The tale of two heroes – Dayton Marcos star pitcher W.G. Sloan and NCR worker David. T. Chambers – now plays out in far different fashion at opposite ends of Woodland Cemetery.
On Easter Sunday – exactly 100 years ago – it began raining harder and harder in Dayton and within two days the Great Miami River was rising two feet an hour and the levees near Monument Avenue and Taylor and Webster streets had either been topped or burst completely.
The water that surged into downtown Dayton in late March of 1913 surpassed the amount that flows over Niagara Falls in a month. It would result in the second deadliest flood in American history and Ohio’s worst national disaster ever.
In scenes resembling the Apocalypse, the flood was followed by explosions from ruptured gas lines and fires that consumed city blocks. More than 360 people were killed in the region and some 65,000 were displaced.
Thousands of residents ended up in attics and on rooftops. In the height of the flood others climbed telephone poles and trees or clung in panic to barrels and furniture and logs that were swept along in a current that reached 25 m.p.h.
Many more people would have perished here were it not for everyday folks who transformed into heroic rescuers. Chambers and Sloan were two such men and both are buried in the historic 200-acre cemetery just south of downtown Dayton.
Memorial explains legacy
Just inside the front gate at Woodland – right behind the old chapel – is Section 111. Chambers is buried there beneath a large pine tree, not far from former NBA player Al Tucker Jr. and his dad Al Sr., who played with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Behind Chambers’ tombstone is a large, flat, polished memorial that tells his story with old photos and written text.
Chambers was 24 years old at the time of the Great Dayton Flood. A machinist at NCR, he and his wife Stella had three daughters, none older than 7. With so many people in peril, he left his family and headed out in the debris-choked waters in his long rowboat.
As the memorial explains: “During the course of helping survivors near the North Main Street Bridge, he was thrown from his boat when it was hit by a passing log and was carried away to his death in the swift current…
“David and his boat rescued some 150 Daytonians from rooftops, trees and levees and he carried supplies to the Riverside area where people were safe but had no provisions. Due to his death, David and Stella’s daughters had to be placed in an orphanage for many months until (Stella) was able to provide for them.”
The memorial was built and dedicated in 2008 by his two granddaughters, Melanie Owen Staley and Sandra Owen Gunlock, whose husband Bill was a standout Miami University football player and later coached at Ohio State, among other colleges.
As you stand at the memorial, you are told to “look to your left, just past the fence to Chambers Street where it dead ends off Brown Street. It, too, is a permanent reminder of his legacy.”
Obscure grave site holds hero
Sloan – who died in 1931 - is buried in Section 123 in the very back of the massive cemetery.
After a 45-minute search back there, I couldn’t find his grave. That’s when I enlisted the help Woodland’s Debbie Mescher, who unfolded old maps, pulled out an aging, handwritten ledger and after some study surmised Sloan, like several other people in that area, was in an unmarked grave.
She came up with a plot number though and using nearby tombstones as reference points, she found the grassy spot beneath which Sloan likely was buried.
Although now forgotten, he was a sporting figure of note in Dayton back in 1913.
He was a southpaw pitcher for the Marcos, who barnstormed across the Midwest and were the only black team to play in the Ohio-Indiana League. Seven years later – in 1920 – they would become one of eight teams to form the Negro National League.
Although they would draw 2,000 a game to Westwood Field – and later drew 11,000 to Assumption Park when they played the Kansas City Monarchs – the Marcos were mostly heroes among black folks in West Dayton.
Those were still racially-divided times in this city and black athletes and teams got little or no press in the white-owned papers, including the Dayton Daily News.
I did find one mention of Sloan in a Piqua Daily Call story on Sept. 3, 1912. The Marcos – who the paper described as “the dusky bunch of speed boys from Dayton” – lost a 9-4 game to a Piqua team at Stein Park. The subhead read: “Veteran Sloan driven from the mound by battering Piquads.”
Dayton historian and author Margaret Peters, who taught in the Dayton Public Schools for 30 years and taught black history at Central State University West and Sinclair Community College, found some references to Sloan in the Dayton Forum, the black paper in the city then.
Although he was a starting pitcher, he became best known, though, for his saves.
When the flood ravaged the city, he’s said to have saved more than 360 people using a boat he took at gunpoint from a reluctant white owner who was refusing to help people.
Twenty five years ago writer Marc Bernstein wrote a story for Ohio Magazine entitled “In Search of the Well-Known Colored Ball Player.”
He began his story with this newspaper passage:
“W. G. Sloan, the well-known colored ball player, was in the rescue work continuously from Tuesday morning until Friday on the West Side. He took the Caleb family of five persons from a raft on which they had been floating, tossed in the heaving and rushing waters for 48 hours. With Frank Thoro and George Crandall helping, Sloan saved 317 people during 68 hours of continuous work. He carried five cans of fresh water. Most of the rescue work was done with a steel bottom boat which he commandeered at the point of a revolver from a selfish owner at the handle factory, who was not using it himself and refused to allow it to be used by the rescuers.”
Wright State has collection of flood photos from back then, including one of Sloan – the bill of his fedora turned down, both hands on oars – guiding the boat through flooded waters during one of his rescue missions.
Peters once talked to Sloan’s sister-in-law (who has since died) and back in 1988 Bernstein tracked down Sloan’s 76-year-old son, James, who was living in Lima.
James had scant memories of the flood – he would have been less than 2 – but did recall a dead horse (1,400 perished) hanging down from the Fifth Street Bridge. He also told Bernstein he remembered – or maybe had been told – how he had been kept in the top of a toy factory and then handed out the window to a man in a boat who turned out to be his father.
He told Bernstein a year after the flood his father was hurt in a construction accident and that “caused his mind to go bad.”
Sloan’s story was included in the 1997 play “1913 – The Great Dayton Flood” - which was brought to the stage again in late January and early February this year at Wright State. This time WSU sophomore Lawrence Dunford played the part of Sloan.
The curtains have now closed on that play and soon the centennial flood exhibits and tributes will end and W.G. Sloan will slip back to obscurity in that unmarked grave in the very back of Woodland Cemetery.