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Dayton, Ohio - An Intimate History
Chapter Three





In the chronicle of the childhood of our city its recreational and social life must not be lost sight of. It was not all sickness and hard work. Wherever human beings, especially young human beings are, there will be an outlet for the spirit of fun. The first significant fact that strikes the historian is that whereas the present generation so often makes work out of play, our forebears made play our of work. There was nothing else to be done. A party for a party’s sake was not to be thought of. There was no time for aimless merry-making, no strength when the day’s work was done, no illumination, no clothes. And how silly to come together just to talk and eat! But that is not saying that the young folks of those primitive years did not find opportunity to have a good time. Trust young folks for that, whenever and wherever they live. And, after all, the chances were not lacking in those first Dayton homes for jolly parties.

Every household needed quilts. The neighbors got together and made them all at once and it was a “quilting bee.” Corn had to be husked in the fall and a husking was a frolic. Sap-boiling in the sugar-camp drew the young people together and they made the most of it. The elders gathered for cabin-raising, road-making and bridge-building; the women had to be there to cook a big dinner, which made another chance for a jollification.

On the whole it would seem that making play out of work is more to the point than letting play, for its own ends, degenerate, as it so often does, into boresome weariness. The only occasion when people came together with no work to make a reason for it was a wedding. What more fitting than to chronicle the first wedding in Dayton? It was when Benjamin Van Cleve brought his bride, Mary Whitten, to his home. His worldly goods consisted of a “horse creature,” a wagon and saddle, a cow, a sow and pigs, two lambs and an ewe: hers were a bed with which her parents had provided her and some cooking utensils. The garden on his in-lot in Dayton already contained growing corn and vegetables. With this plenteous outfit the young people determined to begin a life together. They were, as the bridegroom said, “not rich but contented and happy.” The wedding took place in the country at the bride’s home, where the tables for a bounteous feast were set out of doors, and to which every frontiersman came for miles around, his wife sitting behind him and holding on tight when a stream was to be forded. The officiating minister was an itinerant preacher, always an honored guest at early homes.

After the ceremony and the dinner, all the company, family, guests and preacher accompanied the young couple to their Dayton home, which was a log cabin on the corner of First and Jefferson. It was the cabin which later became post office and public library all in one, and it was, moreover, a center of frontier hospitality as long as the Van Cleves lived. No one knew the conditions and advantages of the Miami Valley as did its master. Prospective settlers went there first and got all the information they needed about their intended dwelling place. This wedding occurred in 1804 when Dayton was eight years old.

Another, some years later, was that of Henry Brown and Kitty Patterson, the former a personable young soldier and merchant, most active first in the War of 1812 and afterwards in the growing commercial life of Dayton; the latter a charming and vivacious daughter of Colonel Robert Patterson who founded Lexington, Kentucky, and came to Dayton in 1804.

Lexington was an older settlement and the Pattersons had lived in a generous and, for the times, luxurious stone dwelling, but Dayton was “the frontier” and things were different. At last they came to it, a large log house with three spacious rooms below and four chambers above, a porch in front facing the river half a mile away. The topography of Dayton has so changed that it needs explaining. Main Street had not been extended to make what is now the Cincinnati Pike. It was Brown Street, then known as “the big road” which formed the connection. West of that in the declivity following the windings of the river below the Bluffs and probably the bed of the canal built later, was “the Miami Road.” Here, where it curved from west to north stood the house Robert Patterson has prepared for his family.

More shall be written of him later, our concern now being the weddings that the new home saw. First there was to have been the silver-wedding of Robert and Elizabeth Patterson, prevented by a flood which covered the roads and kept more distant guests away.

Then two weddings when the older sisters were married; and at last Catherine met her fate in the person of Henry Brown and became engaged to him in 1810. He was described as being


Straight as an Indian, of robust build, dark long hair, full beard, a man of quiet and dignified bearing. His business kept him much in the saddle and for comfort and convenience he wore “short Clothes,” that is, hunting shirt or jacket buttoned to the chin, knee-breeches and buckles, cap, stockings, and moccasins. For Sunday, or when he courted Catherine, he wore an open jacket or cloth coat, doe-skin vest, ruffled shirt, high collar and stock, brass buttons on coat and vest, buckles to fasten breeches and stockings at the knee, buckles on his shoes and beaver hat. This was the prevailing style of dress for busy men of that day.


