Journal-News , Wednesday, March 6, 2002
Local engineer visualized hydraulic power system
By Jim Blount
The water power system that transformed Hamilton into an industrial city was a product of local genius and labor. The Hamilton & Rossville Hydraulic Company was a private corporation -- not an arm of any government. Local investors funded the waterway that opened in 1845 and sparked Hamilton’s greatest period of economic development.
Henry S. Earhart, a Hamilton resident since 1822, is credited with visualizing the hydraulic in the 1830s. The idea came to the merchant and civil engineer, who resided on North Third Street, while he was looking for a stray cow north of town. His trained eye noticed the pronounced slope of the Great Miami River and reasoned that its strong current could be diverted to provide water power for shops in Hamilton.
Earhart shared his observation with John W. Erwin, a friend and fellow civil engineer. The men -- who had worked together on a number of canal and turnpike projects -- completed a survey of possible hydraulic routes in 1840.
Their report paved the way for legislative action. An enabling act won the support of the Ohio General Assembly March 25, 1841. It authorized the company to build dams, aqueducts, culverts, basins, embankments and other physical features necessary "to conduct the water of the Miami River" into and through the towns of Hamilton and Rossville "for the purpose of creating water power, to be used for manufacturing and other purposes."
Not specified in the legislation was the exact route of the waterway. That important detail depended on several factors to be decided by directors of the company, including buying land and settling numerous legal matters involving the canal right-of-way.
Also unsettled was if one or two systems would be built and, if two, which would be built first. The dispute rekindled the rivalry between the two towns, Hamilton on the east side of the river and Rossville on the west bank. (Merger of the towns was still 14 years away.)
Fortunately, the enabling act contained a logical resolution. It appointed Samuel Forrer, a neutral party, to be "a special commissioner, whose duty it shall be to survey and estimate the route on both side of said river, and to establish . . . the best and most practical route, and where the greatest amount of water power can be obtained at the least expense."
Forrer -- associated with Ohio canals from 1820 until 1873 -- had worked on canals in New York and Indiana as well as the Miami-Erie Canal between Dayton and Cincinnati and the Warren County Canal from Middletown to Lebanon.
His Oct. 26, 1841, report favored building a Hamilton route surveyed by Earhart and Erwin, who had measured the run of the river at 26.132 feet per minute and estimated the fall of the water from the proposed headgates into Hamilton at 29 feet.
At a stockholder’s meeting in January 1842, Erwin and John C. Skinner were hired as engineers with the latter paid $400 a year to direct construction of the hydraulic system that began about four miles north of the city.
A dam was built on the Great Miami to divert water into a series of canals and reservoirs designed to supply power for shops and mills that would be built along the route. This included a Big Reservoir (24 acres ranging in depth from 15 to 24 feet) and a Little Reservoir (more than six acres, 18 to 20 feet in depth) that stored water.
The Little Reservoir fed the hydraulic canal that extended south along North Fifth Street to Stable Street (later renamed Market Street). There it turned west, ending at a spillway near the intersection of Market and North Monument Avenue (at the southwest corner of the Hamiltonian parking lot). The canal was five feet deep, 45 feet wide at the water line and 35 feet wide at the bottom.
Water passed into the system Jan. 27, 1845, and it was declared operational four days later -- but it didn’t produce immediate returns. The hydraulic had been built on a gamble -- on the premise that Hamilton had cheap transportation in the form of the Miami-Erie Canal (completed in the area in the late 1820s), and that creating a cheap power system would attract new factories and create employment in the city.
Future columns will report on the promise, problems and impact of the Hamilton & Rossville Hydraulic Company.
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Journal-News , Wednesday, March 13, 2002
WTC collapse reminder of 1912 courthouse fire
By Jim Blount
The Sept. 11, 2001, collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York City took the lives of scores of police and fire personnel. That disaster was reminiscent of a deadly tragedy of a smaller scale 90 years ago in the Butler County Courthouse. Three Hamilton firefighters died while battling a blaze there March 14, 1912.
The victims were John Hunker, 39, in his first year with Hamilton fire department; William Love, 46, a veteran of more than eight years; and George Fritz, 36, a fireman for nearly 12 years. Deputy Chief John F. Heath and Fireman Thomas Ogg were injured fighting the fire and Chief William Dowty collapsed later.
Most of the courthouse escaped serious damage that Thursday morning. The damage was considered minimal because the blaze was discovered in the middle of a work day when there were plenty of people around to spread the alarm and help remove valuable county records.
