Header Graphic
Dayton,  Ohio - An Intimate History
Chapter Two





Dayton,  which at first narrowly escaped being “Venice” (as Cincinnati escaped being Losantiville), also narrowly escaped becoming a cipher on the map. Symmes’ peculiar optimism and sublime confidence in what Congress would do with his land scheme had unfortunate results. For the first two years the little hamlet was prosperous enough as young settlements go. A large tract of land west of Wilkinson Street had been cleared by the united efforts of all the homesteaders and had bloomed into a sort of communistic garden where peas and beans and sweet corn made welcome additions to the unvarying diet of meat. Once in awhile an itinerant preacher struggled in the mud up from Cincinnati and held Sabbath services in Newcom’s Tavern. The children of the settlement were saying their A  B  Abs to Benjamin Van Cleve in the block-house. Gullies that cut across the streets had been filled up and logs laid across the roadway to keep wagons from sinking too deep into the mire. Fourteen stout cabins sheltered as many families. All would have gone well if some of the troubles they had come to the wilderness to get rid of had not inopportunely turned up. Two years of excruciating toil looked as if it were thrown away. Two years of stump-grubbing, bear-fighting, Indian-dreading, with full measure of chills and fever, ought, it would seem, to give title to a homestead. Unfortunately the courts ruled differently the first fruits of the mistaken business methods of Symmes became apparent. He had agreed to pay the government sixty-six cents an acre, the subsequent purchasers eighty-three, and on this clear understanding the first settlers subscribed. Now it transpired that Congress after all would not honor the Symmes arrangement but passed a law fixing the price at two dollars an acre. Even with long payment plans this meant nothing less than bankruptcy, for the early Daytonians, most of them, never saw a two-dollar bill in the course of a whole year. The discouraged citizens held many a meeting before the fire at Newcom’s  and gave it up as a bad job. Several families moved away. In a town of only fourteen houses it is a calamity for three or four to be abandoned.

The  man who proved the best citizen (barring one, years later), that Dayton ever had, came to the rescue. He was a far-sighted, big-hearted, long-headed individual named Daniel C. Cooper. It was he who in the fall of 1795, with another surveyor named Dunlap, had come up from Cincinnati and seen the advantageous location of a region touched by three rivers. He had made a rude lay-out of streets and went back to Cincinnati to report. Our present traffic advantages we owe to Daniel C. Cooper. Wide straight streets running at right angles with each other and with the river, fixed once for all our topography. If Cooper had not scratched his field notes on a smooth slab of wood the furious rains would have washed pencil marks away. But he preserved his rough notes and there they remain to this day externalized in our spacious thoroughfares.

This was one way in which he saved the town of Dayton. But there was more. He saw the distress and discouragement of the settlers over the land question and determined to find a way out. His own fortunes were, in a way, involved because he owned a large tract of land south of town which he hoped to dispose of sometime, profitably. No growth in value unless the town grew. Most of all it was Cooper’s utmost faith in Dayton as Dayton which moved him to action. Therefore a petition from his own hand was dispatched to Congress telling them what a hard time the Dayton people were having, how faithfully they had worked and how cruel it would be to dispossess them after so good a start. We read between the lines that Cooper’s personality, as well as his views, was to be respected. Then he took over on his own responsibility the title risk and bought outright from each settler his holdings until practically the whole of Dayton was his. A land office, due to his influence, was then established at Cincinnati and little by little the titles, recorded in due form, were registered proofs of ownership and everybody was at last satisfied. Thus  passed the first obstacle to property rights. The later arrivals, buying of Cooper, had titles secure.

Cooper was not only just – he was generous. The needs of the little community were his first concern. A church the little town must have, for these plain men and women had the fear of God in their hearts; so Cooper presented two lots on the northeast corner of Third and Main for the purpose. Rallying to the work the men of the settlement united to build their church, and while the women cooked a big dinner the log walls of the church went up. It stood on the northeast corner of Third and Main and held the only congregation between Cincinnati and Detroit until later it was exchanged for a lot on the corner of Second and Ludlow, affectionately sacred for one hundred years to the uses of the old First Presbyterian Church.

