THE LEVEE AND ROBERT’S FILL
By Martin Kelly
In the latter part of 1967, the last connecting link of Interstate 75 through Dayton was formally opened to traffic. The length of expressway between Grand Ave. and Nicholas Rd. covers the former site of Robert Boulevard, buried forever beneath tons of embankment fill. Historians and various business interest who had argued in the late 1950’s for a “west of the river” alignment and private redevelopment of Robert Boulevard lost out to city planners for the present expressway route.
Today, most people recall Robert Boulevard as they last knew it—a faded thoroughfare of elegance lined with the deteriorated mansions of another age long since vanished. There was a time, however, notably between 1887 and 1913, that the “Boulevard” was known as one of the finest residential streets in the United States.
To determine how and why the Boulevard came into existence, it is necessary to examine the earlier development of the area.
The original settlement of Dayton clustered about the head of Main St. along Monument Ave., the log cabins facing the river. The land area to the southwest of the town extended over a flat plain covered by woods and prairies to the river bank, being nearly on a level with it.
In 1805, Dayton was struck by early spring floods that were to be commonplace during the coming years. The spring freshets would always rise over the river bank and cover the flat plain, thus causing great discouragement to the settlers.
After the 1805 flood, some agitated to vacate the town site along the river and move to the high ground south and east of the settlement. Others disagreed, and argued instead to construct a protective levee. Fortunately the latter group won their point and Dayton was secured at Main and Monument Streets.
Louis Hamblen Brown undertook the project of building a levee that began just east of Wilkinson St., following westward the bend of the Great Miami River. At Monument Ave. east of the bridge it veered sharply southward away from the river bend in a sweeping arc, down what later became the center island of Robert Boulevard to Washington St. Thus on the west side of the levee from Monument Ave. South, to just below Third St., there was a wide river bottom land area, that in time was used mainly as a pasture for grazing cows. This area was the continuation of the original flat plain previously described, that existed prior to the building of the Levee.
About 1816, Daniel C. Cooper, the proprietor of the Dayton settlement, deeded property in the vicinity of the Levee to Silas Broadwell in return for the latter’s continued building and maintenance of it. Mr. Broadwell resided near the corner of Stratford Ave. and what later became Broadwell Place, which was named for him.
As the years progressed, the Levee was constantly improved and strengthened, especially following a rise in the river. However, flood waters continued to plague various sections of the city despite the levees.
During the 1830’s, John Van Cleve undertook by private subscription, the planting of trees along both sides of the Levee. He personally engaged in some of this work himself. John Van Cleve was the son of Benjamin Van Cleve, one of the original settlers of Dayton. He was a noted horticulturist and nature lover and is chiefly remembered for the site selection and platting of Woodland Cemetery.
By the 1870’s the Levee had truly become a scenic area. A wood rail fence enclosed it on each side, and the trees had grown to provide shade for the walkway on top of the Levee.
Charlotte Reeve Conover, late noted Dayton historian, once observed, “The Levee itself became the prettiest and the longest pleasure walk anywhere around.” Gathering on the Levee became an enjoyable pastime of many Daytonians. A liesurly walk, pleasant conversation, a play spot for the children, and the coming together of friends and neighbors all combined to create a feeling of intimate sociability.
Indeed, such was its amicable atmosphere, that it was often said, if one should have so spent his time strolling upon the Levee, he inevitably would have met a long lost acquaintance or relative likewise engaged.
In the years following the Civil War, Dayton’s wealthy families began seeking out choice homesites on the streets leading westward from Main St. toward the Levee. The area already contained numerous earlier dwellings but many of these eventually gave way to the later mansions that we of today recall.
In the summer of 1869, a local newspaper called attention to the dilapidated condition of the wooden stairway and adjoining fence leading up the bank of the Levee at W. Second St. The article stated that the stairway was not in keeping with “the elegance of the neighborhood”, and that proper corrective measures should be taken at once.