A newspaper said "the fire started near the cupola, due to crossed electric wires, which were used in running and lighting the large clock that rested in the tower." Anson Lukens, a Journal reporter working in the courthouse, noted that the lights in the dome went out at about 11:30 a.m., an outage at first blamed on a squirrel.
The fire was discovered when Lukens and Barney Ellers, an elevator operator, went to the fourth floor. Courthouse workers and clients were warned by shouts of "Fire."
"Turmoil was at its height in the building in an instant," the Journal said. "The alarmed officials dashed into the lobby, only to be frightened by brick and other debris beginning to drop through the glass dome above the second floor lobby."
The newspaper said "greater excitement did not prevail in the doomed building" because "the courts were not working and the offices were practically deserted."
1 The report said "a mad dash then ensued to save the valuable records" with employees and others throwing record books from windows. Meanwhile, spectators circled the building as Hamilton firemen moved into the building with hoses.
"Little or no alarm was given that the tower was about to fall," said the Journal, noting that the "two-by-four timbers that supported the large tower burned away and the tons of iron and steel above, including the big clock, dashed to the street below," striking some people near the building. The clock had stopped at 11:33 and collapsed at 11:43.
Several people in the courthouse were warned just before the tower, including a bell, dropped to the lobby. Cries from the pile of debris indicated that others hadn’t been as fortunate.
Fireman Hunker, who was believed to have been killed instantly, was found under the mass, which severed gas lines that fed the blaze until the supply could be turned off by Frank Menchen, a city employee.
Firemen Love and Fritz died of burns in Mercy Hospital. Love died at 4:50 p.m., a little more than five hours after the fire had started. Fritz lingered for nearly five days before his death at 6:10 a.m. Tuesday, March 19, 1912.
City and county officials began tracking down reports of missing people that temporarily inflate the human toll. It took a day to confirm that there were no more bodies under the rubble.
By the next day, judges and county officials were seeking or occupying temporary quarters until the courthouse cleanup and repair could be completed under the direction of the county commissioners, Frank Kinch, James Harmon and Frank Davis.
The fire also disrupted the habits of Hamiltonians who relied on the courthouse dome to remind them of the time. "The big bell that hung in the tower, and every hour tolled the time of day, is forever stilled," a newspaper reported.
The county monetary loss, first estimated at $100,000, was later lowered to $80,000.
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Journal-News , Wednesday, March 20, 2002
Hamilton in 1840s planned to be ‘Lowell of West’
By Jim Blount
Promoters of the Hamilton & Rossville Hydraulic Company in the 1840s believed the project would make "Hamilton the Lowell of the West." Both communities were on a river and a canal, and business leaders in both towns planned to capitalize on those assets. As the hydraulic was being built, one optimistic forecast said "Hamilton is destined ere long to become to Cincinnati what Lowell is to Boston."
In the 1820s, the Massachusetts town developed as an industrial model by tapping the Merrimac River for water power and using the Middlesex Canal to transport raw materials and finished goods the 20 miles between Lowell and Boston’s ports. Lowell textile mills relied on a system of dams and canals to convert river water to energize spindles and machinery.
Supporters of the Hamilton hydraulic emphasized that it would have an advantage over Lowell. It was closer to southern cotton markets. The raw material could reach here by way of steamboats on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and canalboats on the Miami-Erie canal. That was more direct and quicker than the circuitous sea route between New Orleans and Boston.
Since 1827, Hamilton business had reaped the advantage of being on the Miami-Erie Canal, a waterway that eventually linked the Ohio River and Lake Erie. That meant local products could reach eastern markets via lakes steamers at Toledo and trans-shipment over the Erie Canal and Hudson River in New York. Southern and western customers were accessible by way of steamboat connections at Cincinnati.
The Hamilton hydraulic -- taking water from the Great Miami River four miles north of town -- promised the cheap power needed to attract new shops and new jobs to Hamilton. During its 29-foot fall, the water would turn millstones that would propel wheels, pulleys and gears in factories along the canal. Industrialists could lease a pair of millstones for $150 a year.
According to plans, the Hamilton system could power as many as 166 pairs of millstones -- enough to build 49 cotton mills. One estimate said the hydraulic, if fully utilized, could create up to 99,000 jobs in a town that had 1,409 inhabitants in the 1840 census.
The hydraulic -- which would provide energy for Hamilton industry for several decades -- extended south over North Fifth Street to Stable Street (later renamed Market), and then west to the river. North of Vine Street, a branch ran west to Monument Avenue and then south to the same river outlet at Market Street.
"Falling water was the chief source of stationary power at all levels, in most branches of industry, and throughout the greater part of the United States before the 1860s," said Louis C. Hunter in his 1979 book, A History of Industrial Power in the United States.
