Leaving Our Mark

Ohio Historical Markers highlight Cincinnati’s past

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very city has a story to tell. 

Ours, which first began as three small and desolate settlements on the banks of the Ohio River, is no exception. From the first professional baseball team (the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869) to the first glass door oven (Camp Washington, 1909), Cincinnati has and continues to leave a mark on American history and culture.

To help commemorate the significant moments of our nearly 200-year history, throughout Cincinnati you can find brown double-sided aluminum plaques, each coated with gold lettering and its own unique body of text. While seemingly ubiquitous, these plaques blend into the backdrop like often-ignored construction signs. These plaques are known as Ohio Historical Markers, and here in the Queen City they tell the story of a once-proud and flourishing municipality, with all her vitality and shortcomings put on display.

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The historical markers are products of the Ohio History Connection. A nonprofit based out of Columbus, it was incorporated in 1885 as The Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, nearly 100 years after Marietta became the first permanent settlement of the Northwest Territory and present-day Ohio. The organization’s original purpose, according to its website, was to “preserve the state’s past and address concern that the state’s past was being entirely lost or sent away to museums and libraries in other states and countries.” The Ohio History Connection has become the largest state-supported network of historical sites and museums in the country, operating 60 sites, 300 buildings and 4,800 acres of land.

The idea of marking Ohio’s history with historical markers wasn’t realized until nearly 70 years after the group’s founding. The markers serve to identify, commemorate and honor important places, events and people of Ohio, including right here in Cincinnati.

“It lets communities share what’s unique, what’s special [and] what’s notable about them,” says Andy Verhoff, the Ohio historical marker coordinator for the Ohio History Connection, who has been with the organization for nearly 20 years. “An important part of a person’s identity is where they’re from, and markers help to explain how a place came to be.”

The first marker in Cincinnati was erected in 1969, commemorating Francis McCormick, founder of Methodism in the Northwest Territory during the Second Great Awakening, during which membership grew rapidly amongst Baptist and Methodist congregations. The second was dedicated less than a year later, erected right across from what is now called the Duke Energy Convention Center, remembering the First National Correctional Congress of the National Prison Association. Meeting in October of 1870, the group’s hope was to reform and improve our penal system, writing the following in its Declaration of Principles: “The supreme aim of prison discipline is the reformation of criminals, not the infliction of vindictive suffering.”

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With 49 in total — second only to Columbus — the markers located in Cincinnati present quite a diverse history. Lest people forget, Cincinnati was one of the 10 most populous U.S. cities from 1830 up to the 1910 Census, and the downtown markers present our impact on the abolitionist movement and the Civil War, national politics, religion, the public schooling system, medicinal advancements and, yes, even sports: The Cincinnati Reds are the only professional sports team in Ohio to have its own historical marker (insert cheap shot at Cleveland sports here). Located on Crosley Terrace at Great American Ball Park, the marker remembers the 1869 Red Stockings, the first professional baseball team in America. Even Cold War hysteria and blatant World War I racism are topics of Cincinnati markers, showing the wide range of history the Ohio History Connection is willing to cover. The application process for proposing a marker is surprisingly simple.

Historical markers commemorate both Cincinnati's German heritage and post WWW-II efforts to downplay German influence.
Photo: Robert Misleh

A local sponsor submits an application for a marker to the Ohio History Connection, and all costs — marker production, marker instillation, ongoing maintenance and upkeep — are covered by that sponsor. The Ohio General Assembly established the Ohio Bicentennial Commission in 1995 to help commemorate the state’s 200th anniversary. They’re responsible for the production of more than 20 markers downtown, including two commemorating prosperous Cincinnati businesses, the Kroger Co. and Procter & Gamble.

“We have a lot of different kinds of local sponsors,” Verhoff says. “Our program is really very universal in the sense that any community group can propose a marker. … We have local historical societies propose markers, local preservation groups, veterans groups, museums.”

The sponsor also must provide the title of the marker and a classification, e.g. historic event, building or person, natural history, archeological site, ethnic association, historic district, geology or legend. Most importantly, they must provide a statement of significance, explaining why a person, place, event or “thing” is worthy of recognition with an Ohio Historical Marker.

“We get the application, we look it over, and we pay attention to that statement of significance, where the local sponsor tells us why this is worthy of a historical marker,” Verhoff says. “The next step, the ball is in our court. We fact-check the marker, we revise the text and send it back to the local sponsor for their review.”

Then it’s off to Sewah Studios in Marietta, where the historical marker can finally come to fruition.

The studio was founded in 1927, and the production of historical markers has become its specialty. All in all, it takes roughly a week to complete a marker and costs around $2,000. The studio can knock out about six markers per day, and nearly 1,200 markers are cast per year.

The studio produced two Cincinnati markers dedicated earlier this year. The first is located at the Westwood Town Hall Recreation Center and celebrates the local and national impact of James N. Gamble, co-founder of Procter & Gamble and the inventor of Ivory Soap. The other marker is Norwood High School, “a source of community pride.” At least two more markers have been approved and are waiting appropriate dedication ceremony dates for next year: St. Aloysius Orphanage in Bond Hill, which took care of German-speaking children abandoned during the cholera epidemic in the 1830s; and the Good Will Fresh Air Camp, a 100-acre site in North Bend founded and operated by Reverend Richard E. Scully, the founder of Cincinnati Goodwill.

