“Cleveland in the Gilded Age” by Dr. John Grabowski


Charles Brush home on Euclid Avenue and His Windmill (Library of Congress)

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A Time of Transition and Challenge:  Cleveland in the Gilded Age

Prologue:  Innocents Abroad

by Dr. John Gabowski

The five months between June and November 1867 were one of the high points in the lives of Emily and Solon Severance of Cleveland. They, along with six other Clevelanders were part of a group of seventy-five who traveled to the Holy Land aboard the ship Quaker City.  One of their fellow passengers was Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name as Mark Twain. Clemens would become a close friend of the Severances and immortalize their trip in his book Innocents Abroad published 1n 1869.[i] 

While that volume chronicled an adventure that became part of the Severance’s lives, a subsequent work by Clemens would give the name to the period in which they matured and prospered.  The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, written jointly by Clemens and Charles Warner in 1873 was a biting satire of a nation whose focus had, in the years just after the Civil War, turned to the accumulation and display of wealth to a degree where it was a detriment to individual and national character.  More importantly, the book title became the name of a distinct period of United States history and area of historical studies, which focuses on the years from 1870 to the turn of the twentieth century. It was a period in which enormous industrial and urban growth challenged the verities of American democracy. The rise of great individual fortunes raised concerns about the divisions of class in a supposed classless society, but at the same time served as an example of opportunity.  One of the most popular books or the era, Acres of Diamonds by Baptist minister Russell Conwell in 1890 encouraged visions of individual opportunity.  Conversely, the invention of new systems of industrial management and control, including monopolies and trusts during the Gilded Age, acted as barriers to individual initiatives and stymied opportunity. Yet, they hinted at more rational and inexpensive ways of producing goods.   Perhaps most of all, the visual manifestations of wealth epitomized by grand houses, estates, and examples of conspicuous consumption were hugely publicized and envied.  But many saw them  merely as gilding on a society that was becoming increasingly divided by income and class as well as by an evolving ethos that seemed to lack a humane moral core.

Certainly, the Severances, whose lives did not come to epitomize the excesses of the period, saw the Gilded Age’s effects in their hometown. The Cleveland into which Solon (1834) was born was small (a population of 1075 in 1830 and 6,071 in 1840), rather homogeneous, and primarily mercantile.  His wife, Emily, had been born in Kinsman, Ohio, and had come to Cleveland in the 1850s. When they disembarked from the Quaker City they returned to a city with over 70,000 inhabitants, most of whom were recent arrivals and nearly half of whom were of foreign birth.[ii]   More importantly, they returned to a city made prosperous by the recent Civil War and rapidly gaining more wealth through a variety of new and expanding industrial enterprises.   As they lived out their lives during the coming decades they observed a city transformed but also challenged by the creation of great fortunes and the temptations of easy wealth; the inadequacies of existing political systems; and the polarization of capital and labor.  Having seen the Holy Land, they were now to witness a city undergoing its “urban adolescence.” 

The  Fortunes of War

Often lost in the popular understanding of the Civil War is the role that conflict had in making some in the victorious North immensely wealthy.  Like other major conflicts that followed, government spending for the implements and accoutrements of battle spurred industrial innovation and production — and the interest paid on the government bonds issued to fund that spending proved an added bonus to investors — at least to those on the victorious side.   It was the Civil War that propelled Cleveland into its industrial age and its version of the Gilded Age.[iii]

This is not to say that the city’s industrial period began in 1861.  Rather the fact that it was developing an industrial infrastructure in the years before the War served to allow it to turn those assets to the needs of conflict.   Several examples are particularly salient.

By the beginning of the War Cleveland was already a railroad hub, with tracks reaching west to Chicago, southwest to Cincinnati, southeast to Pittsburgh and east to New York.   Clevelanders, such as Amasa Stone and John H. Devereux,  who had built and invested in the roads emanating from the city, prospered, as did local bond and stock holders for the lines, with wartime demands for traffic.  During the War Devereux, holding the rank of General, served as the superintendent for US Military Railroads in Virginia.  

This activity had consequences for local industry allied with the rail industry.  The Cleveland Rolling Mills, established by John and David Jones in 1857, initially prospered by re-rolling worn iron rails for the growing railroad network in Ohio, a need which only increased during the war at which time Scottish immigrant, Henry Chisholm, who had joined the Jones in 1857, became the manager of the mills. After the War he was one of the area’s wealthiest men. 

The central role of rail transport during the War was complemented by the telegraph and here too Cleveland benefited because Jeptha Homer Wade, one of the founders of Western Union, had taken up residence in the city in the 1850s.   The wires of Western Union were key to coordinating troop movements by rail, bringing news of the conflict to the public and allowing President Lincoln a real-time connection to events taking place on battlefields.  

If any Clevelander was to become a symbol for the wealth of the Gilded Age, it was John D. Rockefeller and here too, the Civil War was critical.   Rockefeller and his commission house partner, Maurice Clark saw their profits for the sale of grain, meat, and produce rise from $4,000 in 1860 to $17,000 at the end of 1861, a time when the government was their primary customer.[iv]

It is impossible to ascertain how the profits made by these individuals and others were used during and after the war.  One possibility is investment in government bonds issued to finance the conflict.   Bonds paying 6% interest and maturing in 20 years could be purchased for as little as $50.00 (still a considerable sum,  given that a private in the Union Army earned but $13 per month[v]).   But the bonds had attractions for those who could afford them.  They could be purchased with the greenback paper currency issued during the conflict but the interest was payable in gold. Jay Cooke, a financier born in Sandusky, conceived and carried out the sales — $500,000,000 worth of bonds were sold.    If all went to maturity, investors would have realized $30,000,000 sometime in the 1880s.   How much of this came to finance Cleveland’s Gilded Age cannot clearly be determined.[vi]

Profit and good investments were not the only good fortune that came to Cleveland and northeastern Ohio because of the Civil War.  They were complemented by enduring political relations that would link Cleveland intimately to national politics and policy for the next four decades.    The city’s strong backing of Lincoln, and the state’s role as one of the major contributors to the conflict did not go unnoticed during or after the War.   But there were more intimate links that would be beneficial during and afterwards .  While Jay Cooke of Sandusky sold bonds to fund the Union cause, Salmon Chase of Cincinnati served as Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury.   After the war four Ohioans who had served in the Union Army, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and William McKinley, occupied the Presidency.   For sixteen years in the Gilded Age, Cleveland and Ohio had a friend in the White House .  Yet, there was a cost to this.  Ten thousand men (two thirds of the eligible population) from Cuyahoga County served : 1,700 died in the war and another 2,000 left service wounded or disabled.  Victory and sacrifice were powerful talismans in Gilded Age Cleveland.[vii]

Urban Adolescence

Perhaps the best available study of Cleveland during the Gilded Age is James Beaumont Whipple’s “Cleveland in Conflict: A Study in Urban Adolescence, 1876-1900” which was completed at Western Reserve University in 1951.[viii]   Very much a linear and non-interpretive study of the city, the dissertation’s equating of Cleveland’s Gilded Age with adolescence is truly apt.  The city grew rapidly during the period, but was largely absent of any true control or full understanding of the changes it was experiencing.

Numbers provide a sense of scale for the change. In 1870 Cleveland’s population stood at 92,829. A decade later it was 160,146.  By 1890 it had risen to 261,353 and by century’s end it stood at 381,786 making it the seventh largest city in the nation.[ix]

Those increases came about largely by in-migration both from Europe and the surrounding countryside, but also because of the physical expansion of the city.  Annexation of neighboring communities and townships such as Newburgh, Glennville, Linndale and East Cleveland, in part or whole, increased the size of the city from 7.325 square miles in 1860 to 34.34 square miles at the beginning of the new century.[x]  Essentially, in terms of both population and physical size Cleveland had expanded by a four plus factor in the last four decades of the nineteenth century.

The expansion was driven by the city’s industrial economic potential which hinged on its centrality to markets in the east and the expansion of settlement in the west of the United States; its rail and water transport systems; and its access to abundant natural resources such as coal, iron ore, crude oil, timber, clay, and limestone.  It was a perfect place to be for those imbued the get-ahead, get rich attitude of the Gilded Age as well as for tens of thousands of job seekers in what was rapidly becoming a highly mobile global labor proletariat.  

