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Dayton, Ohio - An Intimate History
Chapter Four





While we are on the general subject of transportation, a glance at the early history of railroads in Montgomery County will not be inopportune. Practical men there were in the Dayton of that day who saw even farther than the stage coach and the canal boat. That they met opposition goes without saying and from the same sources which had opposed the canal. Lack of imagination is, as Emerson calls it, “a mortal distemper.” If from a new country the unimaginative people could be barred things would go better. The inevitable objection of such was that there never would be enough people going in any direction to justify the amazing expenditures involved by these innovations. But the argument was fast losing its force, for increase of population was the first result of the canal and the stage coach. But the people who can’t see ahead, can’t see what is going on right under their eyes, so this juxtaposition of cause and effect was slow in getting accepted.

A notice in a July issue of the “Journal” of 1831 invites the public to inspect a sample railroad which had been installed in a large warehouse on East Third Street. A circular track of wooden rails had been laid out around the inside of the building carrying a small car and a locomotive. “It will be,” says the paper, “a rich treat to the friends of national and State improvement. The locomotive works with great celerity and precision, drawing a splendid miniature car in which two persons may ride at the same time. Ladies and gentlemen” (there seem to have been no men and women in those days) “are respectfully invited to call and ride. Price twenty-five cents. Children half price.” The railroad in Dayton in 1831 was therefore not yet a utility but a mere curiosity. However, things were certainly moving. In 1821 they had been paying a bounty for wolf scalps; in 1831 they were paying twenty-five cents to ride around behind a steam locomotive on a track in a big shed. If that is not progress, what is?

However, the application of the new invention to practical needs moved slowly, in fact so slowly that Xenia got ahead of us. A road begun at Sandusky had ended, for want of funds, at Springfield, which was Dayton’s great chance if she could but see it. Meetings were held and speeches made by far-sighted residents, like Daniel Beckel, T. J. S. Smith, and others, urging the citizens to complete the road and belong to the great outside world; but there was little money and no enthusiasm. Cincinnati seemed to have both – at least enough of both to reach as far as Xenia with a railroad, which she promptly did. Then Xenia woke up, connected the two ends of the line, and lo! The north of Ohio and the south met and Dayton was left out in the cold. Much fun was poked in private letters and public print at the “Granny Rip Van Winkles” who did not know a good thing when they saw it. The sting remained for many years as Daytonians had to drive over to Xenia to take the Pennsylvania to New York. Either the sarcasm or the economic needs of the Miami Valley at last triumphed and in the end, 1849, we connected with a line of our own to Springfield, and within a year five railroads were coming into Dayton: the Miami and Lake Erie, the Dayton and Western, the Cincinnati Hamilton and Dayton, the Greenville and Miami and the Dayton and Union. At last Dayton was a railroad center.

The first station was merely a brick building at the north side of the tracks at Sixth and Jefferson streets where the trains stopped to let passengers off and on. Sometimes in the early ‘fifties a real station, or depot as it was called, was constructed on Sixth Street west of Ludlow. According to the testimony of a still living citizen who saw it in the building, the depot was a long brick shed astride the tracks with three open arches for the trains to enter under a barrel-shaped roof. Each of these openings had a heavy wooden door with large hinges. The Dayton of that day was strictly Sabbatarian and the railroads had to follow suit. Therefore no Sunday trains; every Saturday night the doors were closed and padlocked until Monday morning. At first the passengers, in order to mount, clambered up from the ground to the steps leading into the cars; later a raised platform on the south side with ticket office and baggage room was a welcome addition.

The three arches at some later day transformed into one large arch. This archway, with smaller blind ones at one side, a row of busses and a pump outside made the old Union Depot, which for us in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties marked the beginning and the end of all our trips away from home. With the lack of imagination and foresight already noted, the city authorities arranged the approaches to the depot on the south side of the building, away from town, so that departing and arriving guests had always to cross the tracks to get anywhere.

