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).


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