THIS PLACE CALLED BELLAIRE, OHIO
by Attorney Daniel L. Frizzi, Jr.
No matter how far you travel from Bellaire, Ohio, you always find someone who knows the town from whence you come. Whether the connection is made because of the rich glass heritage of the community, or the tradition of athletic competition throughout the years, or the memories of that grand stone railroad bridge, someone will know the “All-American Town” that you speak of. While a student in law school, I met a young lady visiting one of my schoolmates in Ada, Ohio. She asked where I grew up, and after telling her, “Bellaire, Ohio”, she astounded me by saying “I know where that is.” She continued “It is on the Ohio River, and I flew over it on my way here from New York to Columbus just yesterday!” She related to me that the pilot of the airplane some 30,000 feet above the town announced to the passengers on board her flight that the airplane “was passing over the Ohio River at Bellaire, Ohio” just below them. The navigational radio aid known as the “Bellaire VOR”, located at McClainsville just west of town, allowed the pilot to give this young lady our location. Although she had never set foot in the community, she knew where the town was that I called my home. So how did this place called Bellaire, Ohio become settled?
The Frontier Settlement
The first settlement was nothing more than a log cabin built by Jacob Davis along the north bank of McMahon Creek in 1802. Not until 1834 when the plat of “Belle air” was laid out by Davis’ son was there any resemblance of a town at all on this location. The name was selected by Davis after the home he had left behind in Maryland. The 64 building lots attracted small frontier tradesmen that would support the large farms stretching from McMahon Creek north toward Indian Run, and the coal banks of John Fink lying south of this Creek. The outcropping of coal from the hillsides was easily accessible by drift mines opened into the surrounding hills by men like Fink, and later Jacob Heatherington. That coal gave the frontier trades fuel to fire their forges, operate their steam mills, and the railroad men fuel to stoke their locomotives as they sought a path toward the Ohio River.
The railroad locomotive was truly a “mystic” contraption in 1854 when the Central Ohio Railroad found its way to “Belle air” from the state capitol in Columbus. Soon the Central Ohio Railroad would be joined in 1856 by the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Railroad connecting Bellaire to both of these large and growing cities. Immigrants followed the building of the railroads and came to settle in Bellaire where work was plentiful in the coal mines, the rapidly growing glass industry, and on the railroad itself. The coming of the railroad brought “Belle air” into an industrial age, and with it, a new name of “Bellaire”. The modern business district that exists today was laid out into lots in 1854, and the first sale occurred soon thereafter. The plat of the new town gave it the name “The City of Bellaire”. The older section of town settled by Davis became known as “Old Bellaire”, and gradually, all inhabitants gave up the old spelling in favor of the new.
Incorporation of Government
The influx of residents created the need for a town government. The first attempted incorporation in 1857 was set aside in court after the judge determined that only 38 residents had signed the petition, and the area sought to be incorporated was larger than necessary. The petition did set forth reasons why a town government was necessary, and it was largely due to the vices of alcohol, gambling and civil disobedience at any one of “thirty grog shops and drinking saloons”. The first failed attempt at incorporation was again made in 1860, and this time was approved. The name given the new village was “Bellaire City”. First order of business was to regulate the vices that served as the need for incorporation. A town Marshall was hired, and council passed Ordinances regulating “public exhibitions”, “hawkers and peddlers”, to “observe the Sabbath”, and to “suppress immoral and improper practices”. Growth continued, and in 1873, “Bellaire” became the “City of Bellaire” that the first village name “Bellaire City” had envisioned.
