Tag Archives: Cleveland history

Kingsbury Run – once innocuous enough

Here’s a picture of Cleveland in 1858, the meandering Cuyahoga River, the pastures and small city ambiance, the long Lake Erie shoreline to the north. Just to the right of this scene, a ravine ambles off the Cuyahoga to the south and east, named after one of Cleveland’s earliest European inhabitants, Judge Kingsbury, a gully that used to demarcate the southern border of the town.

Kingsbury Run is probably best known these days for the Kingsbury Run “torso murders” of the 1930s. I found this description of it on the trutv web site.

Kingsbury Run cuts across the east side of Cleveland like a jagged wound, ripped into the rugged terrain as if God himself had tried to disembowel the city. At some points it is nearly sixty feet deep, a barren wasteland covered with patches of wild grass, yellowed newspapers, weeds, empty tin cans and the occasional battered hull of an old car left to rust beneath the sun. Perched upon the brink of the ravine, narrow frame houses huddle close together and keep a silent watch on the area. Angling toward downtown, the Run empties out into the cold, oily waters of the Cuyahoga River.
Crime Library, “The Kingsbury Run Murders or Cleveland Torso Murders

Somehow, growing up, I missed the story about the Kingsbury Run Murders, but I did hear of the historic danger of Kingsbury Run dating back into the 19th century. My father used to tell this story. “Before they built the E. 55th St. bridge [completed for the first time in 1898], your great-grandfather Hoppensack had to walk through Kingsbury Run each day on his way to and from the bank, so he always carried a gun. It was a jungle down there, overgrown and full of vagrants.”

Photo courtesy of Cleveland Public Library

But it was not always so. Here’s a story found in the book “The genealogy of the descendants of Henry Kingsbury.”

In 1800, Governor St. Clair appointed Mr. Kingsbury Judge of the Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Session of the County. The first session is said to have been held in the open air, between two corn-cribs, Judge Kingsbury occupying a rude bench beneath a tree, the jurors sitting about on the grass, and the prisoners looking on from between the slats of the corn-cribs. A brook running into the Cuyahoga is called Kingsbury Run, and is the only memorial which has been dedicated to the first settler. At the mouth of Kingsbury run are the works of the Standard Oil Company.

Can I visit Kingsbury Run today, you might ask? Not exactly. The Van Sweringens bought up Kingsbury Run property in the early 20th century, and installed a four-track railroad line through it. Gone (underground?) is the brook: today, Kingsbury Run is the corridor of the Rapid Transit Line between E. 30th and Shaker Blvd.

The early days of oil

In researching about my blacksmith great-great-grandfather, I’ve often turned to a book called Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow.

John D. Rockefeller (born 1839) was a contemporary of Michael Harm (born 1841), and both men migrated in the mid-19th century to Cleveland to build their fortunes (Rockefeller’s fortune was more substantial and enduring, but still).

Photo courtesy of Cleveland Public Library

Rockefeller set up his first oil refineries, the Excelsior Works, Chernow writes, “on the red-clay banks of a narrow waterway called Kingsbury Run.” In this tidbit, I find two startling coincidences. One, Michael Harm spent his three-year apprenticeship in Cleveland at a wagon shop situated quite near Kingsbury Run. And two, before the refineries cropped up in Kingsbury Run, another ancestor, my great-great-grandfather H.F. Hoppensack, operated his brickworks there. In the obituary of Henry F. Hoppensack, it states: “From 1848- 1851, Mr. Hoppensack manufactured brick on Broadway Hill where the Standard Oil Co. is now located.”

Here’s another coincidence–Harm & Schuster made business wagons for the Chandler & Rudd grocery. In Chernow’s account of Rockefeller’s life, he states: “[Rockefeller’s] younger sister, Mary Ann, married a genial man named William Rudd, the president of Chandler and Rudd, a Cleveland grocery concern.”

Although John D. Rockefeller and Michael Harm were about the same age and lived and worked in Cleveland during the same era, I doubt they knew one another on a first-name basis. The English, German and Irish enclaves in Cleveland in the mid-19th century did not fraternize so often. Nonetheless, it’s a six-degrees-of-separation kind of thing. In The Titans, Chernow describes those early days of oil that I am certain had a profound impact on my great-great-grandfather, and all Clevelanders, as well.

“At the time [just following the Civil War], refiners were tormented by fears that the vapors might catch fire, sparking an uncontrollable conflagration. … Mark Hanna, who later managed President McKinley’s campaign, recalled how one morning in 1867 he woke up and discovered that his Cleveland refinery had burned to the ground, wiping out his investment …’I was always ready, night and day, for a fire alarm from the direction of our works,’ said Rockefeller. ‘Then proceeded a dark cloud of smoke from the area, and then we dashed madly to the scene of the action. So we kept ourselves like the firemen, with their horses and hose carts always ready for immediate action.’

