Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dayton Canals & Hydraulics: Front Street Backstory

Though we know Front Street as a venue connected to the local creative class, the place has historic significance to the economic and industrial history of the city.

Though called "The Front Street Warehouses" the complex was never intended for warehousing. Front Street was an early industrial development, originally powered by water, one of the earliest factory districts in the city, part of a system of canals and waterways that formed the original industrial backbone of Dayton.

Here is the historical context of Front Street, told via diagrammatic maps.

The Pre-Canal Era (to 1829)

This period of flatboat/keelboat trade to New Orleans was discussed in an earlier post. During this era early manufacturing developed along millraces tapping the very fast Mad River, which, together with some minor changes in topography, provided enough power to drive waterwheels.

These races were built mostly before and during the war of 1812, and were the early power for the first industry in Dayton. The long tailrace to the southwest followed the route of a natural slough or backwater, which was a floodway for the Mad & Great Miami during high water. This tailrace and slough was later followed by the Miami & Erie Canal.

There is evidence that the proprietor of Dayton, Daniel Cooper, had a strong interest in developing the water power of streams around Dayton, and one wonders where that came from. Knowing that Cooper and some of the early settlers came from the Passaic Valley of New Jersey, and knowing that the Great Falls of the Passaic were being developed for industrial use around this time, one can speculate that Patterson NJ may have the inspiration for the first attempts at manufacturing in Dayton. There is no proof of this, though.

The Miami & Erie Canal Arrives (1829-1831)

The canal came into the city following the old slough and tailrace to terminate at a basin next to today’s Cooper Park. The basin was very shortly extended northward to First Street, fed by a millrace. An additional feeder constructed northeast to tap the Mad River. This feeder was sized to permit the canal to be extended northward, and a grade change was accomplished via a temporary “tumble” built of logs. Later this was a lock site.

Canal Extension to the North

In the mid 1830s the canal was extended northward, requiring two locks, an additional feeder, and an aqueduct over the Mad River. Lock 21 replaced the temporary tumble.

The First Hydraulics (1838)

The fall at Lock 21 and change in grade to the west was put to use via the Cooper Hydraulic and “Oregon Race” (my name for it… it might have been part of the Cooper Hydraulic company). These were conceptually similar to waterpower development in Lowell and elsewhere in New England,, but tapping a canal instead of a river for water to drive the wheels. Also around this time a race was cut across the bend of the Great Miami to power a mill.

The Cooper Hydraulic probably operated like the Locks and Canals Company in Lowell, Mass, leasing water powers and surplus powers to factories and mills along the hydraulic canal.

Later Hydraulics and the Basin Extension Canal (1840s)
After the construction of Cooper Hydraulic, factories began to move away from the old Mad River millraces. This area was substantially reconfigured by the rerouting of the Mad River to the north and the construction of the Basin Extension Canal, connecting the Basin Extension at First Street with the main stem of the Miami and Erie Canal. This canal also required a lock, 21A. This fall at this lock was used as a water power for the Barney & Smith Car Works (the lock was later known as the Car Works Lock). B&S shipped their first cars via the Basin Extension Canal.

In 1840-41 the Dayton Hydraulic Company was formed (one of the oldest joint stock corporations in the state), and built a lengthy headrace from the Mad River, terminating at the drop in grade at Dutoit Street, were the land drops into the floodplain.

The company subdivided the land along the drop into factory lots, built tailraces the fed into the main stem of the Miami & Erie canal, and leased the water powers. The result: the Upper Hydraulic industrial district formed up in the late 1840s and into the 1850s.

This industrial district is known to day as Front Street.

The Cooper Hydraulic company built yet another hydraulic, on the southern edge of the city.(1847). This district didn’t develop in earnest until around the Civil War.

The Dayton View Hydraulic (1870s)

Coal became readily available via canal boats and later, after connections were made to the Hocking Valley, via railroad. But one last attempt at water power development was via the Dayton View Hydraulic, a reconstruction of the old mill race off north of the Great Miami. This hydraulic canal didn’t attract a lot of industry and its water power was never fully utilized. It was the site, however, of the first electric power station in Dayton.

