By the third day of The Great Dayton Flood — 100 years ago today — the NCR factory had been transformed into a massive relief center, turning out 1,000 loaves of bread, hundreds of gallons of soup and nearly 300 flat-bottomed rescue boats.
Survivors found refuge here, on high ground, in what had rapidly become a small city, complete with a medical clinic and a morgue.
Here some survivors found lost loved ones in the morgue as National Guardsmen stood watch over the bodies. But there were joyful reunions as well.
Elizabeth Stoppelman of West Dayton arrived at the NCR building with a heavy heart, believing she had lost two of her six children on Tuesday morning.
On March 25, she gazed forlornly outside the window and saw her daughter Margaret’s violin floating in the dirty brown water. She thought about all the canning and preserving she had done in the past few weeks, and figured that was in the water, too.
The water rose steadily in her home and, fearing for her children’s safety, she called out to the men in a rescue boat who only had room for the two oldest children, Margaret and Bill. “Take care of each other,” she begged them.
Another boat came by, and Stoppelman called out, “Do you have any room for four? They are small.”
“No, Mrs. Stoppelman,” they replied, “How about the bigger girls?” So Florence and Alice were loaded into the boat.
Another boat, filled to capacity, passed by. “Mrs. Stoppelman, is that you?” a woman called out. “The boat with your two little girls tipped over, and everyone drowned a little while ago.”
Two days later, when Stoppelman arrived at NCR, “she found all her children,” said Barbara Hoff Farrell of Maryland, Florence’s daughter. “The woman in the boat had made a mistake, and all of them were safe.”
Such vignettes already had established NCR founder John H. Patterson as Dayton’s savior. On March 27, Gov. James M. Cox officially named Patterson president of the Dayton Citizens Relief Committee to monitor the city’s recovery. “If Patterson hadn’t done what he did, a lot more lives would have been lost,” said University of Dayton history professor Paul Morman.
Yet Morman doesn’t buy the popular belief that Patterson’s heroism is the reason he won the appeal of his February 1913, conviction of violations of the Sherman Anti-trust Act. The appeal was heard in 1915 before a three-judge panel on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The prosecution’s case was flimsy to begin with, Morman said, because the statute of limitations already had expired for the alleged crimes. “I have read all of the testimony,” Morman said, “and I don’t think the justices on the appeals court were influenced by the flood.”
‘How is it all going to end?’
After the raging fires of the previous day, Daytonians formed bucket brigades and 24-hour patrols to ward off the threat of fire. Many shared the lament of Dayton librarian Minnie Althoff, who asked aloud, “How is it all going to end?” No one answered.
Early in the morning of March 27, a driving snowfall doused many of the city’s fires. Water began to recede in some parts of the city.
But many Daytonians were still fighting for their lives. Mary Louise Breen, at 10, was a precocious and tough-minded child, who grew up to become a spy for the U.S. government during World War II. By Thursday, however, “the panic had reached me, and I clung to my father’s knees and begged him to save me,” she would later recall.
Her father, John Breen, manager of the Phillips House Hotel at Third and Main streets, discussed the desperateness of the situation with his wife, Katherine. “I was out of sight and sound when the two of them decided it was a question of time before the hotel sank under this strain and they gathered and knotted sheets together so that they could tie us all together, so in the event that we were drowned, the whole family would be together and all the bodies would be found at the same time,” Mary Louise later wrote.
Her father also devised a more practical scheme: crossing the roofs to seek shelter in the Arcade, which seemed sturdier. “We thought it was great fun to cross the roofs. There was only one small space of perhaps four or five feet that had to be bridged with a plank, and I can still remember my father knocking down the locked door of a dentist’s office and ensconcing his family in that grim spot, before he was off again to look after the hotel.”
Lincoln’s signature probably lost in flood
The Phillips House Hotel did not lose a single guest, and it didn’t collapse, after all, remaining open until 1926. In all likelihood, however, the hotel suffered an incalculable loss: Abraham Lincoln’s signature on the guest book. Lincoln stayed at the hotel during his presidential campaign in 1859. “Lincoln’s signature is the Holy Grail of Dayton history,” observed Ed Breen of Kettering, John Breen’s grandson. “It was probably in the hotel safe which crashed into the basement, and the natural ink disintegrated in the water.”
Breen’s father, Edward, was a Dayton mayor and U.S. Congressman who died in 1991 at the age of 82. He probably never fully recovered from the emotional scars from the flood, Breen said. John Breen brought Eddie, only 6, to view the makeshift morgue for flood victims that was set up in the hotel. “They were still in their wet clothes and you could see the grimaces on their faces,” Breen said. “My grandfather was very much of a realist and his attitude was ‘this is the hotel business and you have to deal with it.’”
For the rest of his life, Edward Breen kept a flashlight at his bedside, ready for any emergency. Breen said that his father, who saw active duty in World War II, “didn’t smile and laugh heartily like other people’s fathers. He had a permanent sadness that floated about him, after all that he had been through.”
By late Thursday afternoon, the Breen family, like many others throughout the stricken region, dared to hope as the waters slowly receded. “On late Thursday afternoon a small rowboat with two men in it came rowing down Main Street,” Mary Louise Breen wrote. “The response was terrific and prayers of gratitude rose from throats not too accustomed to such utterances.”
The moment would later remind her of the slogan that would be used for many years for fundraising: ‘Remember the promises you made in the attic.’”