Its industrial base expanded far beyond the iron manufacturers of Civil War and pre-war era.  By the 1870s, oil refining was the major industrial endeavor in the city while iron and steel came second.   Those two core industries spun off ancillary enterprises — chemicals and then paint and varnishes derived followed from  oil refining.  Iron and steel catalyzed both a shipbuilding industry to produce vessels to carry iron ore and other commodities, as well as the production of devices such as the Brown-Hoist and Hulletts to unload ships carrying bulk commodities.  Products manufactured from iron and steel included everything from fasteners to sewing machines as well as jail cells, park benches, carriage hardware, and a wide variety of forged, molded, and machined products.  An expanding precision-based machine tool industry created the devices that created products from steel.   The city also became a site for what are now termed “disruptive technologies” which challenged existing ways of providing power and producing goods.  The most disruptive was, perhaps, electricity which was to provide a source of power that along with internal combustion, would end the age of steam.   The companies that emerged from this era included Standard Oil, Sherwin-Williams, Glidden, Grasselli Chemical, Otis Steel, Warner and Swasey, American Shipbuilding, Wellman-Seaver Morgan, White Sewing Machine (and later White Motors), Van Dorn Iron, and Brush Electric, and iron ore “houses” such as Oglebay-Norton, Pickands Mather, and Cleveland Cliffs.   Together they and other local industries would increase the value of manufactured goods in Cleveland from $27,049,012 in 1870 to $139,849,806 in 1900 while wage-based employment in the city rose from 10,063 to 58,810.[xi]

Seeing Wealth

The most visible symbol of achievement outside of the growing factory districts and the increasing pollution of the city’s air and water was Euclid Avenue where many of the city’s wealthy lived.   Initially,  known as the Buffalo Road, the street became a desired place of residence in the 1850s when wealthy merchants such as Williamsons, Binghams, Perrys,  and others built substantial but not terribly ostentatious homes, along the avenue in the open lands east of Public Square.  During the Gilded Age the number and size of homes along Euclid increased geometrically. Within four decades Euclid was lined with homes from what is now Playhouse Square to University Circle with the beginning of the street east of the Square given over by 1900 to the commerce that came in the wake of growth and expansion.  The homes, particularly those sited on the north of the street, were outsized showplaces of wealth  and power with lots that stretched north from Euclid to what is now Perkins Avenue in the section of the avenue between what is now E. 30th Street and East 55th.  It was, to use the title of Jan Cigliano’s seminal history of the street, a “Showplace of America,” indeed one which was listed as a must-see attraction in Baedeker’s guide to the United States.[xii] 

The enduring popular local mythology of the street tends to see it as the home of Cleveland’s establishment.   But that view neglects the fact that a number of the residents were relative newcomers to the city as well as to wealth, and that it was their progeny who would become “establishment.”  The street was, more correctly, a combination of older families whose prosperity dated from the 1830s, early industrialists and railroad entrepreneurs from the 1850s, and post-Civil War industrialists and businessmen.  It was neither predominantly nouveau-riche or “old shoe,” but nevertheless its halcyon period was of the Gilded Age.    Families like the Mathers , Paynes, Worthingtons, and Severances had histories in the city dating to before the Civil War and would eventually build homes on the Avenue, but others such as railroad builders Henry Devereux and Amasa Stone, whose daughter Flora would marry into the Mather family, were first-generation Clevelanders.  This was also the case with Jeptha Wade, Henry Chisholm, and Sylvester Everett as well as John D. Rockefeller, whose house on the street did not fit the now mythical image of the man who owned it.

Rockefeller’s home stood at the southwest corner of Euclid and what is now E. 40th street — it was on the less desirable south side and while substantial it paled in comparison to the two Wade homes that stood across Euclid directly to the north and particularly in comparison to the huge home constructed by banker Sylvester Everett, diagonally across from the Rockefeller House. Nevertheless, Rockefeller’s Gilded Age career made marks on other parts of the street because those who partnered with him in establishing Standard Oil became immensely wealthy.

The creation and rise of Standard Oil is a textbook example of business and wealth in the Gilded Age, one which has its roots in Cleveland. In 1863 Rockefeller, along with many other Clevelanders, became interested in petroleum as a commodity — one which could be refined into kerosene and paraffin for lighting.  Cleveland’s direct rail connection with the Pennsylvania oil fields made it an ideal center for dealing in the new commodity.   Rockefeller’s consolidation of the industry — viewed  both as rapacious and farsighted; his creation of a perfect example of a vertically-integrated company; and his creation of the modern trust have come to epitomize Gilded Age business practice. Those who joined with Rockefeller, including Clevelanders Harry Payne, Steven Harkness (who moved to the city), and Louis Severance became immensely wealthy because of that association.  Another early partner, Samuel Andrews, an English immigrant who was Rockefeller’s “chemist,” also became wealthy and could have, had he remained a partner in the firm, become even wealthier.  It was his Standard Oil fortune that financed perhaps the most spectacular home on Euclid.[xiii]

Andrews cashed out of Standard Oil in 1874 and began the construction of his home on Euclid (at the northeast corner of what is now E. 30th) in 1882.  Completed three years later the house was immense; so much so that in a short period of time it proved to be unmanageable.  Andrews lived there for only several years.  His son Horace would later use the house periodically, but it stood largely vacant until demolished in 1923.  It was and remains somewhat of a metaphor for the excesses of the Gilded Age.

Underneath the Gilding

Ironically, the years that bookend the construction period — 1882-1885 — of the Andrews House also mark two of the most noted local labor actions  in Cleveland during the  Gilded Age. And those strikes, in their turn, also relate to the immense fiscal instability of the era, for the period 1882-1885 marked one of the frequent economic  recessions in the United States,  one in which business contracted nearly 33%.  While these contractions diminished or destroyed great fortunes their greatest impact was on the wage laborers in the industries of the age. In bad times wages were cut and workers released — released into a system that had no real social safety net outside of church and neighborhood-based charity and, in the hardest times, a modicum of “poor relief” from municipal governments. 

In May 1881 Henry Chisholm the head of the Cleveland Rolling Mill Company died.  A hands-on, shop-floor manager, he was beloved by his workers. Together they gathered funds to build his memorial in Lake View Cemetery.  The following year the country entered into recession as railroad building waned.  With the demand for iron and steel down, William Chisholm, Henry’s son and the then head of the Rolling Mill refused workers’ demands for a closed shop for members of the Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers and a voice in setting wage scales.   A strike ensued, one marked by violence as immigrant Polish and Czech strikebreakers were brought into the mill.  The strike failed, but three years later those who had been strikebreakers went on strike because of another wage cut.  It was violent, with strikers marching downtown from the mill neighborhood near Broadway and Harvard.   Some carried the flags of socialism and anarchy.  The “mob” forcibly closed other factories allied with the ownership of the Rolling Mills in order to cut off the owners’ sources of income.  The violence of the strike made the national news and was depicted pictorially in Leslie’s Weekly.[xiv]

It was not  the first, nor the last major labor action in Cleveland during the Gilded Age, a period both locally and nationally where the rights of workers in an evolving wage-labor economy were set against the perceived rights and substantial powers of owners, businesses, and monopolies.   It was a time of not only dissention, but of fear.

Those fears came fully to the fore nationally during the great railroad strike of 1877.  Its origins stemmed from deflation and wage cuts which followed the Panic of 1873 which was initiated by the collapse of Jay Cooke and Company.  The Ohioan Cooke had been the genius of the Civil War bond promotion, but the panic proved his undoing.  His banking house (perhaps the most noted in the nation) overspent its capital in promoting the development of the Northern Pacific Railroad.  That, in turn triggered a fiscal crisis that lasted the better part of a decade and created an era of wage contraction.   A series of wage cuts by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and then other lines sparked violent strikes which spread across the nation. Nationally, over one hundred people were killed in confrontations between police militias and workers.  In Pittsburgh, shootings of workers led to the burning of the yards, depot and other properties of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  The strike lasted forty-five days.

Cleveland, although a rail center, managed to escape the violence of the strike. Nevertheless, the national news added to local angst and fear which had initially been sparked by a coopers strike at Rockefeller’s Standard Oil works in April of the same year.  Led, in part, by a Czech immigrant socialists Leopold Palda and Frank Skarda, the strikers, many of whom were immigrants themselves, also called for a general strike in the city, inviting all workers making less than a dollar a day to join them.  The general strike didn’t take place, but that demand, and the railroad strike that followed created a fear of class warfare in the city and increased suspicions about the growing immigrant population.  Memories of the Paris Commune of 1870 were not uncommon in American cities such a Cleveland during the labor unrest during the nation’s Centennial decade.[xv] 

Those fears led to reflexive actions.  In October 1877 a group of prominent Clevelanders organized an independent military unit, Troop A, to serve as a bulwark against possible labor violence. The following year leading citizens created the Cleveland Gatling Gun Battery.  The Battery built an armory, complete with loopholes, on Carnegie Avenue as a last bastion defense against labor violence.   Both organizations would evolve into social organizations for their members, and Troop A eventually became part of what would be the National Guard. With a more egalitarian membership it served in both World Wars.  Both, however, did see “action” in several strikes including the Rolling Mill strike of 1885 and the streetcar strike in 1899.[xvi]  

The angst of the era also found its way into a novel which would become a best seller in 1884.   Published anonymously in 1883, The Breadwinners was a melodramatic but message-laden saga set in the mythical town of Buffland in which the wealthy residents of equally mythical Algonquin Avenue successfully fight off socialist labor unrest. Buffland was the pseudonym for Cleveland and Algonquin was a stand-in for Euclid Avenue.   The author turned out to be John Hay, former secretary to Abraham Lincoln, son-in-law to Amasa Stone, and a resident, at the time, of Euclid Avenue.  His views on the rights of labor were colored both by his own elitism and fears.  They were not only clearly expressed in the novel, but in his personal communications as well.[xvii]

Contention between capital and labor continued through most of the Gilded Age in Cleveland, but the city managed to avoid events that paralleled in scale Chicago’s Haymarket Riot of 1886 and the Homestead Strike of 1892. Strikes continued on a smaller scale.  In 1896 workers at the Brown Hoist Company took to the streets when their request for a nine-hour day (they worked a ten and a half holiday shift on Saturdays) and the reinstatement of several dismissed workers was met by a lockout by the management. [xviii]  Three years later the city’s streetcar network came to a virtual halt during a labor action focused on better wages and working conditions.   It turned violent and the state militia, as well as Troop A were called out to restore order.   