Again that summer, the newspaper reported a complaint of persons residing across the river in Miami City. People walking over the Third St. bridge did not appreciate making their way through the dust and mud of the river bottom road between the bridge and the Levee. The suggestion was made that a board walk be put down between these points for their convenience.
Such was mid-Victorian Dayton’s obsession with life and events on the Levee. However, as development continued east of the Levee, it became evident by the 1880’s that its lackadaisical days were numbered.
Robert Boulevard was not just an ordinary real estate scheme designed for the sole purpose of attracting prospective home seekers. Rather it was an intelligent, well devised plan formed in the mind of Professor James A. Robert to extend the beauty of the city and eliminate the Levee which had become a barrier between the city and the beautiful bend of the Miami River.
One reference observed that Professor Robert, “was not ten cents richer for all his labors of four long years. The investment he put into it he got out of it and that was all, plus perhaps the personal satisfaction of seeing a much needed improvement realize itself.
James A Robert was born in South Carolina in 1839, but moved to New England as a child with his parents. He had two brothers, Joseph and Henry. Joseph was a noted parliamentarian of Boston, Massachusetts, while Henry was an engineer by profession and strange as it may seem the author of “Robert’s Rules of Order”. He later became Engineer-in-Chief of the United States Army.
Professor Robert and his wife came to Dayton in 1872, where he assumed the principalship of the Cooper Female Seminary. Founded in 1845, the seminary was an exceptional educational institution attended by the daughters of Dayton’s elite. Professor Robert remained its head until it closed in 1886. It was originally located on the present site of Westminster Presbyterian Church on W. First St. between Wilkinson and Perry Streets.
Professor Robert was a brilliant and cultured gentleman, an expert in music, and the center of rapt attention at any social or educational gathering. He enhanced the entire Dayton scene with his engaging conversation and keen practical mind.
Before the Cooper Seminary closed, Professor Robert turned his attention to the improvement of the Levee area. He met with violent opposition from all quarters when first suggesting the river channel be deepened and the area west of the Levee be filled and built up. Fear of floods were among the causes of the opposition that arose.
Professor Robert called his engineer brother, Henry, to check over the problem, and in 1885 it was decided to proceed despite the opposition.
Teams of men and a steam shovel began digging out the gravel of the river channel and piling it up on the river bottom west of the Levee between Monument Ave. and Third St. It was Professor Robert himself who surveyed the area, supervised the construction and did the platting of the lots. He then began the construction of a fine limestone wall to retain the fill between it and the Levee. This wall can still be observed today in part from the First-Salem Bridge.
The Levee itself began to assimilate into the general fill operations by the grading and leveling. Care was taken however to safeguard the towering trees, including the elms and silver maples planted nearly a half century before by John Van Cleve. Many of these ancient specimens were still standing when bulldozers for I-75 arrived on the scene in the mid-60’s to scarify the area. Professor Robert considered the trees an integral part of the over-all plan.
Robert’s Fill gradually assumed a more definite shape. The parkway in the center, where the old Levee had been was soon flanked on each side with graded thoroughfares. The building lots on the west side abutting the stone wall were situated on a high terrace. The lots on the opposite side however, were on a grade level with the street.
The widest part of Robert’s Fill was at Third St. The old bridge could now be approached by a smooth gradual ascending grade over the fill. Due to this wide area, another street was laid out paralleling against the wall north of Third St. to First St. It was appropriately named Sunset Ave. because the lots faced the river.
Gangs of men with pick and shovel, along with the steam shovels and teams of horses pulling drag harrows up and down the length of the fill eventually transformed it so that residential construction could begin. Robert’s Fill was completed in July 1887.
Shortly afterwards, Professor Robert departed Dayton for several years, to travel around the world. When he returned, he took up residence in the old Cooper Seminary building which had been converted into an apartment house. Considering his love for education, it seemed fitting that he should return to the scene of this earlier endeavors that were so much a part of his life.
