets swept away by all the romantic touches, consider the music. I found Lohengrin’s ‘Bridal Chorus’ a blissfully pagan song to include.”

Emma’s cane lands on the toe of his right shoe.

Otto attempts to redeem himself. “Colonel, I must confess that even I was near tears when your Ottie sang ‘Because.’ If Caruso had heard Ottie sing it first, he never would have dared to record it.”

“Speaking of ceremonies,” says the glowing Colonel, “I assume you and Emma are going to the funeral services for Adolphus in St. Louis?”

“After those men ransacked our basement while we were sailing home,” says Emma, “I dread leaving town. If Atlee B. Ayers had not been sleeping on his porch across the street, they would have had time to clean out the whole house. It happens every time we travel.”

“Perhaps the break-ins would cease,” says Otto, “if the society writers would not insist on printing our vacation schedules in the newspapers. But yes, we will have to attend the funeral. No telling when they’ll be able to return with his body from his castle on the Rhein.”

The Colonel chuckles. “Adolphus always said you can only drink thirty or forty glasses of beer a day, no matter how rich you are.”

“But all the money in the world,” adds Otto, “failed to help him find a doctor who could cure his case of the dropsies. Adolphus tried to keep his suffering secret, but that’s why his anniversary party in Anaheim was so small.”

“It’s fortunate that Adolphus has been grooming his son August to succeed him in business,” notes John. “Scrambling for control of the $50 or $75 million dollars left behind certainly could tear a family asunder.”

“I trust,” says the Colonel, “Adolphus left August well-trained in the art of substantial but subtle investment in Texas politics.”

Otto offers a reassuring grunt. “No need to fear that will stop flowing our way. With $10 million of Busch funds tied up in Texas breweries and the Adolphus Hotel, August is not about to let prohibition prevention here slip down on his list of priorities.”

Footnotes

As usual, the events are as described but real time failed to suit the Author’s plan. The wedding of Jennie Wahrmund and architect Charles Boelhauwe was reported in the papers on October 1. Much to the relief of the family, it occurred on the eve prior to the downpours that accumulated to cause the horrifying flood.

Adolphus Busch was felled by his long-term case of dropsy at his home near Langenschwalbach, Germany, on October 10. According to MedicineNet, dropsy is “an old term for the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water…. Today one would be more descriptive and specify the cause. Thus the person might have edema due to congestive heart failure. Edema is often more prominent in the lower legs and feet toward the end of the day as a result of pooling of fluid from the upright position usually maintained during the day.”

The Koehler home was broken into on August 21 while they were out of town.

Continue to Chapter Fifty-Five

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