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Building the Court House

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, December 7, 1930


Red Letter Dates in Dayton History

Dayton Court House

Building the Courthouse

By Howard Burba


Few cities in the country enjoy the distinction of having three courthouses still standing in the very heart of their business district.  As a usual rule when a county finds it necessary to provide more commodious quarters for the transaction of its official business, down comes the county building serving at the time, and up goes another on the same site.

            But with Dayton it’s different.  Dayton appears to have had a hobby of collecting courthouses.  Toda she boasts three buildings which have been dedicated at some time or another to the housing of her public records, and at this very moment she is contemplating the erection of a new one, but without the loss of the other three.

            When the first state legislature of Ohio convened on the first of March, 1803, it had before it as one of its very first matters for consideration, the carving out of new counties.  And the first on the list was one to be christened Montgomery.  Already its boundary lines had been tentatively agreed upon, and an early historian tells us that a whole year before the legislature met to act upon the plan that pioneer whose name must always stand at the top of the list of local celebrities-Judge Symmes-had selected the hamlet of Dayton for the county seat.

            No grass grew under that old patriarch’s feet.  He was a politician as well as a shrewd realtor.  He owned thousands of acres of land in this immediate territory.  He was far-sighted enough to realize that a courthouse would add new value to those acres.  So the moment Ichabod Halsey, Bladen Ashby and William McClellan were named by the legislature to select a seat of justice for the new county, Judge Symmes had this letter on its way to them:


            “Beyond all doubt, Dayton is the point of land best accommodated by natural advantages for the erection of buildings either public or private.  It is equally commodious in point of navigation with any other spot on the bank of the Great Miami, and it may fairly be said to be the best because just below the juncture of Mad river and the southwest branch with the Miami.  General Dayton informs me that he intends building a handsome academy in the town and furnishing the same with a good bell, which you know on court days may be used for the convenience of the court and suitors, and all attendants may thereby know the time of meeting.  I cannot say what private donations will be made for public buildings, but as Mr. Short (his son-in-law) owns considerable tracts of land adjoining the mouth of Mad river and along the west bank thereof, I am inclined to believe that he will contribute considerable thereto if the courthouse be built in Dayton.”


Whether Short ever made a donation or not, history does not record.  But there was still another pioneer richly endowed with the spirit of civic loyalty - D. C. Cooper- who did give, and most generously.  He donated not one but 61 lots to be used for county purposes, and after one of these had been reserved for an academy, and 58 sold for the purpose of establishing a fund for county building purposes, two were retained as a site for the courthouse.  They are the original two upon which the county’s old and new courthouses now stand.

            But long before a pick was stuck in the ground it was necessary to have some central point at which the new county’s official business could be transacted, so the legislature hit upon George Newcom’s house as the place best fitted for the purpose.  The old log cabin that rests on the levee bank today, and that has withstood the elements for more than a hundred years became the first courthouse in Montgomery co.

            In June, 1804, the county commissioners held their first session, and at their second session in August we find this notation: “To Hugh McCullum, for the rent of the rooms in which the courts are held, the said McCullum having bound himself to build a good and sufficient chimney and fireplace to the room by the first of November next, and to furnish court with a sufficiency of firewood, candles, benches, etc., during the said term of one year from date hereof, the cost not exceeding twenty-five dollars.”

            Wit all provisions for a place of holding court duly attended to, the matter of erecting a jail for housing those who even in that early day ran afoul of the law, was of immediate importance.  So in 1804 the county’s first jail was erected on the west side of the two lots set aside for county purposes at the northwest corner of Third and Main.  The historian tells us that it was of “good, straight, round longs, 30 feet long and 16 feet wide, the logs at least 12 inches in diameter at the smallest end and the walls raised 12 feet in height with a parition of logs of the same description, the least room 10 feet wide for keeping of persons charged with or convicted with crimes.”

            The larger apartment was for debtors.  It boasted two windows, each with 12 lights of glass eight by 10 inches, and a fireplace.  Each apartment had a loft.  The structure cost the new county the sum of $399 and while it was considered the last word in jail-building, it was not proof against the machinations of some of its early occupants.  In 1809 we find record of the county having paid one Daniel Williams the sum of $9 for capturing a “debtor” who had effected a most successful jail delivery.

            In June, 1805, bids were placed in Cincinnati and Lexington papers for the building of a brick courthouse, and a contract was let to Benjamin Archer, one of the associate judges, for $4766.  The structure was 42 by 38 feet, two stories, and placed exactly on the corner of Main and Third.  It boasted a cupola and bell, and was first occupied, though even in an incompleted stage, late in 1807.

            By 1816 the brick courthouse had become inadequate for housing all of the county’s official activities, so another building, known as the county offices, and standing on the exact sit  of the present courthouse, was erected.  That was in 1816.

