Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Prisoners' Feast

996 young inmates from the Indiana Reformatory become heroes when they save the Ohio River town of Jeffersonville from inundation during the 1913 flood—and the townspeople warmly show their gratitude in a way unique in the annals of prison history.

“Landslide!” With a massive rumbling, a 250-foot-long section of a Pennsylvania Railroad embankment suddenly slumps, carrying along two telephone poles and pulling down their wires. Several telephone repairmen clinging to the pole abandon their repair equipment and sprint for safety. But, in the driving rain atop the railroad tracks, 53-year-old David C. Peyton—balancing upright against the moving earth’s strong vibration—stands his ground,
“Half a dozen volunteers!” Peyton shouts. “Save that telephone cable! Don’t worry! I’ll personally stand guard and sound warning if there’s another break!” Instantly, heedless of the danger, nearly 30 young men—all of them clad in prison garb—jump down to the muddy base of the embankment and begin retrieving the communications lifeline that connects the town of Jeffersonville, Indiana, to the outside world.

The citizens of Jeffersonville, Indiana, fete the entire prison population of the Indiana Reformatory with a grand banquet after the 996 young men battle night and day for more than a week to keep two levees strong against the Ohio River's powerful floodwaters, saving the town; story is reported at length in the Jeffersonville Evening News
“Strike up the band!” Peyton commands unexpectedly. Having earlier sensed the convicts’ morale flagging, after four straight days in freezing rain, repairing levees against record-high Ohio River floodwaters, he sends a message back to the Indiana Reformatory calling out its 40-piece band—which, thankfully, has just arrived. Heedless of the rain pouring off the brass instruments, the prison musicians launch into a foot-tapping lively air. Looking down toward the strong young laborers extracting the telephone cable from the mud, Peyton sees shoulders straighten courageously under sodden prison shirts. Meantime, 150 other inmates keep unfurling tarpaulins over the remaining embankment, filling sandbags, and throwing them onto the tarps to shield the landfill from the erosive power of the churning floodwaters.
In turning these young felons loose to work—practically as free citizens—Peyton, General Superintendent of the Indiana Reformatory in the Ohio River town of Jeffersonville—knows he is risking his career. Days earlier, on Saturday, March 29, 1913, after nearly a week of intense rainfall, Jeffersonville’s Mayor Dr. E. N. Flynn pleaded with Peyton for the manual labor of the reformatory inmates to help the town’s able-bodied men build up the height of the government levee east of town against the rapidly rising Ohio River.

In 1913, the idea of outdoor work for prison inmates was still fairly new. So was the concept that young (ages 16 to 30) first-time offenders had simply made an unfortunate mistake and could be genuinely reformed into good citizens and turned away from a life of crime—if they were housed in a reformatory away from the influence of hardened prisoners (who were jailed in separate penitentiaries), and given opportunities to learn trades and receive education and moral training.
As a medical doctor and former brigade surgeon, with the rank of Major, in the Spanish-American War, Peyton believed his role as head of the Indiana Reformatory—the nation’s second largest reformatory with an incarcerated population of nearly 1,000—was effectively that of hospital administrator, research psychologist, and father. “We now know that punishment has no place in the reformative treatment of defective men,” he stated in the Indiana Reformatory’s annual report of 1913. “In its place we have substituted the broader and wholly humane scientific treatment.”

Thus, since becoming superintendent in 1909, Peyton abolished the use of dark dungeons for solitary confinement, converted cell blocks into roomy and airy dormitories, offered classes in reading and arithmetic, and established military discipline and calisthenics for exercise and erect posture. He also allowed the inmates time outdoors to raise fresh vegetable crops for the kitchen; encouraged recreations such as team sports, plays, and music; trusted the inmates on the honor system; and interacted with the young men (average age 21) with respect, affection, and pride. He also hired colleagues who shared his convictions, “with the result,” Peyton noted, “that there is a complete change for the better in the spirit of the inmates, both towards this institution and towards society.”
Those years of positive prison culture ground what unfolds in Jeffersonville during the 1913 flood, when on Saturday, March 29, Mayor Flynn pleads for prisoner labor.

By then, so many telephone and telegraph wires were downed by the Good Friday windstorm and the Great Easter flooding across the Midwest, that Peyton cannot reach Indiana Governor Samuel M. Ralston to secure official permission. Undeterred, Peyton takes immediate action, and marches 68 reformatory inmates to the government levee. After a short pep talk in which he appeals to their sense of right, duty, and better manhood, Peyton sets them to work, free of any chains or restraints. With strength and determination, relays of strong young inmates load hundreds of wagons with clay and other material to reinforce the levee.
The next evening (Sunday), word comes that west of Jeffersonville the railroad “fill”—a raised train embankment (30 feet wide at the top, 60 feet wide at the base, and topped with two tracks), which also served as a de facto second levee protecting the town—was weakening. Peyton and the reformatory’s chief engineer J.A. Carter hasten to inspect the fill, discovering hundreds of small leaks. When Carter declares the fill would not hold another 24 hours, Peyton secures 100 tarpaulins, plus cement, sand, and 170,000 sacks for sandbags from the U.S. Army quartermaster’s Depot, which fortunately is also in Jeffersonville. Afterwards, he marches the reformatory inmates from the government levee to the railroad fill.

