History of Columbia Tusculum
“Nestled along the riverbank and spreading over the Tusculum hills in eastern Cincinnati is the community of Columbia Tusculum. The roots of this charming neighborhood spread out over a two hundred year span. Its history is traced to Columbia, the second permanent white settlement in the Northwest Territory:”
From the booklet, “Columbia Tusculum: 1788-1988,” produced with the help of many friends and neighbors in celebration of our bicentennial year, 1988.
Columbia Tusculum: A series of firsts:
Cincinnati’s Oldest Neighborhood Founded as the settlement of “Columbia” by Benjamin Stites, with 26 settlers from New Jersey, in November 1788. It predated Losantiville (later, Cincinnati) by a month. Its annexation by Cincinnati (1873), qualifies this community as its first settlers.
First Protestant Congregation in Northwest Territory: Organized in 1790, Columbia Baptist Church’s first pastor, Rev. John Smith of Pennsylvania, later became one of Ohio’s first US senators. Today’s Columbia Baptist Church, built in 1865, is still active at 3718 Eastern Avenue.
First School in Hamilton County: Opened by John Reilly in 1790.
Oldest Continuously Inhabited Home in Hamilton County: Thought to have been built in 1804, the Morris house (3644 Eastern Avenue) was believed to have been the home of James Morris, a tanner and one of the area’s first manufacturers.
Initially sited on the low Ohio River flood plain, repeated flooding hindered the community’s ability to prosper. Hence, in 1815, the settlement moved to its present location at the foot of Tusculum Hill. Two homes from this period still survive – the Kellogg house (3811 Eastern Avenue), and the Stites house (315 Stites Avenue), both built in the 1830’s.
Today, this area is designated as the Columbia Tusculum Historic District. Many of the homes and buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Founding of Columbia
Columbia’s founder, Benjamin Stites, is said to have explored the area by accident.* While on a trading expedition in Kentucky, Stites led a party in pursuit of a band of Indian horse thieves. The Indians built a raft and crossed the Ohio River near the mouth of the Little Miami River. Stites and his men did likewise. Although the Indians were pursued up the Little Miami Valley to the area of present-day Xenia, the horses were never recovered. Stites may have returned empty-handed, but he had a dream. The land he had explored appeared to be the ideal location to settle.
Stites closed his trading post and quickly returned to his family in Pennsylvania. From there he journeyed to New Jersey where he found a sympathetic member of Congress, John Cleves Symmes. Symmes made a large purchase of land and agreed to sell Stites a parcel of 20,000 acres located near the junction of the Ohio and Little Miami Rivers in the newly formed Northwest Territory. The price was quite a bargain at less than a dollar an acre.
He gathered a party of 26 settlers from New Jersey, including three married women, two girls and two young boys. They traveled down the Ohio River and stopped in Limestone, Kentucky (now Maysville) to prepare for settlement. Being familiar with the dangers of attempting to settle in Indian Territory, Stites knew that the group had to be prepared to establish their settlement quickly. A fort was planned and lumber prepared so that construction could begin immediately. Stites and his son Benjamin are said to have even prepared doors with hinges attached.
They left Limestone on November 16, 1788, and floated down the Ohio until they were just upriver from the Little Miami. The party waited there so that they could time their arrival for sunrise. Inasmuch as they had heard rumors of a party of 500 Indians awaiting their landing, they sent a canoe of five volunteers across the river to scout. At the all clear signal, the rest crossed over and landed at the first high bank (about 1/2 mile below the Little Miami) on the morning of November 18, 1788.
An early history of Cincinnati describes the landing:
“Immediately on landing, sentinels were posted, and a clearing made in a thicket of paw-paws, women and children sat down, the men standing, doubtless with their guns in their hands. A hymn was sung under the leadership of Thomas Wade, and then a prayer of thanksgiving was offered. After the close of these services, work was begun on a blockhouse which was completed about November 24.”**
Three additional blockhouses were immediately built and joined by palisades forming a kind of fort which was called Fort Miami. For a short time, the settlement enjoyed the protection of a guard of regular soldiers (1 sergeant and 18 privates) but it was soon withdrawn and the settlers were left to protect themselves.
They called their settlement “Columbia,” and since the area in which they established their homesteads and farms is now within the Cincinnati city limits, the Stites party is entitled to the distinction of being the pioneer settlers.
