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When Dayton Got Out of the Mud


 This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, July 22, 1934

When Dayton Got Out of the Mud
By Howard Burba

How Dayton came to secure clear streets and clean streets is really a romance in itself.

Ordinarily, dust and mud upon a city’s streets and a maze of telephone and telegraph wires above them forms a rather basic subject. But Dayton differs in this respect from the average city. She can turn back the pages of her history and read a couple of chapters which have to do with clear streets and clean streets that are not only interesting but which serve to show how Dayton “got things done” 50 years ago, just as she gets things done today.

For a great many years visitors to Dayton have been impressed first with her broad streets in the downtown district and, almost as quickly, with the total absence of telephone and telegraph wires on those streets. How they came to be so broad rests, of course, with the forward-looking pioneers who platted the townsite, away back at the turn of the century. How they came to be clear of wires is “news” even to most Dayton people.

Early in January, 1883, the city of Milwaukee was visited by a disastrous fire in which many lives were lost. Close upon the heels of this conflagration came one in the city of Detroit, and here again the causalities were numerous. When the newspapers of the two cities told their stories of the disasters, they emphasized the face that human life could have been saved but for the mass of telephone and telegraph wires which formed networks above the downtown streets on which the ill-fated buildings were located. 

There was about this time on the staff of the old Dayton Democrat a man who saw in the two big fires an opportunity to safeguard his home city against such a disaster. He started right in the day after the Detroit fire to get action. And thumbing back over the old Democrat files we find his opening bombshell couched in these interesting words, under date of Jan. 12, 1883:

“The accounts of the recent disastrous fires in Milwaukee and Detroit show that a number of lives were lost and imperiled by the inability of the fire department to overcome the telephone-telegraph wire nuisance.

“In the case of the Detroit fire 25 telegraph operators were hemmed in by fire in a room on top of a tall building. Every means of egress except through the windows was cut off. The firemen were using every exertion to reach the threatened operators, when it was discovered with horror that the myriad wires of the telegraph company seemed likely to result in the death of these 25 of its employes in the presence of willing help. A ladder was forced through the threatening wires just in time to save their lives.

“For the purpose of obtaining a local application of this steadily increasing evil a reporter of The Democrat was yesterday sent to interview Chief of the Fire Department Larkin. The chief was evidently already deep in the study of the question. He said that since the Milwaukee fire numerous applications have been made to him for information in regard to the question of telephone and telegraph wires and fire escapes.

“ ‘Is there anything in the claim made by the telephone and telegraph men that their wires are an assistance to the fire department in case of a fire?’

“ ‘That is a ridiculous claim. For instance, at the fire in Parmely’s dry goods store on E. Third st., the wires embarrassed the fire department seriously. Supt. Ed Reeder attempted to cut the wires for us. We waited until he had cut 20 of the 500, and it required so much time that we were compelled finally to give it up as a hopeless job. This involved a serious loss of time.’

“ ‘It is claimed that the wires will hold the weight of a heavy ladder and thus enable the firemen to stand at a safe distance and fight the flames. How is this?’

“ ‘It is simply absurd. A safe distance is just where firemen do not want to stand. Nothing can accomplished from a ladder leaning against a bunch of telephone or telegraph wires 10 feet from the front of the building, and the wires are sometimes in such position that a ladder cannot be raised at all.’

“ ‘As a means of saving life it is claimed for the wires that if a person drops from a high window they would catch in the wires which would not only break the force of the fall but very often catch the body and hold it. This, of course, only refers to cases where a large number of wires are run parallel to each other on the same pole.’

“ ‘ You know how valuable the wires have proved to be in the Milwaukee fire as a means of saving life. The most serious objection to them, however, is the fact that they make it absolutely impossible to reach a balcony or a window with a ladder. As for dropping people on the wires it would never work; in fact, the wires caused a considerable loss of life in just this manner in Milwaukee. The wires interfered with the dropping of victims into canvas which was held on the pavement. It is no use talking about cutting wires. If there was only one wire to cut it would be all right, but several hundred require too much time.’

“ ‘In the event of fire in one of the Dayton’s central business blocks, would you experience the same difficulty the Milwaukee and Detroit firemen had?’

“ ‘Exactly the same. And if it happened in one of our large hotels it might result in as great a loss of life. Fortunately, one of our principal Dayton hotels is equipped with fire escapes. I served a notice on the owner of another hotel property here, but he refused to furnish the escapes. The city solicitor proposed prosecuting him under the state law but nothing ever came of it. Until the companies can be compelled to run their wires underground my plan is to enforce an ordinance compelling hotels and other large buildings, occupied in the upper stories by a considerable number of people to provide fire escapes. There will be an ordinance brought before city council tomorrow night fixing the fine for non-compliance at $300.’