Following a short illness, he passed away in February, 1923, at the age of 84. At his passing it was noted that the Boulevard was truly his monument.
Following the departure from Dayton by Professor Robert, others continued his efforts on the Boulevard, chief among them being Peter JoHantgen. JoHantgen had come to Dayton with his parents from the Prussian province of the Rhine, in Treves, in the year 1837. He was one of those sturdy immigrant Germans that comprised much of Dayton’s population during the last century.
A shoemaker and dealer by trade, he established and maintained a thriving business on Jefferson St. for many years. He also engaged in the excavating business as a sideline, and this led him to the activity at Robert’s Fill.
In the 1880’s he began a project for which he was ridiculed by many people. He purchased from the Longworth estate the low swampy ground comprising the area south of Third St. and bounded by Third St. and old Proctor Street from the boulevard to the river. He began filling up this area with gravel which was taken mostly from the river bottom. The work required several months, and when completed the fill was platted into desirable building lots.
About 1894, JoHantgen sold his Jefferson St. real estate holdings and invested the procedes in further development along the Boulevard. He purchased the three story brick Thresher residence standing on the southwest corner of First and Main streets. This structure was carefully dismantled and moved to the southwest corner of Third Street and Robert Boulevard, where it was again rebuilt. A large yellow brick structure, it was one of the most pretentious mansions to grace the street. It was later occupied by Joseph F. Steffen, who with his brother Frank, managed Steffen Bros., a Wholesale and Retail Liquor Company.
Peter JoHantgen next turned his attention to moving entire dwellings into the area. He first moved a large frame double house intact to the Boulevard, and shortly after, moved three more frame houses to complete the work. He then erected his own home on the south side of Third St. next to the bridge.
Those persons who had laughed at Peter JoHantgen at his initial undertaking, could no longer do so as they gazed in wonder at the beauty he had by sheer determination created out of a swamp.
At his passing, an Ohio biographical reference stated, “…..he was a man who took great pride in advocating any measure or movement having for its object the upbuilding of the city of his choice in any way,…..”
Robert’s Fill became known as the “Boulevard”, and was listed as such until 1907, when the name was officially changed to Robert Boulevard, in honor if its proprietor.
In 1890’s witnessed the building of large elegant homes on the Boulevard lots. Echoing the then popular Victorian Romanesque and Queen Anne styles, these homes enhanced the entire length of the street. A concrete walkway from First St. south to Fourth St. in the center of the parkway was lined with park benches and large iron urns containing ferns and flowers. The well kept lawns and towering trees continued the tradition of the old Levee as al pleasant strolling area. Truly, it was a scene of rare floral beauty, reflected against a background comprising the tranquil domestic edifices of a gracious age.
The residents of the Boulevard were citizens active in the business and social life of Dayton. Such names as McCann, Adler, Bickham, Smith, Silzell, Baker, Lefee, Groneweg, Snyder, Lyon and many others which contributed to the advancement of our community were well known along the Boulevard.
In 1905, an elite school for young ladies was conducted on the Boulevard in the Stilwell mansion by Miss Howe and Miss Marot. A study course from kindergarten to college preparatory work was maintained, and was highly successful.
In 1910, vacant lots were still available on the Boulevard, but by 1913, it had reached its zenith.
The Great Flood of 1913 that swept over the valley that March, also reached the Boulevard. The east side was flooded, while the houses on the high terrace on the west side saw the water advance to the porches and enter the basements. Following this calamity, an exodus of Dayton’s wealthy began seeking out the higher ground of Oakwood and Dayton View. The Boulevard began a slow descent into to oblivion which intensified during World War II. Most of the elegant homes were converted to rooming houses, some to businesses, occupied by strangers who were unaware of the area’s historical associations.
The expressway sealed the doom of Robert Boulevard in the mid-1960’s. All of the trees and the elegant old mansions were forever swept away. It was the end of an era.
March 18, 1969