The Cincinnati Subway and When Cleveland Had a Subway

Singer, Allen J.  The Cincinnati Subway: The History of Rapid Transit. Charleston, SC; Arcadia Publishing, 2003.

Toman, James A, Bruce E. Young, James R. Spangler, Blaine S. Hays.  When Cleveland Had a Subway. Cleveland; Cleveland Landmark Press, 1999.

I would like to think this review is a guide to all you need to know about subways in Ohio.  Two books that could be read in one sitting.  A lifetime of conversation pieces.  (“Did you know there were subways in Ohio?”)

Yes, the electric underground has a history in Ohio.  Sort of.  From 1917 until 1954, Cleveland had underground trolley lines running under the Detroit-Superior Bridge (now known as the Veterans Memorial Bridge).  And there were two actual subway stations that looked just like real subway stations (because they were real stations).  Cincinnati’s story is more grand, in that an actual subway system was planned but never completed.

When Cleveland Had a Subway is a great little publication (48 pages) that tells the story of the bridges over the Cuyahoga and the trolley and Interubrans that ran under one of the bridges.  The text is brief but to the point, with a great description of an east-bound trolley turning right unto the bridge.  The authors do a good job of detailing where everything was located, from where the train entered the underground tunnels to where passengers entered and boarded the trains.  What should get this book on coffee tables is the great collection of old Cleveland photographs.  “See, there was a subway station!”

The Cincinnati Subway is also full of amazing photos of early trains/trolleys of the Queen City of the West’s past.  There are also maps, documents, and construction photos, along with a surprisingly detailed narrative.  The font used in this Arcadia publication is some of the smallest font I have come across in my readings.  Three page chapters could fill up 10 pages of text in average books.

The subway was, for the most part, going to replace the Ohio and Erie Canal, with a grand boulevard (Central Parkway) above.  The planning and construction of the subway occurred for about 20 years up until 1927, when new administrations had new ideas.  While there is plenty of information on the planning and construction of the subway, Singer’s main focus is on the politics of the construction.

In the afterword, Singer and a photographer, Suzanne Fleming, detail a tour taken of the subway line with several engineers.  The end result is some post-apocalyptic looking tunnels, sure to be of interest in Cincinnati residents.

As with skyscrapers, there were very few completed subways in America between 1930 and 1980–the age of cars and office parks.  The Cleveland subway closed with the end of electric trolley lines in 1954.  Covered in detail in The Cincinnati Subway, there were numerous attempts to repurpose the tunnel or revive the subway dream.  Of note, there has been a water line running through the tunnels since the 1950s.

Both forgotten architectural gems can be viewed by the public.  The Cuyahoga County Engineers Office opens the lower level (subway station) of the Veterans Bridge on various holiday weekends.  Likewise, the Cincinnati Museum Heritage Program and the Over-the-Rhine Foundation offer tours.  In looking at the  schedules, it looks like these tours have all passed for this year.  But don’t fret, next year, when you go on the tours, you can come prepared with the knowledge found in these two texts.

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Dividing Lines

Mould, David H. Dividing Lines: Canals, Railroads and Urban Rivalry in Ohio’s Hocking Valley, 1825-1850.  Dayton, Ohio; Wrights State University Press, 1992.

What more could someone want than a book about canals, railroads, and urban history?  If you could not think of anything, then Dividing Lines is for you.  Mould’s history of the Hocking Valley (and beyond) from 1825 through 1875 covers early river towns, canal towns, railroad hub cities, through coal cities, all within a few hundred pages.

I will warn that this book is not equal parts canals and railroads, with more of the content going to the Iron Horse.  Reading the chapters on the canals, one quickly grasps how short the time of the man-made waterway took up Ohio history.  This is not to say that the canals went away overnight.  (The Hocking Canal was open through 1890).  But, the public’s excitement for the canal boat was quickly eclipsed by the speed and year-round service of the railroad.  (It took over 10 days to ship coal from Nelsonville to Columbus by canal and about 6 hours by train).  By the time the canal extension to Athens was completed in 1843, there were already railroads running in Ohio (the Little Miami opened in 1841).

