Journal-News, Wednesday, March 1, 1995
Proposed Great Miami barge canal promised savings for area industries
By Jim Blount
A 1931 Corps of Engineers hearing affords a glimpse of Hamilton business and industry in the second year of the Great Depression. At issue was a proposal to convert the Great Miami River into a barge canal, at least for 41 miles from Dayton south the Ohio River.
"There is no question that in no other part of the country can be found a greater diversity of industry than in the Great Miami Valley from Dayton to the mouth" of the river, said H. T. Ratliff, traffic manager of the Champion Coated Paper Company and chairman of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce's Lake Erie to Ohio Waterway Committee.
"It is common knowledge that in late years any industry seeking new branch locations or a new industry makes the effort to locate on deep water or at least on water that affords barging, in order to connect with deep water," said Ratliff. "This has come about chiefly since so many rivers have been made navigable," he said at the Feb. 18, 1931, hearing in the Courthouse.
The chamber said more than 2.7 million tons of freight moved in and out of Hamilton each year. Because barge rates were lower than railroad tariffs, canalization of the Great Miami River promised reduced costs to local business and industry.
"The question of freight rates is becoming a vital factor in the successful operation of any industry, especially those industries that consume large quantities of raw materials, also those industries that have an export or inter coastal business," said Ratliff.
A parade of local witnesses offered opinions and facts to support the plan. The General Machinery Corp., for example, said its export business would increase with a barge canal. Its East Coast competitors then had the advantage of lower shipping costs to foreign customers.
Lumber dealers expected savings on the 13,450 tons of lumber, 4,725 tons of cement and 2,600 tons of pipe received yearly. The Hamilton Coke and Iron Company (later Armco) at New Miami claimed it would double output of its blast furnaces; then handling 49,784 tons.
Ratliff said Champion in 1930 had "received inbound 279,596 tons of raw material, of which 90,000 tons were coal, and shipped outbound 126,962 tons of paper."
"Our competition is with mills located in all parts of the country," he explained, and many of them had the benefit of being on navigable waterways. That advantage had increased on shipment to and from the Pacific Coast since the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914.
"Since the completion of the locks on the Ohio River (in 1929) and service inaugurated between Cincinnati and New Orleans," Ratliff said, "the shippers at Cincinnati are now in a position to meet such export, import, inter coastal or coastal competition."
He said the Hamilton mill had moved material via water to Cincinnati and then by truck to Hamilton "at a considerable saving in freight charges as against the all-rail movement to or from New Orleans." Western pulp could be shipped entirely by water to Cincinnati mills "at a savings of about $2 per ton as against the all-rail rate," Ratliff said. "With a barge canal to Hamilton and Middletown, we would be placed in the same position as Cincinnati."
The Ford Motor Company's Hamilton plant reported handling 146,015 tons inbound, 87,078 tons outbound in 1930. But the statistics were only part of the Ford story.
"Our Hamilton plant was originally located to make shipments from any future enlargement of the canal project," declared William B. Mayo, Ford's chief engineer, in a telegram read at the 1931 hearing.
"Mr. (Henry) Ford, as you know, has located practically every new assembly plant so that it can handle water shipments, hence we are very much interested to be able to ship by water from Hamilton as soon as possible."
That led the Journal-News to conclude that "a river canal would, in all probability, mean that in Hamilton would be located a Ford plant of the size and importance of the present River Rouge plant." It was built on the Detroit River, southwest of Detroit, in 1921, a year after the Hamilton plant opened.
"This gigantic development was visioned several years ago," the newspaper said, "when the Ford Company bought 1,200 acres of land along the Pennsylvania and B&O railroads, the river and the canal" in Hamilton and north of the city.
Despite such reports, the Army Corps of Engineers rejected the plan, but that didn't stop local leaders from trying again with a new approach.
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Journal-News, Wednesday, March 8, 1995
No deal for barge canal with New Deal; Corps of Engineers rejected proposal
By Jim Blount
A new president with job-creating programs encouraged area business leaders in 1934 to mount a third campaign to place Hamilton and Middletown on a barge canal.
A drive to rebuild the unused Miami-Erie Canal failed in 1920. A revised scheme for canalization of the Great Miami River was rejected in 1931. Both proposals included building a waterway capable of hauling tons of coal, iron ore, pulp and other raw materials for local industries.
Franklin D. Roosevelt moved into the White House in 1933 after defeating incumbent Herbert Hoover in the 1932 election. Roosevelt -- who took office at the depth of the Great Depression -- launched several programs which raised the hopes of local canal promoters.
