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Henry Ford - Hamilton Hydraulic

"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." 
 -History of Industrial Power in the United States, by Louis C. Hunter, 1979.

Hamilton hydraulic, 1840s power source, factor in Henry Ford locating plant in Hamilton in 1920

(This is the second in a series of columns on Henry Ford, the Hamilton Hydraulic and recent developments in hydro-electric power.)

Contributed by Jim Blount

Henry Ford’s plan to use water power to operate his Hamilton plant wasn’t a new idea. He had been living with hydro-power since 1914 at his 1,300-acre estate, Fair Lane, in Dearborn, Mich. Water from the Rouge River had been generating electricity for his 56-room mansion for almost six years before he opened the local tractor factory in April 1920. By that date, Fair Lane’s hydro-power system also supplied electricity to West Dearborn, then a community of about 2,000 people.

Water power had been instrumental in the development of Hamilton and much of surrounding Butler County since settlement started in the late 1790s. The most valuable land for several decades was along the Great Miami River and on intersecting streams – tracts suitable for building mills. 

By the late 1830s, numerous mills were operating in the area and no new sites were available. Hamilton civic leaders decided a new power source was needed in the city to attract industry and permit expansion of existing shops.

Steam power wasn’t practical because of the expense of transporting coal and wood to Hamilton. The only means available was the Miami-Erie Canal, which opened in this area in 1827. Railroads didn’t start serving the county until the early 1850s.

A water power solution was suggested by Henry S. Earhart, a Hamilton merchant and civil engineer. His experience included building turnpikes and canals in the area, usually cooperating with a friend and neighbor, John C. Skinner.

Earhart knew the land – and water – in and around Hamilton, including the steady fall of the Great Miami River. His plan was to take water from the river north of the city and, after passing through a series of reservoirs and canals, return it to the Great Miami at the western end of what is today Market Street. As the water fell 29 feet along its course, it would turn millstones in the canal. Those wheels would propel other wheels, pulleys and gears in shops.

John W. Erwin, also an engineer, joined Earhart and Skinner in building what became the Hamilton hydraulic. Others involved in the privately-financed venture were William Bebb (later governor), Lewis D. Campbell, John Woods, Laomi Rigdon, Dr. Jacob Hitell, Andrew McCleary and Jacob Matthias.

Water began passing through the privately-financed system in January 1845. It ignited an industrial boom. Within a few years, several industries were built where there had been none before the hydraulic. One was the Miami Paper Mill, later the Beckett Paper Co. and International Paper and presently Mohawk Paper on Dayton Street. The hydraulic's main channel ran along N. Fifth Street before turning west at Market Street. It also had branch canals north of Vine Street and west of Front 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." Hunter said "the role of stationary steam power before 1850 has been exaggerated and that of water power underrated."

By 1890, Hamilton had two railroads competing to haul coal into the city. That spurred the transition from dependence on water power to steam power. Soon the hydraulic was considered a nuisance and health hazard, not an asset. Much of it was covered; some parts drained and filled.

Henry Ford -- an advocate of non-polluting power before it was fashionable -- knew about the Hamilton hydraulic. He incorporated it in his plans for the tractor factory that opened 90 years ago. To insure its future, the Ford & Son Co. had purchased the hydraulic system in July 1918.

The company owned the remaining segments of the Hamilton hydraulic until Ford closed the local plant, which had switched from tractors to producing auto parts six months after opening.

Bendix Aviation Corp. bought the Ford plant in 1951 and operated there for 11 years. In 1963 the property was purchased by Ward Manufacturing Co., which built camping trailers. The remaining hydraulic canal wasn’t part of that transition. Instead, it was acquired by the City of Hamilton to supplement the output of its adjacent coal-fired electric generating plant.

A future column will review another factor that attracted Henry Ford to Hamilton.

Hydraulic had another purpose; source of water for fire fighters

The Hamilton Hydraulic was designed to provide water power for use in Hamilton industries. It also had a secondary purpose.

Mayor Jonathan Pierson signed an ordinance Nov. 14, 1842, assuring the city of a source of water to fight fires. The agreement with hydraulic owners guaranteed that the city "shall at all times be permitted, quietly and peaceably, to use water from" the hydraulic "by pipes or otherwise for the purpose of extinguishing fires" in the community.

That made property along the hydraulic more attractive to entrepreneurs seeking sites for new or expanded industries. It promised improved fire protection in addition to a reliable source of power.