Our Wealthy Historical past: Dueling Demons – Despair, Debt, and Deluge at Newport, 1873-1896

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Especially for NKyTribune

Part 74 of the series, Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.

The economic depression that began in 1873 had far-reaching effects on American cities. However, Newport, Kentucky’s case, timing the Depression was worse than many other communities. In 1873, the city had completed its new waterworks, at a huge cost surplus of nearly $ 175,000. The resulting debt weighed heavily on Newport’s municipal finances for years.

Until 1874, Newport’s financial situation was far from ideal. Indeed, Albert S. Berry, president of the city council, stated in March this year, “The interest on the city’s debt now absorbs about half of the revenue.” With property tax revenues limited by law for the next three years, the city would have to take “rigid” economic measures to restore “capitalists’ trust in the city’s securities” (“Newport, President Berry Message,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, March ) 28, 1874, p. 3).

Meanwhile, labor movements gained momentum in the late 19th century when workers began organizing nationwide strikes. For example, in the late summer of 1877, workers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) organized a strike in response to their employer initiating a third round of wage cuts. Soon the strike spread to other railways and became known as the Great Railway Strike of 1877.

The Central Bridge was designed by John A. Williamson. From a postcard in the collection of Paul A. Tenkotte.

The federal government, under the Hayes administration, intervened on the strike and dispatched US Army troops to ensure that B&O’s passenger and freight trains continued to operate. Indeed, US General Winfield Scott Hancock (1824-1886) sent General Thomas H. Ruger (1833-1907) to Louisville “to take immediate control of the troops at that time and [at] Newport “(National Capital, Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, July 27, 1877, p. 4).

On July 27, the Cincinnati Daily Star reported that “two hundred troops” were leaving Louisville for Indianapolis and another “two hundred for Newport Barracks” (Striking Scenes, “Cincinnati Daily Star,” July 27, 1877, p. 2). Three days later, on July 30, the same newspaper reported that all B&O passenger trains in Cincinnati were on schedule (Local Brevities, Cincinnati Daily Star, July 30, 1877, p. 5). Nationwide, a combination of US Army, National Guard, City Police and railroad security forces defeated the strikers.

Some regional newspapers reported not only depression, debt and angry workers, but also corruption in the Newport city government. However, details were surprisingly sparse. Furthermore, the corruption references were drafted diplomatically, as if the editors were trying to avoid defamation lawsuits.

Even so, allusions to corruption were intriguing. For example, in October 1878, the Cincinnati Daily Gazette endorsed the candidacy of Captain FA Stine, an “independent Republican candidate for city treasurer” of Newport. The Gazette praised Stine for “running the campaign on a manly and patriotic anti-corruption basis” claiming that he “refuses to break the law by using money to secure his election or influence a vote”. The assumption was clear that Newport’s predominantly Democratic city government had its part in the peddling (Newport, Cincinnati Daily Gazette, Oct. 4, 1878, p. 3).

Some of the press went on pointing fingers at William N. Air. Air was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in August 1834. As the captain of a steamship, he became the tenant of the Taylor family’s Newport Ferry. He was also a member of the board of directors of the Newport and Cincinnati Bridge Company, owned a racehorse, and ran a street business. Politically, Air was a Democrat and served as a councilor representing Newport’s Second District. In 1873, the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, a respected regional newspaper, named it “Boss Air,” a reference that undoubtedly refers to “Boss Tweed” from New York City. Apparently Air shrugged and allegedly replied, “Every message we make [the Commercial Tribune] To give him is worth a hundred dollars. “Air died in Newport on February 2, 1907, and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in neighboring Southgate, Kentucky (” Newport, “Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, Dec. 9, 1873, p. 3;” Newport, “Cincinnati Daily Star, Dec. 8, 1873) October 1878, p. 4; FindaGrave)

Air, in turn, was a business partner and political ally of Captain John A. Williamson. Williamson was born on July 9, 1826 in Portsmouth, Ohio. When he was very young, his parents moved to Newport. Like Air, Williamson became a steamship captain. He owned a number of boats that ran between Cincinnati and St. Louis. In 1866 he joined Air to lease the Newport Ferry. A wealthy and politically savvy businessman, Williamson was President of Newport City Council, President of the Newport Light Company, and owner of the Newport Street Railway. However, his most famous contribution to Newport was the construction of the Central Bridge. The second bridge between Newport and Cincinnati, the Central, opened in August 1891 (Tenkotte and Claypool, Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky; Biographical Cyclopedia of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Chicago, IL: John M. Gresham Company, 1896).

Air and Williamson were also close political partners. For example, according to the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, when Air was in New York City on business, his candidacy for Newport City Council “was generally understood as being in the interests of the tram operation of Captain John A. Williamson” weight of two men in city politics (” Newport, “Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, December 13, 1875, p. 6). Williamson died in Newport on July 7, 1898 and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Southgate.

Albert S. Berry was one of Newport’s most prominent politicians. (Courtesy Kenton County Public Library)

Another major figure in Newport politics was Albert S. Berry, a Democrat known as “The Great Sycamore of Licking” (he was 6’5 “tall), born May 13, 1837 in Jamestown [now Dayton]Berry, Kentucky, which his father founded, was the scion of two pioneering Newport families, the Taylors and the Berrys. Berry was educated at Miami University of Ohio and Cincinnati Law School and is a lawyer. During the Civil War, he served in the Confederate Army and was promoted to captain. After the war he married Ann Shaler, the daughter of the pioneering Shaler and Southgate families. In 1879 he bought Newport Ferry. Berry was President of Newport City Council, Senator for the State of Kentucky (1878-1883) and an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Kentucky governor in 1887. He served in the United States House of Representatives from 1892 to 1892 in 1902 and was a judge at Campbell County Circuit Court from 1904 until his death in 1908. He was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Southgate. (Tenkotte and Claypool, The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky; “Judge AS Berry Dies After Brief Illness,” Kentucky Post, Jan. 7, 1908, p. 5; “Judge Berry Dies at His Home,” Cincinnati Post, Jan. 7, 1908 , P. 8).

The Ohio River floods of 1883 and 1884 caused significant damage to Newport. See this NKyTribune history column. Among the many flooded locations was the Newport Barracks. Already out of date and long considered for closure, the barracks would eventually be in Ft. Thomas in 1894. The old quarter of the barracks, the Licking Bottoms in the deep West End of the city, “carried on” but became increasingly impoverished. In addition, the neighborhood struggled with prostitution and other problems at the beginning of the 20th century. See this history column.

In the 1880s, Newport also gradually lost its appeal as a manufacturing town. For example, the Dueber Watch Case Company became dissatisfied with the city and moved to Canton, Ohio. See our “Rich History” column. Floods, lack of scope for expansion, bureaucratic governance, labor difficulties and competitions from suburbs and cities in the region have turned the tide on Newport’s earlier prosperity.

At the time of Prohibition, Newport already had many demons to duel. Newport, ravaged by depression, municipal debt, catastrophic flooding, and an inland city unable to expand beyond its borders, would face new demons in the 20th century. As a city ravaged by bad timing and natural disasters, Newport saw new opportunities in the era of Prohibition. However, anything that glittered was not gold. Organized crime, prostitution, and gambling were the cost of neglecting a decades-long need to face Newport’s problems and develop sustainable solutions.

We’d like to learn more about the history of your company, church, school, or organization in our area (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of Our Rich History, Paul A. Tenkotte, at [email protected]. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD, is a professor of history at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of numerous books and articles.

Part 1 of this article on long depression can be found in this NKY history column.