"The traditional view of the revolutionary role of steam power," Hunter wrote, "has been accepted by historians almost without challenge and with little qualification until recent years." He said "the role of stationary steam power before 1850 has been exaggerated and that of water power underrated, although more by inference and implication than by direct statement."
Steam power in this region depended on the availability of coal at a reasonable, competitive price. The railroad came to Hamilton in 1851, but until 1888 the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad monopolized service. High freight rates for coal -- a result of the CH&D’s local dominance -- contributed to the popularity of the hydraulic system.
But the hydraulic faced several financial and technical obstacles from its 1845 opening. Maintaining an adequate flow of water was a constant problem. Millstones failed to turn in periods of drought and deep freeze, and embankments washed out after heavy rain.
The private company had to borrow money in its formative years, when there were few factories along the waterway. The hydraulic survived because of the political and financial skills, experience and contacts of three officers, William Bebb, John Woods and Lewis D. Campbell.
Future columns will report on other aspects of the Hamilton & Rossville Hydraulic Company.
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Journal-News , Wednesday, March 27, 2002
Harry S. Thobe colorful part of Reds and Miami traditions
By Jim Blount
Opening day, the start of the major league baseball season, is a sacred Cincinnati tradition and few personalities were part of the colorful event longer than Harry Thobe, an Oxford stonemason. The ardent Reds fan strutted and danced at Cincinnati ball parks for 56 years before he was buried in his familiar red-trimmed white suit with a red tie bearing the Reds logo.
He also wore the suit at Miami University games, and claimed to be the No. 1 fan of the Redskins, the nickname for the school’s athletic teams when Thobe entertained on the sidelines. His colorful attire also contributed to his reputation as a crafty gate crasher. It enabled him, Thobe claimed, to gain admission without paying to 20 World Series games, eight Rose Bowls, three Orange Bowls, a Sun Bowl, championship boxing matches and numerous other events.
He worked at his trade and traveled the nation backing the Reds and Redskins -- and fooling gate attendants -- until he was 80 years old.
Thobe -- pronounced Toe-Bee -- was born Feb. 11, 1870, in Evansville, Ind., and grew up in Covington, Ky., before moving to Oxford in the early 1890s to lay bricks for a new Oxford railroad station and Herron Gymnasium on the Miami campus.
It’s uncertain when he started wearing the distinctive white suit and white straw hat and carrying an umbrella and red and white megaphone to Reds and Redskins games. Circumstantial evidence would indicate that it was before 1930.
He wasn’t a fan in the stands. He performed on the sidelines before and during games. Besides dancing, Thobe proclaimed to the fans that " I had a dream last night." The vision always revealed that his favorite team would win the game about to be played.
Not everyone appreciated Thobe’s act, according to Walter Havighurst, author of The Miami Years. Havighurst recalled a description written by Ralph McGinnis, Miami alumni editor in the 1930s. "Misled, misunderstood, goofy, or loyal, whatever he might be, Thobe loves Miami in his own particular way and has given a great deal of energy, some money, and the best years of his life unselfishly to her. His methods may have lacked dignity, but never sincerity," McGinnis wrote.
McGinnis also recounted a football game routine involving Thobe and a Miami dean, which, he said, "was worth the price of admission." The dean would attempt to chase Thobe off the field. The dean, "fully conscious of the dignity of his position demanded, and Thobe with no dignity at all, but an unlimited zeal for the home team, curving around the track in front of the east stands was a sight few can forget."
His unusual dress and his antics saved him lots of money. "I just march in with the band -- any band," he explained in a 1948 interview. "The men who throw the gates wide open for the band usually think Thobe, in his clownish attire, is part of the act," noted the interviewer. "Baseball players, umpires and newspapermen often escort Thobe through the press gxate if there is no band present for the occasion."
Thobe said he attended every Reds opener after 1894. He died in a Hamilton hospital March 30, 1950, just 20 days before the Reds lost the 1950 opener to the Cubs at Crosley Field.
A Thobe legacy on the Miami campus was a fountain he built and maintained. It was replaced by a smaller fountain in 1952. The troublesome second fountain was removed in 1959 and replaced by a plaque and a monument. An Oxford legend contends that Harry Thobe’s ghost still dances around the former site of the fountain.
Perhaps a Journal-News editorial writer knew something in 1950 when he wrote that "the memory of his [Thobe’s] familiar dancing figure, in costume, and the memory of his friendliness and enthusiasm will linger long in the minds of thousands of people."