The following incident reported by William F. Scott, an early resident of Dayton, but absent for a long lifetime after leaving in 1856, will serve to illustrate conditions in the Dayton of that day:


One day, on leaving the Rogers school (1852 or 1851) I heard much noise and saw a crowd gathering at a point just south of the tracks and midway between the station and Ludlow street. The crowd surrounded a man who was crying and shrieking. He had been struck by a car when crossing the tracks and had one leg cut off at the ankle – a horror to see. He was well dressed, probably not an employee of the road but there as a passenger or on other business. There could not have been a doctor there or sent for because they were putting him on a dray – you know the “dray” of that time, a two-wheel, one-horse, low platform cart with a long skid tail and no springs. He was sitting up when I last saw him on the rear end; two or three men got on and sat or stood so as to support him. The only pavement then was gravel macadam and I can still hear the piercing shrieks as the dray got into motion.

Now where was the dray going? To a surgeon? To a hospital? Was there a hospital? If there was had it no ambulance or surgeon for emergencies? True there was at that time no way to reach a hospital except by a messenger a-foot or horseback so perhaps the dray may have been the quickest way after all. But Lord! What a situation!


It ought not to need a story like this to remind us to be thankful for our modern appliances to help the sick and suddenly hurt. The correspondent who sent in this story should see what would happen on South Ludlow Street today if there was such an accident. Within not more than five minutes a sounding gong down the street would herald the approach of the police ambulance. Traffic would give way to it; the officer in charge would administer first aid to stop the pain and in another five or ten minutes the sufferer would be between the sheets of a comfortable bed in the hospital with all the advantages of modern surgery as his disposal.

From railroads it is not such a long jump to markets, which properly to consider we must go back in our story. The first Daytonians did not need a market because each family was, in a way, self-supporting. Each had its own vegetable plot, it shot its own game or butchered its own pigs, cured its own hams, raised its own chickens and made its own maple sugar. But the growth of the town gradually changed these primitive conditions and made necessary a public place where supplies might be purchased.

The first market, opened as a part of the Fourth of July festivities of 1815, was a long wooden building on Second Street between Main and Jefferson, with butcher stalls inside and stalls for garden produce outside under the wide projecting eaves. Market was held two days in the week, on Wednesday and on Saturday, from four to ten  a.m., not ten to four. Those were too late hours for thrifty housekeepers. Butchered meats would not keep many hours, and they wanted their steaks and chops fresh. And it was the men (pardon! “gentlemen”) of the family in those days who went to market. They could be seen coming down First and Second streets at five o’clock in the morning wearing silk top hats and carrying the family basket.

What could he buy, this gentleman in correct afternoon dress at five o’clock in the morning, to fill his splint basket? (If the chronology of the narrative be here criticized, it will be explained that to the first market the customers probably wore leggings and coon-caps like Henry Brown, but to the later market in the ‘thirties and ‘forties he certainly wore a silk hat. Witness old cuts and old letters.” What did he buy and what did he pay. Well, if word ad come that friends were driving up from Cincinnati (and in those days they thought nothing of coming down suddenly on their relatives or friends, six to ten at a time) he could get a pair of venison hams for fifty cents or a turkey for the same. An old poem in the “Piqua Register” says:


                           A good half dollar still a turkey buys

Though (clip their wings!) ‘tis said that fowls will rise.


Which  shows that market prices were practically equal up and down the valley. He could get beef at three cents a pound, butter at twelve and a half cents, eggs eight cents a dozen, and chickens (undressed) seventy-five cents a dozen. Profuse and redundant plenty – that’s what it was, in the Dayton of those early days. No taxes, no poor land, no middlemen, no freight rates. Flour two dollars and seventy-five cents a barrel, pork one fifty to two a hundred weight, wheat forty-five cents a bushel – who so lazy or inefficient that he could not live at that rate?

Another market (when the Second Street lot got too valuable) was built on Sears and Webster streets on ground donated by Cooper; later it was installed on Main Street below Third. This was held to be a fatal business move, for Dayton already had its caste prejudices. North of Third Street was where “the best people” lived; south of Third Street did not count at all. It was called “Cabintown” and held in deep disesteem. In spite of opposition, part of which had to do with local partisan politics, the market was moved bodily down Main Street to its new location, bearing a sign which read: “Bound for Cabintown.” The new location was boycotted for a time but there is no record of its duration. We suspect that roasting ears and watermelons had in time something to do with the decision to accept the City Hall Market without reservations. Dayton markets have always been good, whether held in a shed on Second Street or in a palatial “Arcade” under a glass roof, as at the present writing. What the proverbial warmth and hospitality of Dayton homes has to do with it and which is the cause and which effect must be left to the reader.