In July 1934, under the leadership of John E. Northway, secretary-manager of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, representatives from Hamilton and Middletown took their case to Washington, D. C. Their goal was canalization of 41 miles of the Great Miami River from Dayton to the Ohio River.
It was needed, the Journal-News said, "so that industries in this section of the Miami Valley can compete with similar industries located on navigable streams." With a barge canal, Hamilton and Middletown "would have a waterway connection directly to the Gulf of Mexico, in addition to the Great Lakes and the steel and coal centers."
The waterway would be 300 feet wide and 12 feet deep. Dams and locks at Woodsdale in Butler County and New Baltimore and Cleves in Hamilton County would control water level and barge navigation. The canal would handle at least two million tons of freight yearly.
The price tag, according to consultants, was $19 million, or about $500,000 per mile. It would have provided at least two years of work for 7,000 construction workers.
"The new administration," the newspaper reported, "is said to have seen in the project an opportunity to score once more with a contribution to the president's recovery program." FDR's New Deal included a series of programs designed to provide jobs and reverse the nation's economic decline.
One of them was the Tennessee Valley Authority, aimed at promoting development of the Tennessee River region. Improved transportation was just one benefit. TVA, introduced by FDR in 1933, also provided for flood control, soil conservation, and the generation of electric power.
The Great Miami project, according to its backers, was a smaller version of TVA, whose 30 dams and locks established a 627-mile navigation system feeding into the Ohio River.
"In addition to aiding recovery," the Journal-News said the Great Miami plan "would mean opening the entire lower part of the Miami Valley to outside industry; transforming the river into an important freight transportation system and providing for new pleasure resort facilities at certain points within its confines." The latter was a reference to lakes proposed behind two of the dams (2,900 acres at Cleves and 4,200 acres at New Baltimore).
A federal public works grant was expected to pay 30 percent of labor and materials costs. Income would be generated by hydro-electric plants built into the three dams.
"It has been estimated that the erection of a 35-foot dam at Cleves, a 48-foot dam at New Baltimore, and a 28-foot dam at Woodsdale would enable the development of electricity to an amount of 123 million kilowatt hours annually," the Journal-News said.
Local officials believed inclusion of the hydro-electric plants and recreation areas would be clinchers as details of the Great Miami barge canal were discussed July 17, 1934, before the Army Rivers and Harbors Board in Washington, D. C.
They were considered the frosting on the project, whose prime purpose was to reduce freight costs for Hamilton and Middletown industries.
The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce estimated more than 2.8 million tons of freight annually would be available for river transportation. At that time, 62 percent of the total was hauled by railroads and the remaining 38 percent by truck.
But for the third time within 15 years, the Army Corps of Engineers wasn't impressed. As in 1920 and 1931, the Corps killed the idea of a Great Miami barge canal.
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Journal-News, Wednesday, March 15, 1995
Tornado struck Hamilton in March 1932; 10 people injured as West Side area is hit
By Jim Blount
In Hamilton weather annals, March is associated with the city's worst floods, 1898 and 1913, and some late winter snow storms. It also is the month when a tornado -- or something close to it -- swept through part of the city.
No official weather watches or warnings were issued and there was no television to track the storm on radar before "a twister, raging with cyclonic intensity, whirled out of the southwest" and struck Hamilton Monday evening, March 21, 1932.
Ten people were injured as it "cut a wide path of destruction through Hamilton's West Side residential district," the Journal-News reported. Between 500 and 600 people resided in about 150 West Side houses in the storm's path.
"Raging through an area within a radius of one-half mile of Park Avenue and E Street, the twister left damage estimated at from $150,000 to $250,000," the report said. "Homes were twisted to splinters; poles and wires snapped like matches."
The newspaper said it was "a miracle that at least a dozen men, women and children were not seriously injured or killed." A possible skull fracture was the most serious injury. Other people suffered cuts and bruises.
Other parts of the nation weren't as fortunate that day. A wave of storms and tornadoes killed 365 people, injured about 2,500 and left more than 7,000 homeless in Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia.
Contemporary news reports didn't call the Hamilton storm a tornado. Instead, it was described as a twister or cyclone, terms more common than tornado in the 1930s. There were no reports of funnel clouds sighted in the darkness that evening.