Peyton absolutely trusts his strong young prisoners to rise to the emergency. “With my 150 inmates scattered over a wide range of territory at nine o’clock Monday night, the city lights went out,” Peyton later recalled, “but every man continued to work as best he could until our own [temporary line of electric] lights could be put into operation. This took half an hour, at the end of which I did not deem it necessary to line up our men and make a count because I felt sure of the situation.”
From March 29 through April 5, the inmates tirelessly work 24/7. “My associates and I went from place to place, encouraging the men and expressing our confidence in their faithfulness,” Peyton continued. “I have never seen better evidence of the qualities which make for good citizenship than that displayed by these men during the trying days and nights of dangerous work. Not one man made an escape, nor was there a single attempt to do so.”

Thanks to the prisoners’ steadfast labor, under perilous conditions, both the government levee and the railroad fill hold against the pounding of the Ohio River’s angry floodwaters. Jeffersonville remains dry.
By Saturday, April 5, when the floodwaters were clearly receding, the Jeffersonville newspaper The Evening News reports that the question “on nearly every lip” is “What can we do to show our appreciation of the work of the inmates of the Indiana Reformatory?”—especially because “these inmates were working cheerfully and gratuitously for a city that was nothing to them, for it made not the slightest difference to them whether or not Jeffersonville was drowned and all her inhabitants with her.” The newspaper figures that the inmates’ labor, calculated at $2 per man-day, was worth at least $2,500, not to mention additional thousands of dollars in property saved. “It should be added the [land]slides always involved a possibility of death but these Reformatory ‘boys’ never flinched.”

During several town meetings, Jeffersonville’s citizens quickly conclude they should throw a huge banquet for the reformatory heroes. Estimating that such a huge feast would cost at least $500 to $600 (equivalent to between about $12,000 and $26,000 today), individuals and local  businesses donate so enthusiastically that fully $805.76—over 25% more—is raised in less than a week. The banquet date is set for Sunday, April 13, 1913. That weekend, the streets of Jeffersonville are fragrant with chocolate and vanilla as the town’s women bake 334 cakes.
After a morning program in the reformatory chapel, at noon the “Reformatory ‘boys’” sit down to a feast of baked chicken, sage dressing, giblet gravy, candied sweet potatoes, ice cream, cheese and crackers, and coffee. Afterwards, each man is allowed to take back to his dormitory room a third of a large cake, two apples, two oranges, and nearly a pound of candy.

For their own part, the inmates take up a collection among themselves, raising $100 (equivalent to about $2,500 to $4,500 today) with which they propose to present a gift to Peyton. Yes, that’s right—the felons want to give a present to their warden. He demurs, pointing out that a gift might be misunderstood by the outside world. But the men are not to be denied in showing their gratitude for his trust.
So, at the banquet, they present Peyton with a scroll, 21 feet long, signed by all 996 prisoners. It is a proclamation, recognizing Peyton as “a true friend who has shown himself to have our best interests at heart,” and declaring their unanimous intention to “maintain a clear record” for the rest of their time at the Reformatory, and to “support the administration in its splendid efforts for the best interests of this institution.”

©2012–2013 Trudy E. Bell. For permission to reprint or use, contact Trudy E. Bell at

Next time: Happy 2013! A Calendar of 1913 Flood Centennial Events - I

Selected References
Insightful background on the philosophy of David C. Peyton and his colleagues toward the inmates at the Indiana Reformatory is given in the letters of transmittal in the annual reports of the Indiana Reformatory to the Indiana Governor for 1912, 1913, 1914, and 1915. Amazingly, there is no mention of the 1913 flood incident in the annual reports, which are principally statistical documents except for the revealing cover letters. A biographical sketch of Peyton appears in Lewis C. Baird, History of Clark County, Indiana (Indianapolis, B.F. Bowen, 1909).

For statistics about the Indiana Reformatory at Jeffersonville compared to other reformatories in the nation (it was second in size only to Elmira in New York), see Frank Fielding Nalder, The American State Reformatory, With Special Reference to Its Educational Aspects (University of California Publications, vol. 5 (3): 289-467, March 10, 1920) In philosophy, Nalder summarizes, reformatives sought to “give each offender treatment according to his needs rather than punishment according to his crime” (p. 297). Referring to the 1913 flood incident, Nalder points out (p. 440) that it would have been to the inmates’ selfish interest to let Jeffersonville be inundated, as the act of moving the prison population to a safe place “could not have failed to furnish many excellent opportunities for escape.” The astonishing turn of events, where the town feted its prisoners, “was a valuable moral lesson both to the givers and to the recipients.”

Much detail about the 1913 flooding around Jeffersonville, Indiana, and the prisoners’ work on the government levee and the railroad fill is found on the front pages of the Jeffersonville newspaper The Evening News between March 21 and April 21, 1913. Because Peyton had not previously secured permission from Indiana Governor Samuel M. Ralston, there was a bit of a kerfuffle in print on April 9 as to whether or not the governor approved of the use of the prisoners. Ralston “replied to the effect that he did not know of the employment of the men until he saw about it in the papers but when the matter thus came to his knowledge he did not disapprove of it. The Governor gave the impression of being glad that such a course was pursued in a time of crisis without allowing red tape to delay for one minute the utilization of this means of protecting the city.”
Peyton’s recollections of the incident are quoted in “Reformatory Inmates Saved Town from Flood,” The Survey, vol. 30 (10): 317-319, June 7, 1913. The Survey, a weekly periodical of social work, also contains useful background articles about progressive-era prison reform in the early 20th century.