An era of picturesque interest was initiated when the first fire companies were organized and the first fire engines installed. Both were sorely needed, Dayton having suffered great and serious losses from fire. It was in 1824 when, owing to a disastrous fire on Main Street with the loss of two thousand dollars worth of goods, a fire engine costing two hundred and twenty-six dollars was ordered from Philadelphia. Not a steam engine, be it understood. It was fifteen years earlier than the first locomotive, and enterprise of that day could see no farther than a hand-worked pump. It might have been an improvement upon trying to put out a burning building by throwing water upon it by single individuals, but there were drawbacks. There was a large reservoir which had to be filled from buckets at the public pump. It was provided with long handles in each side which, when worked up and down by men and boys, threw a considerable jet of water on the fire. But it took some time to fill it, especially if to prevent freezing, the tank had been put away empty from the last fire. Fire companies were formed and every man or boy in town belonged to one or another of them. In the night was apt to be called out of a warm bed to fight a fire and the only thing that brought patience was the thought that the next fire might be nearer home, in which case favors might be returned. The old “Safety” engine gave way to another one of the same type before steam engines came in. Called a double-decker because of its two sets of handles, with twenty men on a side, it threw quite a considerable stream of water.

It was in 1863 that the first steam engine was purchased and with it came to an end the volunteer fire companies which in their ambition to be first at a fire actually placed obstructions in the way of their opponents. Sometimes, to maintain supremacy they got into a free-for-all fight, so that in time Daytonians dreaded a fire more for the fire department than for the fire itself. But the old system before its decadence, had its excitement and its charm. The very best citizens in the town belonged to it and, when old men, would tell their children of their prowess in “running with the engine.” As late as 1880 the fire department consisted of part paid members and part, what were known as “call men.” Not until nearly 1890 did we have an expert fire department on a full pay basis.

It is interesting to try to picture the Dayton of those early years; the stages arriving and leaving on Third Street, the canal boats filling the basin and discharging their loads, passengers climbing aboard the cars on wooden rails at the old depot; housekeepers filling their baskets at the City Hall Market, mud in the streets, doctors driving around in their buggies to see patients miles distant, deep gutters at the side of the roadway and wooden bridges crossing them, two or three vehicles to a block the excess of traffic on Main Street, the bell of the old First Church or the Wesley Chapel calling people to service, Kiefer and Conover selling prints and bonnets on the corner of Third and Main and offering customers a drink of whiskey out of the free jug on the counter, camp-meetings on the river bank, parties on the canal boats, high school graduation ceremonies over across the river in Steele’s woods, the girl graduates walking in a procession wearing white sunbonnets – all this we can but guess from the stories and reminiscences of the old people who have long ago been laid away in Woodland Cemetery.

Woodland Cemetery! That reminds us of John Van Cleve and again of Robert Steele, to both of whom we owe that lovely dwelling-place of the dead on the hill above Dayton. Business and homes had surrounded the old graveyard on Fifth Street whose space became too restricted for future interments. The green lifting their heights above the city to the south, appealed to Van Cleve as the place he would like to be laid when he was gone and his opinion was shared by others who together purchased, surveyed and planted what we now know as Woodland Cemetery. No other city cemetery in this part of the Middle West has a more beautiful situation.

In the early ‘thirties the waves of the trouble that brought on the Civil War began to touch Dayton. We were not so far from the Southern border and as a consequence fugitive slaves were able to reach our city. A  cut, kept regularly in the newspaper offices and used for advertising purposes, testified to the frequency of such occurrences. It pictured a negro with a bundle under his arm and the inscription, “Fifty Dollars Reward; A likely nigger named Joe, five feet high, weighs 130 pounds,” etc., etc. People get used to anything, so not much attention was paid to these occasional notices. No man in Dayton would willingly give back into custody a negro fleeing for freedom even to gain the sum of fifty dollars. To disregard it was to course to break the Fugitive Slave law, but men did break it over and over again. The most notable example was where, on Jefferson Street* there was in a private house what they called an “underground station,” i.e. a place either in the cellar or the barn where a runaway slave could find food and shelter on his way to Canada. If the poor fugitive could get far enough away to the north it did not pay to have him arrested and sent back. Those who thought the slave law was a pernicious law gave all the help and comfort they could.

