TERRE HAUTE —
The image jars the viewer.
On its own, the old photograph appears ordinary. Three kids, posing outside a Terre Haute neighborhood. A lanky boy playfully cocks his derby hat sideways on his head. He stands beside two girls, bundled in winter coats — a curly haired blonde and a brunette wearing a stocking cap.
And they’re smiling.
The setting provides the irony and significance. The picture is part of a collection by the Indiana Historical Society of the Easter 1913 tornado and flood that ravaged the state and, especially, Terre Haute. The other photos from Terre Haute depict grim scenes, mostly adults. A man in a black overcoat surveys twisted trees and mud water around a white farm house. More than a dozen men stand in muck behind their leaking sandbag wall, staring at the overflowing Wabash River. A factory nearly swamped.
And three smiling kids.
The photograph, housed at the Indiana Historical Museum in Indianapolis, doesn’t include the names or ages of the children. Their bright expressions are more important. Those grins — captured by a photographer 100 years ago this week — send a message from those youngsters to those of us in the 21st century …
Curb your pessimism.
That demeanor pervades the culture today. When any hint of optimism arises, a prepared, equal force of pessimism responds in kind. Last week, a survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that despite gains in the stock market and an upsurge in real-estate values, nearly 32 percent of Americans — the most in eight years — say the economy will get worse in 2013.
Maybe they’re right. Real problems exist. Rising gas and food prices concern more than half of the people Pew surveyed, particularly those in households earning less than $30,000 a year. Stocks and real-estate prices are not their worries. More than 1 in 4 have struggled to get or pay for medical care. A similar number had trouble paying rent or mortgages. Fifteen percent lost a job. The impact brings heartaches and sleepless nights. And remedies will continue to appear remote until Congress and the White House start attacking the problems instead of each other.
Still, it is worth remembering the troubles previous generations endured. The phrase “this is the worst ever” should not be used loosely.
This week marks the centennial of the broadest natural disaster in Terre Haute and Indiana history. On the evening of March 23, 1913, Easter Sunday, a fierce tornado cut a four-block wide path through the city, wrecking factories and hundreds of homes, toppling trees onto dwellings, sparking fires, and claiming 17 lives. The destruction continued in the form of a flood. Monsoon style rains sent the Wabash to a record 31 feet by March 27, inundating the northern section of Terre Haute, West Terre Haute and Taylorville. Houses floated off their foundations. With snow still on rooftops, bone-chilling floodwaters poured into the streets. Phone and telegraph services failed. Gas and electricity plants shut down. Highways and railroads turned impassible. Four more people died.
As a local newspaper put it, “Terre Haute is rapidly becoming shut off from the world.”
In fact, the system of tornadoes and flooding that cut through the Midwest became known as the Great Dayton Flood, according to some historians, because news of what had happened in Terre Haute emerged so slowly.
Here, it is remembered as “the most dreadful week in Vigo County history,” community historian Mike McCormick wrote.
Imagine such a catastrophe occurring today. What sort of reaction would children — such as that trio in that peculiar picture from a century past — see from us adults? Would we present any examples of hope? In us, would they see any reason for optimism in their future?
By comparison, they seemed to have little to smile about in 1913, aside from the tornado and flood those three kids had just experienced. Their life expectancies were a mere 50.3 years for the boy and 55 years for the girls. (Today, most of us live into our mid 70s.) Within five years, those children faced a worldwide influenza and pneumonia pandemic that killed more than 50 million people across the globe. (Now, the annual toll in the U.S. from the flu — still a dangerous concern — is in the hundreds.) Many homes lacked indoor toilets, and people walked through the elements to an outhouse. (How could anybody trudging through the dark and snow at 2 a.m. be optimistic?)
A 21st-century pessimist might say, “Yeah, but think about the state of government and the job market.”
In 1913, Terre Haute experienced a municipal election so fraud-riddled and corrupt that Chicago party bosses would be envious. Within a few years, a mayor, two judges and the sheriff were in prison. Also in 1913, after workers at a Terre Haute transportation company began efforts to unionize in November, managers hired thugs to quell their plans.
Not exactly utopia.
In that setting, amid the rubble of a genuinely worst-ever disaster, three kids found a reason to smile for the camera. After all, like all children, they had dreams of a good life ahead of them. And, the adults around them probably weren’t trying to convince them otherwise.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.