One of the other issues in the streetcar strike was the recognition of their union.  That was not achieved, but overall, the Gilded Age saw the growth of unions, mostly representing the crafts and trades, in the city. The Knights of Labor formed fifty assemblies in the city which encompassed both skilled and unskilled workers.  The American Federation of Labor created the Cleveland Central Labor Union to compete with the Knights and established 26 locals between  1887 and 1891.  In 1891, Max Hayes who came to epitomize the cause of labor in the city began, along with Henry Long, publishing  The Cleveland Citizen.  Moderately socialist in outlook and largely focused on skilled trades, the Citizen would go on to become the nation’s oldest labor newspaper.  By century’s end the city had 100 labor unions as well as branches of the Socialist Labor Party which argued for a rearrangement of the entire economic system, a prospect which was seen as alien and a threat to private property. [xix]  While Socialism never achieved a strong foothold in Cleveland it was a constant political undercurrent during the Gilded Age and into the early twentieth century.  National party candidates such as Eugene Debs and local candidates like Charles Ruthenberg polled well — well enough to be perceived as a threat to American ideals and government, particularly at the municipal level in industrial cities like Cleveland.     

Trying to Govern Growth

Cleveland entered the Gilded Age with a city government structure dictated by the state and which perhaps would have functioned reasonably well in a small city.  The General Municipal Corporation Act of 1852 essentially reduced the mayor to a figurehead with no real authority over a ward-based city council and more importantly, placed much decision making and spending power in the hands of the council and a series of administrative boards and commissions.  The act also made previously appointive positions, such as the commissioner of waterworks and the police judge elective.  Essentially, this created a system lacking in strong central direction and peppered with smaller power centers in the council and boards.   

Cleveland’s leadership within this system echoed its New England ethos.  The “best” citizens undertook civic duties as expected.    Cleveland’s mayors during the period from 1870 to 1890 included Frederick W. Pelton (1870-1873), a banker;  Charles Otis (1873-1874) head of Otis Steel;  Nathan Perry Payne (1875-1876) coal merchant; William G. Rose (1877-1878, 1891-1892) a refiner and real estate investor who was independently wealthy by age 45; “Honest” John Farley (1883-1885, 1899-1901) a contractor, investor, and banker; Brenton D. Babcock (1887-1888) a coal merchant; and George Gardner (1885-1886, 1889-1890) commission house broker and banker.  Many of these men had also served as council representatives or on some of the boards and commissions that truly wielded power in the Gilded Age city.[xx]   One of the most noted figures to come out of Gilded Age Cleveland, Myron T. Herrick, began his political career as a city councilman (1885-1890) in Cleveland and would then go on to become governor of Ohio (1903-1905) and eventually ambassador to France (1912-1914, 1921-1929).  Herrick’s political career was engendered largely by Marcus Hanna whose entry into politics was as an organizer at the ward level.

Despite the figurehead status of the mayor, two managed to navigate the city through its labor troubles.  Rose played an important role in seeking accommodation between the owners and workers during the railroad strike of 1877 and Gardner ordered William Chisholm to restore wage cuts in order to end the 1885 Rolling Mill Strike, but only after threatening to use artillery against the strikers.  But, others recognized the frustrations of the office.   Otis and Payne refused second terms so they could return to manage their businesses and Babcock argued for moving to a Federal system in which the mayor would have true authority to work with council representatives in governing. That would occur in 1892 when, after four years of effort, the city’s leading citizens convinced Columbus to approve the change.

Even with the change the effort to deal with the urban infrastructure necessary to  support the growth and gilt of Gilded Age Cleveland was an enormous task.  Mayor Rensselaer Herrick gave some sense of  that in 1881 when he commented that the Cuyahoga River was an “open sewer” running through the city[xxi].  On a bad day the residents of Euclid Avenue could easily sense the origins of their good fortune when lake winds blew the smoke from the Otis Steel mill on the lakeside at E. 33rd Street their way — the fact that many of the stone mansions turned black so quickly testified to the environmental degradation created during unregulated expansion during the era.   Once known as the Forest City, Cleveland began to lose many of its trees to pollution during the era. The solution was to plant more resistant species such as sycamores.  Over and over again, arguments against air pollution in the coal-powered city were seen as anti-growth.  How could Cleveland compete with Pittsburgh if it hamstrung its industries with fines and regulations?

As the city grew in population and size the task of creating infrastructure became enormous.  By 1880 Cleveland had over 1,200 roads, streets, lanes, alleys and “places,” many of which remained unpaved.  Wood block streets had to be replaced with stone and stone eventually gave way to brick.  But even by 1889, when the street network totaled 440 miles, less than two miles per year were being paved with brick.   Similar needs related to expanding the water and sewer system, a project compounded by the need to continually construct water intakes further into the lake to find water unpolluted by industrial and human waste. [xxii]

Similarly, the increase in population dictated other changes. In 1866 the public schools enrolled  9,270 children.  By 1900 the enrollment had risen to 58,105, but that number represented only 54.5 percent of the school age population.[xxiii]   While the city had done reasonably well in erecting new school buildings it, like many other cities, found it difficult to foster education in an economy where the income of working children formed an important part of many family budgets.   The need for family income often trumped an education beyond the elementary level.

As the city grew it became both an employer and more importantly the source of lucrative municipal contracts to create and maintain its expanding

infrastructure. In 1876 the city’s annual budget totaled slightly under $625,000.  Nine years later it was over $3,000,000 and at the turn-of-the-

century, just below $7,000,000.  By 1885 the municipal payroll was over $99,000 per month.  Contractors found the city to be an excellent customer and made money by providing services  ranging from the removal of nightsoil to street paving.[xxiv]  The amount of money flowing through city hall was tempting.  In 1886 treasurer Thomas Axworthy suddenly disappeared.  He had fled to Canada after using public funds to make a series of private loans.  The loss totaled over $500,000.  His whereabouts were revealed in a letter he sent to the mayor some days after he vanished.  He closed the letter as follows:  “Good bye and God Bless Cleveland”.[xxv]

Perhaps the most valuable municipal “investments” of the era were the franchises awarded to private companies for running street railways and providing new modern utilities such as gas or electricity to residents and businesses.  In many Gilded Age cities, such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati, this process became a sort of “largess” (or to use the then contemporary term, “boodle”) distributed by a political machine, such as Tammany Hall in New York or Boss Cox in Cincinnati, in return for bribes, votes, or other favors.  Cleveland lacked a true urban political machine of the Tammany type during this period.  Ironically, it would develop a nascent one when it achieved a Federal structure of governance in 1892.   The election of Robert E. McKisson as mayor with true authority and power in 1895 gave the city its first boss.   By buying immigrant votes and rewarding” loyal” workers and councilmen, the “boy mayor” began to build an empire.  He persisted despite the protests of good government organizations which represented evolving Progressive ideas of municipal management, but he came to grief when he challenged another type of boss, Mark Hanna, for a US Senatorial seat.   Hanna won by a whisker and used his power as a national Republican kingmaker, along with pressure from the good governance groups, to ensure McKisson’s defeat in 1899.[xxvi]

Hanna knew the Gilded Age system better, perhaps, than any other local political leader and was able to manipulate it better than others because of his growing wealth.  That wealth and personal acumen, along with Cleveland and Ohio’s close connections to Washington, allowed him to become one of the power brokers of the era.  Although not a resident of Euclid Avenue (he was a west-sider, his home was in Clifton Park) Hanna had a profile similar to many of those who lived on the Avenue.  He had been born in New Lisbon, Ohio, and came to Cleveland with his family in 1852 at the age of 15.  After attending Central High school and a brief stint at Western Reserve College (then in Hudson) he worked at his parents’ wholesale grocery business.  When he married he joined his in-law’s (the Rhodes) iron and coal business — commodities that built a number of local Gilded Age fortunes.  He became head of the business in 1885 when his father-in-law died.  The company, renamed M. A. Hanna and Company,  which was run in conjunction with his brothers, provided him with the funds he needed to indulge in a prominent Gilded Age  endeavor,  political organizing.  

