Vanishing Americana - "The Little Cities of Black Diamonds" in Ohio


Old wooden two story storefronts, with balconies or porches overhanging the sidewalk in Shawnee, Ohio.

Second floor porches and vacant storefronts in Shawnee, Ohio in 2017
( these buildings were torn down in 2021 )

        Relics of our past, which speak of a different time and a different life, dot many hamlets, villages, towns, and cities across the state.  They all deserve to be noticed, and every attempt ought to be made to preserve, or at the bare minimum, stabilize these structures.  They create a sense of place, and add to the texture of a town in a way that a boxy new building can never achieve.  A Dollar General looks pretty much the same no matter where it is, and the same statement can be made for all the other namesake creations of modern prosperity.  Those businesses have a right to exist, and are necessary in many cases, but a price is paid in the loss of our older and more interesting architectural heritage.  A Walmart can devastate the commercial vibrancy of a community just as effectively as a neutron bomb, or the loss of a major employer can.  The resulting vacancies frequently result in the demolition of the old buildings as they fall into disrepair from neglect and lack of use.
        This is not a new concept.  The cycle of prosperity and decay has been going on for millennia.  But in our haste to make our communities safer and more homogenous places we loose character and treasures.

        A miracle of place.  That is an apt description of Southeast Ohio.  That, too, can describe an arc of hilly Appalachian Ohio which runs from the east down to the southeast, across the southern portion and then west toward Cincinnati.  This is a broad swath of a state which is stereotypically considered as being flat farm country - even by native Buckeyes, but especially by those from outside our state.  But southeast Ohio is now an area that time forgot, which is sad because it was the engine that made the state an industrial powerhouse in the late 1800's and early 1900's.  
        The challenging topography made settlement and industry a difficult proposition.  Those challenges still exist today.  But there was a one hundred year period between the 1840's to the 1940's when coal, clay brick and tile making, oil, plus some scattered pockets of iron ore brought business and labor to the valleys of the area.  Timber covered the hills - though not for long.  Transportation to remove the valuable resources determined when a particular area flourished. Until a means of bulk transport arrived, the industries of this portion of the state remained primarily local concerns. 
        An area of Southeastern Ohio, often referred to as the "Little Cities of Black Diamonds," is situated in the extended valleys of Sunday Creek and Monday Creek and their tributaries, down to the Hocking River, and is comprised of portions of Perry, Hocking, Morgan, and Athens Counties.  It covers an area of approximately fifteen square miles, and at one time claimed seventy towns.  The Hocking Canal opened through to Athens in 1843, and provided a link to Columbus via the Ohio & Erie Canal.  The Hocking Valley Railroad, begun in the 1850's, and generally followed the canal and the Hocking River, reached Athens in 1870.  Other railroads followed suit, and spur lines to serve the many mines and brick factories were pushed up the Sunday and Monday Creek valleys, and elsewhere.  The name Black Diamonds is a nickname for coal.  It was valuable, and sparkles like diamonds in the light of a coal miner's helmet lamp.
        The boom was on!  Towns sprang up near mines, or other factories.  In some cases the company owning the industry built the town.  Haydenville, in Hocking County, and Eclipse in Athens County, are two examples of company towns which remain largely intact today, but there were many others.  Some towns bloomed to life, and then wilted as soon as whatever resource was being extracted played out.  San Toy in Perry County, is a notable example of that.  At one time it claimed nearly 1,000 inhabitants, but now there is hardly a trace it existed.  Greendale is another.  The most modern continuous firing kiln in the world was constructed there, in order to make bricks - primarily for the Holland Tunnel in New York City.  Not long after that job was done, the factory and the town were torn down.  A sign along State Route 595 marks the location of Greendale, and a few houses and a school building remain.  This pattern of build - boom - remove, was repeated many times throughout the area.
        The resources that energized the area got depleted - were used up.  The companies ceased to exist or moved elsewhere, as did the jobs.  People who could move, did.  Those who could not, stayed.  To survive today, many of the inhabitants make the daily hour and a half journey to the Columbus area to work at jobs which provide a fairly decent wage.  Time may have forgotten the area, but these folks have not, yet there is little they can do to improve it.
        Not all the towns disappeared.  A few bright spots exist, primarily out of neglect.  For whatever reason, they escaped being torn down, which is what happened to the majority of places which used to thrive.  One such gem is the village of Shawnee, which unfortunately is now rapidly disappearing due to time and the elements of nature - yet much of its former glory is still visible.  Along Main Street stand the storefronts of a bygone era, with buildings sporting second-floor porches suspended over the sidewalks utilizing wooden brackets.  This classic architectural flourish existed throughout the area, and can still be observed in towns like New Straitsville, Murray City, Glouster, and Corning, and others.  But nowhere does it exist in such profusion as in Shawnee, which is why the whole downtown district was placed on the National Historic Register in 1976.  It looks like the set for some western movie, but this is what Appalachian Ohio used to look like in its heyday.  Now downtown Shawnee is almost entirely vacant - waiting for rescue, or the next collapse.  Unfortunately, the latter is what has happened most in the past several years, and by the end of 2021 three more of the old wood buildings were torn down before they fell down.  The brick buildings in Shawnee still stand proud.  So do the ones in the remaining surrounding bergs - at least for now.  It is worth noting that being listed on the National Historic Register does not prevent demolition, or guarantee preservation.  It just means a place or thing has historic value, and is worth taking note of.
        People live here.  They have never left, though most have.  The whole region has been reforested, as the result of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Depression of the 1930's. This area is now as pretty as the nearby Hocking Hills State Park, which was also a CCC creation.  But the area of The Little Cities of Black Diamonds boasts no park to draw visitors to the scenic area.  What it does have is wonderful old towns and villages that still retain some of the unique old buildings.  Putting a town in a valley, against a hillside, requires some ingenuity, which is why most of them were either dug into the hillside, or dangle over the hillside.  Porches were important because yards were at a premium.
        Remnants of the coal industry, brick plants, and the connecting railroads have all but disappeared.  But if one knows where to look, some foundations can be spotted in the woods, or in the case of Murray City, the railroad station is still standing even though the tracks were removed decades ago.
        Just as the topography proved a challenge to the early industries and settlers, it is an impediment to new industry as well.  So good paying jobs will not return to the Appalachian hills of Southeastern Ohio.  However, the same steep hills and valleys, along with their hidden old towns, are the primary attraction for the adventurous traveler.  Whether drawn by history, the desire to experience a unique landscape, or to just be close to nature, do yourself a favor and explore the backroads and towns.  Stop and walk around - read the historic markers, grab a bite or libation in one of the stores or taverns.  Though geographically compact, the area termed "The Little Cities of Black Diamonds" cannot be seen in one day trip, so plan on a return visit.  Venture beyond the area to discover your own diamonds in the rough, for they abound throughout this whole region of our beautiful State of Ohio.