Both families being so numerous and widely known, the wedding festivities lasted three days: One day for the guests to assemble from Kentucky, from up the rivers and from Cincinnati; one day for the ceremony and the banquet (set out in the open with the blacks to wait upon them); and one day for the infaring of the young couple in their new home. The bride, we are told, wore a Quaker gray silk, very becoming to her fair beauty and which had been purchased in Cincinnati. Side by side, with the wedding guests following, they rode to the home on Main Street where they were to live so happily. The young men had prepared a big bonfire in the middle of the street to add to the welcome, but, Henry Brown, suspicious of ultimate happenings, generously provided the crowd with a barrel of very, very hard cider. It was soon disposed of and the young couple left in peace.

The Brown home was notable because it was the only brick house in Dayton at the time and for years a landmark. Standing just north of the Court House on the corner of the alley leading to Ludlow Street, it lasted, for many years – and into the lifetime of the writer – a broad gable towards the south on which was inscribed the date of erection – 1808. Later the house was reconstructed for business purposes and occupied by the “Journal” office; still later it was demolished to make way for a three-story block built on the site; lastly the site was occupied by the Union Trust Building.

The Brown home must have been a startling innovation and improvement, if we may take the word of other writers describing the homes in that distant day. They were frankly utilitarian, with lean-to kitchens, a well-sweep, a brick oven, the wood-pile and even a pig-pen in full view; there was no undue hesitancy about hanging the family wash boiler on a hook outside the kitchen door. We read that most families still had their private vat in the back lot for the curing of skins with tanbark for leather. Even Henry Brown saw to it that there was a well-filled smokehouse for his bride to begin housekeeping with. Now Daytonians began to imitate eastern fashions as they percolated over the Alleghenies and affected flower gardens behind neat paling fences and porches surrounded with what they called “pinies and laylocks.” They painted their hours white and their shutters green, and laid flat limestone flags around to the back door.

DAYTON,  OHIO!  What an important place it was to those who lived there! And yet the majority of the people in the sparse and scattered United States had never heard of it. Now, if you mention the name to an inhabitant of Tuscany or Bavaria he is likely to reply “Yes, that is where the Wright brothers come from” And he pronounces it “Wrig-it.”

It is a pity that this story of our parent city cannot be confined to weddings and quilting-bees, a pity too that a community having wrung their homes at such a cost from the wilderness should not have been allowed to remain at peace to enjoy them. Freedom from Indian raids and British harassment was thought to have been guaranteed by the Treaty of Greenville. For fifteen years the Dayton settlers possessed their souls and their land in serenity and quiet. Then rumors, vague but disquieting began to circulate through the medium of travelling merchants coming from those far off portions of the state near the Canadian border, rumors to the effect that the Indians were not keeping to the terms of the treaty but breaking them wherever possible, being incited thereto by the British, who furnished them arms and ammunition. Not much inciting was necessary since the Indians were making the fight for their very existence and the defeat by Wayne still rankles in their hearts.

Dayton people gathered at Henry Brown’s store to hear the latest news which, when it came, was neither new nor authentic. All doubt, however, was at an end when the “Centinel” printed an order for the first division of the Ohio Militia to meet in Dayton on the “usual parade ground” (a wide common east of Cooper Park on Third Street), “armed and equipped as the law requires.”

This was the opening of the War of 1812, an old story and often written – a tragic and sorrowful story. Can our imaginations picture it? How twenty companies (fourteen hundred men in all) were suddenly quartered on a village of half that number; how, lacking accommodations, they slept in the rain on the ground without blankets; how the Governor of the State begged for covering and how the women responded by depriving their own families; how many took pneumonia and went home – or farther; how this ignorant, untrained, ill-furnished army was put under command of General Hull who turned out to be a coward and a traitor; how at last they marched up the Troy Pike and disappeared into the distance.

Every school-boy knows the sequel. That army which was to protect the homes of Southern Ohio, numbering all told twenty-five hundred men, together with horses and ammunition, was surrendered to the enemy of less than half their number without striking a blow. This was the news brought to Dayton, after many weeks, by a weary muddy horseman describing the terrible fate of the army that had so proudly marched away ten weeks before. Imagine, if you can, the situation in Dayton. Every man of conscription age had gone to the war; only those over age or younger was left. It was the same in every settlement up and down the valley. The countryside was depleted of its workers, its fighters, its horses and supplies. Yet here was the necessity for all three once more upon them. It was Saturday noon when the sad word arrived. But did they sit down and mourn over it? Not at all. This is one thing that in her history Daytonians never do. If the work was to be done over again they were there to do it.