The Early Years
The Indians were initially friendly and made frequent visits to the blockhouses at Columbia. The first Christmas was a time of celebration. Unexpectedly warm weather permitted the settlers to bring their tables outdoors and invite the Indians to join them in their festivities. The arrival of the other invited guests, the soldiers, nearly caused a disaster. The Indians were finally persuaded to stay and the dinner was a memorable event for all who attended.
The uneasy calm lasted for several months. However, during 1789, several settlers were killed and others captured by Indians. Early maps have been found which attest to the severity of the Indian/Settler conflict in the settlement’s first years. The gory name “Slaughterhouse” marks the location of Columbia.
A cabin built in 1789 was described by one of its inhabitants:
“Its narrow doors of thick oak plank, turning on stout wooden hinges, and secured with strong bars braced with timber from the floor, formed a safe barrier to the entrance below; while above, on every side, were port-holes, or small embrasures, from which we might see and fire upon the enemy. Of windows we had but two, containing only four panes of glass each, in openings so small, that any attempt to enter them, by force, must have proved fatal to an assailant.”***
This was typical of the first homes built in Columbia, and indicates that security against Indians was of utmost importance.
The state of semi-siege did not prevent all social events from taking place. After the garrison was built at Fort Washington, the officers gave balls, and the Fourth of July was usually celebrated magnificently considering the means of the soldiers and the settlers. Winter amusements included riding, visiting, and dancing.
Religion and education were not neglected during these times. In the first group were several Baptist families who gathered for worship services in the blockhouse in 1789. On January 20, 1790, the Columbia Baptist Church, the first protestant congregation in the Northwest Territory was organized.
The first pastor was the Rev. John Smith of Pennsylvania, who, in addition to his ministerial duties, owned a store and small farm. Smith went on to become one of the first senators to represent Ohio in the United States Senate. His friendship with Aaron Burr led to his being charged with treason and his ultimate resignation from the senate.
The first school in Hamilton County was opened in Columbia on June 21, 1790, by John Reilly. His English school was expanded by the addition of Francis Dunlevy who headed a classical department the following year. Mr. Reilly’s journal indicates that the system of “boarding round” must have existed in his time of teaching in Columbia. Entries talk of boarding with various members of the community.
The settlers had at first built on a low plain whose rich soil made it an ideal location for cultivating corn. Throughout the early settlement years they supplied the needs of both the settlements of Columbia and Losantiville. The first mill which ground the corn had an unusual method of deriving power. Two flatboats were anchored side by side with a large paddle wheel fastened in between. The Little Miami’s current turned the wheel which operated the millstones.
By the end of 1790, there were 50 cabins, a mill and a school in the settlement. The Ohio River served this area, like many other river communities, as a primary artery for trade. Yet Columbia, primarily because of its flooding problem, never prospered into a major commercial center.
Early Nineteenth Century
After the hardships of those early settlement years, life in Columbia was greatly improved. The flooding of the town continued and in 1815 the settlement moved to the base of Tusculum hill. Only the Pioneer Cemetery remains to mark the earlier location. Records indicate that it was originally part of the grounds of the Columbia Baptist Church.
The last blockhouse collapsed in 1838 when an unusually large wake created by two passing steamboats washed out the base of the bank which supported it.
The houses built in the early nineteenth century reflect a greater sense of prosperity and a lessened need to merely provide a method of survival. Although few buildings remain from the early 1800’s, the oldest continuously occupied home in the county still stands on Eastern Avenue. Reportedly built in 1804, the building has been covered several times with clapboards. In a recent restoration, owners uncovered four large stone fireplaces. Known as the Morris house, it was reputed to have been the home of James Morris, a tanner and one of the area’s first manufacturers.
Two other houses of prominent families remain from the early 1800’s. The Kellogg house was built in 1835 by Samuel Knicely and passed to his daughter, Sarah, who married Ensign Kellogg. The home remained in the Kellogg family until the death of the last family member in 1977.
The other home still standing is the Stites house. Built by Hezekiah Stites, Jr. in the 1830’s, the eighteen inch thick masonry walls attest to the builder’s intent to have his home stand a long time.
Compared to earlier years, life in Columbia was fairly prosperous. Residents there made it clear that their community was no place for a freeloader to visit. Early histories of the area talk of boarding paupers at farm houses. The person would be put up for auction and would go to the lowest bidder. Other documents forbid certain families who were known indigents from entering the town.