Hanna’s political activities and his connections to the Republican monied elite in Cleveland and, later, in Ohio, and then nationally, helped him make Joseph Foraker governor in 1885; John Sherman a US Senator in 1892; and William McKinley President in 1896.  After dispensing with Boy Mayor Robert McKisson’s challenge, he won appointment  to the US Senate in 1897.[xxvii]

But there was another aspect of Hanna’s life that fit more neatly into the Gilded Age.  Before he became the head of M. A. Hanna, he dabbled in street railways.  While his political mechanizations  of are integral and well recognized parts of Cleveland’s Gilded Age story his streetcar ventures are, perhaps, of more consequence in understanding the intersection between it and the city’s Progressive era.   Hanna, like other entrepreneurs around the nation, understood that urban transportation in the expanding industrial metropolises of the US had a huge potential for profit.  In the pre-automotive age the equation was simple — the end of the walking city dictated that people of almost all strata needed an easy way to get around town.   Street railways, first horse-drawn and then electric, had a large clientele which needed to get from home to office or home to factory five and six days a week.   To operate such a system one needed only to build it, but one could only build it after getting a franchise from the city government.  That process, which was based on bids, could also involve bribes and other political power plays.

In 1879 Hanna, along with business partner Elias Simms, found himself bidding against a newcomer in the local franchise contests. Born to a wealthy family in Kentucky, Tom L. Johnson had run successful street railway franchises in Indianapolis and Detroit, Brooklyn, and St. Louis.  Cleveland was his next target, but he lost the competition for a franchise (despite a low bid) to Simms-Hanna because of a technicality.  No one really knows what role bribery may have played in the contest, but savvy local businessman courted local council men.  Elias Simms once noted that all that local councilmen wanted was money and added that he constantly had to have his pocketbook at hand.[xxviii]

The Hanna-Johnson battle went on for three years in what has come to be called the Cleveland Railway Fight.  Johnson eventually bested Hanna.  The contest, however, brought him to Cleveland in 1879 where he later took up residence on Euclid Avenue.  As a wealthy newcomer to the city and an entrepreneur of note, he was a perfect addition to the glitter of the Gilded Age, but though of the same class he and Hanna had no love for one another.

That animosity would spill over into their political views which were colored by their somewhat contrary personal visions of society.  Johnson had a conversion experience.  Inspired by the writings of Henry George, he went from an entrepreneurial plutocrat to a social reformer and anti-monopolist.   He used his fortune to engineer a political career, first as a Democratic representative to Congress and later as a four-term mayor of Cleveland.  He fully engaged himself in what he defined as “…the struggle of the people against Privilege.” [xxix]   Gilded Age Johnson morphed into one of the most significant figures of the American Progressive era. 

Hanna remained firmly locked into the mainstream of the Republican Party.  He was part of the monied class in Cleveland who strongly opposed Johnson and who were particularly troubled by his advocacy of the municipal ownership of utilities, such as streetcars and the evolving electrical grid.  It seemed to border on Socialism.   When Myron T. Herrick, a close friend, whose career was closely linked to Hanna’s power ran against Johnson in the gubernatorial race of 1903, Hanna could easily cherish that triumph. The joy was short-lived.  Hanna died early the next year and Herrick turned out to be a one-termer.

Despite the gulf that separated them, Hanna and Johnson shared one important desire — that was to find a way out of the chaos and contention of the Gilded Age.  Albeit conservative, Hanna was seeking some accommodation between labor and capital in the latter part of his career.  Absent that accommodation, the American system would remain open to the challenges of “foreign” systems of government and societal organization.  Johnson, an astute businessman, also realized that the “system” was not working and that societal divisions were dangerous and damaging to society.  His solution was to create a more complete and informed democracy and to expand and professionalize the responsibilities and management of government.  His long-standing battle for municipal ownership of utilities may have echoed the demands of Leopold Palda, Charles Ruthenberg,  and other area socialists, but it represented a vision of efficiency — efficiency that would lower prices and improve the ability of everyone to get to their job easily and heat and light their homes within the limits of a their budgets.   In their own ways Hanna and Johnson sought ways to find a way to move out of adolescence into a maturity that would allow the new industrial, urban, polyglot America to survive in concert with the founding ideals of the nation.  During the next two decades the more Progressive ideals of Johnson would prevail both locally and nationally and would make Cleveland an example of good governance and progressive thought, an accolade that would receive more national attention that those once lavished on the splendors of Euclid Avenue.


At the end of the nineteenth century,  Solon and Emily Severance were residents of Euclid Avenue.   Their home, near what is now E. 88st Street was close to the one which their nephew, John L. Severance built in 1891.  Solon’s brother, who had made his fortune with Standard Oil, initially planned to build alongside Solon and Emily, but changed his mind[xxx].  But by this time the Avenue was in decline.  The expansion of the downtown business district was making the western end of the street less tenable for residence and more valuable (and taxable) for commercial development.  In other places air pollution and the encroachment of less exclusive neighborhoods on the borders of the Avenue lessened its appeal.   Many of the families who had made their fortunes during the Gilded Age, and their next generations moved to newer exclusive developments — Wade Park, Cleveland Heights, and Shaker Heights — during the early decades of the twentieth century.  Others retreated to what had been lakeside summer homes in Bratenahl or country estates in and around the Chagrin River Valley.  By the 1920s Euclid Avenue had lost its luster or, if you will, its gilding.   The demise of the grand street after a heyday that lasted only an average human lifetime is perhaps the most potent symbol of the chimerical nature of Gilded Age America and Cleveland — it was transient and ephemeral.

But, it was also real. The social and economic dislocations created during the era were painful and often resulted in violence and unknown numbers of very personal tragedies.  The era’s challenge to conceptions of the United States as a Jeffersonian agrarian Eden was upsetting. It opened wider an existing rift between city and countryside, one which still remains apparent in maps of contemporary red and blue America.  It also created an industrial aristocracy antithetical to early conceptions of the United States as a classless democracy.

Yet, for Cleveland it functioned as an adolescence that evolved into one of the most enviable Progressive maturities in the United States.  The seeds of Progressivism in Cleveland can be found in many aspects of its Gilded Age experience.  There was no abrupt transition from one era to another.   The local Progressive era had begun over a decade before the close of the century. The continued service of “good” men in the office (albeit absent of much power) of mayor was significant.  That involvement served as a model for good government organizations such as the Municipal Association of 1895 which counted many leading citizens among its members.[xxxi]  Equally significant was the ability of local leadership to transfer aspects of rational corporate and business management to politics and the handling of social problems.   Tom Johnson ran his administration as a business.  The creation of the Charity Organization Society in 1881, which became Associated Charities in 1900, was the first stage in a movement toward a rational, secular approach to poverty and need in the city.[xxxii]   In a similar manner the business-friendly Chamber of Commerce championed building codes and other reforms that brought some order to a community that had often expanded in a helter-skelter fashion. 

Whether the motivations for change in the waning years of the  Gilded Age represented altruism or enlightened self-interest or, indeed, a form of co-option,  will always remain debatable.  What cannot be debated is that many who saw the strife and inequality of that era, or who smelled and breathed the pollution within the city were either appalled, or frightened, or both.  Lincoln Steffen’s statement that Tom Johnson was the best mayor of the best governed city in the United States is often quoted as testimony to Cleveland’s importance in the Progressive Era.  The fact that he made that statement only some twenty years after city treasurer Thomas Axworthy fled to Canada after misusing  city funds is not only a testimony to Johnson, but to a city that understood it had problems to solve.  Enlightened self-interest and good intent have to be recognized as unified factors that propelled Cleveland’s transition to a community noted for good government, rationally organized charities, and cultural sophistication during the first two decades of the 1900s.  It was a change that was both evolutionary and revolutionary.     

While written accounts of the past tend to seem abstract and distant, there is a place in Cleveland where one can view the tangible synthesis of the Gilded and Progressive eras.  It happens to be located on Euclid Avenue.  It is University Circle.  Those who are determined to relive the splendor of Gilded Age Euclid Avenue can do so by visiting the museums, educational, and cultural institutions whose foundations rest on the fortunes that came from Gilded Age Cleveland and which house collections of art, costume and decorative arts that once were graced Euclid Avenue mansions.   Annually, curators purchase new materials for display and scholarship by using funds from acquisition endowments created by families, such as the Wades and Hannas, who built their fortunes in Gilded Age Cleveland.  But, visitors need also to recognize that that the institutions and collections also represent a progressive mentality, one which saw them as benefitting the common good of the community.  A good number of the institutions were built in the circle after 1900, in the city’s post adolescence.   

