WPA funds converted canal into super highway
(This column is the 26th in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
Hamilton opened its first super highway in 1936 on the right-of-way of an 18th century form of transportation. Erie Highway was built on what had been the local part of the 249-mile Miami-Erie Canal that had connected the Ohio River and Lake Erie. The new road was mostly financed by federal funds aimed at promoting public improvements and providing employment during the Great Depression.
Canal construction began in 1825 in Middletown and extended south through Butler County by 1827. It was the major means of trade and transportation until replaced a few decades later by railroads. The state-funded canal was officially abandoned in 1929, although it had been in decline for more than 30 years.
In May 1929, Gov. George White designated the canal land as the route for a super highway between Cincinnati and Toledo. In February 1933, the Ohio Highway Department ordered a survey of the Butler County portions that became Erie Highway in Hamilton and Verity Parkway in Middletown.
In 1929 a proposal for a new, wider canal -- using the Great Miami River -- was revived. Dec. 12, 1929, a bill introduced in the U. S. House of Representatives earmarked $19 million for canalization of the river from the Ohio River north to Dayton. The barge canal -- 300 feet wide and 12 feet deep -- would have served Hamilton and Middletown industries, employing about 7,000 construction workers for two years.
The barge canal plan was reintroduced in 1934 with the addition of hydro-electric plants at three dams along the route. The bill died when it failed to win the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Meanwhile, the first work on the former canal course had nothing to do with building a highway. In the winter of 1930-31, the city hired unemployed men to clear weeds and trash from the drained canal. For the next five summers, the canal land was called the Municipal Gardens. Vegetable plots were available free to the families of Hamilton's increasing number of unemployed men.
Hamilton's part of the canal highway won approval of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the fall of 1935. The three-mile, 60-foot wide highway would run from a point between Belle and Laurel avenues on the south to north of the Butler County Fairgrounds. It would eliminate three railroad crossings from the route of Ohio 4 through Hamilton.
Erie Highway would be Hamilton's second four-lane thoroughfare. The other was High Street.
The WPA authorized employing 550 men for seven months.. They were to be divided into two shifts working six days a week -- 7 a.m. to noon and noon to 5 p.m.
As with several other projects, securing materials was a periodic problem that delayed pay checks for jobless men. Hamilton's unemployed in late 1935 included 2,510 men and 650 women, all screened as heads of households. WPA rules permitted only one person in a family to be employed on government-funded projects. That was the head of the household, unless that person was disabled.
Erie Highway work began Nov. 4, 1935. The WPA raised the manpower to 1,500, two crews of 750 men, alternating six-day and five-day weeks. Hours were 8:30 to 3 with half hour for lunch. By Dec. 7, employment was down to 900 men because of delays in the delivery of sewer pipes and other materials.
Hamilton's super highway opened in phases between late September and mid November in 1936. "The old canal bed here has been converted into one of the finest three miles of road to be desired by a fast-traveling public," boasted the Journal-News. The boulevard was considered a bargain -- $406,501 in federal funds matched by only $5,400 from the city treasury.
Isolated portions of the planned Cincinnati-Toledo highway were completed before preparations for World War II began diverting Ohio highway funds in the late '30s. The dream of a river-to-lake expressway over the former canal route was revived after the war, but never realized.
Instead, the federal government launched the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly called the Interstate system. Although early plans had included Erie Highway in the network, when I-75 was opened through Butler County in 1960 it was 11 miles east of the city. Within a few years, Hamilton had the dubious distinction of being "the largest city in the nation not on an interstate highway."
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Rail crossing risks reduced by Depression funds
(This column is the 27th in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
One of many improvements financed by federal Depression aid was traffic safety. In the mid 1930s, Butler County railroad crossings, including those in the cities, had only silent wooden crossbuck warnings. There were no gates, bells, lights or other devices to alert motorists that a train was approaching. Drivers were urged to "stop, look and listen" before proceeding across the tracks.
Two of the county's most dangerous crossings were eliminated -- at Schenck's (Ohio 4) in Fairfield Twp. and at McGonigle (U. S. 27) in Hanover Twp. -- thanks to enactment June 6, 1934, of the Hayden-Cartwright Act that funded construction of highway-rail grade separations and installation of crossing traffic control and warning devices.
An overpass vs. underpass debate delayed start of Schenck underpass work until July 6, 1936. More than 50 people had been killed at the rural Baltimore & Ohio Railroad crossing. The $133,678 underpass on Ohio 4 (now on the Hamilton-Fairfield border) was completed in 126 working days. It opened Jan. 9, 1937.
The B&O paid one-half the cost of added road right-of-way. Federal and state money funded the remainder of the project.
Construction started the first week in January 1938 at the complex McGonigle crossing, where five people died Aug. 10, 1924. The victims were a couple married the previous day and three relatives.
