Header Graphic
When Dayton Was Getting Started


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, March 11, 1934


When Dayton Was Getting Started

By Howard Burba


            When the summer of 1934 has come and gone the last vestige of the old Miami and Erie canal will have disappeared within the city of Dayton.  At present a stretch less than three city blocks remains unfiled and ungraded.  Preparations are under way to close this gap in what is already a paved boulevard on the bed of the historic old waterway.  Within a remarkable short time after this work is under way there will be few, if any, reminders of the route traversed by the old canal in the years when it was Dayton’s principal system of transportation.

            One hundred years ago it was a busy ditch.  The historian assures us of that, but neglects to provide us with a fair picture of it’s activities in that he has created the impression the old waterway was almost wholly given over to the transportation of freight and livestock.  The truth of the matter is that at one time in its existence the canal was equipped with costly passenger-carrying packets and provided the only deluxe mode of travel known to that generation.

            From the pages of an old scrapbook made and for long years treasured by Robert C. Anderson we glean some interesting facts about the Miami and Erie canal not to be found in early histories of this county, a work-picture of early life in Dayton; a sort of hasty glimpse of Dayton life exactly 100 years ago.  Let us quote the old scrapbook for a new slant on transportation facilities in a day when steam railroads, electric lines, automobiles and airplanes were undreamed of, when even a stagecoach was still a somewhat novel vehicle:

            “About seven years after the canal had been opened, or along about 1834," reads this interesting clipping, “fine passenger packets appeared on the canal.  They were the natural products of improvement and continued to be built until comfort, elegance and appointments were all that they could possibly be.  They were fitted out with a cabin, sleeping berths, and the dining apartment offered a varied menu.  They rarely carried any freight whatever, everything being designed to promote the utmost comfort in passenger travel.

“The Doyle and Dickey Line was the most popular.  

            The horses used for propelling the canal packets were stationed at regular relays.  They were the finest money could buy and were always well groomed and nicely harnessed.  They were driven tandem by a well dressed man.  When all handshaking and adieus were over the captain would give the signal and the driver, whip in hand, would mount his horse.  In a few seconds the tow-line would appear to be an animated thing, sprawling along until taut as the horses would bend their necks and pull steadily.  The motion of the boat was accelerated to that of the horses’ trot, and would soon be out of sight.

            “Mr. William Dickey and Robert Dickey, along with Mr. John Harries and Robert Chambers and others each ran a line of boats for freight traffic and the old canal basin was a place of such importance that no one ever thought to predict that there ever would be a change in transportation methods.  Those were the days when the Swaynie House and the Montgomery House were in their glory.  The latter was built by a Mr. Gilmore, whose enterprising spirit was too far in advance of the town.  He had made money rapidly, but finally left.

“The captains of these boats were good, honest men and were trusted with large sums of money before the days of express companies and sight drafts.  Long after railroads were put in competition the canal captains continues their vocations and would load their boats, then take the train, with their bills of landing, arriving well ahead of the boat and having much of their business transacted before it docked.  The canal proved a far greater competitor of the railroads than the turnpikes with their stages, as freight could be carried cheaper than by rail.

            “One of the most interesting scenes in canal history happened in 1846, during the war with Mexico.  The soldiers enlisting in Dayton were transported to Cincinnati by canal boats, and they marched east on Third st., to the landing where the boats awaited them.  “Tom” Helrigle was the drummer and Edward Cummings, colored, the cook.  Mr. Helrigle was a young man and the first drummer in Dayton who read music and could take his place in a band.  The way he handled his sticks, so young, was a marvel to musicians.

            “At the foot of Jefferson st., and the canal Capt. Atlas Stout, a fine, tall, young-looking man, stood with his artillery company to give the final salute.  For many years he resided in Dayton, and became widely known as a capitalist and enterprising citizen.  He and his brother built the Atlas Hotel.

            “Capt. Stout was remembered by older citizens for his interesting stories of local life, one of them being in connection with the Ed Cummings mentioned above.  Cummings, it seems, was known to every man, woman and child in Dayton as “Nigger Ed.”  He was born on the southeast corner of Fourth and Main on Sept. 22, 1822, and his imprisonment at one time was supposed by those who knew him best to be unjust.  But this time Ed figured on the Rio Grande as a member of the First Ohio regiment.