Here too, one can debate motivation for such altruism, whether it Gilded or Progressive.  Does it represent, for instance, the imposition of particular cultural tastes, on the broader community?  But the fact that the Cleveland Museum of Art, for example, is not named after an individual, like the Frick or the Freer galleries is significant as is the fact that in its first decades it also embraced the cultures and arts of the city’s immigrant communities.[xxxiii]   The product of multiple bequests, it is a “Cleveland” museum.  Similarly, the city’s world-renowned orchestra is the Cleveland Orchestra, and the institutes of art and music are “Cleveland” as well.   Of course, the Cleveland Orchestra plays in Severance Hall, but that ensemble’s long history of educational work says much about its purpose — it was to educate and benefit the entire community. Certainly, Samuel Clemens, who dearly loved children and who easily sensed the deceptions and vanities of his age, might be delighted to know that he, as Mark Twain, could — had he miraculously lived into the 1930s — join an auditorium filled with schoolchildren at a concert in a hall built by John L. Severance, the nephew of his traveling companions, Emily and Solon.

                  [1]Diana Tittle, The Severances: An American Odyssey, from Puritan Massachusetts to Ohio’s Western Reserve, and Beyond  (Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 2010), 126-135.  The Clevelanders accompanying Twain on the trip were Emily and Solon Severance, Timothy and Eliza Crocker, Solomon Sanford, Timothy S.  Beckwith, and Mrs. Abel Fairbanks.   William Ganson Rose, Cleveland: The Making of a City  (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1950) also ( 344) lists William. A. Otis as a member of the group.

                  [2] Population statistics noted in this paragraph and elsewhere are from Van Tassel and Grabowski, The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, web-edition, http://ech.case.edu, specifically from the timeline 9http://ech.cwru.edu/timeline.html) and the immigration statistics chart (http://ech.cwru.edu/Resource/text/FBPCACC.html).

                  [3] “Civil War” http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=CW1 Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.  

                  [4] Ibid.

                  [5] See Albert A. Nofi, A Civil War Treasury (Cambridge: DaCapo Press, 1992), 381-383, for military pay scales during the War.

  [6] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 442-443   provides an excellent overview of the financing of the war.    The possible impact of bond investments on Cleveland’s Gilded Age history is something that was explored by Dr. Edward J. Pershey when he was researching an exhibit on Cleveland in the Civil War for the Western Reserve Historical Society.  

                  [7] “Civil War,” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.  

  [8] James Beaumont Whipple.  “Cleveland in Conflict: A Study in Urban  Adolescence, 1876-1900”.  (Ph.D. diss, Western Reserve University, 1951).

  [9]“Timeline,” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

  [10] Rose.  296 and 617.

  [11] Rose, p. 376 and p. 617.

  [12] Jan Cigliano, Showplace of America: Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue, 1850-1910,  (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1991).  This volume provides a solid social and economic history of Euclid Avenue and the families who resided there and serves to counter much of the local mythology that has come to encumber the history of the street.

  [13] Grace Goulder Izant, John D. Rockefeller: The Cleveland Years, (Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1973) provides an excellent overview of Rockefeller’s life in the city, including the period up to 1884 when he was a fulltime resident and the subsequent period after he had established residency in New York City, but continued to return (until 1915) to Cleveland annually.   Ron Chernow,  Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., (New York: Random House, 1998) adds nuance to the Izant volume and, importantly, outlines his business strategies and innovations. 

  [14] “Cleveland Rolling Mill Strikes” http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=CRMSEncyclopedia of Cleveland History.  See also Henry B. Leonard, “Ethnic Cleavage and Industrial Conflict in Late Nineteenth Century America: The Cleveland Rolling Mill Strikes of 1882 and 1885,”  Labor History 20:4 (Fall, 1979), 524-48.

  [15] Whipple, 85-89.   “Labor”  http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=L1Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

  [16] “Labor,” Streetcar Strike of 1899” http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=L1Encyclopedia Whipple, 177-189.

  [17] Whipple, 111-120.   Full on-line text of The Breadwinners is available at Project Gutenberg.

  [18] Whipple, 163-174

  [19] “Labor” “Socialist Labor Party”  http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=SLP,  “Ruthenberg, Charles,” http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=RC4, Encyclopedia.   

                  [20] Thomas F. Campbell and Edward M. Miggins (eds), The Birth of Modern Cleveland, 1865-1930 (Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society/Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1988), 298-299.  Additional biographical information on mayors during this period was taken from their biographies in the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

                  [21] Carol Poh Miller and Robert Wheeler,   Cleveland: A Concise History, 1796-1990,  (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 95.    See Whipple, 259,  for the full statement by the mayor.

                  [22] “Streets” http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=S23 and “Water System” http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=WSEncyclopedia

                  [23] “Cleveland Public Schools”  http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=CPS2Encyclopedia for the 1866 figure; Campbell and Miggins, 356 for the 1900 attendance.

                  [24] Whipple, 337, 339, 343.

                  [25] Ibid., 346.

                  [26]Campbell and Miggins, 300-305.

                  [27] Marcus A. Hanna,  http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=HMAEncyclopedia.

                  [28] Tom L. Johnson, (Elizabeth Hauser, ed),  My Story,  (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1993),  17. 

                  [29] Ibid., li

                  [30] Tittle, 236-237, Cigliano, 174-175

                  [31] Campbell and Miggins, 303-305.  See also “Citizens’ League of Greater Cleveland”  http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=CLOGCEncyclopedia.

                  [31] “Associated Charities” http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=AC7 and “Philanthropy” http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=P6Encyclopedia.

                  [32] Campbell and Miggins, 214-216.

John D. Rockefeller aggregation

1 Rockefeller and his Oil Empire by Mike Roberts
2 Rockefeller’s Legacy from the Plain Dealer
3 “John D. Rockefeller: The Cleveland Years” by Grace Goulder (4 Chapters)
4 Rockefeller in Cleveland by George E. Condon
5 The Rockefeller Family Dynasty Documentary
6 John D. Rockefeller Documentary History Channel
7 John D. Rockefeller from Citizendium
8 Rockefeller, Religion, and Philanthropy in Gilded Age Cleveland
9 Summary of Titan, The Life of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow

10 John D. Rockefeller in Cleveland WVIZ/Ideastream (video)

Why a University For Chicago And Not Cleveland? Religion And John D. Rockefeller’s Early Philanthropy, 1855-1900 by Kenneth W. Rose

The pdf is here

If that link does not work, try this

This essay is a revised version of a paper prepared for the Western Reserve Studies Symposium in Cleveland, Ohio, October 6-7, 1995, and included in From All Sides: Philanthropy in the Western Reserve. Papers, Abstracts, and Program of the Tenth Annual Western Reserve Studies Symposium, sponsored by the Case Western Reserve University American Studies Program. (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University, 1995), pp. 30-41.

John D. Rockefeller Documentaries

Documentary #1

The History of Oil

Decent overview of the History of Oil which offers context for the world of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil Company. Parts 1, 2 and 3 covers and pre Standard Oil period, the creation of Standard Oil and the period of greatest dominance. Parts 4 and 5 involve more recent periods, after the break up of the Standard Oil Trust

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Rockefeller and his Oil Empire by Mike Roberts