Sarles, Jane, Clarksville, Indiana (Arcadia Publishing, 2001) includes photographs of the Indiana Reformatory, David C. Peyton, and the inmates at work on the railroad embankment.
The figures of 100 tarps and 170,000 sandbags appears in Henry, Alfred J., The Floods of 1913 in the Rivers of the Ohio and Lower Mississippi Valleys. Bulletin Z. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Weather Bureau. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1913.

Pisciotta, Alexander W., Benevolent Repression: Social Control and the American Reformatory-Prison Movement (New York University Press, 1994) provides interesting background including to Peyton and the Indiana Reformatory.

Translating 1913 money values into today’s equivalents a century later is a challenge, but useful ranges are provided in online calculators. See Officer, Lawrence H. and Samuel H. Williamson, “Measures of Worth” and “Seven Ways to Compute theRelative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1790–2006” . See also How Much Is That?” and “Current Value of Old Money”.
Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me at )

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Be Very Afraid...

NOAA meteorologist Sarah Jamison plugged March 1913 measurements into today’s computational climate models to reconstruct just what kind of mammoth weather system caused the Great Easter 1913 Flood. The chilling discovery? Such a weather pattern could recur...
“No wonder the Easter 1913 tornadoes and record-breaking floods came as a surprise,” observes Sarah Jamison, Service Hydrologist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), working from the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Cleveland, Ohio. “It’s almost impossible to forecast weather just from surface measurements of winds, air pressure, and precipitation. You really need to know what’s going on upstairs”—slang for knowledge of the three-dimensional state of the atmosphere from 5,000 to 30,000 feet—“including knowledge of how jet streams steer giant cyclonic systems across the continent.”

Sarah Jamison, NOAA Service Hydrologist, explaining her reconstruction of the Great Easter 1913 storm system using NOAA's Twentieth Century Reanalysis Project (20CR).
[Image credit: Trudy E. Bell] 

Fascinated by floods since her childhood spent on a large river in Maine, Jamison’s day job is keeping track of precipitation and monitoring heights of rivers with stream gauges to produce timely predictions of potential flood conditions around Northern Ohio. Immediately after joining the Cleveland NWS office in April 2010,  she set about making herself smarter about local and regional hydrology, geography, and record floods—and stumbled upon still-existing evidence of the unprecedented magnitude of the 1913 flood around Ohio and Indiana. “What blew me away was how many stream gauges still show a March 1913 measurement as the flood height of record today,” Jamison recounts. “When I plotted those locations on a map [see map just below], I was amazed by the vast area they cover. Just what kind of weather event could produce widespread flood records that have stood for a full century?”

In 1913, the National Weather Service was, by today’s standards, primarily reactive: recording data of what happened at scores of weather stations on the ground. There were no systematic releases of weather balloons twice daily worldwide, as there are today, for radioing back continuous measurements of wind velocities, temperatures, pressures, and other information to construct a miles-high vertical profile of the atmosphere every 12 hours. The jet streams—meandering tubes of strong, fast winds miles high in the stratosphere—had not yet been discovered. No weather satellites were staring down at Earth 24/7 and transmitting photographs of planet-wide weather systems. There was no Doppler radar for detecting precipitation or distinguishing between rain, snow, or hail. There was only limited theoretical grasp of what surface warm fronts and cold fronts portended for storms, and no computers to synthesize and translate observations into real-time forecasts.
Thus, meteorologists in 1913 were astounded by just how much water fell out of the sky in the five days beginning on Easter Sunday, March 23. “There was nothing in the meteorological conditions charted on the daily weather maps previous to the downpour of rain that caused the disastrous floods that gave any indication of the tremendous quantity of rain which fell on subsequent dates,” wrote Alfred J. Henry (professor in charge of the National Weather Service’s Rivers and Flood Division) in Monthly Weather Review for March 1913.

