History of Niles, Ohio
Niles, Ohio is a city whose settlement and expansion is based on the area’s ideal location for the growth of industry. According to the Articles of Confederation, the state of Connecticut was granted the area known as the Western Reserve (everything north of the 41st parallel and 120 miles wide – from the Pennsylvania border to 120 miles west of the border) to divide up and claim. One of the more valuable areas within the Western Reserve was The Salt Springs in the Weathersfield Township area because of the idea of extracting the salt from the water. The conclusion was drawn years later that there was not enough concentration of salt to be a prosperous way of earning a living, and the Springs were no longer used. They were covered over in 1810 when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks were built.
Although Ruben Harmon was the first permanent settler to the area, James Heaton receives the credit for being the founder of Niles. Niles was first known as Heaton’s Furnace, which he later changed to Nilestown in honor of Hezekiah Niles, editor of the Niles Register – a Baltimore newspaper. In 1843, the name was shortened to Niles. James Heaton first found prosperity in the Poland area when he and his brother are credited with having the first blast furnace in the Mahoning Valley. In 1805, they dissolved their partnership, and James moved his family north to the Howland area, and then to the Niles area where he built a sawmill and grist mill at the junction of Mosquito Creek and the Mahoning River (1806). In 1809, Heaton built a forge, producing the first Bar Iron in Ohio. In 1812, Heaton constructed a charcoal blast furnace, naming it “Maria” after his daughter (thought to be the first child born in Niles) to produce iron for his forge. This furnace sat just east of what now is Central Park, on the west side of Mosquito Creek. In 1830, he sold his enterprises to his son’s firm, Heaton and Robbins. James Heaton built his house on the brow of Robbins Ave. It was torn down in 1966.
The years between 1840 and 1870 were years of great growth for the Niles area, thanks to James Ward Sr. He is credited with starting Niles on a path of expansion, beginning as a village of 300 people with a single blast furnace, to a town of 3,000 people and a major industrial area and business district, even exceeding Warren in profit by 1870. The people of Niles saw their heavily wooded pioneer settlement grow to a bustling, smoke filled industrial town with numerous mills and businesses, people building houses in the clapboard style rather than log cabin, and railroad replacing that stage coach and canal as the preferred means of transportation. This rapid growth was set off by the discovery of high grade black band ore in Mineral Ridge, therefore making Niles a prime location for the manufacturing of iron from this ore. Unfortunately, the ore deposits were relatively small, and soon ran out. Ward was killed in 1864, but his sons, James II and William took over the business. With the sons at the helm, the business grew rapidly, as various mills were built in the Niles area to encourage the fulfillment of war needs. The expansion, however would later bring about the disaster of the company around the time of the depression of 1873.
James Ward and Company failed in 1874, in accordance with the Depression of 1873. Niles suffered much worse for two reasons: 1) the Company owned much of the industry in Niles, and 2)Many of the Niles citizen had invested in the Company, and now held notes that were not worth anything. A brief restructuring was attempted, without much success. Many of the mills, beyond those owned by Ward and Company were bought by outside interests. From 1886 to 1898 the City saw improvements in their industry and economy, marking a time of further expansion. In 1898, Niles saw another recession with many plant closings again. The late 1890s also saw the start of the merger era, as giants such as Carnegie Steel and United States Steel, were on a mission to buy out smaller, less modernized mills. Local people were assured that the city’s mills would be modernized, and would supply adequate competition for the steel giants. Mill owners soon found out that modernization would be too expensive. Many more mills declined and closed up.
At the beginning of the 1900s, the iron industry had been greatly overshadowed by steel. The 1900 census showed 7,468 people living in Niles, with a continued in increase for the future. During the first part of the 1900s, other types of industry took over, such as Ohio Galvanizing (1902), Sykes Metal (1903), the Niles Glass Works of the General Electric Company (1910), and the Niles Iron and Steel Roofing Company (1911). The war along with the rise of the automobile industry brought a great influx of new industry and reorganization to the area. The population of Niles rose to just over 13,000 in 1920.
Significant Events of Niles in the 1900s:
Great Flood of 1913 – On March 23, 1913, Easter Sunday, a large majority of Ohio, the Niles area included, began to receive a large amount of heavy rain that lasted all night and all the next day without stopping. The rain, coupled with snow and ice that had been on the ground, caused flooding throughout the state. Smaller streams and rivers emptied into larger rivers, all finding their way to the Ohio River, causing it to crest at 69.9 feet on April 1st. Ohio, the Niles area included (due to flooding of Mahoning river and Mosquito Creek), suffered many losses, including 428 confirmed dead, and 20,000 homes destroyed. Damage exceeded $300,000,000. As a result, the US government began in depth studies into flood control. Locally, several dams were built to control the Mahoning River.
Anti-Klan Riot of 1924 – The Ku Klux Klan was focused on Niles because of the Catholic population in the area. They had one march through town in May 1924, and then attempted another June 21of that same year. This march was met with great resistance, and had to be canceled due to violence.The March was rescheduled for November 1 of that year, with an approved permit from the Mayor. The Anti-Klan group, the Knights of the Flaming Circle promised their own parade of 10,000. On October 29, the Mayor’s house was bombed, due to his refusal to revoke the permit. Tensions grew even tighter, and Niles gained national attention due to the impending marches. Despite the City’s pleas for assistance from the militia, they were denied. The result was 18 hours of full blown rioting. Control was brought to the town, requiring 10 days of martial law. Between both the Klan and Anti- Klan participants, 104 people were indicted.
Steel Strike of 1937 – In 1937 the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee, CIO attempted to force steel workers within “little” steel companies of the area to strike. Large numbers of workers of the Republic Steel Corporation refused and remained at work. The company could only get food and other necessary items to the employees through an airdrop method, all the while being shot at by strikers. Cargo often missed the nets set out to catch it, and was confiscated by police. The post office refused to deliver packages for the company. Workers left inside the building complained that they have been deprived of their rights by the union. After two men were killed the Governor put Trumbull and Mahoning Counties under martial law. The strike was finally broken by a back-to-work campaign.
Building of the Eastwood Mall (1969) – The Cafaro family builds the county’s first major shopping mall on route 422, introducing the concept of having many stores under one roof, and not having to go outside when traveling from shop to shop.
Tornado of 1985 – On May 31, 1985, the City of Niles was struck by an F5 tornado that had its origins just West of Newton Falls, where it destroyed much of that town. It then moved through Lordstown and Warren, before wreaking havoc on Niles, where it toppled a skating rink and shopping mall, leveled dozens of houses, ripped through the Union Cemetery, injured many people, and took several lives. The tornado continued on, never leaving the ground until it reached Pennsylvania. In just the Niles area alone, 9 were killed, and 250 were injured. Nearly 70 homes were leveled and another 65 to 70 severely damaged. In the Mahoning and Shenango Valleys a total of 25 died and 500 people were injured, and there was $140 million in property damage. Coincidentally, the tornado of 1985 took a similar path through Niles as another tornado that hit in 1947.
Cafaro Field (1999) – 7,100 seat stadium built behind the Eastwood Mall that houses the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, an AA Farm Team for the Cleveland Indians. The field also houses concerts with popular music groups.