From the July/August 2012 issue of Inside Business

Rockefeller and his Oil Empire

By Michael D. Roberts
A young entrepreneur who became the world’s most famous tycoon started a big-time business brawl in Cleveland that had repercussions he never could have predicted. The city was the eventual loser.
In the annals of Cleveland business, no man was smarter, more controversial and made more money than John D. Rockefeller, whose vision and management style set the stage for a corporate America that became the envy of the world. Along the way, he became the wealthiest man in that world.
An enigmatic fellow – religious, charitable, visionary, but in his own time portrayed as a greedy capitalist whose satanic reach reduced others to paupers – Rockefeller loved Cleveland until it betrayed him. He himself would say no other city ever abused him more than Cleveland.
The son of a flim-flam man who sold cancer cures, Rockefeller and his family moved to a farm in Strongsville from New York State in 1853. He attended high school in Cleveland and, after a stint at a business college, went to work as an assistant bookkeeper in a commission house that sold produce. That was in 1855, and he received $25 a month. He was 16.
Cleveland was burgeoning. The Ohio Canal had opened farm country, and grain and produce were being shipped up to the lake port. The railroad reached here in 1851 and the town was beginning to prosper and grow after a shaky start. By 1860, there were more than 40,000 people here, nearly half  of them foreign-born, attracted by the prospect of a bright future.
Above all, Rockefeller was a quick study. Meticulous, fastidious and parsimonious, he had an extraordinary capacity to learn because of his curiosity, thoughtful temperament and a keen power of observation.  So it was not surprising that in the spring of 1859, he opened his own produce commission business, Clark & Rockefeller. He was 19.
That same year oil was struck in Titusville, Pennsylvania, creating a boom not unlike the gold rush in California a few years before. Newspapers covered it and suddenly there was a surge in the creation of oil refineries. In Cleveland, there were 30 by the time the Civil War ended.
Even during the war, oil was the topic that consumed the business world. In those pre-automobile days, kerosene was the most useful product refined from crude oil. There was money to be made in kerosene, but it was a risky proposition. The business was full of turmoil and speculation with no discipline on either the production side or in the marketplace. The price of oil fluctuated wildly and there was so much overproduction that fortunes were made and lost over-night. In 1866 alone, the cost of a barrel of oil fluctuated between ten cents and $10.
Plus, there was suffocating competition. For as little as a $1,000 and a few workers, anyone could be in the refinery business. The key to success was in the refining technology and the transportation of the product. It was the transportation of oil where Rockefeller would apply his cunning and genius, and where he would ultimately be demonized.
Rockefeller and his partners in Clark & Rockefeller had cautious conversations about venturing into the oil business. Then one day they were approached by Samuel Andrews, a British-born, self-taught chemist and an expert in “illuminants.” He was looking for investors to open a refinery to produce high-quality kerosene for home and industrial lighting.
While maintaining his produce commission business, Rockefeller invested in a new company, Andrews & Clark, which would build an oil refinery. In 1863 he purchased three acres on the south bank of Kingsbury Run in the Flats. The refinery had a capacity of 30 barrels and employed 37 men with monthly wages that ranged up to $58. This site was to be ground zero of what later would be known as the Standard Oil Company.
Rockefeller was convinced that kerosene would take the place of other household lighting materials like tallow, whale oil and other petroleum products. Andrews’ ability to refine the crude into kerosene that would burn safely in the home was paramount.
Aggressive in his philosophy, Rockefeller wanted to build a company that would dominate and stabilize the oil industry. He was annoyed that some of his partners were satisfied with the status quo. When their differences became obvious, they met and discussed the future of the company. Not one to tarry, Rockefeller published a notice in the next morning’s paper dissolving the partnership. He bought out his astonished partners for $72,000.
Once fully engaged in the oil business, Rockefeller would daily stroll around the Kingsbury Run refinery with Sam Andrews, observing and asking questions, his boots covered with oil. He took an interest in every aspect of the business, from experimenting with new products, to barrel-making, to transportation. When leakage from the barrels became a problem, he bought the barrel company and with it a forest, thus solving the leakage problem and saving money in the process. Later, when the Standard Oil Company went into the retail business, he engaged in marketing.
Not only did Rockefeller develop an avid interest in oil, Cleveland did as well. New refineries were built almost daily by those who sought the fortunes that beckoned. By 1866, most of the kerosene made in Cleveland was being shipped to Europe, the world’s most lucrative market for the stuff.
Newspaper articles attempted to explain the arcane nature of oil refinement. They noted the different products refinement could produce, stressing that the least desirable was something called gasoline, which was dangerous and had little value. It was siphoned off into the Cuyahoga River where it sometimes caught fire.
Rockefeller formed The Standard Oil Company on January 10, 1870. At that time it controlled 10 percent of  American oil production and was constantly acquiring more capability, buying out the competition. Rockefeller had a basic offer of either cash or stock in Standard Oil. In most instances Rockefeller would gently advise the seller to accept the stock. Later, many would rue that day they took cash, for those early stockholders became millionaires. Some of those who took the cash and later recognized their folly turned against Rockefeller and became part of the anger that welled up around him when his true method for eliminating the competition was revealed in the press.
The allegations were that Rockefeller put competitors in a position where they were forced to sell because he undercut them in price. Standard Oil was able to do this because it shipped most of its oil on the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad (later the Erie Railroad), which ran east through the Pennsylvania oil fields. Because Standard Oil was a preferred customer, it was able to secretly negotiate a transportation discount.
At one point, the going rail rates were listed as $2.40 a barrel but Standard Oil paid only $1.65, giving it a margin that leveraged a favorable price in the marketplace.
1872 was the year of Rockefeller’s all-out assault on his Cleveland competitors. It was known as the Cleveland Massacre. One can imagine Rockefeller’s soft voice advising his prey to take the stock rather than the cash, the seller knowing he was out of business one way or the other. All this took place at a time when most business was unregulated and that which was went uncontrolled.
The oil wars had an effect on Cleveland society. Many of those who Rockefeller forced out of business were notable figures in town who maintained magnificent houses on fashionable Euclid Avenue. Some were driven into bankruptcy by their exposure in the oil trade and had to sell their mansions. By age 33 Rockefeller had become the world’s largest oil refiner, taking his place among the richest men in America.
Five years after the Cleveland Massacre, the Standard Oil Company had become a global enterprise, which required Rockefeller and his family to move to New York where he would be closer to the international markets. Before he was 40 years old, Rockefeller had created the first international conglomerate – a company of loyal, productive employees who functioned in committees and carefully examined every challenge the company faced. His administrative skills were remarkable. He encouraged his employees to buy Standard Oil stock and he made money available for them to do so.
When he began to withdraw from the business in the 1890s he was making $10 million a year while the average American was making less that ten dollars a week. In 1902, he had an untaxed income of $58 million.
But as his wealth increased – almost unavoidably when the automobile came along and gasoline, for so long discarded, became a valuable commodity – he found himself increasingly criticized for unethical business practices and avarice. Muckraking reporter Ida Tarbell laid bare Rockefeller’s business practices in her incendiary 1904 book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, to this day considered a classic of investigative journalism. It was not until later in life that Rockefeller learned it might have benefited him to be more open with the press. But his silence had made him an easy target, and the damage had been done. The federal government had taken notice.
In 1907, a government investigation found that Standard Oil produced 87 percent of all kerosene in the U.S., handled 87 percent of exported kerosene and controlled 89 percent of the domestic kerosene market. The Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against the company.
When word came of the federal government’s verdict in the case later that year, Rockefeller was playing golf with a Plain Dealer reporter. He looked at the telegram, proclaimed to the reporter that he had a scoop and handed him the message that announced that the company had been fined $29,240,000. Rockefeller quietly resumed play.
Even though Rockefeller made his official residence in New York, he still returned to Cleveland regularly to spend summers at his spacious estate, Forest Hill, in East Cleveland. Yet, history clearly reveals that there was something that did not quite fit between Rockefeller and the city. For all his wealth and charity, Rockefeller was not part of the establishment, whose hierarchy had existed since Cleveland’s founding.
It was not that he was disliked in those circles; he just was not part of them. When he was under attack from the national press for his monopoly practices, Cleveland’s most prominent personages visited him at Forest Hill in a show of support. He was at one time the most hated man in America as well as its wealthiest.
But he was not without humor. Speaking one Sunday at the Euclid Baptist Church during his ordeal with the media, he excused himself saying,  “I must stop, I’m monopolizing your time.”
And in the end, the trust busting had no impact on Rockefeller’s wealth. He owned about a quarter of the shares in Standard Oil and all its  subsidiaries, which, under government mandate, were broken into individual companies. He maintained his stock position in the new companies, making him the richest man in the world with a net worth of $900 million. The federal budget that year, 1912, was only $716 million.
In retrospect, some believe that Standard Oil’s large economy of scale enhanced the oil industry’s development rather than hindered it. The company created an island of stability that saw the unit cost of oil cut in half because of the efficiencies introduced by Rockefeller’s methods.
Moreover, his impact on Cleveland was great. The wealth that Standard Oil generated in the city was immeasurable and the number of millionaires were too many to count. Other businesses sprung up here in support of the company. He donated millions to church, medical and educational institutions in town and made countless other gifts.
Then, in one of Cleveland’s classic blunders, county tax collectors, looking out for their political fortunes, cost the city an untold fortune.
In fall of 1913 Rockefeller’s wife, Cettie, took ill and the couple remained at Forest Hill past February 1, which was the tax deadline. Learning of his stay, county officials promptly billed Rockefeller $1,500,000. He refused to pay and the case went through legal proceedings until it was finally thrown out by the U.S. District Court.  In the meantime, Cettie had died and Rockefeller was unable to bury her in Lakeview Cemetery for fear of being arrested at the funeral.
“Cleveland ought to be ashamed to look herself in the face when she thinks of how she treated us,” he said later. He was angry that while  Cleveland institutions begged him for money, the “low politicians” were unfairly abusing him. Rockefeller felt that Cleveland was ungrateful for the wealth that Standard Oil brought to the city.
He left Forest Hill never to return. From time to time he would be solicited by some Cleveland organization, but he never felt the same about the city – although he insisted on being buried here, at Lakeview Cemetery, when he died in 1937. The animosity toward the city remained among his ancestors.
During his lifetime he contributed $3 million to the Euclid Avenue Baptist church, Alta House, Western Reserve University, Case Institute of Technology and the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as the land for Rockefeller Park and Forest Hill Park. These were modest gifts compared to what the city would have received had Rockefeller been more favorably disposed to his hometown.
In the end, he transferred his allegiance and charity to New York. One of his biographers noted: “How many New York hospitals, museums, and churches would be enriched by Cleveland’s blunder!”
A final irony: In 1991, after British Petroleum took over Cleveland-based Standard Oil of Ohio, the company briefly tarried in its Public Square office tower, then moved to Chicago.