The $180,000 project on Millville-Oxford Road eliminated two grade crossings. Ohio 130 (Old Oxford Road) had crossed the tracks before intersecting with U. S. 27. Ohio 130 was relocated to run
beside the railroad right-of-way to a new intersection on the northeast side of the U. S. 27 underpass that opened Nov. 5, 1938.
Another local underpass plan was rejected. In September 1935, plans were sent to Washington for a South Hamilton crossing underpass in Hamilton. Eliminating that crossing remains on the city's wish list.
Within Hamilton in 1935, some crossings were protected by watchmen with hand-held signals. At most locations, watchmen were on duty for a maximum of 16 hours a day, leaving motorists on their own during overnight hours.
In August 1937, after months of negotiations, Hamilton and the two railroads, then the Baltimore & Ohio and the Pennsylvania, agreed on installing warning signals at 23 crossings. The $70,000 agreement included signalizing eight Pennsylvania crossings, costing the PRR $20,000, and 15 crossings costing the B&O $50,000.
The first flashing signal -- at the Grand Boulevard crossing of the PRR, near the Mosler Safe Co. -- was activated Christmas Eve 1937. All eight PRR signals were in place by Jan. 23, 1938. The first B&O signal went into use July 13, 1938, at the Vine Street crossing. The remaining 14 were operating within a year.
Most of the original flashing signals were not automatic. They were activated by watchmen, who usually were responsible for as many as three crossings.
The High Street crossing at Fifth Street was still without warning signals Oct. 13, 1937, when a young Cincinnati woman suffered a career-changing leg fracture while riding in a car that collided with a PRR train. The injury canceled her trip to Hollywood, were she was to audition as a dancer. Later, Doris Day developed her singing skills and achieved stardom as a club, movie, radio and TV entertainer in a career that extended into the 1970s.
Meanwhile, most rural crossings remained without warning signals, inviting tragedy.
July 26, 1936, nine family members died when their car was struck by a Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train at the Bobmeyer Road crossing in Fairfield Twp., just east of Ohio 4 (Dixie Hwy.). It remains Butler County's deadliest car-train collision.
May 15, 1937, five family members were killed when their car was struck by a Chesapeake & Ohio passenger train at the Scipio Road crossing (Ohio 129, Hamilton-Scipio Road) on the line separating Morgan and Reily townships.
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Hamilton economic reports turned positive in 1935
(This column is the 28th in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
The Great Depression hadn't ended in 1935, but positive economic news was plentiful that year and the following one as the nation moved toward the 1936 presidential election. Local employment and business reports were encouraging for the first time in more than five years.
March 14, 1935, a new department store opened. Wilmurs Inc., at the northeast corner of North Second and High streets in the Frechtling building, gave new life to downtown Hamilton and was a shopping magnet for 32 years.
More then 2,000 people attended cornerstone ceremonies May 15 for the new Hamilton Municipal Bldg. at High Street and North Monument Avenue. More than 17,000 people returned Nov. 24 for dedication and an open house at the first structure built to house the city's government.
Hamilton City Council had approved $425,000 in bonds June 28, 1933, as the city's 70 percent share of the estimated $555,765 cost. The remainder came from the Public Works Administration (PWA). Preliminary work had started July 31, 1934.
Now known as the Frederick G. Mueller Building (for one of its architects), the last city council meeting at 20 High Street was July 26, 2000. A month earlier, city departments began moving to One Renaissance Center, which was dedicated Aug. 16, 2000.
As 1935 ended, Hamilton's Christmas in Every Home campaign aided 1,130 families, including 2,173 adults and 2,998 children. That was nearly 50 percent of 1934 totals of 2,155 families and 9,068 people. Hamilton Merchants Assn. reported Christmas sales the highest since 1929, with most stores realizing increases of 15 to 20 percent over 1934.
City sales tax collection reached $382,938.64. That was based on 3 percent of retail sales topping $11.5 million. Average sales tax paid during the year by local residents was $2.20. The census bureau said 95 more retail stores operated in Hamilton in 1935 than two years earlier.
Excluding retail and railroad workers, 9,609 people were employed in Hamilton industries, an increase of 2,088, or 28 percent over 7,521 in December 1934.
City construction totaled $256,720 in 1935, up from $113,800 in 1934. Twenty-three new houses were build in 1935; only one in 1934. County auto registration was 20,842 in 1935, up 6,779 in a year.
"Hamilton cannot complain about 1935," said the Journal-News. "The merchants have enjoyed the best year since 1929, the industrial plants have given employment to increasing numbers, and from every angle the unpleasant worries of the years of the depression are fast in recession."
In the fall of 1936, Miami University enrolled 2,715 students, an increase of 148 over the previous year. President A. H. Upham said Miami had reached capacity in both classrooms and housing.