But by keeping meticulous and methodical hourly surface measurements, Henry and his colleagues bequeathed to the future a means of reconstructing history.
“To analyze the great 1913 storm system, I used a tool recently developed by NOAA researchers,” Jamison explains. “It uses historic pressure and surface weather data going back to 1871 to model or simulate the weather patterns that produced them.” This computational tool is the ambitious Twentieth-Century Reanalysis Project—or 20CR for short. Developed in the last half-decade by NOAA and various U.S. and international partner agencies to elucidate long-term relationships between weather and climate, its heart is U.S. Department of Energy supercomputers. Among other functions, 20CR enables today’s meteorologists to use historic surface measurements of atmospheric pressure to reconstruct probable conditions in the atmosphere aloft, thereby gaining insight as to the possible physical causes of historic extreme weather events.
Running the numbers through the 20CR computational simulation, Jamison has retraced what happened March 23-27, 1913. The weather story that emerges is detailed step-by-step below in pictures [see sidebar below “The Meteorology of ‘Our National Calamity’”].
In a nutshell, here’s a quick summary. The mammoth 1913 weather system started out innocently enough, following an ordinary winter-storm pattern over the Midwest. Low pressure areas developed over the Rocky Mountains and Texas, drawing in humid air from the Gulf of Mexico; the lows were steered northeast over the Ohio Valley by the jet streams high in the stratosphere. What was extraordinary about the 1913 winter storm system, however, was its sheer persistence and scale. A series of four low-pressure regions that developed one right after the other over the Rockies and Texas, which drew unusually large volumes of tropical moisture north and east over the Great Plains and Midwest. Such unstable air is ripe for forming families of deadly tornadoes. Moreover, the humid air reached saturation: the point at which absolutely no more moisture can be absorbed. Thus, as the sultry tropical air was pulled north over the cooler Midwest, the air cooled and released vast volumes of water in a great deluge. Meantime, a persistent high-pressure system stalled over Bermuda off the Atlantic coast acted as both a barrier and a focusing mechanism to keep the trough of deep low pressure in one place diagonally across the Ohio Valley and state of Ohio. This setup effectively acted like a powerful meteorological water pump for five days, Jamison says: “The conveyor belt of lows coming out of the Rockies just kept the weather pumping.”
Here’s the scary part: “This 1913 pattern definitely could happen again,” declares Jamison. “In fact, whenever we see a slow-moving winter storm pattern of deep lows and blocking highs, that’s an absolute signal there will be significant flooding somewhere around the Midwest, depending on the details of placement.”
What might be different now, a century later, if a winter storm system of the magnitude of the Great 1913 Easter Storm recurred? “First, there would likely be much lower loss of life,” Jamison points out. The death toll from the Good Friday windstorm [see “The First Punch”], the Easter tornadoes [see “’My Conception of Hell’”], and the Great Easter Flood was at least 1,000 (a future installment to this research weblog will tally the natural disaster’s death and destruction across some 15 states.) Because of today’s knowledge and monitoring of the meteorology of the upper atmosphere, she explains, “today we would have several days of advance warning.
“Also, the nation no longer relies just on wireline communications,” Jamison continues. “Even if thousands of poles and wires were blown down by an intense windstorm two days earlier, as happened in 1913, we now have TV, emergency radio, cell phones, satellite broadcasts, and other alternative ways of warning people to prepare or evacuate. On the other hand,” she cautions, “we would likely have far greater property lost to flooding now than in 1913. Runoff would be far higher and faster because the land today is so much more built up with impermeable surfaces such as paved roads, parking lots, and other infrastructure.”
As a result, Jamison is working with dozens of State and Federal agencies that have formed a consortium called the Silver Jackets ( ). The Silver Jackets are using the year-long 2013 centennial of the 1913 Great Easter Flood as an occasion to raise public awareness about flood risk, preparation, and safety.
Great floods happen. The nearly forgotten 1913 Great Easter Flood was one of them. Despite such technical terms of art as “the thousand-year flood” as a means of expressing a mathematical probability of 0.1 percent in any given year, to the general public such phraseology can be misleading. “Expressions of mathematical probability say nothing about when,” Jamison points out. “The chilling truth is: another thousand-year flood like 1913 could happen any time—even this year.”
©2012–2013 Trudy E. Bell. For permission to reprint or use, contact Trudy E. Bell at

The Great Easter 1913 Flood extended far beyond Ohio... Next time: The Prisoners’ Feast

Sidebar: The Meteorology of ‘Our National Calamity’
The Great Easter 1913 Storm System Reconstructed: The Weather Story in Sarah Jamison’s Step-by-Step Pictures for March 23-27
Figure 1 - Good Friday, March 21, 1913: Two days before the downpour began, a severe windstorm swept the eastern half of the nation from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. In this chart, Sarah Jamison of the Cleveland office of the National Weather Service plotted wind speeds for half a dozen Midwestern cities.

Figure 2a - Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913: A low pressure region deepened over Colorado while a high-pressure system over New England departed to the northeast. Between those two features, winds would have increased out of the south, pulling warm humid air from the Gulf of Mexico northward into the Great Plains. (Credit: Sarah Jamison, using the Twentieth Century Reanalysis Project [20CR])

Figure 2b - Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913: The Twentieth Century Reanalysis Project (20CR) calculations show that low-level winds (pressure 850 millibars, corresponding to an altitude of about 5,000 feet) would have produced very strong flow out of the Gulf of Mexico. Such strong winds would have increased wind shear (sudden changes in wind speed and direction) and supported severe and tornadic storms, and brought a high volume of tropical moisture over the Ohio Valley. (Credit: Sarah Jamison, using 20CR)

