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Where were the Western Liberties?

Ron Davidson • Jun 24, 2013 at 3:00 PM

How many of you who are reading this live in the Western Liberties? How many of you know where the Western Liberties are? The “Western Liberties” is a term that seems obsolete today in Sandusky, but it is an area with a long and important history, and continues to be a significant part of the community. The Western Liberties encompasses much of the western portion of the city of Sandusky that was not part of the original 1818 plat.

This region, west of Shelby Street (the easternmost street on the original plat), was created as part of Sandusky in 1836. Its boundaries then were: Mills Creek on the west, Camp Street on the east, Seneca Street on the south, and Sandusky Bay making the northern border. Although we do not know with certainty why this area was called the Western Liberties, we can speculate, based on the history of England in the Middle Ages. In early England, a liberty was an area not under the jurisdiction of the monarchy, but rather one controlled by private owners; the term later became used for a region of governmental administration, often semi-autonomous. In colonial Philadelphia, the liberties were lands given free to certain colonists. Whether this practice was the same in the Western Liberties of Sandusky is unknown, but it seems unlikely. It seems more likely that this name was given because the region was seen as the outskirts of town, as liberties tended to be.

Early Sanduskians probably perceived the Western Liberties as a region outside of the heart of the city, in both geographic and cultural terms. Whereas Sandusky was founded by New Englanders (from Connecticut), and most of the earliest settlers were Protestants from New England and New York, the Western Liberties became a settlement land for Catholic immigrants, primarily from Ireland and Germany. An article in the Daily Commercial Register of April 16, 1855 described the area as “being a kind of foreigners’ home . . . sought by the German and Irish immigrant almost invariably when it is designed to locate here.” The house lots in the Western Liberties were generally smaller, and therefore cheaper, than lots in other parts of the city, an attractive incentive for those fleeing poverty and hardship in Ireland and Europe.

Holy Angels Church, the first Roman Catholic church in Sandusky, was built in the Western Liberties to serve this growing population; the first mass was held there in 1845. (An interesting bit of trivia: Holy Angels was founded by Father Joseph Machebeuf, who later became Bishop of Denver, and was said to have been an inspiration for the Willa Cather novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop.) Sandusky’s Catholic cemeteries are also in this part of the city.

You might also notice another cemetery in the Western Liberties. Sandusky’s Cholera Cemetery, on Harrison Street, was created for the dead of the cholera outbreak of 1849, which struck this part of town more severely than many other areas. The first case was that of a man who arrived from Cincinnati on the Mad River Railroad, whose depot was on the west side of the city. The disease spread through the west and central parts of town, officially causing 357 deaths, but possibly as many as 400. Viewing a list of names of the dead, you will find many Irish names – Conner, Clohan, Fitzpatrick, Murphy, Sullivan – and German names – Benschoter, Muenscher, Rheinheimer, Schnecke, Zimmerman.

Today the Western Liberties are no longer on the outskirts of Sandusky, geographically or culturally.

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