John Patterson and the Great Dayton Flood
In 1913 as the Easter weekend approached, a series of three severe storms raised the rivers and creeks of the Great Miami River watershed to dangerous levels. On Monday, March 24, the day following Easter, the levees which protected the city of Dayton Ohio from floods were reported to be weakening. City officials could do little other than issue warnings. That morning Colonel John Patterson, founder and owner of Dayton’s National Cash Register Company (NCR) inspected the levees. Upon his return to the NCR campus, which was elevated above the flood plain, he mobilized the company.
Patterson stopped all production work and had the company carpenters and laborers begin building flat bottom boats. He had the company’s cafeterias begin baking loaves of bread and storing food. From the National Guard he demanded and received cots and blankets. He sent couriers to nearby St. Mary’s college (today’s University of Dayton) to warn them to expect refugees from certain flooding soon. He sent other couriers to area hospitals and pharmacies downtown to ensure that NCR’s infirmaries were stocked with bandages and medicines.
That afternoon, the waters of the Great Miami and Stillwater Rivers overtopped the levees, which still held. By midnight the levees were beginning to give and warning sirens were sounded by the police and fire companies. Before dawn the levees to the south of the city gave way. Those to the north soon followed. The waters rose throughout the downtown area for the rest of that Tuesday. Houses washed away, with families clinging to their roofs. Others huddled on upper floors of homes and businesses. The flood would crest on Wednesday at a level of over twenty feet. Fire and train engines were lifted and driven into buildings by the flood. Broken gas mains exploded.
By Tuesday afternoon NCR had built and deployed more than 300 boats, manned by company employees and other volunteers, to pick up stranded citizens and bring them to the NCR campus, where they were fed, sheltered, treated for injuries, and clothed. As the waters receded after Wednesday, Patterson led the efforts to clean up the devastated city, continuing to shelter those left homeless until suitable arrangements for their relocation could be made. Patterson allowed the Dayton Daily News to publish using the NCR corporate presses, and provided facilities for the Red Cross and other relief agencies.
Over 360 people died in the flood, a number which would have been much higher had it not been for Patterson and NCR. More than 20,000 homes were destroyed. After the flood Patterson led the efforts to establish the flood control system on the Great Miami and Stillwater Rivers which has protected Dayton from floods ever since. Patterson and NCR absorbed the expense of the rescue effort. When Patterson died in 1922 his estate, despite his enormous business success, was relatively small, mostly because of the social reforms he initiated in his company. He lived with the belief, as he put it, that, “shrouds have no pockets.”