Early Growth and Prosperity
By 1886, Bellaire became generally known as the “Glass City” as five glass manufacturing companies in 1872 spawned even more by 1886 that were turning out tableware, specialty ware, and window glass. The Bellaire Nail Works was established in 1866 producing cut nails. Coal mines that were opened into the surrounding hills provided fuel for these early manufacturers, and by 1873 a natural gas company was producing gas to fire the furnaces of industry. Urban Bellaire got its first horse drawn street cars in 1875 as the Bellaire Street Railway was opened. The railroad influence continued to be a dominant force in the community following the Civil War as a new railroad bridge spanning the Ohio River was constructed. The bridge approach in Ohio passes through the community at 31st Street in the form of a magnificent stone arcade known as the Great Stone Viaduct, and to locals as the “Stone Bridge”. Already served by the Baltimore and Ohio, and the Pennsylvania Railroad, other railroads planned their routes to Bellaire. The Ohio River and Western narrow gauge was opened to Woodsfield by 1879. The Cleveland, Lorain and Wheeling Railroad arrived in Bellaire in 1888 giving Bellaire merchants access to the docks at Lake Erie. New residential areas of the City were opened stretching from south to north, and against the sloping hillsides overlooking the community. A municipal water distribution system was established to serve them. A private wharf was located at 34th Street, and a public wharf at 26th Street attracted freight and passengers from surrounding river communities. A public park, long known on maps as Union Square, was appropriated from its owners in the heart of the downtown coming after lengthy litigation as to its ownership. The Ohio Supreme Court settled the dispute as title was finally quieted in the City of Bellaire.
The Building Boom of the Twentieth Century
Many of the buildings that exist in the downtown business district today were constructed during the building boom which began just before 1900. These remnants are everywhere. The education of the children of the community was of paramount importance, and so schools were organized and buildings secured to instruct them. The first public school was in “Old Bellaire” on 27th Street in a small one story frame building not more than 18 feet square. Jacob Davis was school teacher in 1839. As the town grew after the coming of the railroads, the board of education acquired in 1860 what was then known as the “Shoe Factory” located at the corner of 35th Street and Belmont. In 1871, the Union School was built on the corner of 35th Street and Guernsey. Overcrowding and the demand for a high school education resulted in the construction of the first High School in 1904. Neighborhood schools were built in First Ward in 1906, Rose Hill in 1908, Gravel Hill in 1913, Indian Run in 1917, and West Bellaire in 1927. By the first quarter century, the High School was overcrowded, and the present high school building was completed in 1925 on the site of the old “Shoe Factory”, the brick row, and the “Union School”. Its design preserved as a landmark a town clock which has remained atop the public school as a beacon to public education that first began with the “Union School” in 1871.
Banking institutions surged at the opening of the 20th Century. The Farmers and Merchants National Bank built its new offices at the corner of 32nd and Union Streets in 1917. This structure remains today as the F & R Building. The First National Bank of Bellaire soon commenced construction of the eight story building now known as Chase Bank Building at the corner of 32nd and Belmont Streets. It was completed in 1924 and continues to serve as a banking facility today. The Union Bank and Buckeye Savings Banks located at opposite corners of 32nd and Belmont Streets. Belmont Savings and Loan Company in 1924 maintained its offices on Union Street opposite the Farmers and Merchants. The First National Bank eventually merged with the Union Savings Bank, and was known as First Union Bank. All of these banking establishments were located in the heart of the downtown business district, and continue today as Progressive Bank, Chase Bank and Belmont Savings Bank.
A second City Building was constructed in 1902 at the corner of 32nd and Belmont, housing a large council chambers, police department, fire department, city offices and retail sidewalk space. A new post office at the corner of 32nd and Guernsey was also constructed to move the U.S. Mail in the volume to which the growing town demanded. Today it remains as the “Greystone” building. A new hospital was constructed in 1913, and was expanded in 1924, to provide the best medical care possible to residents and continues to serve the community today. The Interstate Bridge Company pursuant to authorization of the United States Congress in 1922 commenced construction of a bridge spanning the Ohio River to connect Bellaire with Benwood, West Virginia. This span was completed in 1926 and became known as the “Bellaire Bridge” which operated as a toll bridge until 1991 when it was closed. The remnants of this bridge still stand awaiting demolition. The growth was not confined just to the living, however, as a beautiful stone mausoleum was constructed in the Greenwood Cemetery as a final resting place for the departed residents of the community.
