Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Bald Knob and Connections to Cincinnati's Abolitionists and Horticulture

You may have heard of Bald Knob, and how it was used as infill for the development of Union Terminal, but did you know there is also a connection to the abolition movement and early Cincinnati horticulture?

A friend recently posted this image of Bald Knob, which is the hill at the southwest end of the Western Hills Viaduct in South Fairmount. I ended up down a rabbit hole and discovered so much more local history in this one location.
It all starts with Andrew H. Ernst, who was born in Germany in 1796, and arrived in Cincinnati around 1806, along with his parents Zachariah and Dorothy, and brothers Henry and Jacob. His father was a brewer and tavern owner who moved to America to escape the Napoleonic Wars. Andrew married first wife, Elizabeth in 1818. Before the Panic of 1819, Andrew ran a bakery and porter-house on 2nd Street, near Broadway. Andrew made ends meet during the Panic by chopping wood in the country and bartering it for goods.

1847 Map of Hamilton County

Andrew became a confectioner and then a grocer until 1837, when he decided to devote his time and treasures to his plant nursery and gardens called Spring Garden. It was developed on the 80+ acres he purchased in 1829 in the area now known as Bald Knob. A train station was built on part of his land along State Street, and it was known as Ernst’s Station.

Advertisement in Cincinnati in 1841

Unfortunately, Elizabeth died in 1840, leaving Andrew with six children, four of which were under 18 years old. The next year, Andrew went to Massachusetts to marry Sarah Otis, introduced by a mutual friend in the Unitarian Church. Sarah was part of the anti-slavery movement founded by William Garrison. Andrew was also known abolitionist, having been included on a list in 1842 in a Cincinnati publication.
They were friends with Levi Coffin, and Sarah and other women organized an anti-slavery sewing society, to provide clothing to those escaping slavery through Cincinnati that often met at the Coffin's home. In 1850, noted orator, writer, and reformer Frederick Douglass came to Cincinnati. The Ernsts hosted a gathering at their home at Spring Garden that included Douglass along with other abolitionists such as William Brisbane, Levi Coffin, John Gaines, and William Casey. Inspired by Douglass’ visit, Sarah’s sewing society held an annual bazaars to finance an annual Anti-Slavery conference, with speakers such as Brisbane, William Lloyd Garrison, John Rankin among many others.

Cincinnati Daily Gazette; September 8, 1851; Page 5

Douglass described their Spring Garden home as being "situated on a fine sloping hill, covered with magnificent trees of the finest foliage,” and “it overlooks the whole city and valley of Cincinnati. We have never seen, in this country, a garden so large and tastefully laid out, and abounding with so great a variety of fruits and flowers…It was a little surprising to meet with an abolitionist in such a place as that. Sympathy for despised and enslaved humanity does not often appear envisioned by wealth and luxury; yet we know that many a fugitive’s heart had been made glad by the benevolence of the excellent friends in question.” (“Our Western Anti-Slavery Tour,” North Star, date unknown; repr. Salem (Ohio) Anti-Slavery Bugle, 24 August 1850.)

1856 Map of Hamilton County

As one of the first nurserymen in Cincinnati, Andrew joined with other horticulturalists to form the Cincinnati Horticultural Society in 1843, and was initially appointed 2nd-vice president, and served on the committee for fruits. His contributions to the development and propagation of various fruits from the Eastern States and Europe allowed for more diverse and hearty varieties to thrive in Cincinnati. In 1844, he joined the directors who founded Spring Grove Cemetery and served as one of the landscape architects.
In 1851, Andrew began subdividing his land as more industrial businesses were built along Mill Creek. Another subdivision was created in 1857 included the homestead and gardens. After an illness in late 1858, Andrew assigned his property and debts to his son-in-law, attorney Seth Foster, to help settle his estate and debts. Unfortunately, Andrew died in February 1860, leaving Sarah with five children from their marriage, the youngest only three years old. With the onset of the Civil War, Sarah decided to return to Massachusetts with the youngest of her children. Three of Andrew's sons served in the War: Franklin, William, and Oswald, who attended the Military Academy and achieved the rank of Major General by the end of his career.

1869 Titus Map

The land continued to be subdivided and sold, but they were no major developments on this hillside, which is somewhat surprising, given its view over the Mill Creek valley towards downtown, and the advantage of sitting above the smog of the creek valley. The homestead and gardens were also divided and sold, and the home was demolished between 1891 and 1904 to allow for Chicago, Cincinnati & Louisville Railroad line to pass around the hill. The only thing that remains is the small street named after the family off of State Street.

1883-1884 Atlas of Cincinnati
Green outline is the homestead of Andrew H. Ernst.

1904 Sanborn Map showing the rail line through the homestead location

More to come soon about Bald Knob and its connection to Cincinnati's brewing history and what is now there.

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