Residents of Columbia enjoyed the bounty produced by the fertile land. Agriculture and the accompanying occupations provided the mainstay for the community. Several manufacturers and river tradesmen also called Columbia home.
From the earliest days of Columbia, the river has played an important role in the development of the community. Early settlers arrived by flatboat, and simple boats and canoes continued to transport new arrivals and to convey goods to markets in other communities. With the development of the steamboat, the river took on increased importance. Many boats were built in the area and docks up and down the river gave the town a prominent position in river trade.
By 1910, steamboat traffic on the Ohio River was being replaced by the railroad as a means of transportation. Those boats already on the river continued to operate, but when they became too old for service, they were not replaced. The Ohio continued on its periodic rampages, with major floods in 1913, 1918, and 1924, but the most spectacular river disaster was the “ice gorge” of 1918. The Ohio froze over in January, and as late as March it was still possible to walk across the river. Steamboats were imprisoned in the ice, and with the thaw, were crushed by the shifting ice. After that, the steam boat became more a memory than a mode of transportation.
Transportation played an important role in the growth of Columbia. Because Columbia was the gateway to the eastern sections of Hamilton County, the area evolved into a primary transportation corridor. As early as 1795, a road was surveyed from Cincinnati to Columbia, and by 1835, the Anderson Turnpike passed through Columbia on its route to Chillicothe. As the population grew, the network of roads connecting towns increased. With the development of the automobile, more people moved out to the suburbs and began to commute to the city for trade and work. In 1938, Columbia Avenue was upgraded to a parkway to assist in the flow of traffic from the outlaying areas into the city.
In 1836, the Little Miami Railroad was incorporated and by 1841, it connected Cincinnati, Columbia, and the village of Milford. In 1870, it was absorbed by the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1917, the tracks were elevated to allow for more speed and safety. Until 1970, the line was among the busiest in Ohio; all passenger traffic to and from Cincinnati on to Pennsylvania passed through Columbia.
In 1877 the narrow gauge Cincinnati, Georgetown, and Portsmouth steam railroad inaugurated service between downtown Cincinnati and Clermont County. Around 1917, the steam engines were replaced by electric trains.
Transportation advances were not limited to ways of getting out of Columbia; some aided in moving around town. The streetcar system helped residents within the city limits. In 1866, the Cincinnati and Columbia Street Railway Company began operation of steam “dummies”, and in the 1890’s the line was modernized with cable cars. The “dummy” provided a means of getting to Mt. Lookout from Columbia and proved to be very popular. It was so popular that when it ceased operation, a funeral service was held, the cars were cremated, and they were buried along Delta Avenue.
Another important transportation feature is Lunken Airport. The airport started as a barnstorming airfield shortly after World War I. In 1925, the Army Air Corps moved to the present Lunken field. Embry and Riddle formed a team that same year and in 1927 began carrying airmail from Chicago to Cincinnati. The Embry-Riddle Company was taken over by American Airlines making Cincinnati the birthplace of that large aviation company.
In 1925, E. H. Lunkenheimer donated 204 acres of ground to the city of Cincinnati to be used as an airport on the condition that it be called Lunken airport. In the course of preparing the land for the airport, several Indian items were unearthed. The area had previously been an Indian burial ground and contained numerous items of Indian lore such as arrowheads, tomahawks, and pottery. During the time of the Indians, the area was home to turkeys and bore the name Turkey Bottoms. The rich soil provided for a bountiful corn crop for the Indians and later the settlers. In addition to the Indian remains, an old stone from one of the early grist mills on the site was uncovered. The stone is currently located near the entrance to the airport building.
The city added additional acreage to the Lunkenheimer gift. About the middle of 1928, Lunken became a municipal airport. In the early 1930’s, it was known as one of the largest and finest municipal airports in the world. The opening of Greater Cincinnati Airport brought about the end of commercial service at Lunken. It is now one of the most important general aviation fields in the state.
The Boom Years
After many years of little growth, the transportation boom caused many changes in Columbia. The village grew and was officially incorporated in 1868. As the growth continued, many residents wanted to take advantage of the amenities of the city. In 1873, Columbia was annexed by the city of Cincinnati.
Most of the buildings seen today were begun in conjunction with the development of transportation in this area. The ease of access to Cincinnati and other communities encouraged people to build their homes here. Many large estates were subdivided and sold for building lots.