The church community flourished. In 1889, the First Methodist Church constructed its second church on Guernsey Street which is adjacent to the southwest corner of the park to this day. The South Bellaire Methodist Church was erected in 1905. The Presbyterian Church at 36th and Guernsey was built in 1926 while the The United Presbyterian Church was built on Guernsey Street in 1910. The Bellaire Christian Church located on Belmont Street in 1914. The magnificent St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, which can be seen at the north end of Guernsey Street, was built in 1928, and continues to be an anchor for the St. John elementary and high schools. The beauty of these many churches still active in the community today date the community to its earlier days, and are a part of the commitment to religion in the community for which all residents can be proud.
The Twentieth Century Bellaire
As the Twentieth Century opened in Bellaire, the population had surged which resulted in the building boom of the first quarter of the 20th Century dawning on this Ohio River community. The population grew to 14,000 by 1940 fueled by work in the glass factories, coal mines, steel mills and railroad facilities, and was served by 16 churches and schools which educated over 3,700 students annually. A municipal swimming pool and tennis courts were constructed under the Works Projects Administration, and the visitor’s grandstands at Nelson Field were completed soon after this football field was opened in 1934 under the federal program.
Coal mining continued to be a dominant industry in Belmont County, and the labor force was supplied by the union miners of the United Mine Workers of America. The UMWA constructed in Bellaire during the 1920’s a magnificent hall and theater that became known as the Temple Theater. It was also known by the many workers who toiled in the underground mines as “The Miners Temple”, a tribute to the strength of this organization which radically changed the working conditions of its members. Bellaire obtained its own brewing company during this period, first with the Bellaire Beverage Company, and later with the Matz Brewery. An enamel factory named the Bellaire Enamel Company produced fine enamelware products under the name of the BECO. Glass was still an important industry, and in 1904, the Imperial Glass Factory produced its first glassware in the largest glasshouse under one roof in the entire world.
Throughout the first quarter century, rail was the dominant mode of transportation. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad provided rail service east and west toward Columbus, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Chicago, and north to Cleveland. In addition, the Pennsylvania Railroad provided connections to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York. Bellaire was connected by rail to every major American City, and this provided a constant flow of passenger traffic to and through the town. After the Second World War, this traffic decreased with the arrival of the modern airplane. The Ohio River continued to supply shipping connections to the Mississippi River and beyond to the Gulf of Mexico.
One of the finest resources available to the residents of the community is the Bellaire Public Library that was erected in 1959 from the funds made available by James and William Mellott, in memory of their father Amos. When opened in 1960, this public library became a cherished asset of the community and the envy of many others. The Mellott Trust has continued to provide for the expansion of the library, and in 2000, the new addition more than doubled the original library size. From 14,000 volumes catalogued in 1960, the library has grown to 80,000 items in 2012. The expanded Community Room continues to be a popular public meeting room for local organizations and groups.
Since the 1950’s
Bellaire has faced many new challenges since the 1950’s. Soon after the half century mark, Bellaire working through its Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Merchants Association established in 1955 a for profit corporation known as Bellaire New Industries. Bellaire business leaders and merchants subscribed for the 4,000 shares of $25.00 par value stock authorized in the Articles of Incorporation. This corporation helped to establish the Bellaire Industrial Park at the north end of the corporation limits, and attracted numerous business enterprises. The most noted was the garment factory that became known as “Bobbie Brooks”. The United States Army Reserve also located its Armory in this park providing valuable service and assistance to Belmont County and Bellaire in time of emergency. Columbia Gas located its service department on this site and remains today. While some of the original tenants no longer remain on the property, many new tenants have taken their place. In later years, coal loading facilities, concrete plants, warehousing facilities, and trucking companies located on this site. Presently, the industrial complex houses the East Ohio Regional Wastewater Plant, Columbia Gas, Tri-Son Concrete, MPR, East Coast Metal Systems, Lion Industries and Muxie Distributing.