Figure 3a - Monday, March 24, 1913: As the first low weakened and moved northeast, a second low-pressure region developed and strengthened over the Rocky Mountains. Meantime, a third low formed over Texas. “All,” emphasizes Jamison, “had the Ohio Valley in their tracks.” (Credit: Sarah Jamison, using 20CR)
Figure 3b - Monday, March 24, 1913: Because of the pattern of repeating low-pressure systems drawn up and across the Midwest, low-level winds (altitude about 5,000 feet) would have increased, continuing to feed moisture northward out of the Gulf of Mexico. (Credit: Sarah Jamison, using 20CR)
Figure 3c – Monday, March 24, 1913: Just how much moisture was there? This plot by Jamison shows the precipitable water, or water content calculated to have been in the atmosphere above the Midwestern and Eastern United States at the time of the downpours—between 1.2 and 1.4 inches over Ohio. (Credit: Sarah Jamison, using 20CR)
Figure 3d – Monday, March 24, 1913: Cooler air can hold less water than warmer air. This plot by Jamison shows the climatology of precipitable water over Dayton. “A value of 1.2 to 1.4 inches in late March exceeds the 99th percentile,” Jamison points out. “Essentially, the air mass was saturated as much water as it could hold for that temperature and time of year” leading to the great deluge. (Credit: Sarah Jamison)
Figure 4 – Tuesday, March 25, 1913: First day of horrific flooding around Ohio and other states. “At the surface, two areas of high pressure were locking a front over the Ohio Valley,” Jamison explains. “This area of convergence became the focus for heavy record rains.” (Credit: Sarah Jamison, using 20CR)
Figure 5 – Wednesday, March 26, 1913: The trough was extending over the Northeastern states, and creating record flooding over rivers in New York, including record high water in the Hudson River, which crested Friday, March 28 (to be the subject of a future installment). (Credit: Sarah Jamison, using 20CR)
Figure 6 – Thursday, March 27, 1913: “The surface low was over new England as cold high pressure built in from the west,” notes Jamison. “Cold air and snow accompanied the front, bringing more misery to survivors with no power or heat.” (Credit: Sarah Jamison, using 20CR)

Selected References
First and foremost, thanks go to Sarah Jamison for her time and generosity in supplying information and graphics on her work in reconstructing the Great Easter 1913 Storm System.
Monthly Weather Review, vol. 41, No. 3, March 1913. Alfred J. Henry’s article “Rivers and Floods, March 1913” starts on page 485. Throughout all the reports, especially striking is how accurately the 1913 meteorologists reconstructed what happened, even absent data or knowledge about the upper atmosphere, satellites, and computers.
“ReanalysisProject Targets Once and Future Weather,” Sept 29, 2009, is a lay introduction to the Twentieth Century Reanalysis Project (20CR) at the DOE Office of Science.

More in-depth articles by the 20CR principal investigators include Compo, Gilbert P. Jeffrey S. Whitaker, and Prashant D. Sardeshmukh, “Feasibility of a 100-Year Reanalysis Using OnlySurface Pressure Data,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 87 (2): 175–190 (February 2006) and Compo, G. P., et al., TheTwentieth Century Reanalysis Project,” Review Article, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society 137: 1–28 (January 2011, Part A). Sites directly to the Twentieth Century Reanalysis Project (20CR) tool include and .

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me at )

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Governor’s Ear

His life in treacherous danger, a telephone engineer patched together an emergency circuit from Dayton to Columbus. In the Ohio Statehouse, newly inaugurated Governor James M. Cox—and publisher of the Dayton Daily News—used the blockbuster story of Dayton’s flooding to save Ohio.

Seeing black floodwaters cascading down the steps into the basement where vast ranks of batteries power Dayton’s telephone system, John A. Bell at the Main Exchange of the Central Union Telephone Company knows he has only moments to act. Praying that the torrent will not pull him off balance, Bell slogs down the stairs, now invisible in the darkness under the veritable waterfall. By a lantern’s flickering flame, more by feel than by sight In the dimness, Bell disconnects several of the large batteries. Feeling the icy water at his calves and rising fast, he loads the heavy batteries into his arms, and begins climbing upstairs against the strong current.
Rising water at the Dayton Main Exchange. Floodwaters had reached halfway up the first story of the Dayton Main Exchange of the Central Union Telephone Company (gray building in the center) when someone with a small Kodak camera photographed it from the YMCA building across the street. It was from the Main Exchange that District Plant Chief John A. Bell—via a single emergency line patched out to Phoneton—kept Ohio Governor James M. Cox in Columbus apprised of flood and fire in Dayton. (Credit: Flood Edition, Bell Telephone News, p. 7)
Then, hands shaking with adrenalin, Bell grabs a telephone circuit test set and climbs alone to the slippery roof of the Main Exchange. Pelted by freezing rain, fingers growing numb and clumsy with cold, he manages after several hours to establish an emergency communications circuit to Phoneton—a small Ohio village eight miles north of Dayton with a huge role in the nation’s growing Bell Telephone system. Before 1899, the hamlet had been scarcely more than a crossroads, without so much as a post office or even its own name. But through pure luck of geography, the location was right where the rapidly expanding American Telephone & Telegraph Company’s long-distance telephone network needed a repeater station to boost the strength of signals carried on wires stretching from Pittsburgh to Chicago.  So in the midst of vast farmland, AT&T built a three-story communications nerve center that rapidly became one of the largest communications hubs in its long-distance network. Bustling with more than 40 employees, in rooms filled with the humming of the mammoth vacuum-tube amplifier for the repeater, the ceaseless clicking of telegraph keys fed news and updates to the AP, UPI, and other newswires. Homes and businesses sprang up into a town quickly dubbed “Phonetown” for its major industry, then just as quickly shortened to Phoneton—a name that became synonymous with the AT&T facilities there.