Things were brought to a crisis sometime in the summer of 1832 when Federal officers came into town and arrested a quiet inoffensive colored man, known as “Black Ben,” and took him to Cincinnati in order to return him to his southern owner. An effort was made to buy the negro and keep him where his faithful work had made him many friends, but the offer was refused. Knowing what was inevitably in store for him when he got back Ben eluded the officers in the night, leaped from a high building and was killed. What that self-inflicted martyrdom did for the cause of abolition can only be guessed. It certainly struck fire in Dayton. Soap-box orators on the street, fervent preachers in the pulpits, all awoke their hearers to the iniquity of one man owning another. The slumbering question of human rights grew to large proportions in that time of agitation. Not long after the notice of the arrest and death of Black Ben had appeared in the “Journal” the announcement was carried of the first meeting of the Dayton Abolition Society. Luther Bruen was the president and the members met at the home of Peter P. Lowe on South Main Street right where customers who have forgotten what anti-slavery agitation was about, or never knew, go to drink soda water at Elder and Johnston’s lunch counter.

From 1830 to 1845 a recrudescence of business activity and civic advance was shown in Dayton. The bend in the river from west to north making an elbow, suggested the advantage of a mill race. Steele’s dam was therefore constructed north of town, a part of the current deflected from the main channel and made to flow across what is now Riverdale to unite with the main stream a half mile further down. It made a not unattractive tree-bordered stream and gave power to several mills, most notable among them being Tate’s Mill on what is now Riverview Avenue and Forest. All remains of the old mill have long ago disappeared but in its day it was a great productive center. Stillwell and Bierce’s knife factory also took advantage of the water-power and for a while it looked as if that part of suburban Dayton was to be given over to factories and mills. This did happen in another place when the hydraulic was taken out of Mad River on the Springfield Road and turned through the center of Dayton to unite with the Miami below the fair grounds. Mills – flour mills, paper mills, woolen mills followed its route, making that central part of Dayton permanently a manufacturing locality. But as the steam-engine replaced water-power, the mill-race was converted into a boulevard, the gabled mill and the ugly factory gave way to McKinley Park with its contiguous apartment houses and its planted masses of foliage, and that part of Dayton was saved to beauty.

Cooper it was who, with his usual generosity, gave the land for the hydraulic, and it is interesting to discover in his mind a combined sense of beauty and practical needs. It was he who, when the troops were quartered in Dayton in 1812, set the



*Dr. Adam Jewett’s residence, still standing.

young recruits to building the levee. The river menaced the town at every freshet; the soldier boys were on the dangerous ground where forced idleness makes surely for mischief. It does not appear what authority Cooper had for the measure but he put every homesick and idle recruit to digging. In time an embankment made its way down the river edge from the head of Main Street, where the rising ground made a natural protection, across the end of Monument Avenue (then Water Street) where the river turns, across the ends  of First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth streets, which covered part of the town in need of security.

Whether Cooper had any legal right or not, this was a fine foresighted, public-spirited thing to do. Other men saw the possibilities of the levee as a public park. Van Cleve planted elms and maples throughout its length and, under the spreading trees with the river flowing lazily (or ferociously, according to the season), at its foot it became the favored walk of Daytonians.

Adult persons there are in Dayton today who, as they read references to the Levee ask: “Where was it, anyway?” Their ignorance is not inexcusable for the topography of that part of the city has greatly changed. For their information it must be explained that what is now known as Robert Boulevard, the winding parkway, was originally the levee now leveled down to the adjacent territory. The remaining plot laid out in building lots and sold for residences belongs to another part of this history. The Levee itself became the prettiest and the longest pleasure walk anywhere around. One could always meet one’s friend there on pleasant sunny afternoons. To this rule one exception held – Sunday. Dayton was aggressively Sabbatarian in the old days. The Levee was a pleasure place since no one could possibly have anything useful in view while walking there. Pleasures of any kind were wrong on Sunday, therefore the Levee was a place to be avoided by good church members. One little boy in the ‘fifties*  committed a double sin; he walked on the Levee after Sunday school and while thus engaged he whistled. To whistle on Sunday was bad enough, but to walk on the Levee and whistle was to make him an early candidate for hell and he was so advised by an elderly friend of the family who met him while engaged in these pernicious occupations.