            “As cook, he was foraging one day for something palatable for the men.  He had caught a fish in the Rio Grande river and was taking it to headquarters when members of a Baltimore, Md., regiment took it away from him.  Ed fought gallantly but he finally had to give up the fish.  This aroused his rebellious nature and he reported the loss to his regiment.  To a man they took up his cause.  They sent word to the Baltimore men to either return the fish to “Nigger Ed’ or get ready to fight it out.  Disregarding camp discipline, the Dayton soldiers swooped down on the Marylanders with blood in their eyes.  It was the first disturbance in the field in which the fight was along the lines of race equality.  The fish was returned to its owner.

            “Ed Cummings returned to Dayton with a proud step, and the fish story came along with him.  He lived to an extreme old age, and was for long years a familiar character on the streets of this city.  He had a hard time making a living, but older citizens who never forgot “Nigger Ed’s’ loyalty to his country and his faithful service through the Mexican war saw to it that he did not go hungry or cold.”


A Tragedy History Overlooked


Early on a May morning 77 years ago Daytonians were shocked to learn that while they had been quietly asleep in their beds a bloody tragedy has been enacted in their midst, resulting in one of the first murders in the history of the community.

            Henry S. Allen, a porter, employed at the old Phoenix hotel, was taken into custody as the aggressor, the victim being one Biese Dernier, a Frenchman, employed in the smithshop of the old Thresher factory.  They sought witnesses to the affray and learned that the porter had, early on the night of the tragedy, brandished a knife about the hotel and declared he needed the sum of $3 and “would get $3 before daylight or know the reason why.”

            Along toward midnight Allen visited the house of Francisco Ritter, on E. Third st., where French citizens then residing and working in Dayton were accustomed to congregate for a social evening of card playing.  When Allen reached the Ritter house it was to find Dernier and two of his country men sitting about a table engaged in a card game.  Ritter was confined to his bed with illness and his wife had been serving the card players with drinks.  At midnight she declared her intention of closing the house and asked the men to leave.  Allen demurred.

            When he refused to leave after repeatedly being ordered to do so, Mrs. Ritter appealed to the Frenchmen to eject him.  Dernier, preparing to leave, had reached the door, but turned when he heard Mrs. Ritter scream and saw Allen grasping her by the throat.  He stepped across the room to the assistance of the woman, where-upon Allen whirled and struck.  He has in his hand the same ugly knife which he had brandished in the hotel earlier in the evening.   Before Dernier could regain a standing position or defend himself Allen was upon him striking out madly with the knife, every blow finding its way to Dernier’s body.

            “I can’t go any farther; I’m killed!” he gasped to Mrs. Ritter as he sank to the floor, blood pouring from a half-dozen stab wounds. 

            Awakened by the scuffle Ritter slipped from his bed, donned his trousers and appeared on the scene.  He was too late to be of assistance to his fellow countryman, but grappled with Allen and secured the knife before he could injure anyone else present.  Dernier died within a few minutes after receiving his injuries and Allen hurried out into the night.

            Within an hour after word of the tragedy had reached police officials Officers Clark and Robinson were at the Ritter home with Allen in charge.  He was instantly identified by Mrs. Ritter as the murderer.

            “Inquest No. 16: was the single line entered on the records of Coroner D. S. Craig when he impaneled a jury and began taking testimony on the scene of the crime a few hours after daybreak.  And here is the language of that jury’s finding:

            “We the undersigned jurors, impaneled and sworn on the 5th day of May, in the year 1857, at the township of Dayton, in the county of Montgomery, by D. S. Craig, coroner of said county, to inquire and true presentment make in what manner and by whom Biese Dernier, whose body was found at the house of Phillip Ritter, on the north side of Third st., between Jefferson and St. Clair in said township and said state and county on the said 5th day of May, 1857, came to his death; after having heard the evidence and examined said body we do find that the deceased came to his death by violence and that said body has upon it the following marks and wounds, inflicted by Henry J. Allen, and which the jury do find caused the immediate death of said person whose body was found as a fore-said to wit: sic wounds upon the body, being cuts or stabs inflicted with a knife, three of which penetrated the vital parts; also one wound upon his wrist and one upon his face.  Given under our seal at the time and said place of said inquest above mentioned-William Robinson, Adam Snyder, J. R. Coblenz, Albert Johnson, E. Munsh and D. D. Dyche.”

