The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Dr. Robert M. Hosler
The two most prominent names in the growing settlement of Cleveland, Ohio, during the first half of the nineteenth century were Lorenzo Carter (1767 – 1814) and Levi Johnson (1786 – 1872). But during the twentieth century the name of Johnson seems to have been forgotten or overlooked. Early historians indicate that he was the primary builder of the embryo village which was to become the nucleus of a Great Lakes center of water transportation and his long career is part of the history of the Forest City itself.
Johnson was born in Morristown, New Jersey. His father, Levi, was on George Washington’s Honor Guard from 1777-80. After losing his father at age ten, Levi lived with his uncle in Herkimer County, New York. At age fourteen he decided to become an apprentice joiner and carpenter.
Stories of the “Far West” reached the neighborhood. So, along with Stephen Remington he left New York in 1808. They reached Huron County, Ohio, where they built a sawmill for Judge Benjamin Ruggles, also a surveyor. Johnson settled in the then village of Cleveland in 1809. At the time of his marriage he built a home on the Buffalo Trail that led southeasterly from Cleveland’s Public Square. He purchased the lot next door for the sum of $75.00 in 1815. This original handwritten deed is still held by the Johnson family, as are several dozen similar original deeds. As of today this land is half of the Euclid Avenue frontage of the downtown May Company. Included are two deeds of 1814 of the land on which the Society for Savings Bank is situated; each was purchased for $50.00. His next home was on the western half of the Rockefeller Building ground on Superior Street west of the Public Square. This office building was to become a veritable nerve center for industry and related transportation on the Great Lakes.
Levi Johnson’s life was closely woven with the commerce and transportation of this community. Previous to 1810 all the buildings had been made of logs, until he built a so-called office building for Judge John Walworth on Superior Street. It could have been called the Federal, County, and Post Office Building. During 1812-13 he built the first Court House and Jail on the north side of Public Square. It was 22 feet by 50 feet and cost $700.00. Of course, ordinary labor was then fifty cents a day, and skilled, $1.25.
In 1812 he was appointed the first Coroner and Deputy Sheriff of the County and, as such, was busy during the first execution in the region. He built the gallows for the Indian, Omic, who had murdered two trappers on Cedar Point. He apparently appointed himself to take the census of Cleveland in 1810-57 persons. (Cleveland was unincorporated as a village until 1814.)
Dovetailed with the building of private and public structures was Johnson’s construction of lake vessels. It is controversial whether or not he was one of the builders of the Schooner Ohio (60 tons), constructed on the Cuyahoga River in 1810, which became one of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s supply ships. The schooner Pilot of 28 tons was built in 1814 by Johnson on his property which is now East 4th Street and Euclid Avenue. It was quite a distance from the water and in order to launch her it took 28 yoke of oxen, plus wheels and whiskey, to convey her to the Cuyahoga River near Superior Street.
The day following Perry’s victory at Put-In-Bay, Johnson and his brother-in- law sailed a flat-bottomed boat loaded with 200 bushels of potatoes to Put-In-Bay where the victorious fleet was healing its wounds after losing its flagship. Johnson profited greatly from the transaction and with the money, thereupon built the Ladies’ Master. In later years he stated that this was the first time he had ever had a substantial amount of cash.
Commodore Perry realized that Johnson was familiar with the waters of the southern shore of Lake Erie and commissioned him to pilot one of his damaged ships back to Cleveland- the gunboat Sommers. (At the age of 80, during an interview Levi Johnson made an interesting statement regarding the naval battle at Put-In-Bay, “On September 15, 1813, I saw Capt. Barclay of the Caledonia and he was very badly wounded.”) Thus, he was one of the few people of the Western Reserve who actually saw Perry and Barclay on the same day.
Now another phase of Levi Johnson’s multi-faceted life began. For the next two years he sailed as captain, carrying army supplies between Cleveland, Detroit, and Buffalo. Irad Kelley, postmaster of Cleveland, 1816-30, was one of his first passengers. Johnson built the Neptune at the foot of Eagle Street in 1817. For a number of years he sailed this schooner of 61 tons to Lake Erie ports, Mackinac, and Fort Dearborn (Chicago). The Cleveland Gazette and Commercial Register of July 31, 1818, included in its marine column: “District and Port of Cuyahoga- Cleared July 16, 1818, Schr. Neptune, Levi Johnson, for Michilimackinac. Cargo: oxen, cows, calves, sheep, whiskey, pork, flour, butter, tallow, and grindstones.”
