My Town Monday: Are you afraid to look like Chicken Little?

One hundred years ago, the sky fell in Dayton. Or to be more precise, rain. A lot of it.

We’re coming up on the anniversary of the worst natural disaster in Ohio’s history, the Great Flood of 1913.  By far, the hardest hit community was Dayton, and plenty of people lost their lives.

It could have been a lot worse, which was well-shown in 1913, a wonderful play my family attended last week, performed by Wright State University’s theater department. The play was based on an equally-fantastic narrative nonfiction book, A Time of Terror by Allan W. Eckert (which is, sadly, out of print).

As in the actual event, the play showed some people who died, and many who didn’t, but it was quickly clear that the death toll would have been much higher had it not been for one man who took a great risk: John H. Patterson, the president of NCR (the National Cash Register Company).

John H. Patterson surveys the flood (in derby hat, third from right)

John H. Patterson (in derby hat, third from right) surveys the flood (Photo via Dayton Metro Library)

In the play, Patterson is first shown meeting with his executive staff at NCR. He wants to survey the city–in particular, the levees. It had been raining since the weekend, after the ground was already saturated from snowmelt, and Patterson had a bad feeling.

His staff questioned this. Yes, Dayton was prone to flooding, lying in an S-curve where four rivers came together, but the levees had held up just fine for over a decade. Patterson was being alarmist, and was worried over nothing.

But Patterson was a wealthy and powerful individual, so the executives went, and reported back that the river was close, but they were sure it would crest before it reached the top of the levees.

However, the rain showed no sign of abating, and this was not a risk Patterson was willing to take. Dayton was going to be flooded, and it was going to be much, much worse than the last time it had suffered a major flood, he was certain. Fires would break out when gas lines beneath the city ruptured. Hundreds, if not thousands, would be displaced from their homes. Lives would be lost–unless they acted fast.

NCR was located on the south side of town, on high ground. At the time, it was one of the biggest corporate complexes in the world, and boasted its own cafeteria, gym, barber shop, and other amenities for the employees. It also had its own wells and power plant, and was perfectly suited to handle the influx of refugees that were sure to come. So Patterson decreed on the morning of March 23, 1913, that NCR was now the Citizens’ Relief Association until further notice. He ordered employees to procure all the food, blankets, clothing, and medicine they could find. He set the factory workers to stop making cash registers, and to instead use the wood to manufacture hundreds of flat-bottomed boats. He commanded people to work in the kitchens and start baking bread, and making soup, sandwiches and coffee–as much as they could.

While Patterson did a lot for the community–he engineered many benefits such as a night school for employees and well-lit factories–he was also a control freak and a tyrannical boss who fired people seemingly at whim. He eliminated competitors with ruthless precision; in fact, he’d been convicted of antitrust violations just a few weeks before and had been sentenced to spend a year in prison, which he was at the time appealing. When Patterson handed out orders to deal with the flood he expected, people thought he was nuts, but since he controlled their paychecks, they did what he told them to do.

This photo, used on the cover of Time's Enemy, gives a glimpse of how bad it was

This photo, used on the cover of Time’s Enemy, gives a glimpse of how bad it was – look at the streetlights (Photo via Dayton Metro Library)

An hour later, the first levee broke on the north side of town, and it wasn’t long before refugees began to arrive. Within hours, other levees had broken, and the city was inundated with over 12 feet of water in places. People were trapped in the upper floors of their homes and workplaces, in attics, and on roofs. Workers in the flat-bottomed boats made with mahogany wood intended for cash registers trawled the city for survivors, and brought thousands back to NCR for food, dry clothing, and a place to sleep. In my novel Time’s Enemy, my characters Tony and Charlotte are trapped in a freezing-cold attic, then must flee when fire encroaches. An NCR boat picks them up. Later, Tony helps rescue others.

Depending on which estimates you read, the death toll ranges anywhere from a hundred-sixty-some to over four hundred people. But how much worse would it have been if John H. Patterson hadn’t risked looking like a fool, and risked a great deal of money proactively turning his manufacturing operation into one focused on rescue and relief?

Have you ever seen something coming, but kept quiet for fear of being thought a Chicken Little? Or have you spoken up, and been glad you took the risk? Have you heard about the 1913 flood, and the role played by NCR boss John H. Patterson? I’d love to hear from you!

As a side note, I’m going to be appearing at the Wilmington-Stroop branch of the Dayton Metro Library this Saturday, Feb. 16th, at 10:00 AM to talk about writing romance with readers and fellow authors Macy Beckett/Melissa Landers, Lorie Langdon, Jess Granger/Kristin Bailey, and Stacy McKitrick. There will be coffee and chocolate! If you’re in the area, we’d love to see you there!

Jennette Marie Powell writes stories about ordinary people in ordinary places, who do extraordinary things and learn that those ordinary places are anything but. In her Saturn Society novels, unwilling time travelers do what they must to make things right... and change more than they expect. You can find her books at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, iTunes, and more.