The largest landowner in the area was Nicholas Longworth, Cincinnati’s first millionaire. Longworth’s vineyards covered the area from what is now Eden Park to the current Alms Park. His sparkling Catawba wine was popular all over the country. The combination of black rot and the loss of laborers due to the Civil War led to the demise of the grapevines. Following his death in 1863, the land was subdivided and the area became know as Longworth’s Tusculum.
In 1890, a newspaper notice advertised in glowing terms a new subdivision, Columbia Heights, across Delta Avenue from Tusculum Heights. It was touted for its riverviews, proximity to the fine estates of Larz Anderson, and accessibility from downtown. The area was not as successfully developed as had been expected, and, consequently, retained a country aura. The presence of numerous animals inspired the residents to refer to their locale as “nanny goat hill.”
As the number of residents in the area increased, the business district, particularly along Eastern Avenue, experienced a period of growth. Many businesses, such as hotels, sprang up to service the passengers and workers from the railroad. However, most businesses were community oriented.
Several older residents have been quoted as saying that by the turn-of-the-century, the business district supplied the total needs of the community. The frequent runs of the streetcar and the steam dummy provided easy access tot he shopping district for residents outside the immediate area. The section of Eastern Avenue from Davis Lane (Airport Road) to Delta Avenue boasted at least five groceries, two hotels, three hardware stores, four saloons, three barbers, two banks, a theater, four shoe stores, a restaurant, four dry goods stores, three confectioners, three drug stores, a jeweler, a plumber, and a tailor. In addition to the stores, there were doctors, a lawyer, an architect, and several undertakers. A major employer was the Boldt Glass Company on Davis Lane. The police station was located on Eastern Avenue near Tennyson. The paddy wagon and horses were kept at the police patrol at the corner of Columbia and Delta.
Unlike businesses today, the shopkeepers lived either above or near their place of business. The sense of community was very strong.
Life In The Early 1900’s
Life in the community was quite different from that of today. The community was described as being very close-knit. There were many wealthy residents and they were known to “look out” for the poor. As everyone lived and worked in the area, there was a strong sense of pride in the community.
Even the policemen lived in the neighborhood and knew all the residents. As he walked his beat every night, a policeman would check every resident’s property and would tap his stick on the porch to let the occupants know he had been there.
Most deliveries were made in hose-drawn wagons. Ice was home delivered until about 1920. The steep hillside streets made such deliveries difficult. Several of the steeper streets were paved with cobblestones to give the horses better footholds.
Transportation for the residents within the community was also via horse. Several residents owned their own horse and carriage, while others rented them as they were needed. Many horses were kept in the undertaker’s stables, since the undertaker had horses of his own.
When the women in the community finished shopping, they would usually stop to call on a friend. If the friend were not at home, she would leave her calling card with a servant or under a special spring on the outside of the mailbox. The recipient of the card would then telephone the caller and invite her to tea.
The women were well-know for their ability to organize various social events. Parades were held regularly to benefit numerous causes. School children vied for the honor of helping carry a large flag. The flag was carried flat and the spectators would throw money on it as the children marched by.
One of the most memorable benefits was held during World War I. Americans were concerned about the plight of the Belgian babies. Local women organized a festival in their behalf. A large circus tent was set up on Donham, near Eastern Avenue. Many “wild animals” were housed there. Actually, the animals were prominent local citizens in costume. The event lasted for a week and ended with a chariot race followed by a parade down Eastern Avenue.
Spare time activities for young people included music lessons and going to the library. Several older residents recall that the library was the meeting place before going on to other activities. The favorite wintertime sport was sledding town the Tusculum hill. The more adventurous would start at what is now the road that leads to Alms Park and end on Eastern Avenue
A favorite place for the enterprising young boys was the Carrel Street Railroad Station. The C G & P line there. Passengers would walk from that narrow gauge line to the streetcar. Boys would offer to bus their baggage for five or ten cents.
Another highly popular gathering place for the boys in the community was the YMCA. Originally located on Eastern Avenue, the Y was a popular spot where a boy or a young man could find plenty of friends and good times. The first director, “Doc” Owens, was a well-known figure in the community. He is credited with organizing many of the clubs which helped to guide the boys into wholesome activities. The sports teams sponsored by the Y were among the more popular activities. The “East End Y Marines” was a youth group which provided invaluable service in assisting with rescue efforts on the Ohio River during the 1937 flood. The YMCA is currently located at Delta and Columbia and has continued to offer aid in times of need.