A burying ground was unfortunately no less necessary then a church, and Cooper provided that too. Older Daytonians may remember the enclosed block on Fifth Street between Ludlow and Wilkinson with wooden steps leading up and over the board fence outside and where inside sweet briar roses climbed over the sagging tombstones. He foresaw the day when buildings would crowd the business area of the town and gave a city square bounded by Third, St. Clair, and Second  “to be an open walk forever,” which it still is but seldom gets its proper name – Cooper Park. Another area bounded by First and Second, Wilkinson and Perry, was donated by him for a girls’ school and Cooper Seminary remained for years (until pushed into the past by the new Westminster Church) a notable institution in Dayton. The boys must have a school and Cooper provided it on East Third facing his park, where “The Academy” was the earliest school experience for many Dayton men now long in their graves. If anyone in our city history deserves a monument it would seem to be the man who laid out our streets, saved the first homes for their owners, foresaw both the material and spiritual needs of the growing community and did his best for both.

From 1796 to 1806 the growth of Dayton was slow but steady. In 1803 Ohio entered the sisterhood of states. In 1804 Montgomery County was formed (containing the area of fourteen of our present counties), and at the same time an act of Congress provided that “the temporary seat of justice shall be held at the house of George Newcom in the town of Dayton.” Thus we were geographically and judicially placed at last on the map of the Northwest Territory. The track in the woods leading south became more like a highway, though lamentably in need of surfacing, and family wagons lumbering clumsily up the trail, bearing household furniture and utensils, were a not infrequent sight. Each settler brought his worldly goods with him, piled his children on top and drove his cattle ahead. All had to come the same way whether squatter immigrants or educated and cultivated families in search of a new home. There were both. Some were of the sturdy stock with which the great middle-west was eventually populated – “the very best (excepting the Puritans of New England) who ever migrated to America, vis: the Scotch-Irish protestants, lovers and heroes in civil and religious liberty,” as Governor Charles Anderson once characterized them to his nephew, John H. Patterson. But besides them we had patrician emigrants from the cultured precincts of New Jersey. Princeton Presbyterians lay good foundations and from them we profited mightily.

The up-coming conestoga wagons brought other things besides homesteaders. They brought merchandise, for our business life was making a good beginning. The new Daytonians needed flour and seed-corn, farming utensils and stoneware dishes, bonnet ribbons and stockings. First and Main was the business center of Dayton, having two stores kept respectively by D. C. Cooper and James Steele. Money there was none so the word “trade” was a literalism. Beeswax, lard, honey and squirrel pelts were exchanged for spools of cotton and papers of pins. In time there came a sort of a medium of exchange in the form of skins, bear-skins, doe-skins, buck-skins and muskrat skins. There had standard values accepted by merchant and customer. A bear-skin stood for five dollars, a muskrat skin for thirty-seven and a half cents.

Traveling salesmen were unknown in those days. When a merchant wished to replenish his stock he got him a stout horse warranted to ford streams well and swim them if necessary and took the long trail east over the mountains to Philadelphia. The calico and damask, the dishes and the millinery which he ordered came by wagon back this way over the mountains of Pittsburgh where it was transferred to a “broad-horn” and floated down the current to Cincinnati and thence by pack-train to Dayton. There are still in secluded and sacred Dayton cupboards, handed down from the great-grandfather generation, beautiful Spoke cups and lovely Royal Worcester plates which braved in safety the long journey of seven hundred miles by boat and mule back. By the time Dayton was ten years old and an amount of real commerce had been established, the future which Cooper foresaw when he platted the town at the confluence of three rivers. Cutting huge oaks and elms to make gangway for wagon wheels is a slow way to supply people with the necessities of living. Here then, were the three rivers, the Miami, Stillwater and Mad River, each draining different area and all offering passage for flat boats which could embark at Piqua, or any upcountry settlement, and go right down to New Orleans. They did, too, many and many of them, loaded heavily, sometimes getting into difficulties due to too low water or too high water, either of which they were apt to encounter in our erratic water-courses.

It was a paying business, if we read the early letters. Our first exports were wheat, rye, tallow, corn, hides, and skins. A latter commodity was whiskey, when the distilleries view in number with the flour mills along the river banks. One merchant,*  a fervent temperance advocate who built his boat in the middle of Main Street in front of the Court House, and whose commercial necessities overcame his principles, records in his diary that together with the barrels of flour and packets of tobacco he included in his cargo three barrels of whiskey. “And I hope the Lord will forgive me that sin” was his closing entry.


*Thomas Morrison

A fleet of keel-boats floating down the current towards the south always brought an interested crowd of spectators to the river bank along Monument Avenue. They were real freighters too, one described as seventy feet long carrying twelve tons of merchandise. Their departure and arrival depended entirely upon the stage of water in the channel. The boats never came back to their owners, being sold with the cargo in New Orleans, the lumber in them bringing its own profit.