Johnson’s most noteworthy accomplishment was the building of the steamship Enterprise. This was hailed as not only the first steamship built in Cleveland but the third steam vessel to be launched on the Great Lakes. She was put in the water in 1826 at the foot of St. Clair Street, not far from where Moses Cleveland first stepped ashore. (Incidentally, Cleveland never returned to the future city which bears his name, but remained in Canterbury, Connecticut, where he died in 1806.)
The Enterprise was a vessel of 240 tons and also carried sail. Her 70- horsepower steam engine was built in Pittsburgh and hauled to Cleveland to the river by ox cart. This vessel was handsomely fitted out for passengers and freight. Her regular route ran between Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and included Erie, Grand River, and Sandusky. Johnson found excellent patronage for the seven-day round trip. But hard times came in 1829 and the Enterprise was sold. Levi Johnson’s last shipbuilding venture was in 1830 when he finished the Commodore Perry at the Chagrin River. He retired from active sailing shortly thereafter and his two sons became lake captains.
Retiring from more than fifteen years of sailing and shipbuilding, in 1831 Levi Johnson built Cleveland’s first lighthouse, on the embankment of the harbor’s east approach of the present Main Avenue Bridge. In 1836 he built the 65-foot lighthouse at Sandusky. The next year he constructed 700 feet of stone pier east of the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. At that time he devised a piledriver resembling those of today. In 1839 he took his piledriver to Maumee Bay where he drove 900 feet of piling. After building the Saginaw lighthouse in 1840, he constructed lighthouses on West Sister Island and at the Portage River. At this period he retired from lighthouse building and harbor improvement, spending the remainder of his long life concentrating mainly upon real estate, in which he had invested heavily from his early days. By the end of the nineteenth century Cleveland had become one of the great shipbuilding ports of the world.
It is interesting to note that Johnson purchased twenty acres and subdivided it in 1835. Today this locality is known as the Erieview urban development. His tax duplicate of 1838 remains, and indicates that he owned ninety-six properties. He erected his permanent family home in 1842 on Lake Street, now Lakeside Avenue. It was referred to as the first stone house in town: he brought the stone himself from Kingston, Ontario. It stood until 1910, close to where he had built the original Cleveland Lighthouse.
The oldest philanthropic society in town was the Western Seamen’s Friend Society. This was organized in 1830 by Winslow of New York City with the help of Levi Johnson. Its original headquarters was also near the old lighthouse. The first building actually constructed for a hospital in Cleveland was the United States Marine Hospital which was begun in 1844. Johnson, the innovator, had much to do with its conception. He sold several acres of land (at what is now East 9th Street and Lakeside Avenue) to the Government for a pittance, and in the contract it was stated that the property should revert to the heirs if not used for the sole purpose of a Marine Hospital (1843). Many will recall this old hospital that stood until 1928. The land did not revert. The same story can be retold for Woodland Hills Park, the nucleus of fifteen acres which was given by the Johnsons for the sole purpose of a park. The city never saw reason to name it for Levi Johnson, in remembrance, although the majority of Cleveland parks do have personal names.
At 86 years of age he was struck down by typhoid fever and his death occurred on December 19, 1872. At his demise, he had lived continuously in Cleveland longer than any other individual. Once he had settled upon Cleveland with all of his hopes, ambitions, and hard labor, he never left. Others came and went, but he stayed with his impersonal monuments and achievements and has left eight generations of Clevelanders. To this humble pillar of our early city on Lake Erie, tribute is long overdue. Cleveland owes considerable indebtedness to the amazing industry and farsighted planning of Levi Johnson, one of its earliest pioneers.
About the Author: Dr. Robert M. Hosler was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and his ancestors were early pioneers in Richland and Knox counties in Ohio. He is married to Helen Johnson, a direct descendant of Levi Johnson. Prior to 1920, Dr. Hosler and his family vacationed every summer on Stag Island, in the St. Clair River, and in 1925 part of his summer was spent as a deckhand, aboard the William Edenborn, now part of a Cleveland breakwall, adjacent to the Hosler residence in the village of Bratenahl.
A specialist in heart surgery, Dr. Hosler received his degrees from the University of Michigan and Case Western Reserve University. He is also a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons and the author of the first book ever written on cardiac resuscitation. Dr. Hosler is a member of the Great Lakes Historical Society Board of Trustees, and he and Mrs. Hosler also belong to the Cleveland Yachting Club.