The original plans for the construction of State Route 7 through Bellaire were advanced during the 1950’s; however, a division of opinion existed as to the route which should be taken. Some proposed that the new highway should take a “hillside route” which would leave the downtown business district intact. The alternative route, which some proposed, was the “river route” which would hug the river through the downtown. Problems existed with respect to either route, since the “hillside route” would take out a number of homes and thus reduce the population of the community. The “river route” presented its own problems, since the ramp to the Interstate Bridge would be lost and need to be relocated, and the vast area between Union Street and the riverbank would be lost to any future development. Many years passed without City officials being able to reach agreement on which route to adopt. Finally in the late 1980’s, the state of Ohio was able to push the project with the aid of State Senator Bob Ney and State Representative Jack Cera, both residents of Bellaire. Construction commenced in three phases after the highway corridor was de-annexed outside the municipal corporation limits to within Pultney Township. By November 1998, the new State Route 7 highway was through Bellaire along the “river route”, and the need to use the neighborhood streets of Jefferson, Noble, Guernsey and Belmont along the old truck route came to an end. There were casualties in the sense that the Interstate Bridge closed during this period when its bridge ramp was taken for the highway right of way, and much land that had been previously available to industry was lost to the downtown business district. Further north along Jefferson Street, many of the oldest and most beautiful of homes overlooking Boggs Island and the Ohio River were demolished for the third phase of the highway.
In 2000, the City of Bellaire was decertified by the state following the results of a census that indicated Bellaire’s population had dropped below 5,000 persons. With this decertification came a loss of city status that had existed since 1872. New problems soon surfaced when it became apparent that a community with a city sized infrastructure would have to make changes as a village. A decision needed to be made as to the form of village government to be adopted. Some urged for the appointment of an elected board of public affairs to oversee the operation of municipal utilities. Other residents wanted these same duties to be assigned to an unelected village administrator who would be hired by the village as an employee. Court litigation ultimately approved the ordinance of council to create a position for village administrator, but an initiative petition drive resolved the matter in favor a board of public affairs when put to a vote of the residents. Soon thereafter, council once again created the position of village administrator, and it too was challenged by a petition vote which failed. After operating with an Administrator, village council after several years again voted to abolish the position. Fortunately, the wisdom of that decision was reconsidered, and in 2013, council once again created the Village Administrator position, and with the hard and dedicated work of the current occupant of this appointed office, the Village of Bellaire is better able to approach and solve the problems associated with operating the public utilities.
Brighter Times Ahead
The best news that Bellaire has received since the year 2000 is the establishment of a major business operation and two new museums. Additionally, the rich underground resources of Belmont County include vast deposits of oil and natural gas that have recently become production ready with new technology in drilling and refining. Thousands of acres have been leased by numerous oil and gas production companies, and the drilling operations have commenced to tap this vital resource. The transport of the product to refining and separation facilities will be by pipeline. The lagging economy will hopefully rebound with the oil and gas operations within Belmont County as the support staff to those operations increases. One such support company known as Waco Oil has just purchased property for its operations on West 23rd Street.
Capturing the rich history of glass making, the National Imperial Glass Collectors Society opened its museum on Belmont Street to the public. This museum houses a collection of the finest glassware produced in Bellaire, Ohio, at the former Imperial Glass Corporation plant, and promotes the rich glass heritage of the community. The Gravel Hill School now houses a Plastic Brick Museum which displays the ingenious designs of Lego collectors from around the world. The collection includes everything from a life size “Spiderman” to a replica of the “White House”, in marvelous displays throughout the old school building.
MPR is an intermodal company located in the north Industrial Park that uses highway, river and rail to transport goods to market. This company is a transload center that is a gateway to nearly two-thirds of the nation’s population that can be reached within one day transit time. The company and the community are still served by the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad, and the Norfolk Southern Railroad, and together with the Ohio River, this location is truly a “Gateway” to the nation. The company will be vital to the oil and gas drilling operations now taking place in Belmont County as a transportation specialist.
The Bellaire VOR just west of the community is still in use by aviators for navigation, and the beacon code is distinct and unmistakable to those who tune their radio frequency to hear it. That tone has always located the community on the banks of the Ohio River. The FAA may one day retire it from service with the advent of Global Positioning Systems of navigation. Even without the beacon tones of the VOR, however, visitors will be guided to “This Place Called Bellaire” by the community’s unique heritage, its residents, and its place in history.