The arrival of boats from up stream and the departure of those bound for the south made only part of the commercial activity of early Dayton. Our imports came up the valley by pack train, sometimes numbering a dozen horses or mules each carrying two hundred pounds of merchandize, coming gayly up Main Street jingling their bells to the shouts of the drivers. Ten days on the road, these last had subsisted on game they shot as they came along. How they ever got through is a mystery which must be left to the imagination, as we are told the mud they brought along with them sometimes reached to the saddle-bags. The very loam which the surveyors knew would raise miraculous crops made traveling in those days a hard necessity. All the old diaries and letters tell of the impassibility of the roads and streets of Dayton. Neighbors had to assemble to the help of a traveler and pry his wheels out of the mire. Benjamin Van Cleve, returning on horseback from Chillicothe, where he had been a clerk in the Legislature, laid certain disabilities which remained for twenty years to torment him to that one journey, with its flooded streams, frozen edges and muddy banks.

In 1805 the settlers had a new experience. Constant pouring rains continued for nearly a week. Steadily, remorselessly, the Miami rose, filled its channel and poured over the bank at the head of Main Street, destroying much property and reducing the citizens to desperate straits. Old accounts said the water at Third and Main was eight feet deep, which we refused to believe until 1913 – when we did!

The real center of early Dayton was Newcom’s Tavern. It might be said that it was the only civic center of social and business life for a good many miles up and down the valley. It stood originally on the southeast corner of Main and Monument whence the Historical Society moved it in 1896 to its present location in Van Cleve Park. It offered entertainment for man and beast. It was a temporary schoolhouse until Van Cleve took his pupils to the block-house; court sat in one room, when there were cases to try before itinerant judges, and there was preaching on Sundays in the same room. The corn-crib in the lot behind served several times as a jail when they caught thieving Indians and wanted to scare them into proper behavior. Before blazing logs in the big fire-place sat our civic ancestors discussing crops, a bear-hunt and the price of corn, who was down with ague and who was up while our maternal forebears climbed over the men’s legs to stir hominy or turn the spit. The outside world was far away. The French Revolution was just over but it is doubtful if Dayton knew it or that the king and queen had lost their heads. News of any public event was weeks percolating the woods of Pennsylvania to the banks of Ohio. The most the pioneers could talk about was the latest arrival of goods for the two stores.

A great advance towards cosmopolitanism began in 1804 when a post-office was established and the weekly mail came in from Cincinnati. Benjamin Van Cleve was the first postmaster and sorted the mail in his own living-room. Since not the least of the sacrifices of the pioneers consists of the blank silence between them and absent friends we may imagine how welcome this innovation was. Letters came from Philadelphia in a week or ten days and the postage was twenty-five cents, to be paid by the recipient. Since the government would not accept farm produce or muskrat skins as payment, the precious missive sometimes remained in the postmaster’s hands a long time before it was redeemed. Van Cleve is said to have gotten into trouble with the government because, in sympathy with his deserving but impecunious neighbors, he sometimes kept a charge account for postage.

Five stores, three taverns, one church, a dozen dwellings, composed Main Street in 1807. On the cross streets other homes were being built. A weekly paper, the “Watchman,” had been established, and the population, then about a thousand souls (as the fall election showed the casting of one hundred and ninety-six votes) included an editor, three doctors, one school-teacher, one minister and one lawyer. Mr. Cooper was more than anyone else the leader in this new prosperity. Besides being surveyor, farmer and merchant he brought in new enterprises, first among them being the milling business. Up to about 1805 all the grinding of corn had been done in hand mortars, a long and laborious process. There are discrepancies in the early accounts as to whether Cooper or Robert Patterson built the first gristmill. Family tradition inclines to the fact that it was Patterson, since the first mill was on his land. It stood on Brown Street where the Dayton, Lebanon and Cincinnati tracks now come into the city and the limestone slabs of which it was built are now the inner construction of the culvert under the road which carries the stream then known as the Rubicon down to the river. Old timers tell us how the Rubicon gristmill became a sort of resort and picnicking place for the farmers bring corn and waiting with their families for their meal to run through the stones. A grove of fine trees surrounded the mill and the stream came from the hills above to make green the banks and grind the farmer’s corn. All  city now – inexorable, inevitable city.