No one slept that Saturday night. They were busy getting the word by mounted messengers to every little hamlet on every road leading out of Dayton, sounding the call for more men, more horses, more arms (anything would do from a horse pistol to a pitchfork), more supplies. Will it be believed that by ten’ o’clock Sunday morning (the only occasion recorded when the church was not open) seventy men marched grimly out the same road on the same errand that Hull’s army had gone so many weeks before. No time was to be lost. Other companies kept coming in from outside points, all taking the same direction north. In all this excitement preparation there was one strong element of hope. It was “no old woman, thank God” as one pioneer put it, who commanded the new army of defense, but General William Henry Harrison.

The enthusiasm for him and his command ran high when the troops from Kentucky and Ohio marched in review past him in front of the courthouse. Public confidence was not misplaced, for all that Hull failed to do Harrison did. Straight to Fort Wayne he marched with the enemy disappearing before him in panic. After some days came the battle of Missisinewa resulting in a deadly defeat for the enemy and a costly victory for our forces. As usual in war it was the victors who were as badly off as the vanquished. Nevertheless the campaign ended finally in the surrender of Detroit and that broke the back of the war once for all.

Hull’s surrender was reported on August 22d; it was on September 12thwhen Harrison’s army went to the rescue and late in November when the limping relic, two hundred wounded, starved, shivering and frost-bitten soldiers out of seven hundred came slowly down the pike at three miles an hour, the wagons bearing the wounded dripping with blood which froze into icicles.

Here again was work for willing Dayton and in which we know the women had as large a part as the men. A tent hospital on the grounds of the courthouse was improvised by Dr. Steele and there the sufferers were cared for until they were ready to go out again into life or down the muddy road to the Fifth Street graveyard.

This is only the story of the War of 1812 as it affected Dayton. The rest of it is in the school text-books and belongs to the history of the United States. In  it you will read of the Battle of the Thames on September 5th, 1813, when Tecumseh, the great Indian chief was killed; Perry’s glorious victory on Lake Erie which was the final stroke in our favor. In December, 1814, a treaty of peace between the United States and Great Britain was signed at Ghent, since when for over a century there has been peace on the Canadian border.

Other things besides weddings and wars were going on in the Miami Valley in its second decade. We find accounts in the newspapers of meetings held in Dayton and Franklin relative to the unsatisfactory condition of the river. It seems that fish and flour were both interrupting commerce; that is, the dams built to turn the current into the mills and the nets stretched from bank to bank to catch the fish, were proving obstacles to the passage of boats which could not wait for the proper state of water. All this was done by private individuals for the sake of personal gain. One indignant correspondent wanted to know if a man would be allowed to fence off a part of the public highway for his own uses and if the Miami was not a highway what was it? All of which sounds strange to our modern ears.

But they were in deadly earnest about it and, although the papers of that day never proceeded to record the progress of a public enterprise, we may assume that the Navigation Board, which was appointed, did get to work and do something about obstructions in the river, because a new line of keel-boats was replacing the flat-boats. Nothing more is needed to prove the difference between the Miami of 1820  and the Miami of 1920. For keel-boats draw much more deeply than barges and in our day the channel which then accommodated boats fifty to seventy feet long will not hardly float a skiff. It suggests the idea that what we call high-water was then the normal stage and that our normal stage was their low water.

It was presently discovered that some difficulties in Miami navigation could not be settled by committees. The man-made obstructions were, perforce, removed and the channel dredged of accumulated mud and gravel, but the next freshet undid the work and left things as bad as before. In short, each spring and fall bought new problems to the boatmen, there were always new channels to navigate.

Those whose imaginations refuse to think of the Miami River as a navigable stream should read the “Dayton Watchman” with its account of the third week in March, 1815. For weeks there had been a drouth. The down-going boats settled hopelessly in the mud on the bottom of the river at the head of Wilkinson Street where stood big warehouses, packed to the roof with merchandise waiting to be moved. More boats from up the river edged gingerly down past shallows and riffles and could go no further. There, tied up along the bank in discouraged idleness, lay thirty freighters of all sizes, and shippers began to wonder if they would ever see profits on cargoes they had so laboriously collected. Practically all the commerce in Southwestern Ohio lay bogged in that basin.

