Hamilton industrial history, a brief narrative
A handful of soldiers struggled to erect a crude log stockade at a ford on the Great Miami River in 1791, watching and listening for signs of hostile Indians as they worked. Their perilous task was completed Sept. 30, and Fort Hamilton welcomed a hastily-formed frontier army. General Arthur St. Clair -- also the territorial governor -- named the wilderness supply post in honor of Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first secretary of the treasury.
St. Clair’s poorly-trained army suffered defeat Oct. 4, 1791. Command of a new campaign was entrusted to General Anthony Wayne in 1792. He ordered Fort Hamilton enlarged -- to about the size of a football field -- as he meticulously primed his army. His thorough preparations paid off in victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers Aug. 20, 1794.
The next year, the Treaty of Greenville opened most of Ohio to settlement. Some of Wayne’s soldiers settled around abandoned Fort Hamilton as farmers and merchants. Within a few years, the seeds of Hamilton's industrial future were sown when Ohio attained statehood and Hamilton became the seat of Butler County.
In March 1803 -- when Ohio became the 17th state -- Hamilton was chosen as the county seat of newly-formed Butler County. July 15, 1803, the state accepted an offer of land in Hamilton for a county seat from Israel Ludlow. Being the county seat gave area residents a reason to travel to Hamilton, and assured a stable base of customers for early Hamilton merchants,
The town also became an agricultural trading center, thanks to its position on the east bank of the Great Miami River. For nearly 30 years, corn and hogs, for example, were shipped on flatboats from Hamilton over the Great Miami River and outlet -- via Ohio and Mississippi rivers to markets in New Orleans, the most feasible outlet for Butler County products.
Dec. 19, 1819, the privately developed Miami Bridge opened between Hamilton and Rossville, easing and encouraging travel across the Great Miami River, and promoting the eventual merger of the two towns in 1855. It also encouraged the building of new shops and mills and helped boost existing ones by making Hamilton more accessible to regions west of the river.
The town's status as a market and trade center was enhanced even more after 1828 by the Miami-Erie Canal that provided trade outlets to the Ohio River and later to Lake Erie. Ground was broken for the Miami-Erie Canal south of Middletown July 21, 1825. When the original plan bypassed Hamilton, local civic leaders lobbied for and financed a direct canal connection in the construction of the Hamilton Basin, that extended west from the canal to downtown Hamilton.
Industrial growth accelerated with the opening of the Hamilton Hydraulic, a water power system for mills and shops. It diverted water from the Great Miami River north of town and passed through man-made channels, dropping about 29 feet along its four-mile course. Jan. 27, 1845, the privately developed Hamilton Hydraulic opened, providing cheap, reliable water power and starting an era of industrial growth and diversification in the city.
Hamilton continued to keep pace with transportation improvements in the 1850s. Sept. 23, 1851, the first train arrived in Hamilton over the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad, giving local industrial and agricultural products access to national markets. Other railroad lines were built during the 1850s. By the end of the decade, the city enjoyed rail connections with New York, Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, St. Louis and other major cities.
Railroad links placed Hamilton in the strategic center of the nation's "Manufacturing Belt" that stretched from Portland, Maine, and Richmond, Va., on the east coast to St. Louis and Minneapolis on the Mississippi River.
In 1855, Hamilton expanded across the Great Miami River, merging with Rossville -- a commercial center that had been established in 1804 on the west side of the river.
Hamilton's manufacturing base continued to expand and diversify from the end of the Civil War (1861-1865) through World War II (1941-1945). During that period, the city grew from 7,223 inhabitants (1860) to 57,951 people (1950).
Its dependable labor force was considered a perfect blend, dominated by two groups -- German immigrants and relocated Appalachians. Their work ethic enabled Hamilton to maintain its industrial image. The city's assets -- an able labor force, the availability of cheap power, abundant water supply, strategic location and excellent railroad connections -- attracted entrepreneurs who had the capital, technical know-how and marketing skills to establish and maintain profitable businesses.
The establishment of municipal services also encouraged industrial and business development. Hamilton opened its municipal water system in 1884, its gas system in 1890 and its electric service in 1895. Mercy Hospital, the first hospital in the county, opened in 1892.
A major boost came in 1891 -- as Hamilton celebrated its centennial -- when the Mosler Safe Company moved to Hamilton from the Cincinnati riverfront to escape Ohio River floods and to expand its manufacturing capacity. One of the factors in selecting the city was Mosler management's familiarity with the quality of labor in Hamilton. Mosler's Cincinnati plants had machine tools built in Hamilton by Niles Tool Works; Bentel & Margedant; Long & Allstatter and the Hooven Owens Rentschler Company.
Mosler's relocation and the subsequent development of similar companies led to Hamilton being known as "the Safe Capital of the World" for almost 100 years.
Macneale & Urban Co., founded in Cincinnati about 1855, was Hamilton's first safe works. Production started in its new Hamilton plant in 1890. The Mosler Safe Co. purchased the Macneale & Urban plant in 1907, and absorbed the business. The Herring-Hall-Marvin Safe Co. was welcomed to Hamilton with a 100-gun salute during groundbreaking ceremonies in 1896. It was a consolidation of Hall's Safe & Lock Co., Cincinnati; Marvin Safe Co., New York City; and Farrel & Co. and Meyers & Smith, Philadelphia.
The combination of Mosler and Herring-Hall-Marvin "gives Hamilton nearly 50 percent of the world's safe and vault production," noted They Built a City: 150 Years of Industrial Cincinnati by the Federal Writer's Project of the Works Progress Administration, published in 1938.