Most importantly for the night of Tuesday March 25–Wednesday March 26, 1913, Phoneton had telephone circuits and lines dedicated to emergency communications.
Relieved at last to hear, through crackling static, a welcome female voice on the patched emergency circuit, Bell asks that a call be put through to newly inaugurated Ohio Governor James M. Cox at the Statehouse in Columbus. Soon Bell—District Plant Chief for Central Union, but still basically a telephone operator—is talking directly to the governor himself. Not only that, but Cox asks Bell to keep the line open and to describe in accurate detail everything he sees through Central Union’s rain-streaked windows of the deep and terrible flood now surging through downtown Dayton.

Why should a state governor care what a telephone operator can see? Cox was also publisher of the Dayton Daily News, which he had purchased at age 28 and systematically built into a powerful regional newspaper for southwest Ohio. Early on Tuesday, March 25—the morning Dayton’s levees burst and walls of water up to 10 feet high surged through downtown—Cox had received a frantic phone call from his managing editor, reporting that the muddy floodwaters had invaded the first floor of the Daily News building and were submerging the newspaper’s brand new three-deck press. In the midst of the editor’s call, the line went dead.
Absolute silence follows. No word out of Dayton—not about the newspaper, the city, the deaths, the scale of the flood—nothing.

Then—comes Bell’s unexpected emergency telephone connection through Phoneton. That thin copper wire is the first direct link from Dayton to the outside world, and the only telephone line working between Dayton and the state capitol. As both veteran journalist and first-term governor, Cox asks detailed questions and Bell methodically answers them, while walking from window to window and even climbing to the Central Union rooftop to scan the city skyline with binoculars. By day, Bell reports seeing periodic explosions and fires igniting from burst natural gas lines, and counts the number of people he sees running across rooftops to escape the flames. By night, he describes how the flames luridly light up the clouds and reflect off the waters churning through the streets below. Bell keeps up a running account of all he observes, until he himself if forced to sign off and escape when the Main Exchange itself seems threatened by fires coming ever nearer. “No ancient bridge famed in song and legend was more tenaciously held than was that telephone line from Dayton to Phoneton by plucky John Bell,” declared the Flood Edition of the Bell Telephone News.
Bell is not the only telephone man having the governor’s ear. Another is Central Union Division Toll Wire Chief Thomas E. Green, who is troubleshooting at a long-distance test board in Columbus when a call breaks in: “We must have help or we’ll be wiped out!” Dangerously high water is inundating the town of La Rue and coursing down the Scioto River toward Columbus. Green puts a call through to the Statehouse, and from then on—despite the fact that Green’s wife was under the knife for an emergency operation—keeps lines open for the governor to direct the National Guard, command the movements of relief trains, and call for Federal life-saving crews to make their way into flood zones.

From the windows of the Statehouse in Columbus, Cox sees with his own eyes how badly Columbus also is inundated. The Statehouse itself is plunged into darkness when raging floodwaters submerge the power plant. For 38 hours straight, in the midst of chaos, Cox is an island of calm. Working by the flickering light of candles and military torches, he calls for the Ohio State Legislature to appropriate $250,000 in emergency aid (equivalent to about $11 million today), he declares a 10-day bank holiday to shore up financial markets, and he appeals to newly inaugurated U.S. President Woodrow Wilson for Federal help.
Cox appeals to President Wilson because Cox is one of the first to grasp the truly epic scale of the natural disaster that is sweeping over the entire state of Ohio. As an editor and publisher, he welcomes newspaper and wire-service reporters into the Statehouse. Not only does Cox give detailed daily press briefings—many citing the heroic actions of Bell and Green—but he asks the entire nation to open hearts and wallets for donations of money, clothes, and goods. Newspaper accounts with Cox’s appeals flash around the world, exciting national attention and a veritable flood of sympathy about the plight of Dayton and Ohio.

After the floodwaters recede, Cox moves swiftly to immortalize the heroism of John Bell and Tom Green, by awarding each young man a gold medal.
©2012–2013 Trudy E. Bell. For permission to reprint or use, contact Trudy E. Bell.

Next time: Be Very Afraid...

Captions to second, third, and fourth images:
Telephone circuits the long way around flood zones. Map shows how Wire Chief Thomas Green and other AT&T toll line experts had to route lines on five connections for Governor Cox. Although Zanesville is only 54 miles from Columbus, circumventing the downed lines and poles in Ohio’s vast flood zones required patching together lines totaling 601 miles. The route between Columbus and Dayton via Phoneton needed to be “only” 143 miles to cross a distance of 68 miles. (Credit: Flood Edition, Bell Telephone News, p. 24)

Ohio’s chief executive an island of calm. Praise for fast action by Governor Cox in responding to the statewide devastation of the 1913 flood made newspaper headlines. Articles such as this one (far right two columns) in the Cleveland Leader (Saturday, March 29) praising his executive ability doubtless helped Cox seven years later in 1920 when he ran against Warren G. Harding for U.S. President. Although Cox himself did not win, his Vice Presidential running mate—none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt—eventually did. Cox returned to his journalistic roots and formed Cox Enterprises, Inc., the media company still thriving today that includes Cox Communications for internet and cable TV.
Bird’s-eye view of Ohio’s greatest natural disaster. The Cleveland Plain Dealer very early (Thursday, March 27) printed a dramatic illustration fully a newspaper page wide depicting the vast statewide scope of the 1913 flood sweeping Ohio from Lake Erie to the Ohio River.