Another notable achievement of the first decade in Dayton was the establishment of the first public library. Like the china and the dress-goods, the books came in pack-saddles over the mountains, and up the river. Van Cleve, knowing evidently more about books than his fellow-citizens became custodian and kept the books in his own log house. One of his rules which must have greatly discouraged reading, because of the abundance of tallow and the scarcity of money, was  that a fine of two cents must be paid for each drop of grease on a book. It is to be hoped, in the interests of budding culture in Dayton, that the librarian was as lenient as to fines as the postmaster was as to postage.

The Miami being much more of a river than it is now, ferries became a necessity: one at the head of Wilkinson Street, one at First and one farther down to connect with the road to the growing settlement of Germantown. A rectangular flat-boat propelled by hand-over-hand pulling on a rope fastened to trees on either bank was the arrangement. Boats large enough to support a loaded wagon and tem charged seventy-five cents for the passage.

One catastrophe upon which we would certainly like to have accurate information was an earthquake which, in 1811, shook the entire valley. Since it is said to have lasted, in its gradually receding vibrations, nearly a month, there should be some official account of it, but lacking newspapers, reporters, photographers and the seismographic observatory in Washington, all that remains is the scattered comments in several personal diaries according to which it must have been terrifying and destructive. The earthquake, the sharp June frost which killed spring vegetation, and the migration of squirrels sweeping over field after field leaving nothing in their wake, giving early Daytonians quite enough excitement to vary the ordinary monotony of their days.

Dayton was beginning to train her citizens to walk on the newly built sidewalk, they who so long had plodded in the mud. An editorial comment, very unusual in those days in which the only news seemingly worth printing was news from distant points, appeared in the “Centinel” of Cincinnati to this effect:


It is with great satisfaction that we can announce to our readers the rapid strides of population on the frontiers of the country. The banks of Mad River display at this moment hopeful appearances. But yesterday that country was a waste, the range of savages and prowling beasts; today we see stations formed, towns building and the population spreading. At the mouth of the river on the eastern side now stands the town of Dayton in which are already upwards of forty cabins and houses with the certain prospect of many more. . . . a mill will shortly be built . . . . two stores of goods will be opened there in the course of spring. Thus we have a certain prospect of a flourishing frontier that in case of renewal of Indian hostilities will be shield to the older and more popular settlements within the Miami Purchase.


Canny Cincinnati! Glad Dayton was growing so as to protect the “older and more popular settlements” from the Indians! And the “town on Mad River”! How changed our point of view in a hundred and twenty years!

Immigration to the west was greatly accelerated by the opening of the Mississippi, the purchase of the Louisiana territory and the admission  of Ohio into the Union. By 1805 it was estimated that no less than thirty thousand people a year were settling in Ohio, a goodly portion of them drifting toward the fertile Miami lands. More people meant more business and the figures begin to be impressive. The small news sheets beginning to appear in Dayton and Cincinnati carried such notices as this: “Subscriber will pay cash for one hundred thousand weight of good corn-fed pork”; “Wanted, five thousand bushels of wheat”; “Whisky and corn at market prices.”

The great need was that latest product of the twentieth century – organization, which they had not yet got to in their social economy. Among the farmers it was every man for himself. The same man who grew the corn took it himself to market. A carpenter who built furniture or door-casings, built also the boat in which to float them down the rivers to the market. The Dayton merchant bought pork and packed it, brought wheat and had it ground, had barrels made to hold both, had the boat built, loaded it and acted as skipper from here to New Orleans where he set up a retail trade until his stock was disposed of. Flat-boats could not be floated up stream so the Dayton merchant had an eleven hundred-mile journey back to headquarters, not infrequently on foot, as one old diary tells us. Sometimes he went around by water to Philadelphia and there bought goods for the return journey, going through the same process of buying a wagon to Pittsburgh and a boat to Cincinnati and again a wagon to Dayton. McBride tells us that the round trip from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh usually consumed about three months.

It seems never to have occurred to the early farmers and merchants how much time they could have saved by some form of cooperation. It is the more strange because so much of their activities were cooperative. Together they put up each log-cabin – one set of men felling the trees, another notching the ends of the logs, another lifting them in place, and thus in one day a pioneer family would be housed. Together they cultivated their truck-gardens, side by side they defended their homes against wild animals or Indians, but separately they continued for twenty years, until the canal was opened, to both raise and market their produce. It was ruinously wasteful of course but the one thing that seemed never to have impressed the first Daytonians was, that things might give out. Food was so plenty, wood so abundant, the water supply so ending and time – our most valued possession – so absolutely not-to-be-considered, that they continued cheerfully to waste trees, top-soil, game, and time with no regard whatever for their descendants.

