Of the many unlikely heroes of the Great Dayton Flood of 1913, John H. Patterson, President of the National Cash Register Company, was one of the most surprising. He was known through the Dayton community and the wider business world as a ruthless, irrational, man who was said to be tyrannical and paranoid. In Dayton’s greatest hour of need, however, he emerged as an unexpected savior of the city.
On February 13, 1913, just before the flood, Patterson and 29 NCR officials were convicted of an array of violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act due to their attempted monopolization of the cash register manufacturing industry. Patterson had been sentenced to a year in prison and was awaiting appeal when the flood occurred. Some said his actions in the flood’s aftermath were essentially self-serving, and that he merely wanted to generate good will for himself and the National Cash Register Company. Whatever his motives, one cannot deny the great work he did for the citizens of Dayton during the flood.
Refugee camp set up on the NCR grounds.
The NCR factory was a large facility that was located at Main and Stewart Streets. Due to it’s size and the fact that it was an elevated structure, it was not flooded as badly as others around it. Taking advantage of this advantage, Patterson ordered his 7,000 employees to stop making cash registers and start making boats. Then, he set about turning the factory into a relief center. Since the factory had its own water, gas, and electrical facilities, it was able to remain fully powered and relatively comfortable during the flooding, which made it a prime candidate for a relief center. As the relief effort proceeded, the factory was quickly functioning as a food pantry, hospital, shelter, and morgue. The factory would continue to be used as a base camp for two more weeks after the flood, thus stopping all production. During those two weeks Patterson continued to pay all of him employees their regular wages costing the company $250,000 ($5.8 million today).
Patterson was appointed the head of a five person special committee who were placed in charge of the flood relief efforts by the Governor of Ohio on March 27th, two days after the flooding began. As part of this new role, he soon began organizing the rescue efforts with the Ohio National Guard that had just arrived, and together they devised a strategic rescue plan that successfully saved hundreds of lives.
Despite his age, the 69-year-old Patterson was not one to sit on the sidelines once rescue efforts were underway. He was seen rowing a rescue boat by himself through the raging current, an act that proved to be a challenge for even the younger volunteers.
In the months following the flood many public officials including Ohio Governor Cox heralded Patterson as the hero of the Dayton flood and called for the charges against him in the antitrust case to be dropped. While the court’s verdict wasn’t immediately nullified, President Woodrow Wilson would eventually pardon Patterson and his executives in 1915. Patterson continued to work to help Dayton after the flood through his work on the Citizens Relief Committee. This committee was responsible for developing the idea of the Miami Conservancy District in May of 1913 and construction began the following year. This conservancy district was one of the first major flood control districts in the US.
Image Source: daytonmetrolibrary.org
Sources: Eckert, Allan W. A Time of Terror. Boston: Landfall Press, 1981.
“And the Rains Came: Dayton and the 1913 Flood.” Internet Archive: Wayback Machine. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://web.archive.org/web/20061209171433/http://www.daytonhistory.org/glance_flood.htm>