Selected references
Background about publisher, governor, and unsuccessful U.S. Presidential  candidate James M. Cox as well as his personal recollections of the 1913 flood can be found in:

Cebula, James E., James M. Cox: Journalist and Politician, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985.
Cox, James M., Journey Through My Years: An Autobiography, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946.

Detailed information about Phoneton’s role in the AT&T long-distance network is in the long history Deeter, Judy, “Phoneton – The Village Founded by a PhoneCompany,” Miami County News blog May 2012. For that role, Phoneton is also commemorated with historical markers. See “Marker#30-55 Phoneton,” Remarkable Ohio: Marking Ohio’s History, Ohio Historical Society, and the program from the “Unveilingof the Ohio National Road Phoneton Interpretive Sign,” September 6, 2011, [at U.S. Route 40 and Ohio State Route 202].
Newspapers: issues from the Cleveland Leader and the Cleveland Plain Dealer
Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Villain Who Stole the Flood

John H. Patterson, Dayton’s largest employer, had just been convicted as a felon—but the Great Easter 1913 Flood transformed him into a national hero.

At 6:45 AM on Tuesday morning, March 25, 1913, in a driving downpour atop the sodden roof of the enormous factory building, a group of top executives of the National Cash Register Co. gaze out over the swollen Miami River, dangerously nearing the top of the levee.
“A great disaster is going to fall on Dayton. We must prepare to house and feed the people driven from their homes,” announces NCR president John H. Patterson, to the surprise of his division chiefs. “I now declare NCR out of commission, and I proclaim the Citizens’ Relief Association!”  He begins barking out commands: buy hundreds of blankets and hospital supplies; bake 2,000 loaves of bread and make 500 gallons of hot soup; stop making cash registers, start building boats; keep the NCR well pumping 24 hours a day, and generators running at night to keep lights aglow.

NCR boat rescue. People at Burns Avenue and Catherine Street south of downtown Dayton are being rescued in one of nearly 300 flat-bottom boats built at the National Cash Register factory. Note the dark staining on the houses showing how high the floodwaters had been a day or two earlier. Note also the snow on the roofs, adding below-freezing cold to the flood sufferers' miseries of hunger, wetness, exhaustion, and--ironically--dehydration. (Credit: Dayton Metro Library)
Patterson knew floods and their destructive power. After graduating from Dartmouth in 1867, one of his first jobs was as a toll-taker on the Miami and Erie Canal. Because Dayton lies on flood plain, he had seen parts of the city inundated in several back-to-back major floods in the 1880s. Even though he had built NCR on a hill south of downtown near his birthplace, he nonetheless hired big-shot Chicago hydraulic and sanitary engineers in 1905 to ascertain if it truly would be above the worst flood conceivable.
Since Easter Sunday 48 hours earlier, ice-cold rain has been falling with the intensity of a tropical downpour. The Great Miami River is rising a foot an hour.

Within hours of Patterson’s rooftop meeting, the levees burst on the north side of the Great Miami River, flooding North Dayton and Riverdale, and submerging homes of German, Hungarian, and Eastern European factory workers up to second stories. About half an hour later, the river overtops its southern levee along Monument Avenue, close to the Main Street Bridge. The levee collapses with the force of a bursting dam. Torrents of water surge through Dayton’s downtown office district; currents up to 25 miles per hour undermine foundations, sweep furniture and other wares out of street-level display windows, and shift homes off foundations. As the yellow water—filthy with mud and contaminated with human and animal excrement—rises fast, people inside houses and offices scramble upstairs to second floors or attics; those caught outdoors climb atop freight cars, in trees, on roofs.
Still, the rains keep falling. And the rivers keep rising.

As Patterson anticipated, suddenly homeless Daytonians begin straggling up the muddy hill to NCR. The factory is virtually a self-contained city, including hot showers, medical personnel, vegetable gardens, dormitories, tennis courts, a schoolroom, and a large cafeteria—now aromatic with steaming, welcome soup. Why such gracious facilities in an era when many factories were still sweatshops? Patterson grunted: “It pays.” A pioneer in so-called scientific management, Patterson had become convinced that healthy employees were productive and loyal employees.  Now, offices in NCR’s large Building No. 10 are converted to sleeping quarters and a makeshift hospital; a garage is turned into a morgue. The NCR factory rings with sawing and hammering, as NCR carpenters build nearly 300 flat-bottomed rescue boats. As flood sufferers slog up the hill toward the factory’s beckoning lights, brave young NCR employees and other volunteers pass them, carrying boats down to the turbulent waters in search of thousands of Daytonians stranded on rooftops.
NCR also becomes headquarters for the Ohio National Guard and the Red Cross. Stations are set up for coordinating the volunteer efforts of doctors or other professionals with skills useful in the large-scale emergency. After U.S. Army sanitary expert Maj. Thomas L. Rhoads arrives, the NCR grounds also become home to a neatly arranged tent city for those whose dwellings have been destroyed; the tent city will shelter refugees for several months.