Views around "The Little Cities of Black Diamonds" area

Row of multiple small two story brick houses, all identical in appearance, in the old southeastern Ohio town of Haydenville.
A row of identical small two story houses built for workers in Haydenville, Ohio by the Haydenville Mining and Manufacturing Company.

Main Street sidewalk past businesses and empty storefronts in downtown New Straitsville, Ohio

Brick buildings, some with the classic Southeastern Ohio second floor porches supported by brackets, in Shawnee, Ohio

Blink, and you miss Greendale, Ohio, once the home of the largest continuous firing brick kiln in the world, and the source of all the bricks used to construct the Holland Tunnel in New York City

Proof that there was a railroad in Murray City, Ohio.  The station still stands, but the trains stopped running by the 1960's

        Some of the formerly thriving towns in this area of Southeastern Ohio exist only as a sign along the road, which is very helpful when virtually all evidence has mostly disappeared long ago.  Unfortunately, many of the road signs are slowly disappearing as well, but maps still pin-point their locations.
        The inhabitants of the area are proud of their heritage as workers who helped make the State of Ohio an economic power.  They also mourn the loss of what was once the generator of decent jobs, namely mining and manufacturing.  With limited resources, they try to preserve the important history of their communities, and of the region.  Small intriguing museums dot the area, in places like New Straitsville, Shawnee, Corning, Nelsonville, and Haydenville.  Unfortunately, most of these volunteer driven organizations find it impossible to keep regular hours, so finding one open is a happy accident.  But many of these same organizations maintain an active presence on social media, especially Facebook, and post numerous photos 'from back in the day'.

        Take some time to socially distance yourself by journeying to this wonderful area of Ohio, and experience something new and different, and also educational.  The nearby Hocking Hills State Park is beautiful, yet within portions of the very same county (Hocking), there exists a totally different world and experience.  Both are worthy of one's time and effort to see.

        Southeastern Ohio Facebook groups worth viewing (a partial list - there are others, but these are the most active.  Actual links are too long to post.)

>>    SE Ohio Coal Mining - Family History

>>    Corning _ Monroe (Twp.) History

book by Arcadia Publishing:  "Little Cities of Black Diamonds" _ a fine collection of old photos, and a historic overview of the region.  Available on Amazon, or in many stores in the region, like Walgreens.




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