Then it began to rain. Rain that raises the river has not always been welcomed by Daytonians, but this time it was. As  it continued to rain their spirits rose as well as the river. The big hulls began to lighten and life themselves under the buoyant power of the current and the populace also began to move. Word that “the boats are moving” brought all of Dayton to the river bank. Boatmen, storekeepers, millers, distillers, farmers, teamsters, school boys, mothers and babies – all had a more or less personal interest in the hegira. Some of those boats held four hundred barrels of flour, forty-four of whiskey and a thousand pounds of bacon. The total value of the cargoes in that fleet of boats was estimated at not less than one hundred thousand dollars. Such activity with wheelbarrows, laden mules and wagons – everybody of proper size helped in the loading of the boats. And as one by one the hulls swung out where the current could catch them a shout went up from the bank, and not until the last one had turned the corner of the river where the Dayton View bridge now is did the crowd go home to prosaic occupations.

Some of these boats came to grief on sand bars and dumped flour into the water, but most of them got to their destination in safety. One editor in commenting on the losses by the foundering of loaded boats said that in ten years they would pay the cost of one-sixth of the length of a canal from Mad River to the Ohio River – a revolutionary sentiment but it deserves notice because another such was beginning to be whispered here and there by firesides and in taverns all through the great west. The first word was “canal” and the second was “steamboat.”  Both were hailed with the same hospitality that the word “airplane” was in the year 1900. Those who made a point of discussing either were held to be the wildest visionaries. The Lord made rivers to be used as waterways; the founders of Dayton had put the city there because of it. Why say more?

But the two words continued to be discussed, the former with more pertinacity as time went on. And  the latter quite uselessly because the Miami River never saw a steamboat. The canal idea stuck. Its implications were what carried the day - water at the same stage everywhere and at all seasons.

Another idea called visionary by the obstructionists of the day was a weekly passenger and mail service between Cincinnati and Dayton. How was it possible to make such an enterprise pay with the few people that would ever want to be going to Cincinnati in a week? But ideas are tough things and sustain any amount of adverse discussion. The roads were still bad but improving, as they always do under the inevitable demands of wheeled vehicles. When passengers were exasperated to the proper pitch by the number of ribs they sacrificed to the jolting on the trip up from Cincinnati the beginnings of the Dixie Highway were laid and as usual it was a Van Cleve (John, son of Benjamin) who started the enterprise. When enough passengers got wet crossing fords they demanded more and better bridges. In 1818 the first weekly coach service was started between Dayton, Franklin, Middletown and Hamilton, and in 1819 the first bridge was built over the river at Stratford Avenue and Salem Avenue. The roads were toll roads and the bridges were toll bridges. Tollhouses stood at equal distances which protected against violated of the law by leaning poles like a well-sweep across the road which the toll keeper could lower and raise at will. The writer, as a girl, penniless as to small change but mounted on an agile pony, has been known to edge around the far end of the pole and escape before the toll-keeper got up from his breakfast table to sound his maledictions at the vanishing horsewoman. Three cents was not much for the privilege of riding under the pole but paying it was not exciting. Twelve cents was the price for a loaded wagon, six for an empty, the proceeds being used to keep up the roads. The tollgates lasted to sometime in the ‘seventies.

On Third Street in front of the courthouse (which in 1818 was a two-story building flush with the sidewalk) was the starting and arriving place for the Cincinnati stages. Twelve persons could be accommodated in each vehicle; three on the back seat, three on the front, three on smaller seats between the two and two beside the driver. At first there were no springs, later these were supplied. Eight cents a mile was the fare and fourteen pounds the allowance per person for baggage. The Cincinnati coach left Dayton at five o’clock Friday morning and arrived at its destination late on Saturday evening, Friday night being spent at Hamilton.

With such innovations as these, and the weekly example of what could be done in the way of rapid transit, the canal project was reopened. Or rather it came to the surface, for in the minds of some prominent men like Robert Patterson, James Steele and Henry Bacon it had never been absent. The two latter men were merchants and to get their goods out from the East with the least delay and danger of disaster was a prime requisite. They talked of it after business hours in the store and at their homes (log houses on First Street), but being wise men they forebore to risk their reputation for common sense in the community and so got somebody from the outside to propel the new project.