15 Responses to \

  1. I learned a loooong time ago, that if something nagged at me, to question it. Luckily, the lesson learned didn’t cost more than time and gasoline. But it created quite a laughable memory.

    My grandmother and her sister drove me from Santa Barbara to Ft. Lewis, WA (my first duty assignment with the Army). They had lived in Seattle and wanted to go up for a visit (their father built a house up there – which still stands), so I accepted their request to drive me (plus I loved being with those two – they were a hoot together).

    We had stopped in Arcadia, CA for the night. My grandmother didn’t believe in suitcases so much or she just hated wrinkled clothes, so all her items were on hangers. When we packed up the next morning, I didnt see the hangars. I should have questioned it, but figured she did something else with it (what – I have no idea – I was only 18, can I use that as an excuse?). By the time we stopped at Grants Pass, OR for lunch, she realized she’d left her clothes in the closet. Stupid me said, “I wondered where they were.” She kind of let me have it (in a fun way, though). We had to drive back and get them.

    When all laughed about it. I proclaimed I hadn’t expected to return to California quite so soon. We told the story to my mother that night, and with her “oh dear, how awful” attitude, my grandmother said she spoiled the mood (and this was her daughter she was talking about). We told my Dad and he asked, “What? Did she leave the place naked?” That’s the response we wanted and we all cracked up.

    Still, it was enough to teach me to speak up if I notice something wrong, and then say “You just never know!” if I end up being wrong.

  2. What a great story! It reminds me that its the risk takers that are always remembered. Being a visionary seems to bring out the naysayers, but the naysayers seldom make great contributions — in times of crisis or times of peace.

  3. Wow, what a story! And I remember that scene in Time’s Enemy. 🙂 As for me, I can’t think of specifics, but I know I’ve had that feeling in my gut before, that one where you just know you need to say or do something. I do think it’s better to be safe than sorry.

  4. Too bad someone like Patterson wasn’t at the helm when New Orleans flooded from Hurricane Katrina.

    Living in hurricane country (Texas Gulf Coast), I see a lot of people underestimate the damage that can happen. We don’t always know when it’s coming, but better to be safe when it comes to something that destructive. Interesting history, Jennette!

  5. Wow – that’s a great story!

    The only thing I predicted was that the Niners would lose the Superbowl, but I couldn’t say that because I would have been tarred and feathered here in 49er country. Guess I would have really shown them, huh?

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  6. LOL great story, Stacy! “You just never know” sounds like a good response to me if the gut feeling doesn’t pan out. 🙂

    Coleen, thanks! This is a great example of when it’s better to make sure!

    Julie, when that awful disaster was in the news, I thought more than once about how much better people handled the 1913 flood than Katrina – and with much less reliance on the feds!

    LOL Patricia – and thanks!

  7. I knew about the flood because of TIME’S ENEMY, but I didn’t know the role John Patteson played in preparing for it and using his company’s resources to rescue, feed, and house survivors. I’m wondering if he was regarded differently after that incident.

  8. Fascinating! Especially that such a ‘controlling’ and ‘tyrannical’ person could end up doing so much good. Hmm, sounds like a great character for a story, doesn’t it?

    Personally, I have no crystal ball. But I have made some risky decisions based on gut feelings and things have almost always turned out well.

  9. Pat, he sure was regarded differently! He was such a hero to the citizens of Dayton, that no judge was willing to put him away, and they dropped the anti-trust charges!

    Lynette – Patterson was certainly a character, no doubt! There are many stories about his quirky habits and actions in running the company. I’ll do another blog post about them sometime. He’s proof that we really do need to listen to our intuition!

  10. Im a big believer in following your gut. I could mention several things here, but the one that sticks in my mind was getting a pneumonia shot two years before it’s normally reccommended. My gut told me I’d be visiting the hospital a lot because my mother-in-law was going to be sick, and to keep myself healthy I needed to get the vacination. That same year I was exposed to a lot of sick people because my mother-in-law spent 1-2 weeks of nearly every month in the hospital. I guess the vaccination worked. I never got sick.

  11. See, now this is the reason why I look forward to My Town Mondays! This was a fasinating story Jennette. The only story that comes to my mind that I would liken this too is Noah and building the Ark. People laughed at him and thought he was crazy.(I know, a little over the top) But what wisdom Mr. Patterson displayed. If he had not thought ahead, who knows how many more lives could’ve been lost. The National Cash Register Company. In Dayton. Who knew? Thanks for sharing this Jen! 🙂

  12. LOL Karen – Noah’s ark isn’t too far from the truth, albeit on a much larger scale! Thanks for letting me know you like MTM – I always worry that it won’t interest people who don’t live in the area. 🙂

  13. Some say they were saved by a tornado and a flood. During the great Dayton flood of 1913 Patterson stopped production and directed the company’s total energy to saving Dayton.