Flow Diagram

The above schematic shows how the canals in Dayton were used not just for transportation, but as a system of head and tail races to use and reuse water to power industrial operations, at first via large waterwheels (probably via breast shot wheels), later via turbine wheels. One wonders how this was all controlled, and the canals maintained for navigation, given that the excess water in the system must have developed some degree of current.

Anyway, one can see how Front Street fits into a larger picture of canal construction and industrial development driven by water power. It is the last survivor of that era of industrial Genesis, and one of Front Street the buildings was the last factory in Dayton to be powered by water.

As for the canals, only one physical remnant survives in the city...

…the pier for the aqueduct over the Mad River.

More posts at a later date with details on the hydraulic districts, including Front Street.

(PS, the invaluable source for this thread, and for 19th century Dayton industrial history is Carl Beckers’ “Mill Shop & Factory, the Industrial Life of Dayton, Ohio”).

(PPS, click on the pix for enlargements)


Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, great blog on the hydraulics--I'm glad someone else is interested. There is a court case (a bound copy of some of the papers is either at the public library or WSU archives) that goes into some of the control issues---mills complaining that the water "below" was being kept too high, and was interfering with the operation of the mills' "wheels" (turbines), and so Samuel Forrer had a hole drilled into the stone of Lock 21 to show the proper water height. Although most of the buildings at Front Street Stret post-date the hydraulic era (having been built for the Mercantile Co., which had the contract to produce all pre-stamped envelopes for USPO), one of the remaining buildings was one of Mead Paper's original mills and wasn't replaced by Mercantile Co. because it had been extensively remodeled in the 1890's. Although not purely a canal remnant, I'd argue that the most significant reminder of the canal in Dayton is the Chambers Warehouse--used as a canal warehouse from its construction in the 1850's until after the turn of the century, home of the much-photographed boat St. Louis of Dayton, and still standing on the basin.

Nice job, and I look forward to more.

Jefferey said...

I have to say that I really appreciate your remarks here, as this is one aspect of Dayton history that I find fascinating, this water power era.

I have been looking into the hydraulics, on and off, for about 3 years now, and just found out about that court case volume and spent a good part of this morning reading it at the downtown library. It is indeed one of the better sources.

I will be posting a series of entrys on Front Street and the other hydraulics on-and-off over the course of the next few weeks.

For the Chambers warehouse, see this blog entry. More of an achitectural look at the building:


Jefferey said...

Sorry, too long a link.

Try this for the Daytonology look at the Chambers Warehouse:


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to the Chambers Warehouse---its one of my favorite Dayton buildings (along with that tiny little Newcom house with the columns that got moved to Moraine!). It also gave me a reason to look back at your earlier blogs--really interesting & I enjoy both the history and the current geography/urban issues.

Is there a way to post a photo to "Leave your Comment" (I'm old enough to be digitally challenged)? I've got a great view of the Chambers warehouse with the St. Louis docked in front---gives a clear view of that center row of doors on the building you mentio. Incidentally, my research (for a group touring the canal/hydraulics 10-15 years ago) indicated that the building was built in 1856, after an earlier structure built by Chambers burnt (I think this may have come from Robt. Chambers' obituary or one of the county histories). Interestingly, the city directory entry for Chambers in 1898/9 lists both his canal boat line and a telephone number!

Jefferey said...

Unfortunatly I don't think its possible to post pix in the comments section.

You could e-mail it to me at Daytonpix2@yahoo.com and I could post it for you as a seperate post.

Thanks for that intel on the date. 1856 rather than 1850. Still, that is one of the older commercial buildings in the downtown area.

David Ronaldo said...

it looks interesting..Good information shared..I found many thing from this article.
Vane pumps Cart Kit

Dawn said...

Thank you for doing this! I'm trying to research a building in front street, and this gave me the information I needed to move forward.