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An Unprecedented Community Relief Effort
The flood and fires created a need to feed, clothe and minister to 93,000 flood victims. Schools, churches and homes opened to everyone in need. Ad hoc relief committees established 49 relief stations, the Dayton View district proving the most highly organized. It seemed as if everyone had volunteered. But, one volunteer had much more impact on the destiny of the city and people of Dayton than any other.
John H. Patterson founded the N‑C‑R Corporation, known originally as the National Cash Register Company or – to the people of Dayton – as simply The Cash. On Tuesday morning, March 25, 1913, Patterson pressed his executive staff into the service of relief, immediately organizing a highly efficient relief organization. All regular manufacturing activities ended. N‑C‑R was devoted totally to the job of saving lives.
Patterson‘s employees knew him as an energetic, if not somewhat and sometimes unconventional, executive. So, when he had his company’s carpenters build boats (and, later, coffins), and he dispatched rescue crews to flooded streets, no one was too surprised. But when Patterson ordered three trains from New York City to Dayton loaded with clothing, food, tents, bedding and medical supplies, everyone sat up and took notice.
On Saturday and Sunday, March 29 and 30 the trains arrived. One had stopped enroute to pick up several cars of food, doctors, nurses and telephone equipment. Patterson turned his 7,000-person N‑C‑R work force into a huge relief force, operating the N‑C‑R office complex as a relief source for thousands of people seeking food, clothing and shelter. NCR even provided some of life’s small pleasantries, such as haircuts, shoe shines and laundry service. How the people of Dayton might have survived without Patterson and the employees of The Cash one can only speculate.
Two things provide some clue as to Patterson’s character. The first is a memo from Patterson to one of his staff, a Mister J. E. Cusick, dated March 31, 1913 that shows how no detail escaped Patterson’s eye: “Mr. J.E. Cusick. Clean up the main entrance. Dry out the steps outside. Wash them down late at night, and not when people are coming in the next morning. See that all those lunch counters are supplied with fresh fruit and hot coffee at all times. I saw them pouring old coffee into new coffee. That makes it bitter. Do not let them bring down so much coffee at a time. Have all lunch stands here and at the Beckel House and other places supplied with hot soup.”
The second thing is an article from the Springfield News of March 31, 1913 and later reprinted in the Dayton Daily News: “President John H. Patterson of the N‑C‑R, who is the man of the hour in Dayton, the result of the grand work he is doing to relieve the sufferings of the people and what he did in the rescue line, gained his first title as a hero in 1862, when the city was visited by a bad flood. Mister Patterson and a schoolmate secured a boat and rescued a family named Dickensheet. There were the parents and six children.
“The family was submerged in a house, which stood near the present site of the N‑C‑R plant. Several attempts had been made to reach the family, but they had failed. Mister Patterson was begged not to make the attempt, the people telling him that it would be sure death. He turned a deaf ear to the entreaties. Accompanied by a schoolmate, they jumped into a boat and started on their perilous trip. The boat reached the Dickensheet home, the members were lowered into it, and brought safely to shore, amid the cheers of several hundred who watched the performance.”
At 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning March 26 the flood had crested at 29 feet, six feet above the tops of the levee. It declined slowly until, by Friday morning, the water had disappeared from the city in all but its lowest spots. More than 360 people (estimates vary) in Dayton alone died in the flood. Estimates set property damage in excess of $100 million in 1913 dollars (over two billion in today’s dollars). Upwards of 65,000 people found themselves displaced.
The number of homes destroyed totaled almost 20,000. More than 150 persons rescued men, women and children from the flood, removing more than 8,880 people from wherever they had been marooned.
Only 300-some dead out of more than 8,000 didn’t signify the absence of danger. Hardly. What it demonstrated was that a pragmatic, able, ingenious and enterprising people had met an unparalleled calamity with resilient energy and strength, creative genius and neighborly sharing of risks and responsibility.
Martial law had been declared and a curfew established; no one was permitted on the streets between six p.m. and five a.m. Brigadier General Wood and the men of his Ohio National Guard unit impressed … “every able‑bodied man found on the streets and put them into labor in the work of renovation.” Members of the Dayton Bicycle Club collected the carcasses of over 1,400 horses and mules and removed them to a fertilizer plant east of town.
A Phoenix Rises
Deprived and made poorer, but holding on to life with both hands, the people of the Miami Valley began slowly to take back their land and their lives. Compared to what they faced next, floodwater and fire might have seemed a lot less terrifying. Mud.
In the heart of Dayton alone, eight to ten square miles were submerged in mud.
Arthur Ruhl, a special correspondent for The 0utlook said: “The sight of this unexpected, reptilian substance burying soft carpets and the usually inviolate household goods, brought home to the outsider the inhuman ruthlessness of such a flood even more, perhaps, than crushed houses or the poor, still figures in the morgue. One is prepared for smashed and overturned houses, for the sight of death. But, about this black and glistening slime, mordant as dye, inescapable as a volatile gas, soaked into the fiber of cloth, worked into the pages of books, there was something malignant and strange. It struck one like a personal indignity, as if smeared on one’s own flesh.”
