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Our Rich History: ‘Connecting the dots’ between Cincinnati, Covington and Newport

By Paul Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Part 65 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

“Connecting the dots” is probably something all of us are familiar with. Children’s magazines, restaurant placemats, puzzles, and even school assignments often utilize “connect the dots” exercises to both entertain and teach children. However, “connecting the dots” is not just for children. For adults, the term often describes a “eureka” moment, when we discover how topics and events literally fit together, sort of like connecting the pieces of a thought puzzle.

After the Civil War, Cincinnati, Ohio and the suburban cities of Covington and Newport, Kentucky, began to connect the dots — that is, to realize the advantages a metropolitan identity could bring all of them. Economic and commuter ties between the three cities grew astoundingly, necessitating the building of additional transportation links. And while ferries had long plied the Ohio River between the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky shores—and even a bridge had been built in 1853 over the Licking River between Covington and Newport—an ice-frozen Ohio River in January 1867 would connect the dots in new but long-since-forgotten ways.

Newport Ferry, 1861, looking towards Cincinnati’s Mount Adams. Courtesy of NKy Views

• • • • • • • •
See also these Our Rich History columns:
The Suspension Bridge
• The Roebling Bridge
Don Heinrich Tolzman – The Roebling Bridge

• • • • • • • •

On January 1, 1867, the Ohio River at Cincinnati was frozen, occasioning the interruption of ferry service between Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati. In response, the directors of the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company opened their still-uncompleted span to vehicular traffic, a move that was initially expected to delay the workmen’s finishing touches to the bridge.

What had been intended as a temporary opening of the bridge, however, soon became permanent. Determining that the remaining work could continue on the bridge without a cessation of traffic, the board of the company announced that the bridge was open permanently (“Covington. The Bridge Not to be Closed,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, January 17, 1867, p. 1). The weather, meanwhile, contributed to the bridge’s popularity, as the Gazette noted that “the entire travel between Covington, Newport and Cincinnati goes over the great suspension bridge at present, all the ferry boats having stopped running on account of the ice. The daily receipts of the bridge company must be quite large, as the structure is thronged with vehicles from morning until night” (“Covington. The Bridge,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, January 19, 1867, p. 1).

And then, in an ingenious move, the bridge company saw an opportunity to convince patrons to stay once the ice melted and they might be tempted to return to the cheaper fares offered by the ferries. Determined to build upon its customer base, in late January 1867, the bridge company began the sale of specially-priced coupon books, or what might be termed “commuter tickets.” These books consisted of twenty-five tickets, one coupon of each was “cut off by the toll gatherer at every crossing of the holder” (“Covington. New Arrangement,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, January 22, 1867, p. 1).

The Newport and Covington Suspension Bridge. (Source: Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, December 20, 1856.)

Further sweetening the appeal to commuters, the Covington bridge company cooperated with the owners of the Newport and Covington suspension bridge to enable pedestrians (by August 1867) to cross both bridges for two cents one way, when tickets were “purchased in packages.” Similarly, vehicular commuters were offered reduced package rates (“Newport. Newport and Covington Bridge,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, August 23, 1867, p. 1).

The battle for attracting commuters, however, was only just beginning. By June 1867, the Covington Street Railway Company concluded an agreement with the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company, whereby the streetcar corporation was allowed to lay its tracks over the bridge to Cincinnati (“Covington. The Street Cars to Run across the Bridge,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, June 26, 1867, p. 1). On Monday, August 8, 1867, the first route of Covington’s streetcar system, from the city limits down Madison Avenue to the bridge, inaugurated its operations. Fares to the Covington approach of the bridge were five cents, and to Cincinnati, ten cents (“Covington. The Street Cars to Commence Running Next Monday,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, August 3, 1867, p. 1).

Shortly thereafter, on November 7, 1867, the city council of Newport awarded a franchise to the Newport Street Railway Company for the “exclusive privilege of constructing and operating a street railway” from the eastern approach of the Newport and Covington Bridge, then east along Bellevue (now Fourth) or Madison (now Fifth) Streets to York Street, south along York to Williamson (now Eleventh Street) and east along Williamson to Monmouth (Works Progress Administration, A Compilation and Codification of the Ordinances and Municipal Laws of the City of Newport, Kentucky, Effective July 1, 1939. Newport: H. Otto Printing, ca. 1939, p. 341).