“ ‘Why not push the matter of underground wires at once and introduce an ordinance before city council tomorrow night providing for the laying of all wires underground?’

“ ‘The same question is agitating the Chicago municipal government. They have refused the various telephone and telegraph companies the right of way on the streets of Chicago until this question has been settled. It seems at present there is no practical means of running wires underground and until something that will prove permanent can be agreed upon it would be folly to compel the telephone, telegraph and electric light companies to run their wires under ground when there is no feasible plan for doing it. We have provided ourselves with wooden handle nippers with which to cut the electric light wires, as a current from it means death, and it may become necessary to cut it at any time.’

“Mr. Harry Kiefaber, one of the directors of the electric light company in conversation with a reporter said: ‘If necessary, we will willingly run our wires underground.’

“The reported next talked with Mr. W. H. Kiefer, one of the oldest electricians in the city, who recently occupied the position of manager of the Mutual Union Telegraph office here.

“ ‘Putting wires underground is proving successful in some of the larger cities, he said, but the expense is so great that the companies, to avoid being compelled to adopt it in the running of their wires claim that it is impracticable. The system that is considered most successful where experiments have been made is very simple in its details. An ordinary wooden casing, or trough, is placed in a trench from three to four feet deep. In this casing is placed a pipe of either tin or cast iron, the size of which is regulated by the number of wires it is necessary to run. The wires must of necessity be insulated and are generally known as cables. The casing, or box, in which the wires are laid must be covered with a coating of tar to avoid dampness, which would interfere with the complete insulation of the wires composing the cable. At the end of each square there must be a manhole communicating with the cable box to permit of the testing of the wires and the necessary repairs without digging up the box. The man who has charge of the inspecting of these wires is equipped with an instrument with which he is enabled to locate exactly any break in the lines.’

“ ‘Would Dayton labor under any more disadvantages in the construction and maintenance of such an underground system than any city of its size?’

“ ‘It has a great advantage over larger cities from the fact that the streets are not perforated with gas and sewer popes, which make the construction of the trench difficult.’”

Action on The Democrat’s suggestion came swiftly. The following night city council approved unanimously an ordinance requiring the telephone and telegraph and electric light companies to place their wires beneath the ground. It required a good many years to accomplish the work of laying conduits and placing them there, but the huge task started with the passage of that ordinance and the program was never lost sight of until the ordinance had been complied with to the letter.


The story of how Dayton secured clean streets also dates from the year 1883. In fact, if one will take time to read closely the old Democrat files it will be found that in the matter of civic progress, or at the least the launching of plans which led to progress, or at the least the launching of plan which led to progress in the years ahead, 1883 stands out like a sore thumb.

Early in February, fresh from a signal victory in a wire-removal crusade that was sharp, short and decisive, the editor of The Democrat set about cleaning the city’s streets of dust and muck. Few of the streets were paved at the time and even those which had been so improved were rendered unsightly and unsanitary, by the vast amount of dust and mud carried onto them from the unpaved thoroughfares adjoining. The only relief provided from storms of dust was the sprinkling cart – and that set up a still worse condition since it left a sea of mud in its wake. It must also be remembered that the auto still was undreamed of in 1883, and the presence of thousands of horses on the streets added much toward keeping them both unhealthy and unsightly.

The Democrat, flushed with victory in its crusade of a few weeks previous, rushed to the relief of Dayton citizens in its issue of Feb. 5, 1883. Let us quote the article which paved the way to clean and sanitary streets:

“The brisk rains and bracing air coming down from the bleak northwest do not denote that the springtime is coming on but it is, and with it will come the street sprinkler who, under pretense of laying the dust, manages to make the streets, especially at the crossings, extremely sloppy. He doesn’t do much good, but the city manages to charge enough for the service. Thoughtful people are beginning to wonder if they are not paying too much to have their streets sprinkled.

“In the crowded streets in the center of the city it is a matter for serious consideration and now is the time, before the sprinkling solicitor comes around with his little book to consider whether it is best to longer continue this plan or to dispose of the dust in some other way.

“The charges for street sprinkling in Dayton are very high. On some of the streets as much as $5 per month is charged for sprinkling in front of certain business houses. The sprinkling begins April 1 and lasts until October 31, so it will be seen that, since there are a great number of business houses the sprinkling business is a pretty profitable one. Prices range from $5 a month down to 50 cents a month and indeed there are some close-fisted people who will not pay anything at all.