But that said, I do not think you will find a better history of the Hocking Canal.  Mould covers the story of canals and railroads through the politics and funding.  If you are really interested in the politics and funding, please look at the many, many Notes.  Mould’s story is often told through articles and opinions of the newspaper reporting of the time.

Along with a very detailed look at the process behind making (in stages) the Hocking Canal, there is enough information on the Belpre and Cincinnati (later known as the Marietta and Cincinnati) RR for its own book.  It was a constant struggle to find public and private donors for this venture, and

Apart from the transportation aspects, Dividing Lines is a great source of early history for Lancaster, Nelsonville, and Athens.  After the Civil War, rail extensions were built in the direction of minerals (mainly coal).  This led the quick rise (and later decline) of several coal towns in isolated areas.  Notably Shawnee City, which I am told is worthwhile trip today.   Read Shawnee’s story and more in Dividing Lines.

Island Heritage

Ligibel, Ted and Richard Wrights. Island Heritage: A Guided Tour to Lake Erie’s Bass Island. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1987.

In my ongoing quest to find books on the Lake Erie Islands, Island Heritage is a worthwhile relic. It is dated now, but still worth a look to history/architecture seekers.

Ligibel and Wright obtained a preservation grant to document the history and architecture of Bass Island and its shipping industry. The end result is this guided tour of the Bass Islands (South, Middle, North and Gibraltar). Not a tourism board pamphlet, Island Heritage was published by Ohio State University Press, and was a byproduct of 6+ years of research.

The eight guided tours are almost exclusively looking at the architecture on the islands. It surprised me to find the number of structures on each island dating before 1880. The descriptions of each structure are full of early Bass Islands history, focused heavily on the early vintners and wineries. Continue reading

Invisible Giants

Harwood, Herbert H. Jr., Invisible Giants: The Empires of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen Brothers. Bloomington, Indiana; Indiana University Press, 2003.

I walked into Invisible Giants knowing very little about the Van Sweringens (Oris Paxton and Mantis James). I picked up this book because I wanted to learn about the history of Shaker Heights. Little did I know that Shaker Heights was just the beginning. In the course of their business career (1900s through 1930s), the Van Sweringen brothers started a real estate empire, acquired over 29,000 miles or railroad (starting with the Nickel Plate), and built the Terminal Tower complex on Public Square in Cleveland.

Harwood is a train historian and I can imagine this biography would appeal most to those with an interest in railroads. But, the development of Cleveland in the 1910s-1930s is a fascinating story worth hearing. Cleveland went from an industrial town with poor rail service to an industrial town more friendly to rail service with the tallest building east of Manhattan.

Since very little is known about the private lives of the Van Sweringens, Invisible Giants reads like a long list of business transactions. While this might sound unappealing to the faint of heart, I found Harwood’s story structure to be refreshing for a biography. I will give away the story: the brothers obtain control of many companies with putting down almost no equity.

They (Harwood focuses on O.P. as the business mastermind) somehow found ways to borrow more and more money as the nation approached the Great Depression. The method of choice was the holding company. To simplify, in the 1920’s starting a holding company seemed to involve declaring you were starting a holding company and investors would give you all the money you could need.

In the end, needless to say, the empire collapsed quite quickly in 1930-31. (The financing seemed to be based on the value of shares in the holding companies. Not good in a market collapse.) When the brothers died within a year of each other in 1935-36, they were not well received in Cleveland. Invisible Giants does not portray the Van Sweringens as money manipulators. Their story is the ‘American’ entrepreneur epic of growing with a drunk father in Cleveland to owning your own holding companies. For what it is worth, Harwood portrays each brother as likable. We do not really know them, but we do know what they left behind: Shaker Heights, Terminal Tower, and rapid transit in Cleveland. (It is hard to imagine Cleveland developing the Shaker Lines or the even the Red Line with the brother’s initiative.)

