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Sandusky 1888: A snapshot in time

Ron Davidson • Jul 8, 2013 at 3:00 PM

One of the more interesting and unique books in the Sandusky Library’s collections is not available for checkout, but it can be read as an e-book on the library’s website. Sandusky of To-Day presents a fascinating overview of business and commerce in Sandusky in 1888, and gives us an idea of what were some of the activities that helped to develop the city and the region. The book was published by the I.F. Mack and Brother company, then publisher of the Sandusky Register. The purpose of the book is made clear in its complete title: Sandusky of To-Day (Historically Reviewed): Its Facilities and Inducements for the Investment of Capital, Comprising Sketches of Its Extensive Fisheries, Its Lumber Interests, and Complete Rail-Road Connections while Affording All the Advantages of a Lovely Lakeside Residence. (Yes, that whole thing is the title.) It was an early business promotion guide, seeking to lure more workers and business investment to Sandusky. But it is more important today as a snapshot of life in Sandusky in the late nineteenth century.

Sandusky of To-Day contains nearly 100 pages of descriptions of prominent local businesses. Some of Sandusky’s most important industries of the time are featured, including: Commercial fishing; lumber; lime, stone, and plaster; ice harvesting; wineries; breweries; cigar makers; boat builders; and others. The book opens with a description of city government and the history of the region, and follows with some enticements for prospective residents. It concludes with several pages on the region’s biggest attraction (some things never change): the Cedar Point Pleasure Resort.

For those who want to learn more about life in early Sandusky, Sandusky of To-Day is an excellent starting point. The book contains many facts about the city, but, more importantly, it also gives a hint about its people and their interests. (Sometimes the best information in a book is found between the lines.) The authors of the book took great effort to show Sandusky in its finest light, reflecting a pride in their community. Among the features of the city they presented were “the city’s beautiful location,” “Sandusky’s flourishing condition,” and its “moral and social status.” Another important, and relatively new, feature that they wished to promote was the City Water Works, a prime benefit for city residents, then and now. (More on that in a future posting.) And they certainly did not forget to feature Biemiller’s Opera House, a magnificent building that could hold as many as 1,500 spectators for theatrical performances.

If we take a closer look at some of the businesses described in the book, we can get an idea of what built Sandusky in the nineteenth century. Access to transportation was certainly one of the major factors aiding in the development of the city, and it is presented in the book. The Baltimore and Ohio and Cincinnati, Sandusky, and Cleveland Railroads were two of several railroad lines that connected to Sandusky. Many of these lines connected with lake vessels, making Sandusky an important shipping point between the Great Lakes and the inland Midwest. This transport advantage made Sandusky a major lumber port by 1888. Lumber was shipped by boat to Sandusky, primarily from northern Michigan, and transported by rail throughout Ohio and the Midwest.

As with most areas in nineteenth-century America, the region’s geography and environment helped to produce the other major industries in Sandusky, with fishing as the most important business of the time. The authors declared that Sandusky was “the largest fresh water fish market in the world,” but they did not provide evidence for this claim. Did you know that “Sandusky’s Pride” in 1888 was “the famous Lake Erie white fish”? Herring was the most plentiful fish on the market. Pickerel (better known today as Walleye) was plentiful, “Though not near so much as they used to be,” and sturgeon was still a common fish, increasingly popular for its caviar. Yellow perch was rising in popularity, also.

The wine industry in the Sandusky region was at high point during this era, with about 2 ½ million gallons produced annually, and at least five wineries operating within the city limits. Much of the grain grown in the region went to making the popular German beverage, beer. The Kuebeler and Stang breweries had not yet merged in 1888, and shared the market with Ilg’s Sandusky Brewery. And another commodity in great supply produced an industry that greatly assisted the fish and beer businesses – Sandusky was a highly productive site for the ice harvesting industry. More than twenty companies operated ice houses along the Sandusky Bay, where winter ice was carved and used during the summer, primarily for food preservation. Sandusky ice was shipped by rail to much of the Midwest.

Finally, we should mention the chapter on “the Coney Island of the West,” the Cedar Point Pleasure Resort. Cedar Point was easily accessible via four or five rail lines, and a ferry service, featuring “the magnificent steamer R.B. Hayes.” The main feature at the Point was the Grand Pavillion, which included a hotel, restaurant, opera house, and visitors’ center. Along the beach was a “magnificent music pagoda,” a bandshell for live musical performances, featuring the Great Western Band. But of course, the primary reason for visiting Cedar Point was its beautiful bathing beach. Not quite why they come today, but still a popular place.

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