A Brief Tour of Steubenville, OH
I had to go out of town last weekend for a wedding in southern Ohio. This was home to a large chunk of my ancestors–Monroe and Belmont counties, along the Ohio river– and I am currently writing a book set in the area, so I thought, in addition to attending a wedding, I’d do a bit of research for my book, seeing the craggy hills and wondering how people ever carved out an existence in such a hardscrabble countryside.
What I got was a whole lot more.
We spent the night in Steubenville, OH. Long before St. Louis became known as the Gateway To The West, Steubenville was known by that moniker. Everyone migrating from the east made their way down the Ohio river, following what became known as the National Road. This road was the first major highway in the United States. It stretched about 620 miles, connecting the Potomac and Ohio Rivers and acted as a gateway for thousands of settlers in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Upon the completion of the Revolutionary War, when Great Britain relinquished the land known as the Northwest Territory, the Continental Congress decreed the land should be surveyed. Each township was to be six miles by six miles square and then divided into 36 sections of one mile square each. In this rugged terrain, the mere matter of surveying the land was fraught with danger from wild animals, accidents and mishaps. And then there were the Indians, local tribes who saw their way of life being endangered. A fort needed to be established, to protect the surveyors who were doing their jobs.
Major John Hamtramack directed the building of the first fort, which was home to 150 soldiers plus the surveyors. To honor the drillmaster he served during the Revolution, he named the site Fort Steuben. This was the first settlement after the original thirteen colonies. After only eight months, the surveyors moved on further west to continue the mapping of America. The surveyed land was given to soldiers who had fought in the Revolutionary War and sold to others who wanted to migrate. Steubenville became known as a shipping point for a majority of Ohio’s goods, and for the industry of clothmaking. In fact, an early businessman, James Blinn, adapted a trouser design for sailors that were dyed “Genoa Blue”–bleu jeans. A part of early Steubenville produced so many blue jeans it was dubbed “Jeanstown.” By 1830, Steubenville had a population in excess of 3,000, making it one of the top 100 urban centers in America.
In 1908, when neighboring Jefferson County banned the sale of alcohol, Steubenville spearheaded the development of a large-scale distribution network of the illegal substance. Along with the introduction of jazz, the roaring ‘20s became part of Steubenville’s legacy, and became known as “Little Chicago,” giving local talent like Dean Martin a place to become known.
Now a reconstructed Fort Steuben sits in the middle of downtown Steubenville. It provides a starting point for what has become a very unique city. It’s worth a trip, if you’re anywhere close, to see the fort, which is open April-November.
And while you’re here, be certain to check out some of the 23 murals that decorate the sides of the buildings around town. Begun in 1986, the murals were designed to preserve a piece of America. The murals depict the way Steubenvile looked a hundred or so years ago, with cobbled streets and steamboats on the Ohio. And don’t miss the Dean Martin mural. It’s my favorite.
Steubenville’s heyday may have been in the past, but it’s still a city steeped in history. My kind of town.
Community Guide to Steubenville, OH