Before the bridge over the East Fork

Batavia is celebrating its bicentennial this year, and The Clermont Sun is publishing a series of historic vignettes. Peter A. Barnes, writer, consultant and a Batavia native, now lives near Milford pursuing his life-long interest in local history.

By Peter A. Barnes

In 1797, when Ezekiel Dimmitt built the first cabin in what would become Batavia, he built it overlooking the East Fork River near the present day post office on West Main Street.

He probably chose that spot because it was safely on the west side of the river, closer to the civilized settlements of Mercersburg (Newtown today) and Cincinnati just over the hills to the west. He was, however, far from the first inhabitant of the fertile valley 20 miles east of Cincinnati.

More than half a dozen tribes of Native Americans lived and hunted in the plentiful forests and hills just north of the Ohio River. Villages of Shawnee, Miami, Delaware, Mingo, Ottawa, Cherokee and Wyandot tribes dotted the valleys and stream banks of Southern Ohio and Clermont County. For generations these Native Americans had trapped, fished and hunted along the banks of the East Fork.

They crossed the river where the water was shallow and the banks were gently sloping. Where the surrounding hills came close to the river, the water flowed fast and washed over the bedrock, making a natural crossing point. There they crossed the river. As the East Fork of the Little Miami River passed close between two hills, such a crossing point made the future site of Batavia well-known to both the Native Americans and the growing population of European explorers, hunters, trappers and eventually settlers travelling through the area.

Ezekiel Dimmitt built his cabin on the western bank of the river near that fording place. The ford crossed the East Fork near the west end of Broadway, where the Batavia Dam now crosses the river. By the 1790s, the shallow, rocky riffle that made the river crossing possible without getting wet had been mapped and marked by John Donnell as he laid out the course of Donnells Trace (now followed through the county by Old Route 74) from Mercersburg through Williamsburg and on to Chillicothe.

The western bank of this fording place was a steep and rocky slope, dropping 20 or so feet to the shallow water of the crossing. On the east side of the river, the ground rose more gently as the trail continued across the valley. Along this part of the trail were several flowing springs, which not only gave rise to the name of Spring Street, but drew some of these early settlers to make their homes on the east side of the river. In 1807 George Ely purchased the land on the east side of the river, and by 1814 he laid out the present day grid of Batavia’s streets on the high, flat plain along that bank of the river.

The footprint that the many Native American residents had for centuries left on the fording place was light, compared to the growing wagon and settler traffic crossing the river. The settlement that would become Batavia spread out from the fording place north along the eastern bank of the river.

By the summer of 1814, Samuel Gilbreath had opened a store near the fording place, and there were several other cabins on the east side of the river. As the community grew, more and more traffic picked its way down the steep bank, across the ford and up the muddy, rutted shore at the bottom of Broadway.

In good weather, the crossing was difficult, because the springs kept the east bank wet and muddy. In bad weather, the crossing was impossible. A bridge would eventually have to be built.

During the 1830s, most new roadways, as well as improvements to existing ones, were constructed and funded as commercial ventures to build toll roads. Known as turnpikes, several early improvements to the road from Cincinnati and Batavia’s first bridge grew out of one of these commercial turnpike ventures. This first bridge was located just north of the fording place, at the foot of Main Street. George Ely must have known that the bridge would eventually be built there, as the name Main Street predates the first bridge by several decades.

In the years that followed, the need for the ford at the foot of Broadway declined, just as the need for a dam to hold water for the mills being built along the river grew. Not long after the first bridge was built, the fording place at the foot of Broadway was replaced by Mill Dam, the successor of which still stands today.