Not every project here at Brooklin Boat yard is “cutting edge” or “pushing the envelope “. We equally enjoy restoration and replication projects, especially when the boats that we are working on have some historical significance. Along these lines Brooklin Boat Yard has been contracted to construct a replica of a 28’ Naval Cutter which will be presented to Culver Military Academy not only as a memorial to the former cadets and faculty of the Culver Military Academy who played an heroic and lifesaving role in the Great Easter Flood of 1913 but also as a symbol to current and future cadets of the expectations and responsibilities of cadets and graduates of the Academy. Below is a description of the events that took place and the heroic efforts of the Culver Military Academies cadets and faculty.
It was one hundred and one years ago that the flood-swollen Eel and Wabash 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.
The story of the dramatic rescue began in March of 1913 when early spring rains hit the Ohio Valley, falling in such quantities that virtually every river in Indiana and Ohio reached flood stage. On the evening of March 26, Culver Superintendent Lieutenant Colonel Leigh Gignilliat received a frantic phone call from David Fickle the mayor of Logansport located about 40 miles to the south of Culver Military Academy . Mayor Fickler asked Gignilliat to send as many of the Naval Cutters (used by Culver in their summer naval program) as he could via railway to his beleaguered city. 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.
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 Naval Cutterscutters would need 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 to the Academy railroad spur. 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 The Naval 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, Elliot White Springs who had been told to stay behind in reserve had smuggled himself aboard the train, taking cover under the tarpaulin of one of the cutters. Discovering the stoway enroute to Logansport Gignilliat placed Springs in his own boat where despite his small size the youth performed well on the river.
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. It was twenty-four degrees and snowing. 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. 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’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 on 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.
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 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.”
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.
In 1914 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 Military Academy. 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.”
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.