The Journal-News said A. B. Heath, local weather observer, "expressed an opinion that the twister was cyclonic in nature. He pointed out that the wind 'came in whirls,' and that inspection showed that all of the buildings damaged were leaning to the north. Glass in windows was forced inward."
Heath's equipment, the newspaper explained, "does not permit the measuring of the velocity of the wind. Unofficial estimates were that the twister was twirling 70 miles an hour when it struck."
"Four houses on the west side of Oak Street were dashed to bits. Three of the houses were tenanted, but occupants escaped without injury," the Journal-News reported.
In the fourth house, four members of a family were injured: John and Myrtle Callahan and their two children, Billy and Lucille, who resided at 227 Oak Street. The family was sleeping in the two-story frame house when the storm struck without warning.
"Seven houses on the north side of Liberty Avenue were practically demolished. Occupants, however, escaped with minor scratches and bruises," the newspaper noted.
"The storm's fury seemed to have been spent after it passed the northeast corner of Cleveland and Liberty avenues." The newspaper said "a study of the twister's course showed that it dipped four times before it jumped over the hill near the St. Peter's Church, and whirled its way to the northeast."
Wind damage was reported in all parts of Hamilton, but the most severe loss was on the West Side. City trucks hauled 173 loads of debris from the hardest-hit area.
Later, a city survey lowered the total West Side damage estimate from the $150,000-$250,000 range to $95,160, including $64,970 to buildings. Suffering the highest dollar losses were the Champion Paper and Fibre Company ($6,000) and St. Peter in Chains Church ($4,500).
Of the 142 houses and businesses and 41 garages and other structures affected, 85 percent were covered by insurance.
The Journal-News called the March 21, 1932, twister "the second disastrous storm of cyclonic proportions to visit Hamilton." The article said the first had struck Friday afternoon, Nov. 13, 1879.
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Journal-News, Wednesday, March 22, 1995
Blood donors plentiful in World War II as Butler Countians responded to need
By Jim Blount
"The response was just something else. We had more people than we needed. We never had to go out and get people. They were there when needed," said Mrs. Esther Benzing in recalling the community's response to a World War II demand for blood donations.
In Butler County, the Hamilton Chapter of the American Red Cross conducted the U. S. Army and Navy Blood Donor Service. Mrs. Benzing was its first director, starting within 48 hours of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
She had no experience in blood donation "and neither did anybody else," she said. "This had never been done on such a scale." She had been active in the Red Cross since the late 1930s, and knew the rural areas around Hamilton because of her three years as secretary to the Butler County agricultural agent.
Dec. 8 two community leaders, Lucian Kahn (Red Cross) and Alexander Thomson Jr. (Civil Defense), asked Mrs. Benzing to head the blood donor program, which had been delegated to the Red Cross by the War Department. She attended a meeting the next day to start it.
"We'd get a call from the Red Cross in Cincinnati telling us so many pints of blood were needed," the Fairfield resident explained during a recent interview. Donors made appointments with her committee, which had the assistance of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce. "It could be 100 to 400 people. Once, in two weeks time, we handled over 1,000 donors," she said.
Donors were mailed a confirmation card which included these directions: "Please do not eat any food four hours previous to your appointment. However, it is suggested that you drink a glass of fruit juice, black coffee or tea or a cup of fruit with plain crackers immediately before your appointment. Ladies -- Please wear garments with short or loose sleeves."
The blood was taken by a Cincinnati-based crew. A doctor, two nurses and a manager came with a truck, which had the necessary equipment, including a refrigerator for storing the blood in transit. Donors usually contributed a pint of blood.
In addition to publicizing the need and arranging the location, Mrs. Benzing headed a pool of about 120 volunteers. "They usually served once a month, sometimes more often," she said. "Help came from all over the county, especially the township people I had worked with before." Nurse aids from the area also donated their time.
The first two sessions were at the Elks Temple (then at the southwest corner of South Second and Ludlow streets). "We switched to the Anthony Wayne Hotel , using the ballroom, a much larger area," she said. "That was an excellent place," and a cooperative manager, S. O. Strucksberg, "gave us everything we needed."
Mrs. Benzing said "everything had to go like clockwork." Volunteers did much more than helping with the paperwork.
"After giving blood, some people could get up and walk away without trouble," she recalled. "But some people could faint, and you had to be prepared for it." Mrs. Benzing said "we put up tables, and we asked everyone to remain there to drink orange juice or a soft drink. We had sandwiches and cookies, furnished by the lady volunteers."