On December 8, 1867, streetcar service was inaugurated across the Licking River bridge to a temporary terminus at Madison and York Streets in Newport. Fares from Newport to Cincinnati were ten cents, including “the toll on the Licking and Ohio river bridges.” Streetcars ran at intervals of twelve minutes, and operated until eleven o’clock at night (“Newport. Opening of the Newport Street Railroad,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, December 9, 1867, p. 1; “Newport. Street Cars,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, December 24, 1867, p. 1).

By May 1868, the Newport Street Railway Company completed a line that connected with the old terminus at Madison (Fifth) and York Streets in Newport. The plans called for a track to run from the terminus south on York Street to Williamson, then east on Williamson to Monmouth, and returning over the same route. This line was operational to Ringgold Street by mid-May 1868 (“The Street Railroad,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, November 15, 1867, p. 1; “Newport,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, May 11, 1868, p. 1; “Newport,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, May 19, 1868, p. 1).

Customer traffic, however, takes time to build. By September 1869, the Newport Street Railway Company had fallen $1,410 in arrears to the Newport and Covington Bridge Company for tolls owed. The bridge company, on orders of its president Colonel John Todd, prohibited the streetcars from crossing the bridge until the debt was paid. In response, Mr. Robbins, the president of the Newport Street Railway Company, halted operation of his car line, even within the confines of Newport, and threatened to curtail operations permanently if the bridge company did not lower its tolls. Under the old arrangement, the streetcar company paid $2,000 per year, or $400 per car, for the privilege of using the Licking River bridge, an amount Robbins insisted that the receipts of the horsecar company could not meet (“Newport,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, September 3, 1869, p. 4).

Robbins restarted operation of the line a few days later, but only after conferring with representatives of Newport city council and of the Newport and Covington Bridge Company, to whom he proposed a new rate schedule. Claiming that the line was operating at a loss, he asked permission to increase fares to six cents from Newport to Covington, and to twelve cents from Newport to Cincinnati. In both cases, commuter tickets would remain unchanged in price — that is, five cents to Covington and ten cents to Cincinnati.

Newport city council considered the matter in early September, listening carefully to Robbins. As councilman William Robson asserted, the streetcars “were a benefit to the city” and increased the “value of property.” It was in Newport’s interest as a suburb of Cincinnati and a quasi-suburban rival of Covington, to ensure their continued operation: “The interests of Covington,” he claimed, “did not favor the continuation of the running of the Newport road, because it equalized the value of property in the two cities by rendering Newport as assessible [sic] for residences as Covington. The stopping of the cars would depreciate the value of property.” (“Newport. Special Meeting of the City Council—The Street Railroad Question Considered,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, September 8, 1869, p. 1). Ultimately, at a meeting on September 9, 1869, Newport city council approved the new rates (“Newport. The Council–Meeting Thursday Night—Street Car Fares and Bridge Tolls Discussed—The Matter Settled—General Business,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, September 11, 1869, p. 1).

The Covington and Cincinnati Suspension Bridge, designed by John A. Roebling. (Source: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 17, 1867.)

Despite the fare increase, the streetcar lines steadily grew in popularity. For the year ending July 1, 1869, 286,000 passengers rode the five cars of the Newport Street Railway Company. And for the year ending August 31, 1869, 600,000 people traveled the seven cars of the Covington Street Railway Company. In total, 886,000 passengers patronized Northern Kentucky streetcars in 1869 (The Newport figures were derived from “Covington,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, September 25, 1869, p. 1; the Covington statistics were gleaned from “Covington,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, October 1, 1869, p. 1).

The commuter prices to ride the streetcars and to cross the bridges into Covington and Cincinnati proved prosperous to real estate. In May 1869, the Gazette reported that during a single day, fifty building lots in Newport were sold at public auction, “at from $25 to $70 per front foot, which indicates a rapid increase in the value of real estate in Newport” (“Newport,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, May 14, 1869, p. 1). The pace of growth was phenomenal, the Gazette declaring that “a great deal of real estate is being offered for sale in Newport” (“Newport,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, May 20, 1869, p. 1). The following month, in fact, about 150 lots were sold on a single day in Gilmore’s subdivision in Newport, yielding over $35,000 (“Newport,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, June 5, 1869, p. 1).

“If you build it, he will come” is a famous line from the movie Field of Dreams. In Newport’s case, “if you build it, they will connect the dots” was true of the many commuters who made their homes in Newport after the opening of neighboring Covington’s Ohio River bridge. Imagine what would happen when Newport built its own Ohio River bridges (see next week’s Our Rich History).

Parts of this article formerly appeared in Paul A. Tenkotte, Rival Cities to Suburbs: Covington and Newport, Kentucky, 1790-1890 (dissertation). Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1989.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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