And the flood had removed top soil from fields all over the Miami Valley or covered them in gravel and rocks, leaving area farmers to face a massive reclamation project.
To augment the citizens’ relief committees’ task of physically restoring communities, at the request of Governor Cox sanitary officers of the U.S. Army under Major Thomas Rhoads arrived to help civilians restore sewerage, water and gas services. In a report to the Secretary of War dated 31 May, 1913 Major Rhoads said: “Item 27. Sir: the damage to property by the flood made many people homeless, and to relieve the situation in this regard, two refugee camps were established at desirable places on elevated ground. These camps were established by medical officers and enlisted men of the Hospital Corps, U.S. Army. The first camp was established at the Fairgrounds on March 31 and remained in operation until April 15. The daily average number of refugees taken care of at this camp was 208, and the daily average number of people fed was 262.”
A Pledge of Protection
Though not completely done with the work of personal restoration, area residents had already began to think about protecting themselves and their property against another flood. In April of 1913, at the request of local leaders and Governor Cox, Ohio’s General Assembly enacted legislation authorizing municipalities to establish emergency commissions to initiate appropriate measures for flood control.
Hamilton and Middletown created commissions, and Troy called on citizens in several other cities to join it in a venture to discipline the streams around them. And who better to lead their efforts than John H. Patterson. Representatives from ten counties organized the Miami Valley Flood Prevention Association to little avail. Finally, Dayton took the lead.
Patterson helped organize a flood prevention committee in Dayton, which – employing the slogan Remember the Promises You Made in the Attic – began a fundraising campaign that had all the atmosphere of a tent revival and with a feature Daytonians simply couldn’t resist – a parade!
The Dayton Citizens’ Relief Committee sent a telegram to Ohio Governor James M. Cox, informing him that the citizens of Dayton had raised over two- million dollars, by voluntary subscriptions, to be used for flood prevention.
The telegram stated the Committee’s belief that raising the money would convince every one of its determination to make Dayton safe from floods. It pointed out that the members had forgotten their financial and material loss, remembered only what they had saved, and were focused on building a bigger, better and safer Dayton. It even included an invitation to the federal government to assist it in the work of precluding another future flood disaster in the Miami Valley.
With an initial donation from Patterson of $100,000 to kick it off and an enormous replica of a cash register to track the daily progress toward its goal, the campaign raised 130,000 non‑federally assisted dollars. With that, the work began in earnest.
With the initial funds to begin development raised Patterson turned the chairmanship of the flood prevention committee over to Colonel Edward A. Deeds, one of whose first acts was to select a chief engineer for the project, with whom Deeds could develop an official plan for flood control.
Deeds picked Arthur E. Morgan, the principal partner in a Memphis-based engineering firm. Morgan had already won national notice for his flood control and drainage projects in the Lower Mississippi Valley.
Morgan prepared a comprehensive plan that outlined construction of a system of five retarding basins, or dry dams, with levees and channel improvements throughout all the cities involved. The plan required state legislation. So John A. McMahon, a lawyer active in civil affairs for over 50 years, drafted the proposal. And opposition to the engineering plan and the draft of the so-called conservancy law followed almost instantly, bringing people into conflict, especially farmers in the northern areas of the valley, against urban residents to the south.
Residents of Miami County sought a Writ of Prohibition against the hearing of the petition for organizing what was referred to legally as a conservancy district, arguing that the enabling act was unconstitutional.
The hearing on the petition to form the conservancy district was held at Memorial Hall, which holds over 2,500 people. There were so many in attendance that people spilled out into the streets, requiring officials to string‑up a public address system outside the building.
People in the areas north of Dayton objected to the fact that the dams would be built mostly in their counties. They were doubtful the dry dams would even work, suspected the dams would be used to generate power for private profit and not to control floods and predicted that farmers would be forced to give up land and pay substantial costs for construction of the system. Recalling the Civil War, they portrayed Morgan as the leader of Morgan’s Raiders.
Morgan had to be careful what he said. Once he stated that the dams would protect the valley from any amount of precipitation, except that brought by another great glacier. The editor of a newspaper in Miami County took this remark out of context and quickly published a headline “revealing” that Morgan had “doubts” about the proposed dams.
After much legal jousting, the Supreme Court of Ohio declared the legislation to be valid and further efforts to appeal or amend it, including another constitutional challenge, failed.
In June of 1915, the Conservancy Court met and declared the Miami Conservancy District organized. Affirming its regional character, the Miami Conservancy District named three directors to the board from three different counties: Gordon S. Rentschler of Butler, Henry Allen of Miami, and Colonel Edward Deeds of Montgomery.