Photo: John B. Tytus House, circa 1868, located at 300 South Main Street in Middletow. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1978. Photographer: wikipedia username: Nyttend, 2010, public domain; accessed February, 2023.
Middletown [†] owes its growth and development to increasing industrialization and evolving transportation networks. The earliest settlers in the Middletown region traveled into the area by utilizing the Miami River during the late eighteenth century. The natural waterway provided a path through the wilderness as well as resources such as fish and power for early industrial pursuits. The city of Middletown was laid out in 1802 by Stephen Vail, a pioneer who had traveled to what would become the Middletown area from New Jersey. The original plat of the town contained 52 lots located east of the river. The Central Avenue Historic District is not included on Vail's original plat. By the early nineteenth century, the community of Middletown was comprised of a collection of small log homes, and had a saw mill, a grist mill, and woolen mill, all powered by water power supplied by a dam along the Miami River.
Improving transportation technologies proved to be a significant asset to the growth and development of the community of Middletown. During the early 1820s, the trading center of the region was located north of Middletown, in Jacksonburg. It had a population approximately twice as large as Middletown, but that would change with the construction of the Miami-Erie Canal. In 1825, the ground breaking ceremony was held for the canal in Middletown, and by 1827, the canal was opened as far north as Middletown (Crout 1965:70). Canal traffic continued to increase and in the mid-1830s, approximately 1,000 travelers a week passed through Middletown via the canal. In addition to passenger service, the canal provided inexpensive transportation for freight including agricultural and natural resources. Middletown became the trading center of the region because of the efficient transportation provided by the canal.
The development of Middletown during this period shifted eastward from the Great Miami River and was centered along the Miami-Erie Canal because it offered the best transportation option. It is likely about this time period that development began along Third Avenue (renamed Central Avenue in 1923) in what is now the Central Avenue Historic District. In 1833, Middletown was incorporated and canal traffic continued to increase. During the winter of 1835-1836, Gardner Phipps and Sumner Hudson, originally from Boston, established a pork packing business in Middletown. Because of the Miami-Erie Canal, the pork packing industry in Middletown benefitted from affordable and efficient transportation. By 1840, three pork houses were operating in Middletown. During the winters of the mid-nineteenth century, between 10,000 and 20,000 hogs were butchered and packed, becoming Middletown's chief export. Distilleries and gristmills also operated in Middletown. The majority of these industries operated along the canal to make transportation as efficient as possible. The efficiency of canal transportation would be surpassed by the efficiency of transportation via railroads starting in the mid-nineteenth century.
The growing population and the developing industrial base of Middletown, primarily as a result of being a port along the Miami-Erie Canal, made it an attractive location to be connected to the developing railroad network. The Miami-Erie Canal originally bisected Third Street (modern Central Avenue). In the 1830s and 1840s, much new commercial and industrial development in Middletown located near the canal to take advantage of what was the most cost-effective and efficient commercial transportation system at the time. The first Federal census that recorded the population of Middletown was the 1850 census, and by 1860, the population of Middletown had almost doubled to 2,070 and jumped to 3,046 by 1870. The growing population, the established industrial base, and Middletown's geographic location approximately halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton made it an economically attractive location for railroad construction companies in the region.
By the 1850s, construction of the railroad network began to make the canal obsolete as a cost-effective option for shipping and receiving goods. In 1851, the Cincinnati, Hamilton, & Dayton (CH&D) Railroad was constructed west of Middletown, across the Miami River. Then in 1871, the Cincinnati & Springfield Railroad was constructed along the eastern side of downtown Middletown. The improved transportation technology of the railroad resulted in the closure and abandonment of the canal following the Great Flood of 1913. Around ca. 1930, the former canal bed through Middletown was filled in, and Canal Street, (also known as Verity Parkway) now follows the route of the former canal . The history of the Miami-Erie Canal is commemorated today by the Port Middletown Park, located at the northwest corner of Central Avenue and Canal Street, and a substantial mural painted on the east elevation of 1131 Central Avenue. Both the park and mural were created following the removal of Centre City Mart from Central Avenue in 2001.
While many Middletown residents were upset by the CH&D decision to locate along the western bank of the Great Miami River, citizens of Middletown in the 1850s hoped that a railroad would be constructed along the eastern edge of the city itself. Surveyors laid out a route for this railroad, which would be twelve miles shorter than the CH&D, and would be known as the Shortline Railroad. After two decades of difficulties ranging from contracting disputes to hesitant farmers denying right-of-ways, the Shortline Railroad was finally completed on the eastern edge of Middletown by the Cincinnati and Springfield Railroad (C&S) Company in 1871. In ca. 1872, a small wood-frame depot was constructed by the C&S Company on the northwestern corner of the railroad's intersection with Third Street (modern Central Avenue), approximately 1,000 feet east of the Central Avenue Historic District. The C&S Railroad was incorporated into the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Saint Louis Railroad, also known as the Big Four Railroad. The Big Four Railroad had routes extending throughout western Ohio, southern Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois.
After the railroad made the canal obsolete, commercial development in Middletown became focused along modern-day Central Avenue. This street served as the connecting corridor between Middletown's two railroad depots (sited on the outskirts of the city at that time) and thus attracted a high level of traffic, from residents and visitors to Middletown alike. Because the railroad depots were so important to Middletown, the Middletown and Madison Passenger Street Railway Company was established in 1879, and granted permission to operate horse-drawn street cars along Third Street (modern Central Avenue) between the Big Four Depot on the east side of Middletown and the CH&D Depot on the west side of the Miami River. People wanted an efficient way to get to and from downtown and the depots, and the horse-drawn street cars proved so popular in Middletown that they operated until 1914, long after every other horse-drawn line, except for one in New York City, had shut down.
Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, Middletown continued to experience population growth. In 1880, the population of community had risen to 4,538 . The growing population of Middletown resulted in it becoming a city in 1886, with 810 out of 1,275 voters approving the town's upgrade to a city. Middletown was granted the status of a Grade 4B city with the approval of the state and county board. At this time, the western portion of the Central Avenue Historic District was the main commercial corridor in the newly formed city, while the eastern portion remained primarily residential. The importance of the commercial entities within the Central Avenue Historic District was highlighted in the mid-1880s, when the city's leaders authorized the construction of a 210-foot tall tower for the purpose of providing electric lighting within the downtown commercial district, the base of which is visible in the foreground of Figure 36. The tower, known as the Arc Light Tower, supported eight arc lights which were so bright that it was claimed that residents approximately a half mile away from the tower could read newspapers at night. This tower was located at the intersection of Third Street (modern Central Avenue) and the Miami-Erie Canal (modern Canal Street), within the Central Avenue Historic District, but the tower was demolished in the early twentieth century (Crout 2000). The population of the city continued to rise during the last couple decades of the nineteen century, growing to 7,681 in 1890 and then to 9,215 by 1900.
† Benjamin M. Riggle/Senior Historian, Hardlines Design, Cetral Avenue Historic District, nomination document, 2013, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.