Dayton: History

Town Planned Despite Flood Danger

The point where the Mad River flows into the Great Miami was a thoroughfare for native tribes on their way from Lake Erie to Kentucky and for frontier heroes such as George Rogers Clark, Simon Kenton, Daniel Boone, and Anthony Wayne. Revolutionary War veterans General Arthur St. Clair, General James Wilkinson, Colonel Israel Ludlow, and Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, for whom Dayton is named, purchased 60,000 acres in the area from John Cleves Symmes. Ludlow surveyed the town plot in the fall of 1795, and the first settlers arrived on April 1, 1796. In spite of well-founded Native American warnings against the danger of floods, settlers occupied the area where Dayton now stands at the confluence of four rivers and creeks.

Ohio gained statehood in 1803, and two years later Dayton was incorporated as a town and became the seat of Montgomery County. The opening of the Miami & Erie Canal in 1828 brought booming cannons and cheering crowds in celebration of future economic prosperity. That year 100,000 people descended upon Dayton, whose population then numbered 6,000 people, to hear William Henry Harrison, Whig presidential candidate. A year later Dayton was incorporated as a city. In 1851 the Mad River & Lake Erie Railroad reached Dayton, motivating Daytonians to establish new industries that were expanded during the Civil War boom years. Local Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham was head of the anti-Lincoln Copperhead faction in the North, which brought riots, murder, and the destruction of the Republican Dayton Journal newspaper office. Vallandigham was banished from the Union for treason.

Industrial Innovation Characterizes Dayton

Dayton entered its golden age of invention and business acumen when John Patterson bought James Ritty's cash register company and his "mechanical money drawer" in 1884. Two years later, Patterson introduced the "daylight factory," a new work environment in which 80 percent of the walls were glass. National Cash Register soon set the standard for this indispensable business device. Dayton-based inventors Wilbur and Orville Wright taught themselves aerodynamics by reading every book on the subject in the Dayton public library. They experimented with kites and gliders and built the world's first wind tunnel to test their ideas. Then on December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made aviation history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, when their flying machine made its first successful flight. The Wrights' commonsensical approach to solving the centuries-old problem of heavier-than-air flight is considered one of the great engineering achievements in history.

The next inventor and engineer to make his mark in Dayton was Charles "Boss" Kettering, who began his career at National Cash Register by inventing an electric cash register. Kettering and a partner founded the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco), which became a subsidiary of General Motors in 1920 when Kettering was appointed a vice president and director of research at General Motors. Kettering repeatedly revolutionized the automobile industry; he designed the motor for the first practical electric starter, developed tetraethyl lead that eliminated engine knock and led to ethyl gasoline, and, with chemists, discovered quick-drying lacquer finishes for automobile bodies. Kettering is considered to have demonstrated the value of industrial research and development.

Reform, Cooperation Meet City's Challenges

Newspaper publisher James Cox bought the Dayton News in 1898 and then purchased other newspapers in Ohio, Florida, and Atlanta, Georgia. Cox turned to politics in 1909, serving as Dayton's congressman, then as Ohio governor, and running for the presidency in 1920 on the Democratic ticket but losing to Warren G. Harding. As governor, Cox initiated a number of reforms, including the initiative and referendum, minimum wage, and worker's compensation.

Destructive floods had frequently plagued Dayton during the city's first 100 years. Total devastation came on March 25, 1913, when the Great Miami River, swollen by a five-day downpour that brought ten inches of rain, burst through protective levees and flooded the city. So powerful was the flood that houses were literally wrenched from their foundations and sent down the Great Miami. The water level did not recede until March 28, by which time 361 people had died and property damage had reached $100 million.

The flood forced citizens to find a solution to this perennial threat; they responded by raising $2 million in 60 days. Arthur E. Morgan, a self-taught engineer who was then head of the Tennessee Valley Authority—and later became the president of Antioch College in nearby Yellow Springs—was charged with the responsibility of finding solutions. A systematic plan of flood protection consisting of five huge dams and retaining basins was proposed. The Miami Conservancy District, the first comprehensive flood-control project of its kind in the United States, was established by the state legislature on June 18, 1915. Construction was completed in 1922. In another response to the flood crisis, Dayton turned to the nonpartisan, democratically controlled commission-manager form of government, becoming the first major American city to do so and inspiring other cities to follow suit.

During both World Wars, Dayton's manufacturing facilities produced planes, tanks, guns, and other war materials that were vital to successful military efforts. In the post-war years, the focus of Dayton's industry shifted to consumer products. Household appliances, automobiles, and early components of the computer industry were manufactured in Dayton from mid-century on.

In 2005 the city celebrated its bicentennial anniversary of incorporation. Today, Dayton is home to fine educational institutions, an art institute, a symphony orchestra, a natural history museum, and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Dayton blends metropolitan amenities with the feel of an All-American city.