"My idea was to get them (donors) settled so they could walk out to a car. Also, we always had a car in reserve to take people home, if necessary. It happened once," she said.
The program took on special meaning for Mrs. Benzing when her 18-year-old son was drafted. "He served in the Philippines, on Leyte," and, "thank God, he wasn't injured," she said. "You just hoped and prayed all the time, like everybody else who had someone in the service."
After handling about 11,000 to 12,000 blood donations, Mrs. Benzing resigned as director in February 1944 when her father died. Her responsibilities were assumed by Mrs. L. J. Smith, who had been her assistant. "She was just exceptional," said Mrs. Benzing of Mrs. Smith.
Mrs. Benzing's work didn't go unnoticed. A Journal-News editorial praised her for "the unlimited time and energy she has given to this worthy cause." It said "this appreciation extends also to Mrs. L. J. Smith, who has been assistant director and who now takes over the important chairmanship."
"Butler County people have given and given generously. There has never been a time when less than a sufficient number of people volunteered to give blood. This is a tribute to the people of the county and to those who have been directing the service," the newspaper said.
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Journal-News, Wednesday, March 29, 1995
Fisher Body plant announced in 1945 as nation looked to end of World war II
By Jim Blount
It was called the "greatest single industrial development in the recent history of the City of Hamilton" 50 years ago as the Journal-News reported General Motors would build a new plant on Dixie Highway, just south of the city.
The disclosure included a forecast that the Fisher Body plant would employ about 3,000 people when opened. Its completion date was in doubt as the announcement was made April 6, 1945. Because of World War II restrictions, construction couldn't start until the federal government approved "the use of critical materials and manpower."
GM purchased about 145 acres from seven owners in a triangle between Ohio 4, Symmes Road and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The stamping and fabrication plant would cover about 1.2 million square feet of floor space, company officials said.
"Hamilton and Butler County were selected because of the central location," explained Thomas P. Archer, general manager of GM's Fisher Body Division. "This community is near steel mills and is in the center of assembly plants."
"General Machinery (of Hamilton) is one of the country's largest suppliers of heavy machinery, and I'm sure it will make a large portion of the machines needed for the Hamilton Fisher Body Plant," Archer said.
According to 1945 reports, GM had planned to build the plant in Cincinnati until July 1944. That's when C. L. "Jack" Hardin of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce contacted GM with information on sites available in the Hamilton area.
In August 1944, a GM representative toured the suggested factory sites with Morris G. Taylor, president of the chamber, and B&O Railroad officials. The decision was announced about nine months after the first contact with Hamilton Chamber officials.
Work began immediately on solving a long-standing drainage problem on the tract. Butler County Engineer Fred Hammerle announced plans to build a drainage ditch extending 8,500 feet from the property into Pleasant Run. Cost of the 14-foot wide ditch was estimated at $30,000, including acquisition of some land along its course.
June 4 the B&O reported it had bought the Weigel farm, south of Symmes Road. The railroad said it would build a 250-car freight yard to serve the Fisher Body plant on the site
July 2, 1945, the War Production Board granted GM "limited approval" for the new plant, which meant work could begin on foundations, sewers and drainage systems and the erection of steel, but not completion of the facility. Also in July, GM named F. R. Hook resident manager.
Final government approvals came with the end of World War II in August. Construction started in earnest in October 1945.
Trial operations began in September 1946, and full production started a year later at the plant, often described as equivalent to 25 football fields under roof.
According to a 1983 company brochure, the plant eventually expanded to 1.55 million square feet with 1.518 million devoted to manufacturing; contained 182 major presses and 116 small presses; and, at full capacity, processed 1,400 tons of steel daily.
The same source reported nearly 500 local suppliers served the plant, and its 1982 expenditures, including payroll and purchases, totaled $114 million. In 1982 it produced 78,000 metric tons of parts for GM assembly plants.
Although original negotiations with GM were handled by Hamilton, the plant was never annexed to the city. Instead, it became part of Fairfield when that city formed in 1955. Some Fairfield founders trace the roots of its incorporation to unofficial reports in October 1953 that Hamilton would annex Fisher Body and other parts of Fairfield Township.
GM, aware of Hamilton-Fairfield tensions, usually called it the "Hamilton Fisher Body plant in Fairfield" or "the Hamilton-Fairfield plant" in an attempt to placate both communities.
Employment at the plant once reached 4,234. It was reported at about 2,500 when production stopped Aug. 31, 1987. The last GM employees moved out Dec. 22, 1989.
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