In the current rush to understand the 1930’s, Invisible Giants should make some reading lists. Read the book and, if you have time, take the Green Line out to Shaker Square.

A History and Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway in Ohio

Buettner, Michael G. A History and Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway in Ohio.  Fourth Edition.  Lima, Ohio; [M.G. Buettner], 1998.

I came across this guide when searching for National Road/ U.S. 40 books related to Ohio [more on this in some future posting] in the CLEVNET catalog.  The joys of subject searches.

Originally conceived in 1912 as an outgrowth of the Good Roads Movement, the Lincoln Highway cut through many Ohio cities including Wooster, Mansfield, Delphos, and Van Wert on its way from Times Square in NYC to San Francisco.  A federal highway system was implemented in 1926 and today the general route of the Lincoln Highway through Ohio can be traced along U.S. Highway 30.

As the name indicates, A History and Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway in  Ohio, focuses on Ohio.  While reading through the guide, you do learn about the national Lincoln Highway, but the author’s intent is to outline the varying roads as designated Lincoln Highway between 1912 and 1928, and what remains of those roads today.  Buettner, president of The Ohio Lincoln Highway League, has done his research, focusing on historic maps, guidebooks of the time (Hobbs Guides and Automobile Blue Books), and good-old fashion newspaper research.

Along with a very detailed description of the route(s) through Ohio which focuses on locating remnants from the different incarnations of the road, the guide also includes odometer charts (both eastbound and westbound), many maps, and several interesting articles about very specific topics (one of note being a description of the concrete posts placed along the highway by Boy Scouts in 1928).  There are also a few political intrigues that are discussed.  Why did the Lincoln Highway skip Marion?

I don’t know if I would recommend this title to a casual reader, but if you have any interest in the Lincoln Highway or are planning on taking a trip on the Great Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway, do search out this title.  The compiled information included is quite impressive.

Cleveland Heights and Rail Depots of Northwest Ohio

Morton, Marian J. Cleveland Heights: The Making of an Urban Suburb. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.

Camp, Mark J. Railroad Depots of Northeast Ohio. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

You have seen them at your library or bookstore when looking for books about local history. Inevitably, you will come across a professionally put together title of old black-and-white pictures and postcards. The photo on the cover is in a sepia tone. Not much text, but a lot of captions. The series is called Images of America and they are put out by Arcadia Publishing.

Even though there are 247 titles about Ohio, I do not plan on reviewing many Arcadia titles. Don’t get me wrong, from what I have seen, a lot of work has gone into putting together each title. My issue is that they are too local to the extent that they are unreadable to an outsider. I would love to have an Image of America about my neighborhood, but I wouldn’t touch one from two towns over.

That said, there are two Arcadia titles I have come across recently about Northeast Ohio that I found had a more wide spread appeal. (Or at least I found them interesting). First, Cleveland Heights: The Making of an Urban Suburb (from The Making of America Series) is a pretty standard town history narrative about an affluent East side garden suburb of Cleveland. Much more text than the Images of America Series. Notably, author Marian Morton takes a longer look at the development of the Severance Center shopping development during the 1960, which is now, among other things, a Wal-Mart. This event comes across as symbolic of Cleveland Heights changing from a turn of the century haven for the wealthy to a suburb’s suburb that we all know.

The second title is Rail Depots of Northwest Ohio (from the Images of Rail Series). What I like about Rail Depots is how the book is divided into rail lines and the depot stations are listed in a geographically relevant progression. Though many of the depots are long gone, it works as almost a field guide. The text is brief, but this is a great introduction into putting a company name on the different tracks we cross everyday. The Images of Rail Series covers Ohio pretty well, with 11 titles about corners of the state or cities.

Let me know if there are other Arcadia titles for which I am misinformed.