“… In those years, oil tanks weren’t hemmed in earthen banks as they later were, so if a fire started it quickly engulfed all neighboring tanks in a flaming inferno. Before the automobile, nobody knew what to do with the light fraction of crude oil known as gasoline, and many refiners, under cover of dark, let this waste product run into the river. ‘We used to burn it for fuel in distilling the oil,’ said Rockefeller, ‘and thousands and hundreds of thousands of barrels of it floated down the creeks and rivers, and the ground was saturated with it, in the constant effort to get rid of it.’ The noxious runoff made the Cuyahoga River so flammable that if steamboat captains shoveled glowing coals overboard, the water erupted in flames.”

Randy Newman’s “Burn On” may have been about the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969, but apparently, that river had already burned one hundred years ago.

Mosquito frets and legends

ImageSomewhere, I read (at the Cleveland Natural History Museum? the Great Lakes Science Center?) that the mouth of the Cuyahoga River was a swampy, mosquito-ridden land when Moses Cleaveland first surveyed the lots for Cleveland in 1796. When it comes to that, it still is. Enter any Cleveland woods mid-summer and the mosquito whine is sure to drive you back out.

How did 19th century denizens of Cleveland cope with mosquitoes? Window screens did not come into use until after the Civil War. Research tells me they did have mosquito nets. I also found an 1862 reference to “head-bags made of crape.” Another source mentioned a practice of wrapping one’s hands in green baize–the fabric that covered billiard tables.

A search through 19th century newspapers elicited the following:

9/8/1858 – Newark Advocate

Where Mosquitoes Come From

These pests of summer proceed from the animalculas commonly called ‘wiggle tails.’ … If a bowl of water be placed in the summer’s sun for a few days, a number of ‘wiggle tails’ will be visible, and they will increase in size till they reach three-sixteenths of an inch in length,–remaining longer at the surface as they approach maturity. … In a short time a fly will be hatched and escape leaving its tiny house upon the surface of the water. … In fact, standing by a shallow, half-stagnant pool on a midsummers day, the full development of any number of ‘wiggle tails’ to the mosquito state can be witnessed, and the origin of these disturbers of night’s slumbers thus fully ascertained. — Scientific American

8/8/1870 Daily Cleveland Herald

Sparrows and Mosquitoes

… Four years ago, 20 pairs [of English sparrows] were imported [into New York City], and provision was made for their accommodation. Now it is estimated that there are five thousand pair in the New York parks and gardens; and their active and industrious habits are believed to have materially diminished the swarms of mosquitoes which have heretofore made New York a byword and a hissing among all light sleepers who have sensitive skins. This theory is stengthened (sic) by the fact that the same experience has marked the introduction of sparrows into Jersey City–the mosquitoes having greatly diminished there even, which is mosquito land itself. If there is anything to this … then we [of Boston] go for importing one thousand, or five thousand pair at once, to be domesticated in Boston and immediate neighborhood, as a matter of more importance to the peace and comfort of our citizens than would be the addition of a hundred extra policemen. — Boston Traveler

9/3/1881 Cleveland Herald

A 15c box of ‘Rough on Rats’ will keep a house free from flies, mosquitoes, rats and mice the entire season. — Druggists

Finally, I found a reprint of this legend in the 9/7/1872 Cleveland Morning Daily Herald:

Origin of Mosquitoes

We take the following legend from the Minneapolis Tribune:

The Red River Indians have a legend respecting the origin of mosquitoes. They say that once upon a time there was a famine, and the Indians could get no game. Hundreds had died from hunger, and desolation filled their country. All kinds of offerings were made to the Great Spirit without avail, till one day two hunters came upon a white wolverine, a very rare animal. Upon shooting the white wolverine, an old woman sprang out of the skin, and saying that she was a “Manito,” promised to go and live with the Indians, promising them plenty of game as long as they treated her well and gave her the first choice of all the game that should be brought in.

The two Indians assented to this and took the old woman home with them–which event was immediately succeeded by an abundance of game. When the sharpness of the famine had passed the Indians became dainty in their appetites, and complained of the manner in which the old woman took to herself all the choice bits; and this feeling became so intense that, notwithstanding her warnings that if they violated their promises a terrible calamity would come upon the Indians, they one day killed her as she seized upon her share of a fat reindeer which the hunters had brought in.

Great consternation immediately struck the witnesses of the deed, and the Indians, to escape the predicted calamity, boldly struck their tents and moved away to a great distance.

Time passed on without any catastrophe occurring, and game becoming even more plentiful, the Indians again began to laugh at their being deceived by the old woman. Finally, a hunting party on a long chase of reindeer, which had led them back to the spot where the old woman was killed, came upon her skeleton, and one of them, in derision, kicked the skull with his foot. In an instant a small, spiral-like body arose from the eyes and ears of the skull, which proved to be insects. They attacked the hunters with great fury and drove them to the river for protection. The skull continued to pour out its little stream, and the air became full of avengers of the old woman’s death. The hunters, upon returning to camp, found all the Indians suffering terribly from the plague, and ever since that time the red men have been punished by the mosquitoes for their wickedness to their preserver, the Manito.