In October 1936, days before the presidential election, 1,990 county residents were on federal relief -- a dramatic two-year drop from 5,949 in December 1934, and 2,319 in December 1935
The positive news helped President Franklin D. Roosevelt win a second term. FDR scored a 523-8 victory over Republican Alfred M. Landon, governor of Kansas, in the Electoral College.
The president increased his Butler County vote total and winning margin. In 1932, he had defeated incumbent Herbert Hoover by 2,532 votes, 21,944 to 19,412. In 1936, FDR's local advantage was 11,691 votes, 28,951 to 17,260.
Year-end statistics continued on the plus side. City construction in 1936 hit $450,269, up from $256,722 in 1935. In 1933 the total had been only $64,759. City sales tax collection reached $454,799.51, exceeding 1935 by $63,346.62. The difference would have been greater if the state had not eliminated the tax on some items.
The Ohio State Employment Service office placed 1,736 people in private employment in 1936 -- a 1,386 gain over the 350 hired in 1935. New unemployment registrations decreased 1,813 -- from 4,869 in 1935 to 3,056 in 1936.
"Fortunately Hamilton has a number of factories which kept the majority of trades people at work during the lean years and are now expanding to give additional employment, which in turn will build up additional business and more hours," said Arnold Krebs, president of the Hamilton Merchants Association. as the year ended.
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Hamilton street improvements numerous in 1930s
(This column is the 29th in a series on the Great Depression in the Hamilton area.)
By Jim Blount
Among Hamilton's most visible traffic improvements during the Great Depression were the rebuilding and modernization of Main Street and the construction of two new thoroughfares, the extension of North Third to New Miami and the three-mile Erie Highway on the right-of-way of the former Miami-Erie Canal.
The 2.5-mile Third Street Extension -- a new roadway -- was supposed to have been built for $364,000 in the early 1920s, but legal challenges delayed the project for 12 years. The cost had increased to $600,000 when work started in August 1932, the third year of the Depression.
Thanks to $250,000 in federal funds, the project (now part of U. S. 127) continued to completion Jan. 14, 1934. State and local money paid the remaining $350,000.
The Public Works Administration (WPA) covered most of the cost of the Main Street improvement that revamped seven blocks west of the High-Main Bridge. When it opened July 8, 1936, the WPA had spent $132,834, the city $33,103.
The WPA allocated $406,501 and the local share was $5,400 for Erie Highway (Ohio 4). Work started Nov. 4, 1935, and the new road -- planned as part of a four-lane super highway connecting Cincinnati and Toledo -- opened in phases from September through November 1936.
The three major projects received a total of $789,335 in WPA funds. Allowing for inflation, that would be more than $11.8 million in 2009 dollars. In addition to reducing the contributions from local and state sources, a major portion of the WPA money went to local men who had been unemployed until assigned to road construction work.
Between January 1934 and November 1936, the three roads improved convenience and reduced travel distance and time for motorists.
But Third Street, Main Street and Erie Highway were only part of Hamilton's transportation improvements made possible by the WPA and other federal agencies during the '30s.
For example, in September 1935, the WPA granted $1.3 million to Hamilton for street improvements. Adjusted for inflation, that would be almost $19.5 million today.
That wasn't all. There were several other federal grants to the city, plus allocations to the county, for street work. Space limitations don't permit a listing of the specific improvements and locations. Every section of the city shared in the benefits.
Since 1875, Hamilton had a streetcar system, starting with horse-drawn cars. The last electric-powered streetcar completed its final run from the west end of Millville Avenue to the Lindenwald car barn at Pleasant and Williams avenues shortly after midnight Sunday, July 23, 1933.
The abandoned tracks in all parts of the city were troublesome for motorists and pedestrians. Federal funds made it possible to remove most of the abandoned rails from Hamilton streets by the end of the 1930s.
Also remaining were several original mound-shaped streets, built that way to promote drainage. Removal or reduction of the high crowns in the middle of the streets was a priority project when federal assistance was available.
Some new streets in recently-developed subdivisions were created, usually graded and graveled. Older thoroughfares were paved or repaved. Gaps were eliminated in streets with disconnected sections. Most of these projects included adding drainage systems, either sewers or ditches.
Most contracts covered installation or replacement of water and gas lines, storm and sanitary sewers, gutters, curbs, sidewalks, retaining walls, culverts or small bridges, planting trees and landscaping.
The WPA also came through with money for related traffic control and safety necessities. A $2,677.80 WPA grant was supplemented by a modest $734.70 from the city, a total of $3,412.50 (or more than $51,000 today).
That amount paid for "painting street light standards, fire hydrants, stop signs and other traffic signs and zones. This project was a benefit to the public, particularly the motorist," the Journal-News explained. "There were 820 fire hydrants, 350 light standards, 125 stop signs, 100 no parking signs, besides center stripes on numerous streets."