While the Ohio River has provided a major means of transportation for Columbia, it also has been a source of difficulty. The early settlement was forced to move further inland to avoid the frequent floods. Today the community is protected by a series of dams upriver and on the various streams which feed the Ohio. This was not the case as recently as 1937 – the year which cannot be forgotten by those who lived through it.
January 1937 was the date of the greatest flood in recorded history. The river reached a final crest of 80 feet and much of the community was under water.
Just as it had done throughout the history of Columbia, the area around Lunken Airport was among the first locations to be inundated. All air traffic to and from Cincinnati ceased. Shortly thereafter the rails became flooded and train traffic was also halted.
Soon the area was isolated and, like the rest of the city, was without electricity and water services. The indomitable spirit of the residents pushed them into action. The “Y Marines” as well as many local residents joined in the effort to rescue those who were left stranded by the rising waters.
As the flood waters receded, the residents rose to the challenge. The retreating waters left behind much damage, but not enough to defeat the hard working people of Columbia Tusculum. The spirit of community helped to pull everyone together. Even though the flood was a dreadful ordeal, it is also remembered by everyone as a time of great community involvement.
The Last Forty Years
Beginning in the World War II era, the area experienced many changes. As the young men returned from war, they began to move to the suburbs where everything was “new and modern”. As the parents of these men grew older, the buildings and businesses in the community also began to show their age and started to deteriorate. Like many other urban areas, Columbia Tusculum experienced a decline.
Beginning in the 1940’s and continuing through the 70’s, many people migrated from eastern Kentucky to the Cincinnati area. Cincinnati appealed to these migrants because it offered the opportunity for jobs and the chance to improve their standard of living. The vacancies created by the “flight to the suburbs” left homes and apartments available for the new wave of residents. As these residents improved their standard of living and moved on to other locations, new migrants continued to take their places.
With the late 1970’s and into the 80’s, a new migration began. The combination of the oil crisis and the revival of interest in Victorian architecture prompted young people to return to the city. Many of the homes are being restored to the glory of their earlier days.
A restoration of the spirit which characterized the earlier community has accompanied the restoration of the buildings. Residents are encouraged to participate in the community council projects and share their concerns with other members of the community. The sense of community pride that was prevalent in the early days of Columbia is once again evident in Columbia Tusculum. Everyone is invited to join in to make this community one of the best the city has to offer.
The Columbia Tusculum Community Council has produced this booklet with the help of a grant from the Neighborhood Support Program. We wish to thank the following people for their assistance in providing historical information and/or photographs (all photographs depict area residents and events – Note from the webmaster: these pictures are not yet available on the website):
Gladys Morris BumillerYork McDonnell
The Columbia JournalOhio Historic Preservation Office
Betty EasleyRichard Pardini
John FischEleanor Roth
Lunken AirportLouise Warrington
Miami Purchase Assn.
* Some believe this story to be charming but not quite accurate. The tendency of the area to flood suggests that it was chosen from a map rather than in person. (return to text)
** The story appears in several early history books. The actual quote is from a page torn out of an unknown history book recently found in a local home. (return to text)
*** The source of this quote is also a page torn from an unknown early history book. (return to text)
Engeleken, Ruth, “The Old Stites House”, The Cincinnati Enquirer magazine, August 16, 1970
Ford, Henry A. and Kate B., History of Hamilton County Ohio, L. A. Williams and Company, 1881
Heidler, Robert, “East End-Tusculum”, Cincinnati Times-Star, August 12, 1950
Howe, Henry, Historical Collections of Ohio, The Laning Company, Norwalk, Ohio, 1898
“Meet OBC’s Oldest Churches”, The American Baptist, Ohio News Section, February 1976
Morsbach, Mabel, We live in Cincinnati, Cincinnati Public Schools, 1961
“200 years of Cincinnati”, Cincinnati Historical Society
Williams, Harriet Langdon, Memory Pictures, 1908
Wilson, Steven Douglas, “The Adjustment Process of Southern Appalachian Whites in Cincinnati”, University of Kentucky, 1983
Even more information about our history can be found in this document, an excerpt from The Bicentennial Guide to Greater Cincinnati, published by the Cincinnati Historical Society, 1988. Permission to use this history was granted by Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal. More information can be found at http://library.cincymuseum.org