“A very natural question arises right here – what shall be done with the streets? Why not sweep up the dust and haul it away. Gentlemen of this city say that all dust from the business portion of the city can be moved for one-half the price paid for street sprinkling in addition the privilege of hauling the sweepings away to be used for fertilizer purposes.

“The idea of sweeping the streets is not at all a new one as it is in operation in many of the large cities and is found to be very satisfactory. The sweeping is done between midnight and daylight, when owing to the dampness from the dew, the dust is not likely to be raised, and little will accumulate during the day – not enough, indeed, to be a nuisance.

“There are objections to the ordinary sprinkling system because of the nuisance from excess of mud, particularly at the crossings. The idea of sweeping up the dust and hauling it away would, of course, only apply to the streets in the central or business portions of the city. In the more remote portions the contribution for sprinkling would not be exorbitant.

“Citizens can readily see what the difference between a street covered from day to day with dust and mud, and one swept perfectly clean, would be. The time is rapidly approaching when sprinkling will be an impossibility on the principal streets of Dayton and some other mode will have to be adopted to get rid of the dust nuisance.

“Is Dayton sufficiently metropolitan to begin the consideration of this question now?”

You may be inclined to censure the old-time newspaper man for being a bit harsh in his demands for a civic awakening, but this much must be said for him – he got what he went after. It is difficult today to vision these broad, cleanly swept streets of Dayton resembling the main thoroughfare in an early prairie settlement. It is hard to believe that following the passage of the sprinkling cart mud ankle-deep was created at the various street intersections along Main and Third and other prominent downtown streets. Yet there are in Dayton today many who can verify the truthfulness of the old editor’s statements, many who also recall that first step toward clean thoroughfares.

In less than one week after the article quoted above appeared, and while The Democrat continued to harp on the subject in every issue that came from the press, city council met and, passing an ordinance providing for a street sweeping crew and sufficient horse-drawn vehicles to gather up the dust, sounded the death-knell of the sprinkling cart. It was the second great victory for civic progress in a year that was fairly filled with the spirit of advancement.

With two planks in his municipal advancement platform already adopted – clear streets and clean streets – The Democrat editor turned to still another need. He began calling attention to the city’s lack of a sewerage system. This time he called upon the pulpit for cooperation. He insisted that here was a life-or-death proposition, since the lack of a modern sewerage system was actually jeopardizing the health of every man, women and child in Dayton.

On a Sunday in 1883 following the first call to arms for a more healthy Dayton, we find the Rev T. J. Webster, of Christ church sounding the guage of battle from his pulpit. Before a large audience on that particular Sunday morning he preached from the text; 2 Samuel xx, 19—“Art thou in health, my brother?”
            He stated that in his mind a system of sewerage was absolutely necessary to the health of the people of Dayton and he had no hesitancy in expressing it as his deliberate conviction that “so long as we do not have it we are liable at almost any time to be visited by some destructive pestilence.” He declared this to be the sentiment of the leading physicians and the best men in every walk of life. Let pulpits, press, platforms, every agency that can be mustered into such service, be called upon to arouse the people to their needs, he said. “Our board of health has more than once called the attention of city council to the matter,” he pointed out. He compared the death rate of Dayton with that in other cities that were properly drained, showing it to be much lower in the latter.

“Look at Dayton,” he exclaimed. “In the bottom of a drain, almost level, much of the rainfall must always remain upon the surface or sink into its soil. It is an established fact that but a small portion of the rain is needed for vegetation while the remainder should be carried into the natural water courses to replenish them. If it is not carried away it generates impure gases or, rushing into the earth it sours it while in the process of decomposition, and sends forth from the earth germs of poison to pollute the air.

“Let us rise up as a city and with that commendable effort and enterprise that has already given us waterworks and other public works, resolve upon this as the most important of them all.”


For some accountable reason it required more time to get action on the sewer proposition than on either demand for clear streets or for clean streets. Reading between the lines of the old files one can only attribute this to the fact that the financial burden in the former case fell upon the utility companies, and in the second case on the shoulders of those owning downtown property. A city-wide sewerage system must be paid for out of all pockets. So there was considerable opposition to the plan.

But if you go back to the year 1883 and follow closely the deliberations of your old city council, you will find that the tiny seed planted by The Democrat in that year did not fall on stony ground. It was a long time taking root. But it finally showed green above the ground, and developed, though long after the pioneer editor had passed on, into a sewerage system and a municipal disposal plant of which any city in the world may well be proud.

The year 1883 closed, figuratively, in a blaze of glory for Dayton and the old Daily Democrat. It passed into history as the year in which Dayton made greater municipal progress than in any single year since – and that was a half century ago. Your clean streets, your clear streets, your sanitary streets were provided for through civil agitation started in 1883.