            “We give below,” said the old Weekly Gazette of May 6, 1857, “what may be relied upon as a very full and correct report of nearly all the testimony taken before the mayor yesterday in the examination of the murderer, whose iniquitous act is just now the exciting theme of conversation and comment.  Some of this evidence was contained in the report of the coroner’s inquest.  But as the testimony before the mayor was fuller in many particulars, and as it might bring out into the clearest light possible all of the facts connected with the whole terrible transaction, we have concluded, at the risk of wearying our readers with the subject, to publish it at length.        

            “The community is vitally interested in the administration of justice.  Every member of it is concerned to know that the law is properly applied to crime.  But it is impossible that this should be known except by a knowledge of those facts which determine the quality of a crime, and the measure of punishment which its atrocity demands.”

            “We were talking of the old country, the three Frenchman and me, when this man Allen came in,’ Mrs. Ritter told the mayor.  “He had been at my house three or four times, but always he had false money.  I never took any of his money.  This time he had some more of it, bills on a Memphis bank.  I knew the bank was broke, for I had got hold of some of that kind before.  He never drank but once in my house, then it was a glass of beer.  At another time it was peanuts and candy.  He was not drunk.  I have seen him often enough to know.  The three Frenchmen came to our house and took supper with us.  They were staying with my man.  I treated them to beer.  They didn’t drink anything else.  Nobody else came there during the evening.  My husband lay in a back room downstairs.  There was a transom over the door and a light in the front room.  When this man came in he slammed the door very hard and it frightened me.  I heard him say in a low tone of voice that he was going to ‘kill them all.”  I have been married seven years, have been in this country four years and in Dayton three years.  When this man Allen first came in I asked him to go out, but he said he wasn’t afraid of anybody and that he would kill everyone in the house.”

            Then the mayor had another graphic description of the tragedy from the lips of Christian Noffinger, one of the trio of Frenchmen at the Ritter home.  He told in detail of Allen’s brusque entrance into the place, of Mrs. Ritter’s demand that he leave the house, and of her appeal to Dernier to help her put Allen out.

            “When Dernier grabbed Allen and shoved him to the door,” declared Noffinger, I was behind and pushed him.  Quick as a flash Allen whirled and began striking Dernier with the knife.  He kept stabbing Dernier in the back.  Then Ritter came hurrying in from his bedroom, and he grabbed Allen and wrested the knife from his hand.  Allen started away but I caught him and held him.  Then he jerked away and ran.”

            The story of the crime needed only the testimony of a disinterested witness to make it complete.  That came from the lips of a man named Louis Miller.  He said:

            “I was over in the office of Shellabarger’s livery stable.  I heard some noise and when I opened the door and went out on the street I heard a woman halloo.  I went over to Huston’s corner and asked some boys who were standing there to go over to Ritter’s.  I went across the street and stood with one foot in the gutter and one on the pavement at Ritter’s.  I saw Dernier and defendant come out of the door.  I saw defendant using a knife and I cried out ‘You’ll kill that man!’  Defendant has one arm around Dernier’s neck and cut repeatedly with the other hand.  The man who owns the house then ran up and the last time that defendant was going to strike he (Ritter) jerked the knife out of his hand.  The defendant ran, and I followed him.  He ran up Jefferson to the alley, and then through the alley to St. Clair st. and down St. Clair to Sixth.  I stopped there for I saw I could not catch up with him.”

            The story of the tragedy had been told and the mayor “thinking that the presumption was strong” that a murder had been committed, remanded Allen to the county jail without privilege of bail.

            The crime created widespread excitement in Dayton at the time, since murders were far from numerous in those days.  In fact, up to that time there had been but two murders for which capital punishment was inflicted.  The first was the hanging of John McAfee on March 25, 1825, that event marking the first execution in the county.  The second crime for which the death penalty was exacted was when Francis Dick murdered his mother-in-law.  He was hung on the second Friday in September, 1854, less than three years before the event detailed above.

            Apparently, Montgomery co. citizens were not eager to witness a repetition of that performance.  And since premeditation could not be shown, and there had been a struggle during the commission of the crime, Allen escaped with his life.  But he spent a long term of years in the state penitentiary.