At a Fourth of July dinner (at four o’clock in the afternoon) in the backyard of the Court House, one of the speakers was named Stephen Fales – not a Daytonian – and his subject was “The Contemplated Canal from the Waters of the Mad River to those of the Ohio.” The fact that the canal was to connect Mad River with Cincinnati was proof that they still held to Mad River as the geographical reason for Dayton’s existence, and that it still accommodated freight boats of one kind or another. On June 29, 1821, a meeting was called at Reid’s tavern to appoint a committee to act with other committees to the contiguous country for the purpose of raising funds to pay for a survey for such a route. The committee consisted of H. G. Phillips, G. W. Smith, James Steele, Alexander Grimes, and J. H. Crane, chairman.

Events were working for them in other sections of the country. The Miami Erie Canal had been partly completed and Governor De Witt Clinton of New York State, the great canal promoter of that time, was to come out to Newark and dedicate it. This was a chance for Dayton and they took it. James Steele and Henry Bacon rode up through the woods to Newark to invite the Governor to come to Dayton and (as we would say) “boost” the canal idea. But the early Daytonians never used slang, much less in connection with so important a person as the Governor of New York. Most dignified and punctilious were they in their long-tailed coats and beaver hats. The Governor was duly invited to a dinner in Dayton and he came. A detachment of horse, with the canal promoters at their head, went as far as Fairfield to meet and escort him to the city. This time the dinner was at Compton’s Tavern on Second Street. His speech must have been effective for it started others to discussing the canal. One speaker had a lovely plan for the canal to go down the middle of Main Street, a forty-foot wide water-way with a wagon road thirty-four feet wide on either side and twelve-foot sidewalks. This plan, the “Watchman” said editorially in the next issue, would make Main Street the handsomest thoroughfare in the state of Ohio. The earth taken from the excavation, it was explained, would fill every hole and level every street in town. We all know that plan fell of its own weight, but the canal continued to fill the public mind. A law passed by the Legislature in 1825 authorizing the canal was the first step and from then on progress was steady. The contract was given that same year and 1829 saw its completion at a total cost of $567,000. At one time a steam canal boat was given a trial but its waves washed the bank away and it had to be abandoned.

One can but weakly visualize what the canal was to Dayton. It put Dayton definitely at the head of navigation, since wagons coming down the valley could shift their cargo to a boat and send it straight to Cincinnati. The canal basin on Second Street was a crowded and busy place, the banks piled with merchandise as the river bank had used to be. The last keel-boat went down the river sometime in 1828, and the warehouse being carried away by the flood, the new center of commerce became definitely the canal bank. No sooner was the route open than traffic became at once heavy – speaking not satirically but actually – for we read that in the month of April, 1829, seventy-one boats arrived at the Dayton wharf and seventy-seven departed. For a little city of only two hundred and thirty-five dwellings and three churches this was indeed “big business.”

Naturally it was not long before the passenger service followed the freight. It became both a pleasure and a practical necessity to travel by canal. The company built big boats glistening with white paint with seats and awnings on deck and luxurious bunks within. Silk curtains hung at the windows and a long table filled the middle of the saloon for passengers had to eat five meals between Dayton and Cincinnati. Often a negro fiddler accompanied the crew, and dances were held in the evenings on the broad smooth deck. When a boat thus planned came up to the basin at Second Street, what wonder that the town came out to watch it tie up! Old men who were boys then told boys who are old men now how gay it was and how thrilling to see the horses, gayly harnessed with ribbons and bells, draw the boat up to the wharf.

Let not the present day citizen smile at the transportation achievements of our ancestors. They had really done a big thing. They had linked up the northern part of the state with the southern on the western side. And what odds they worked against we can but dimly guess. In 1825 the population of Ohio was barely 700,000, the tax duplicate for the whole state was $58,000,000, the per capita tax $83. That is, the wealth of the whole state then was less than the wealth of a single county now. The population was sparse and the citizens all poor. Comparatively few people travelled and comparatively food products were carried to markets. But these men of vision and action undertook an enterprise of which the estimated cost was two and a half million dollars. In fact they spent a million dollars a year for sixteen years on what was the greatest developing agency in Western Ohio. And the irony of it was that on the day the canal was finished it was obsolete. Railroad talk was in the air and, in 1825, railroad and canal talk was like aviation talk today. 


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