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With new markers being dedicated and erected each year, there are plenty of historic places and people of Cincinnati still left to be commemorated. Markers commemorate our rich German and Irish heritage, but no marker tells the story of the Shawnee Indians that occupied the region before its settlement, or the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, which encouraged more settlers to the Cincinnati area. Our history as the pork-processing center of the United States (“Porkopolis”) and a major iron producer are also noticeably absent. And despite 28 buildings being designated as local historic landmarks by the city of Cincinnati, only a select few are commemorated with a marker.

The Historic Conservation Board of Cincinnati has erected two historical markers separate from the Ohio Historic marker program: outside Herzog Studios on Race Street, where Hank Williams recorded his hit single “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and the Mercantile Library on Walnut Street, where famous authors Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ralph Waldo Emerson have all given addresses. 

Historical markers line Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point.
Photo: Robert Misleh

This just means the dedication of markers in Cincinnati will continue well into the future, if local sponsors are willing to cover the costs. The Ohio Historic Marker program is here to help tell our story. And it seems residents are more than willing to listen.

While every one of the nearly 50 markers downtown is worthy of inclusion, here is a list of some of the most interesting and unique markers of Cincinnati:

Union Terminal

(1301 Western Ave., Queensgate): On Nov. 4, residents overwhelmingly passed Issue 8, a sales tax increase for the renovation of Union Terminal. But it was more than that. It was also a memorandum on our city’s willingness to preserve our distinct and vital history. A symbol of Cincinnati despite its discontinuance as a working railroad station in 1972, it currently houses the Cincinnati History Museum, the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and the Omnimax theater, and is a popular field trip destination for Cincinnati schools. The passage of Issue 8 will raise $172 million for its upkeep and renovation.

Cincinnati’s German Heritage

(Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point, 801 E. Pete Rose Way, Downtown) commemorates the impact German immigrants had on our social, cultural, economic and political history. At the start of the 21st century, nearly half of Cincinnati residents were of German descent. Despite our rich German history, World War I saw the rise of

Anti-German Hysteria

(Findlay Market, 119 W. Elder St., Over-the-Rhine). German and Berlin Streets became English and Woodard, and the Public Library removed all German publications from its shelves. It was a trend that hit all of America, as President Roosevelt denounced “hyphenated Americanism” and German immigrants were seen as too sympathetic to their home country. 

First Glass Door Oven

(2701 Spring Grove Ave., Camp Washington): The first oven with a glass viewing-door was invented and manufactured by Ernst H. Huenefeld of the Huenefeld Company in 1909 at its factory on Spring Grove Avenue, a technological breakthrough that is now a standard feature in homes today.

1749 French Claims to Ohio River Valley

(Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point, 801 E. Pete Rose Way, Downtown): The French, feeling threatened by British expansion to the Ohio River Valley, buried inscribed lead plates at six different tributaries to the Ohio River, including one at the mouth of the Great Miami River. The lead plates established French claim of the area, and “as a monument to the renewal we have taken of said River Ohio and lands on both sides of its tributaries to their sources.”

Cincinnati Breweries

(200 block of West McMicken Avenue, Over-the-Rhine): In the late 1800s, Cincinnati Breweries produced nearly twice as much beer per resident than any other city in the country, with 18 of 36 local breweries operating in Over-the-Rhine and the West End. Given our rich German and Irish heritage, it’s no surprise we know a thing or two about beer production — and consumption.

John T. Crawford’s Legacy

(1350 W. North Bend Road, College Hill): John T. Crawford was a white Union soldier who willed his 18 ½-acre farm as a home “for aged, indigent worthy colored men, preference to be given to those who suffered the miseries of American Slavery.” The Crawford Old Men’s Home operated from 1888 until 1964. 

The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives

(Hebrew Union College, 3101 Clifton Ave., Clifton):

 

The archive was created in the aftermath of World War II, as Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus felt the urgency to preserve North American Jewish history. It’s now one of the world’s largest collections of primary material on the history of American Judaism.

The Sultana

(Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point, 801 E. Pete Rose Way, Downtown): This ship was constructed in Cincinnati and contracted by the U.S. government to transport free Union prisoners north from Confederate stockades. The ship was carrying six times its capacity during a trip in 1865, causing a steam boiler to explode from too much pressure and low water, killing an estimated 1,800. Ohioans accounted for 791 deaths, more than any other state, including more than 50 Cincinnatians. It remains the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, even more deadly than the sinking of the Titanic.

Cincinnati Moonwatch Team

(Cincinnati Astronomical Society, 5274 Zion Road, Cleves): As part of Cold War tensions and hysteria, the Cincinnati Moonwatch Team was activated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory after the launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. They spent thousands of hours optically observing and recording the position and activities of satellites from 1957 to 1964. The data was used by scientists to understand how satellite orbits changed with solar activity in the upper atmosphere and even provided the basis for global positioning satellites (GPS) and other future technology. 

Elizabeth Blackwell

(YWCA of Greater Cincinnati, 898 Walnut St., Downtown): Born in Bristol, England, Elizabeth Blackwell moved to Cincinnati in 1838. In 1849, she received her medical degree from Geneva Medical College in New York, thus becoming the first accredited female doctor in the United States. 

Cincinnati Riots of 1884 (1000 Sycamore St., Downtown): Citizens felt poorly about law enforcement efforts as murderers and other offenders received lenient punishments. On March 28, 1884, thousands of city residents stormed the county jail and courthouse after a 17-year-old was given only a 20-year sentence for manslaughter. The rioting lasted three days, 54 people were killed and 200 wounded. The riots led to the removal of political favoritism in law enforcement and a larger police force in the city. ©

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