By natural law of association this lands us straight in the middle of the question of religion, or what passed as such in the earlier part of the last century. There were two sides to it. One, a highly to-be-praised sentiment of loyalty to fine ideals of living, strict probity of conduct, fealty to the Ten Commandments, definite standards of law and order, and personal rectitude that as a leaven would be highly appreciated by the best of us in these modern days. The men who by hard work dug this city out of the wilderness and built its foundations had their fundamentals in the old Puritan times and manners. They had no compromises with what they called “sin.” As might have been expected, and as fanatics always do, they carried it too far. Like the elder who reproved the little boy for whistling on Sunday they were against pleasure of any kind. If a thing was beautiful or pleasurable, and had no other meaning it was to be avoided at all costs.

It is an astonishing thing to realize how much the minds of our early citizens were


*William  Scott


occupied with religion. Rather, may it be explained, with a kind of barren self-

centered theology which made the safety of one’s own soul take the place of public service for other people’s needs. The sources of information to an historian are mainly two – old letters and old newspapers. Of both in Dayton we have been bereft by the flood. Those files of old news sheets still remaining in the Public Library are difficult to decipher in spite of the nothing-less-than-heroic efforts of the staff of librarians after the ravages of the flood of 1913. But when we have laboriously examined the pages brown with dried mud, we find little to reward us. Local news seemed in those days not to be of interest. Instead of a view of the small town which we would love to have reproduced we read indefinite European news, advertisements of strayed or stolen hogs, and a silly continued sort of sub-novel or a sermon.

The  same thing with family letters. Here at least we should find a picture of domestic life in the early ‘thirties, accounts of daily happenings as recounted by, perhaps, a mother to a daughter or a father to a son. Something  to help us reconstruct the life of that distant day. Letters were letters too in those days and we marvel that, with the difficulty of the mechanical part of it, they should have so diligently persisted through three closely written sheets of foolscap paper. The fourth side was the one that carried sealing wax, stamp and the address, being folded so as to carry in the mails. (Envelopes were a long time coming in.)

These crowded pages should tell us of family affairs, of family happenings, of the price of food stuffs, etc. But they seldom do. Most of them, from the formal greeting, “Beloved Mother,” or “Respected Father,” to the signature of the writer, contain disquisitions as to the state of the soul, or on infant damnation. They were strong on infant damnation – a dreadful doctrine of a dreadful God. The implication is that as theology filled their letters it also filled their time and their minds. Besides the business or profession by which the husband maintained his family, and the housekeeping cares with which the wife was occupied, there was little other interest except in religion. Social life was limited to occasional tea parties or picnics; lectures, even after the Lyceum was established, were of necessity few and far between. Shows of any kind seldom penetrated into small centers where the toll roads in and out must have used up all the profits. No one traveled, few had libraries, there were several violinists but they seem not to have given concerts – in fact the cultural life of all small towns in the early days was practically nil. Therefore the one outlet for their cultural and emotional side was the exercise of religion. Preaching services were at first conducted by itinerant preachers and were held in the houses of the citizens. Then the First Presbyterian Church was built as has been told. Camp meetings were held on the Commons below Sixth Street and in the woods across the river to which wagon loads of people came for miles around. The whole town went to church. A non-church-goer was branded as an infidel and felt his unpopularity to the point of losing business by it.

When they went to church what did they hear? A  monstrous doctrine of an angry God instead of the good news of a loving Father. Sin was anything that was pleasant or lovely. Right living was to spend your time thinking of your soul and patronizing your neighbors who did not have the inside with God. An early record notes that: “The first minister who preached in the settlement (Dayton) was the Rev. John Kobler of the Methodist Church on Sunday, August 12, 1798. Topic mainly hell.” Like Jonathan Edwards of New England fame they conceived that the greatest pleasure one would have in the hereafter would be leaning over the ramparts of heaven and beholding the sinners writhing in the pains of hell. We have progressed far since those days in many things but none farther than in the new, and yet everlastingly old, conception of religion. “To love God and they neighbor as thyself.”

In 1830 the population of Dayton was two thousand nine hundred and fifty-four, being a gain of one thousand two hundred and thirty-seven in a little more than two years. In 1833 the population was four thousand. Curwen, in his first tine history of Dayton published in 1850 and describing the primitive simplicity of urban life in the first decade asks: “What would those first Daytonians think if they could have foreseen that on the site of those first log cabins on the river bank there would at last arise a city of four thousand inhabitants?” Ah! What would they indeed? 

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