The reason why Dayton, by the end of the first decade, was growing finely, was because her citizens were beginning to realize that in addition to the advantages noted by Cooper and Symmes there were others. Cooper had stressed the fertile soil as an inducement to settle. But the loam was only top-soil and underneath it lay a deposit of gravel, a priceless material for road-building and without which Montgomery County would never have been interlaced with turnpikes, bringing intercommunication and traffic possibilities. For commercial purposes the gravel beds were so much pure gold. In fact gold itself would have been of far less practical value to the first dwellers in our city. Road  material – building material – what could have been more valuable? The soil above was composed of leaf-mold from centuries of seasons. Old letters reveal the astonishment of the pioneers as the first crops came up and were luxuriant beyond hope. They had never seen such peas and beans and corn. Assurance of untold riches lay in the first ten inches or so of the ground in the valley; below that there was untold promise for the material of their houses. Another advantage of a gravel sub-soil is the drainage it affords. Under the city at a depth of a few feet runs a constant stream of water acting as a natural filter. It gave a supply of good drinking water sufficient to Dayton needs until the population had increased to such a figure that a scientific water supply had to be established.

Log-houses were good as far as they went, but the settlers, some of them from the finished sections of the east, longed for more civilized surroundings. Their first use of the gravel was for mortar and Newcom’s was the first mortar-stopped house in the valley. The others were clay-daubed between the logs. The next houses, after sawmills had been built, were of board construction, and the third and last were of brick. To all of these the gravel beds contributed. But it was in road-making that the gravel proved such a blessing, which we can only faintly figure when we read letters from Daytonians in the first half of the past century describing a trip up from Cincinnati in a private or stage coach. One traveler was sick and bruised from the fatigue of being thrown from side to side of the vehicle as it pitched in and out of almost bottomless mud holes. All this was put to an end when the citizens got around to excavating the gravel and applying it to the roads.

The value of the rivers as a means of transportation has been noted but there was another immediately advantageous in a new community; they were the only sources of power. Steam had not been invented and would have been no use to such isolated communities as the Dayton of 1806. Electricity had not been thought of. Their own stout arms and the few horses they possessed were the only available power until they had harnessed current of the lazy Miami and its tributaries and taught it to run under huge water wheels. These turned the stones to grind the corn into meal, the looms which converted their wool into yarn, and the saws which made boards out of logs. Therefore, as soon as mill machinery could be brought across the mountains, mills began to appear all up and down the valley. By 1830 there were more than fifty gristmills along the Miami between Dayton and Franklin each with an annual output of over two thousand barrels of flour.

But this is ahead of our story. It is merely to illustrate that when Cooper and Symmes in placing Dayton where they did, thus foresaw clearly the future possibilities of the place, and they were wise men. The  soil, the river and the woods – Dayton’s material wealth. That they did not see far enough into the future to know that the rivers would be not our precious possessions but our greatest nuisances, being of no modern use whatever for power or transportation, that our woods would disappear and no longer count in our lives, that our soil would deteriorate under wasteful cultivation, is not to belittle their vision. It was sufficient to the needs of their generation.

Sometime later when the pioneers, literally, knew their ground better, they discovered another treasure – limestone. It was invisible at first but one of the early settlers, Robert Edgar, found white stone sticking out of the ground on his farm south of town, probed it far enough to know it was suitable to quarry, hustled to Cincinnati on horseback (to get to Cincinnati ahead of a neighbor who had also seen it but had no horse), bought the quarter section, and came home a rich man – that is, in prospect. The deposit is practically inexhaustible. For many years the quarries out on the Beavertown Pike were scenes of activity, and what came out of them went into many structures in Dayton, including the old and new Court Houses, Steele High School, the arched bridge over the canal on Jefferson Street,* culverts all up and down the streams, the bridge piers to all the bridges, sidewalks (sending their blinding white glare up into the eyes on scorching July days and giving out the heat like cook-stoves all night), stone curbing and horse-blocks, the old jail (since demolished) on South Main Street, and front steps to the houses. “Dayton Marble” it was called and continued to be not only our greatest domestic utility for many years but an export as well,  until the invention of synthetic stone from Portland cement put a quietus on the quarries. The poorer qualities of the stone are still used in the manufacture of cement and lime.

 *A remarkable piece of masonry and noted in its day because built on a slant over the bed of the canal. Now  destroyed to give place to the Patterson Boulevard. (See illustration; photograph by Dr. Jewett.) 


Back to "Dayton, Ohio - An Intimate History" Home Page