            Things rolled along satisfactorily for many years.  Here and there a shack of some kind, and an addition to the jail, were hastily erected on the two county lots as increased county business demanded.  This kept up until along about 1840, when the urgent demand for a new courthouse became apparent.  For four years the proposition was agitated-taxes were taxes in those days the same as now, and civic pride was equally as hard to foster.

            But in 1844 the matter reached a head when John W. VanCleve, Samuel Forrer and Horace Pease were made special commissioners to secure plans for a new county building.  A premium of $200 was awarded to Howard Daniels for the best plans submitted for the proposed courthouse.  IN addition he received $400 for his services as architect.  To this expense was added an additional $1000 paid to Daniel Waymire for serving as superintendent of building.

            On Aug. 23, 1845, the contract between the commissioners and John W. Carr for building of the courthouse was duly signed.  It was estimated that, aside from some parts that the commissioners were to supply, the cost would be about $63,000.

            County records reveal that there quickly arose, however, a series of misunderstandings, all of which served only to delay th work.  There were attempts at arbitration and long-drawn out lawsuits.  When the final cost was reckoned it was in the neighborhood of $100,000.  To lessen this a cupola that was at first planned for was left off.

            Finally, on Oct. 4, 1845, an auction sale of the old jail and buildings on the county site, was held by the county commissioners.  The old jail brought $360, the old courthouse $300 and the structure that had served as county offices the sum of $180.  They were ordered immediately razed, though such structures as could be removed were shunted to the extreme boundaries of the lot and used as temporary quarters for county officials while the new courthouse was in process of erection.

            None there are today who recall that on the extreme west edge of the county lots, bordering the alley now paralleling the Rotterman building, the Dayton Artillery Company had a “cannon house.”  In it was houses the ammunition and equipment held for military emergencies.  Alongside this was a brick fire engine house, sheltering one of the first hand engines to be brought into the Northwest Territory.  Both of these structures were ordered removed.

            When the original brick courthouse was sold on that October morning in 1845, the commissioners, for sentimental reasons, reserved the old judge’s bench and the clerk’s desk.  These were transferred to the city hall, where court was held pending the completion of the new courthouse.  IN 1846 stone commenced to pile up on the corner-the finest stone that Dayton and Centerville quarries could supply, though other and smaller quarries in this territory contributed their share.  A year later the founation was laid and the walls well started and in 1850 Montgomery co.’s new courthouse was a finished edifice-and admittedly one of the finest boasted by any county in the entire United States.

            M. E. Curwen, possibly the first historian to gain more than county-wide prominence, wrote of it at the time:

            “The entrance into the main hall, which is 38 feet long and 11 wide, is by two massive, ornamented door of iron, each of which is of more than 2000 pounds in weight.   On the right of the hall are three rooms, with groined ceilings, which are used as the clerk’s office-the middle one being the principal business room.  On the left are sheriff’s and recorder’s offices.  The hall leads to the rotunda, 20 feet in diameter and 42 feet high, ornamented by a dome, the eye of which lights the hall below.  Around the rotunda, a circular flight of geometrical stone stairs leads to the gallery of the court room, on one side, and to the offices of the treasurer and auditor of the county, on the other.  Immediately in front of the principal entrance, at the west of the rotunda, is the court room.  It is in elliptical form, the shorter diameter being 42, and the longer 52 feet in length.  A light gallery of iron, at a height of 16 feet from the floor, supported by brackets and surmounted by an iron railing, surrounds the room.  The whole is lighted by a handsome dome, the eye of which is 43 feet from the floor.”

            It was in September of 1850 that this handsome, and today historic, structure was ready for occupancy.  And word went out that it was ready for inspection.  There was not just one red-letter date on which the completion of the new courthouse was celebrated-there were whole weeks of them.  All earlier disagreements had been forgotten; all differences of opinion that had attended the agitation preceding its building were laid aside.  Everyone was proud of that new structure; it was recognized universally by all who came to feast their eyes upon it as the symbol of a progressive people, and a proud citizenship.  From early morning until dark, covering a period of many weeks, the corridors of the building were filled with sight-seers.  Everyone marveled at the hanging stone stairway-everyone does to this day who takes a moment to wander into the old building on an inspection trip.

            For 89 years there has been a steady procession of footsteps over those stones.  Deep indentations, worn into them by the hundreds of thousands of feet that have passed over them, attest to the master masonry of an earlier generation.  Montgomery co. citizens were enthusiastically proud of that courthouse when they dedicated it 89 years ago.  Montgomery co. citizens are even more proud of it today, for they see in it that which the earlier citizens scarcely appreciated-that embodiment of all that is beautiful, grand and inspiring in Greek architecture, a monument to be generation whose good works must live on through all the years to come.