Patterson also royally welcomes local and out-of-town newspaper reporters and photographers, providing them with room and board, access to typewriters and telephones for filing stories, and cleaning services for their muddy clothes. When the flood submerged the presses of the Dayton Daily News, Patterson allows the newspaper to be printed on NCR’s in-house printing press. Stories of Dayton, of NCR’s heroic rescues, and of John H. Patterson flash on AP and UPI newswires throughout the country and make front-page banner headlines on newspapers nationwide. Although accounts of other cities are also published, the stories are always secondary to coverage of Dayton. Effectively, the flood became Dayton’s tragedy—and the rescue efforts Patterson’s triumph.
Patterson’s motivations likely were not purely for news and history. Fact was, by March 1913, he was in dire need of good press. Patterson was one of the nation’s most ruthless monopolists. By 1905, NCR commanded an estimated 95 percent of the nation’s market for cash registers, gained through aggressive, unethical, and predatory practices to intimidate and ruin competitors. NCR’s stated policy was “We do not buy out, we knock out”—and destroying competition explicitly absorbed Patterson’s energies. Although NCR was repeatedly sued under the Sherman Antitrust Act, the law was only weakly enforced against any monopolist for several decades, until President William Howard Taft went on a determined antitrust rampage against Standard Oil and other big fish. On February 22, 1912, a Federal grand jury in Cincinnati indicted Patterson and more than two dozen top NCR officials on three charges that they had committed criminal—not merely civil—violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The trial, held in Federal District Court in Cincinnati, began November 19 and lasted about three months, making NCR look like a bunch of thugs and villains. On February 13, 1913, a jury reached a unanimous verdict on the first ballot: GUILTY for Patterson and 28 other executives. The judge sentenced Patterson and others up to a year in jail and a fine of $5,000 (equivalent to at least $100,000 today), pending appeal.

Patterson, now a convicted felon, immediately appealed.
Not six weeks later came the Great Easter 1913 flood and inch-high headlines trumpeting NCR’s role in rescuing Dayton.

The flood washed away Patterson’s unsavory reputation and left him instead with the image of being such a shining humanitarian that Evangeline Cary Booth, head of the Salvation Army, declared him an “instrument of the Lord.” Before the end of March, newspapers were  publishing pleas to newly inaugurated President Woodrow Wilson for Patterson’s pardon.
However, because of devastated communications, no news about Dayton’s tragedy and Patterson’s fast action got out to the rest of the world until a telephone engineer caught...

Next time:  The Governor’s Ear

©2012–2013 Trudy E. Bell. For permission to reprint or use, contact Trudy E. Bell at

Caption to sustenance for thousands. For weeks, the NCR cafeteria provided nonstop coffee, soup, and other sustenance not only to flood sufferers but also to military and civilian relief and rescue workers and newspaper reporters. On its peak day of April 1, 1913, NCR’s cafeteria provided meals for 83,000 people. Note the mud on the men’s pants and boots and on the floor. (Credit: Dayton Metro Library)

Caption to men overlooking the flood zone. A National Cash Register photographer followed NCR President John H. Patterson (man in dark coat and derby just left of center) during flood week and later, documenting all his relief efforts in Dayton. (Credit: Miami Conservancy District)

Selected references
Alvord, John W., “Report to National Cash Register Company, Dayton, Ohio, on Protection from Floods of the Great Miami River,” (Chicago: John W. Alvord and Chas. B. Burdick, Hydraulic and Sanitary Engineers, May 1905). Typescript 9-page report plus charts in the NCR Archives of Dayton History.

Carson, Gerald, “The Machine That Kept Them Honest,” American Heritage 17 (5): August 1966. Carson discusses the anti-trust suit briefly, mainly as a set piece for his statement that “Miss Evangeline Cary Booth, commander in chief of the Salvation Army, announced that John H. Patterson was the instrument of the Lord and would be rewarded. “ It’s a wonderful story, but Carson gives no indication as to its source, and so far I have not been able to find a primary reference for the information.
Two adulatory biographies of Patterson, neither of which discusses the anti-trust suit against NCR:
Conover, Charlotte Reeve, Builders in New Fields; Part Two: John Henry Patterson 1844–1922, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, NY, 1939.
Crowther, Samuel, John H. Patterson: Pioneer in Industrial Welfare, Doubleday, Page & Co., Garden City and New York, 1924.
Two references discuss Patterson’s unsavory business practices at length leading up to the anti-trust suit against NCR:
Brevoort, Kenneth and Howard P. Marvel, “Successful Monopolization Through Predation: The National Cash Register Company,” (Ohio State University), 41-page manuscript, published in Antitrust Law and Economics, vol. 21 (2004) of the series Research in Law and Economics.

Maney, Kevin, The Man and His Machine: Thomas Watson, Sr. and the Making of IBM (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003)

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me at )

Bell, Trudy E., "Swept Away: The Great 1913 Flood," Timeline (Ohio Historical Society) 26 (1): 38–54, January–March 2009.  17-page cover feature with photographs of devastation all around the state of Ohio as well as in Dayton, including the role of Patterson.

Bell, Trudy E., "The Great Flood of1913," The Rotarian 189 (9): 30–37, March 2011. Discusses the Omaha tornado and the Dayton flood, focusing on the rescue efforts by Patterson and many Rotarians in Dayton (the online version of the article has one error about wind speeds in the Omaha tornado that was corrected in the print edition of the magazine).