Rockefeller’s Legacy from the Plain Dealer

From the Plain Dealer December 25, 1994


Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – Sunday, December 25, 1994


Imagining a world that might have been, a world the same save one life, seems the stuff of fiction. 


Movie director Frank Capra brought this story to the screen in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart. In this movie, the moral of Capra’s musings is that even the little guys of this world have an impact. Their lives change the world in ways we may not fully imagine. 


What if we imagine Cleveland without one life? What if that one life was one that made a broad mark on the city’s history? 


What if we imagine Cleveland without John D. Rockefeller? 


The legacy of Rockefeller in Cleveland is not easily defined. He was the richest man in America. He donated millions of dollars to causes and charity, yet how does one account for the refiners Rockefeller put out of business, or the pain and labor among those whose struggle created Rockefeller’s phenomenal wealth? Would those contributions have been necessary if his exploitation of the American economy – and its workers – had not been equally phenomenal? 


Regardless of the answers to these questions, one thing is certain: For better or worse, Cleveland would not be Cleveland if Rockefeller had not lived here for three decades. 


A native of New York state, Rockefeller came to Strongsville in 1853, boarded in Cleveland as a teen and graduated from Central High School. 


After attending business classes, he went to work for the commission house of Tuttle & Hewitt on Merwin St. in the Flats in 1855. It was his first and last employer. 


In 1859, Rockefeller entered a partnership with Maurice Clark, continuing in the wholesale business. The firm profited handsomely from its government contracts, particularly during the Civil War. With its good margins and good credit, and a new partner, Samuel Andrews, Rockefeller invested in the fledgling oil industry, eventually building a refinery where Kingsbury Run hits the Cuyahoga River and leaving the commission business altogether to devote himself to oil. 


After working with various partners, Rockefeller incorporated the Standard Oil Co. in 1870 with a group of men who would make their names and fortunes with his company. Rockefeller was its largest stockholder. 


John Grabowski, director of research at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, conducts a slide show about the history of Cleveland. It contains two revealing slides, shown in succession. The first is a photo of a couple of dozen men gathered at Cliff House, a Rocky River resort. 


“This is a picture of the oil trade in Cleveland in the 1860s,” Grabowski says. The next slide is of John D. Rockefeller standing alone. 


“This,” Grabowski says, “is a picture of the oil trade in Cleveland in the 1870s.” 


That portrait depicts the entire U.S. oil industry by the 1890s. From early on in the oil business, Standard Oil tried to gain control over every aspect of the industry, attempting to sop up profits and force out competition. 


Of one group of recalcitrant independent producers Rockefeller once said, “A good sweating will be healthy for them.” 


To ship the refined oil more cheaply, Standard did everything from wresting low rates and rebates from the railroads to going into the barrel-making business. By 1872, Standard Oil controlled 21 of Cleveland’s 26 oil refineries; by 1882, Standard Oil controlled 90% of the nation’s refining capacity, and a few politicians as well. 


Rockefeller earned the ire of independent oil producers, whose prices he ruthlessly undercut until they capitulated, either selling out to him, consolidating with Standard Oil or going out of business. In 1872, The Plain Dealer reported on Rockefeller’s early cartel, the South Improvement Co. That report turned public opinion against Standard Oil. This was followed by an 1881 muckraking piece in the Atlantic Monthly called “The Story of a Great Monopoly.” 


Still, the company’s monopolistic practices continued until the federal government finally stepped in and, finding the company had violated antitrust laws, broke up the company in 1911. 


By then, John D. Rockefeller was already in semi-retirement, a state he reached at age 36. Rockefeller had moved his headquarters to New York in 1884, having outgrown the financial capacity of Cleveland, though he continued to summer at the family’s Forest Hill estate east of Cleveland until his wife died in 1915, after which he seldom visited. (Rockefeller last visited Cleveland in 1917.) He died in 1937 at age 97. He and his wife, Laura, are buried in Lake View Cemetery, where his 71-foot obelisk monument is among the most popular attractions for visitors. 


Rockefeller, a devout Baptist who remained pious even while his company was its most ruthless (perhaps adding to the public distaste for the man), never felt he had done anything immoral, and he even liked to say his riches came from heaven.The fact that the latter half of his life was devoted to giving away large portions of the money he made in the first half have led some to conclude he did have an eye toward better public relations. 


However, Rockefeller had created a strong pattern of giving long before his patterns of getting made him so very rich. He kept detailed ledgers in which he recorded his net worth and donations (along with just about every other expenditure he ever made). The ledgers reveal contributions made to a variety of organizations even when his paycheck was a pittance. Still, at least one minister called a Rockefeller contribution to his organization “tainted money” because of the capitalist’s sullied reputation. The check was nonetheless cashed by other officers of the church. 


If Rockefeller merely wanted good publicity, or even to be remembered well, he could have shown, as other philanthropists of his day did, a propensity to attach his name to the buildings, parks and institutions he helped make possible. Names connected with Rockefeller are still visible on a handful of landmarks in Cleveland and the other cities his generosity reached, but not nearly as many as there could be, and not as many as his contemporaries, like Andrew Carnegie, left behind. 


“This goes against the grain of a lot of 19th-century philanthropy,” says Darwin Stapleton, a former Case Western Reserve University professor who is now director of the Rockefeller Archive Center in North Tarrytown, N.Y. 


Rockefeller’s presence in Cleveland is still felt strongly today, if not always recognized. But it doesn’t take Frank Capra, who imagined the life of a town with one important person removed in his movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” to understand Rockefeller’s legacy in Cleveland. It just takes a little looking around town. 


The Rockefeller Buildings 


More than one Clevelander has remarked that if John D. Rockefeller hadn’t moved to New York, the world-famous Rockefeller Center would be located here in Cleveland. Maybe. But Rockefeller’s vast financial empire required the big banks of the big city, and when he built, he built according to scale. That’s why Cleveland’s Rockefeller Building, on Superior Ave. at W. 6th, stands 17 stories high. 


But it wasn’t always the Rockefeller Building. For a time, it was the Kirby Building. 


It was built by Rockefeller between 1903 and 1905 for a million dollars. Reluctantly, and after a lawsuit forced him to, he sold it to Josiah Kirby, a shady businessman who ran insurance and mortgage businesses in the building. Kirby changed the name of the building to his own and put the name in lights atop the structure, which is said to have angered Rockefeller. The name even stuck after Kirby sold the building, so Rockefeller had his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., buy the building for nearly $3 million and rename it the Rockefeller Building. When he sold it later, part of the deal was that the name was to stay attached to the building forever. 


The Heights Rockefeller Building stands on the corner of Mayfield and Lee Rds. in Cleveland Heights, on the edge of the old Forest Hill estate. The charming brick structure was at one time the entry building to John Jr.’s real-estate development at Forest Hill. Junior had planned to develop his family’s former estate by building 600 homes for the burgeoning class of white-collar workers, but the economy collapsed and only 81 were built. These French Norman-style homes – simply called “Rockefellers” – can still be seen in the Forest Hill area, contrasting to the modern and less stately homes that surround them. 


“These were houses built for the ages,” says Grabowski. 


While there is wild speculation that Rockefeller stayed away from the early antecedents of Case Western Reserve University (Case School of Applied Science and Western Reserve University) because of a rivalry with the schools’ main patrons, the Mathers, Rockefeller did eventually grant large contributions to the Cleveland institution. His name can be found atop the school’s physics lab, one of the two buildings he financed on the campus to the tune of $200,000. (The other was demolished.) He also earlier gave $2,500 to help buy joint property for the two schools. All told, Western Reserve University received nearly $1.6 million from Rockefeller, his General Education Board and the Rockefeller Foundation by the time he died in 1937. 


The BP Building, owned by British Petroleum which bought Standard Oil of Ohio (Sohio), is a few steps away from the early Standard offices when John D. Rockefeller first incorporated on Euclid Ave. Rising 45 stories, it was completed in 1985. If Rockefeller had not been in Cleveland, certainly the BP Building would not. 


“That’s perhaps the ultimate legacy, right here on Public Square,” says Grabowski. 