By 1910, Hamilton also had legitimate claims to being home to "the world's largest coated paper mill" (Champion) and "the world's largest machine tool factory" (Hooven Owens Rentschler and Niles) as well as "the Safe Capital of the World." Ten years earlier, Hamilton boasted of being the "Fastest Growing City in Ohio."
Hamilton was described as "the greatest manufacturing city of its size in the world" at the start of the 20th century. "More skilled artisan are to be found in Hamilton than in any other city of equal size in all the world."
Champion Papers had a modest start in Hamilton in 1894, in the midst of a long-term recession that led to the closing of some paper producers in the area. But Peter G. Thomson, Champion's founder, was marketing a new product -- coated paper for the expanding magazine and advertising industries. The company continued to expand and set the pace in its industry into the 1960s.
Without question, Hamilton's proudest industrial achievements were during World War II. At least 125 local factories, large and small, produced finished products or critical components for the U. S. military and allies from 1939 through 1945.
Before direct U. S. involvement in the war -- when defense preparations erased some of the widespread unemployment of the Great Depression of the 1930s -- Hamilton's industrial employment topped 11,000, equivalent to about a fourth of the population in "the city of diversified industries," as Hamilton was known then.
After Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, women and teenagers joined the work force as factories struggled to replace men called into the armed forces, and to fill new jobs created by the demand for war products. By the middle of the war, Hamilton factory jobs exceeded 15,000 with women composing a third of the work force.
Because of war-time secrecy, many local workers turned out mysterious products, crafting components for weapons and war material assembled elsewhere.
One of the most recognizable -- and largest -- of Hamilton's products was the Liberty engine that powered the Liberty ship, the cargo vessels known as "the shopping baskets of World War II."
In 1941, the British government engaged Hooven Owens Rentschler to build the 1,500-horsepower vertical triple expansion engines for the 10,500-ton cargo ships. The first engine was completed at HOR July 1, 1941; the last of 826 was finished March 9, 1945. The HOR plant built more than 31 percent of the 140-ton 2,623 Liberty engines produced by 14 U. S. companies. HOR employed 4,500 men and women -- many on 11-hour shifts six and seven days a week -- during peak production. Other Hamilton industries, including small shops, were subcontractors on the project.
Local companies that contributed to the building of the first atomic bomb at the end of the war included the Mosler and Herring-Hall-Marvin safe companies in Hamilton, Armco Steel in Middletown and the Sall Mountain Company, the latter an asbestos factory located at Rockdale, midway between Hamilton and Middletown.
In the mid 1950s, through the Korean War, more than 125 factories employed in excess of 20,000 people before an industrial exodus eliminated many of the city’s industrial jobs. Several factors influenced the loss -- corporate mergers, old buildings, worn out equipment, product changes and development of new technology.
The federal government's Cold War industrial policies included encouraging the breakup of large concentrations of defense plants. Also nudging industrial leaders to locate elsewhere was the fact that Hamilton was hypothetically "bombed" in 1952 and 1956 national civilian defense exercises that focused on the nation's most likely industrial targets for Soviet Union attacks on the U. S.
A major blow to the city's economy -- and its industrial standing -- was its omission from a major national transportation improvement. New and relocated industries sought sites close to the network of interstate highways announced in 1956. For business, cutting travel time meant cutting costs.
In 1960, when I-75 opened through Butler County, Hamilton was 10 miles west of the interstate system via rural roads -- too far away to benefit from its dramatic economic impact. Hamilton was skipped despite a 1956 federal pledge to include cities of 50,000 or more people on the national highway complex. With a census of 57,951 people in 1950, Hamilton appeared certain to be part of the system, but it didn't happen. (Hamilton's population had peaked in 1960 at 72,354 -- about 17 percent higher than 2000's count of 61,368.)
"Hamilton's Hemorrhage" -- as the series of losses of factories and employment was called -- cost the city about 45 percent of its industrial jobs between 1955 and 1965, according to one estimate.
From the mid 1960s, community leaders battled to maintain and expand the city’s tax base without large industrial employers.
A transportation turning point came in 1981 when work began on the High Street Underpass, an improvement proposed more than 60 years earlier. The underpass eliminated two grade crossing at two busy railroads on the eastern edge of downtown. By the end of the decade, Hamilton had experienced positive several changes -- including a new hotel (the Hamiltonian) in 1985 and a low-level dam in 1989 that transformed the appearance of the Great Miami River through the city and made it available for recreational use.
In 1991 -- as the city observed its bicentennial -- its citizenry celebrated by contributing the money that built the Fitton Center for the Creative Arts. It was erected on land that had been within the southern part of Fort Hamilton 200 years earlier.
As the 1900s closed, Hamiltonians finally realized another dream -- a direct connection to the interstate system. Dec. 13, 1999, traffic began moving over the 10.7-mile Michael A. Fox Highway (also known as Ohio 129, the Butler County Regional Highway and Veterans Highway) between Erie Highway (Ohio) 4 and I-75.
As with the canal of the 1820s, the hydraulic of the 1840s, the railroads of the 1850s and periodic industrial booms, much of Hamilton’s recent progress and improvements wasn't the work of government alone. They required citizen initiative, participation and support -- elements that also have enabled the community to recover from periodic disasters, the worst of which was the 1913 flood, and the economic traumas of business and industrial closings.
Hamilton's ever-changing products have ranged from farm machinery, steam and diesel engines, railroad equipment, horse-drawn carriages, military weapons, machine tools, castings, building materials, stoves and heaters, beer, whiskey, cigars, cake mixes and other food products to tractors, automobiles, auto parts, aircraft parts, refining machinery, textiles, presses, safes, security systems and paper.
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