Rockefeller’s legacy is felt elsewhere around the square. An early member and supporter of the Western Reserve Historical Society who was made a lifetime honorary vice president, Rockefeller supplied the organization with one-quarter of the $40,000 purchase price for the Society for Savings Building – the largest of the gifts given. The building still sits across the northeast quadrant of the square. Rockefeller also is reported to have chipped in $50 for the $4,500 statue of Moses Cleaveland. 


Another building that Rockefeller is in part responsible for is the Arcade, in which he was a major investor. The head of the company that built the Arcade in 1890 was Stephen V. Harkness, a Standard Oil partner of Rockefeller’s. 


The Rockefeller Parks 


The most widely known of the park land donated by Rockefeller is, of course, Rockefeller Park, the meandering green blur one passes while ignoring the 25 mph signs on Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. The city of Cleveland bought this section of land along Doan Brook to link Wade Park with the lakefront Gordon Park, and, at the celebration of the city’s centennial, it was announced Rockefeller was reimbursing the city the $300,000 it paid for the land. Rockefeller then gave $100,000 for a bridge to carry Superior Ave. over the Doan Brook valley, on the condition that more money be raised locally. One source, a book by Grace Goulder called “John D. Rockefeller: The Cleveland Years,” says the Rockefeller family also donated an additional 278-acre stretch near the Shaker Lakes to the city. 


John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated nearly a third of the family’s Forest Hill estate, which the family no longer used as a summer home, to create Forest Hill Park. It is set on rolling, wooded hills in East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights. 


All told, it is estimated in the family archive center that the Rockefellers gave gifts worth more than $865,000 in land or cash to buy and maintain parks. 


Rockefeller also donated land for private use. 


The Rockefeller Charities 


At the Rockefeller Archive Center, 56 million pages of documents deal with the family’s personal philanthropy. By the time Rockefeller died, he had given away $530 million, and by the time his son died, he had given $561 million away, through personal donations or to charities set up by the family. Some of these contributions came at important times to an institution, allowing it to buy a building or create an endowment at a key juncture. Though Rockefeller’s gifts touched 88 countries, many of his early contributions were of great benefit to Cleveland institutions and individuals. 


Beginning in the 1890s, Rockefeller had a staff sort through the requests and evaluate their worthiness, which sometimes turned off the spigot to a group. 


“He was looking for places that had a good structure in place for management,” says Kenneth Rose, assistant to the director of the Rockefeller Archive Center, who studied the exhaustive manner in which Rockefeller investigated a charity’s effectiveness. 


According to Darwin Stapleton, the center’s director, Rockefeller pioneered two kinds of philanthropy that took root in Cleveland and spread around the country: the general purpose foundation and the community foundation. After Rockefeller created the General Education Board in 1902 and the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913, he continued to be generous with his old hometown. “Cleveland is overrepresented in the giving of these two organizations up until about the ’50s,” says Stapleton. 


Rockefeller gave important early support to the Cleveland Home for Aged Colored People, which today exists as the Eliza Bryant Center on Wade Park Ave. He also helped to fund the Children’s Aid Society and served on its board of trustees. The organization eventually concentrated its efforts on a Detroit Ave. school and farm, which had been donated by Eliza Jennings. The society today provides services to emotionally disturbed children and their families at the same Detroit Ave. site. While Rockefeller was extremely generous to the YMCA and YWCA, donating large portions of construction costs for new buildings, these organizations would likely have gone on, owing to the broad base of support they enjoyed in the city. 


Rockefellergave matching funds to purchase a home on Prospect Ave. to create the Baptist Home of Northeast Ohio for aging and lonely Baptists, which was started by members of his Euclid Ave. Baptist Church. This eventually grew into the Judson Retirement Community, still operating today with Judson Manor and Judson Park, two East Side residential facilities. 


Alta House, named for Rockefeller’s daughter, began as a day nursery serving the Mayfield Rd. and Murray Hill neighborhoods, and is one of the city’s oldest settlement houses. Rockefeller built and expanded buildings, including a pool and gymnasium, and donated substantial sums to support operations, until 1922, when the family was relieved of its role by the Cleveland Community Fund, a forerunner of United Way. Alta House now operates youth programs and senior citizens services out of the former gymnasium building. 


Shiloh Baptist Church and Antioch Baptist Church, two important African-American congregations in the city, both received significant gifts from Rockefeller, including matching funds for new buildings. Although the structures he funded have since been torn down, his timely contributions may have helped, along with the congregations and African-American leaders, to keep these churches together. Similarly, Rockefeller made a challenge grant to the Western Reserve School of Medicine at which Stapleton calls a hinge point, taking it from a regional to a national medical school. 


John L. Severance, the son of one-time Standard Oil treasurer Louis Severance, and once a Standard employee himself, pledged $1 million to build Severance Hall on the condition that twice that amount be raised for a permanent endowment. John D. Rockefeller Jr. kicked in $250,000 for the fund. 


“The great gifts of our Hall [Severance] and the endowments that largely support the Cleveland Orchestra today were made possible by the Standard Oil fortunes … inherited by the Severances, the Blossoms and the Boltons,” said Adella Hughes, founder and manager of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1947. BP America, son of Standard Oil, has continued to support the orchestra, including funding national radio broadcasts and recordings for the world-class institution. Severance Hall, therefore, could be seen in part as yet another Rockefeller building in Cleveland. 


Rockefeller’s influence in the world of philanthropy sometimes takes on a more abstract character. For instance, Frederick Goff, Rockefeller’s attorney until 1908, and the man who represented him during the antitrust litigation, may have been influenced by Rockefeller’s example when he created the Cleveland Foundation in 1914. 


Rockefeller And Associates 


Rockefeller’s practice of gobbling up competitors and controlling all ends of an industry’s operations presaged modern corporate forms of consolidation and standardization, a legacy felt in other industries here in Cleveland and elsewhere. 


“Rockefeller in one sense monopolized the oil industry,” says John Grabowski. “In another sense, he rationalized it.” Most importantly, he did it here in Cleveland. 


“It was not the natural center of the petroleum industry,” says Stapleton. “He, by the sheer power of his vision, directed the petroleum industry’s product primarily to Cleveland.” 


The buildup of infrastructure and other businesses, everything from barrel-making to banking, was in part a result of such a large corporation maintaining a headquarters here, a point that could arguably apply to Standard Oil’s descendant, BP America. Among Rockefeller’s legacies then, says Stapleton, are “the drawing of capital to the city, the creation of jobs, the petroleum business, transportation, allied chemical business, manufacturers` products associated with petroleum,’ along with the budding telegraph industry. 


Stapleton adds it is no accident that Western Union came to Cleveland, where Rockefeller needed such instantaneous contact with markets and refiners in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York. 


Rockefeller also pulled together teams of bright people who showed promise and made many of them very wealthy. These people have left their own formidable legacies to the city, forever wedded to that of Rockefeller. 


Samuel Andrews, an early partner, helped build the Brooks Military School, out of which eventually grew Hathaway Brown, and was a trustee to Adelbert College. Stephen Harkness provided important financial support to the forerunner of Standard Oil and joined when the company incorporated. Besides joining Rockefeller in contributing to the Central Friendly Inn (now just called the Friendly Inn), Harkness helped to bring Western Reserve University into Cleveland from Hudson. 


Another associate, Oliver H. Payne, made his money by consolidating his firm and joining Standard Oil. He, too, made large contributions to Western Reserve University, as well as St. Vincent Charity and Lakeside hospitals. John Huntington installed fireproof roofing for a Standard Oil building and was offered stock or cash for payment. He took the stock, became extremely wealthy, and left bequests including the John Huntington Benevolent Trust for charities and the funds to help found the Cleveland Museum of Art. His summer home in Bay Village was acquired by the Cleveland Metroparks and was named Huntington Reservation in his honor. 


Among those influenced by Rockefeller was Cyrus Eaton, a young boy who worked summers at Forest Hill and whose early business ventures Rockefeller supported. It was at his summer job that Eaton became friends with Dr. William Harper, president of the Rockefeller-founded University of Chicago, and his son, Sam. The Harpers had traveled to Baptist missions in Russia, and kindled Eaton’s interest in the nation, eventually bringing him to a leadership role in promoting good U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War, while Eaton was a major industrialist with Republic Steel. 


Eaton donated land to the forerunner of the Metroparks, was a founder and trustee of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, helped to create Fenn College from the YMCA night school and was a benefactor of Case School of Applied Science. 


The presence of John D. Rockefeller can be felt in far-ranging areas, from his large role in making Cleveland a national center for industry to mentoring other budding industrialists, developing new forms of corporate organization and creating institutions that continue to serve cultural and material needs decades after they were founded. 


He may never have intended to make his presence felt so long after his death, but his was one life that the city of Cleveland can never imagine itself without.