History in the Hills: Back to the Roaring ’20s

It is really hard to imagine that the 1920s were 100 years ago. Obviously, I am not old enough to remember that decade, but so many stories and events that are important to me happened in those 10 years.

They feel as if they were my own, no matter how distant they are in the past. We tend to adopt stories that captivate our imagination. Sometimes when we close our eyes, we can picture those events as clearly as if it were our eyes that witnessed it in the first place.

History and stories have a funny way of doing that. It can be a good thing to remember fondly the past, but often we can see the past through “rose-colored glasses.” I am very fortunate to have a wonderful wife who shares my never-ending interest in history, and we often discuss that the past was not always that “rosy” in some cases.

The best example I can think of is the realization of the character played by Owen Wilson in the 2011 movie by Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris.” Wilson’s character goes back in time to Paris in the 1920s and when offered the chance to stay in the 1920s, realizes that the best time to live in is the present.

In 1920, World War I had just ended, and it was an election year as it is now. With the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, women were given the right to vote, a long overdue and monumental advancement for women at that time.

In November, Woodrow Wilson turned over the presidency to Warren Harding, who had defeated Ohio Democratic candidate James Cox. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge succeeded Harding. In 1928, Herbert Hoover took over the office until 1932 with the first election of FDR.

The big event that defined the 1920s was the implementation of the 18th Amendment. This amendment, known as Prohibition, outlawed the sale, transport and production of intoxicating liquors in the United States. And because of that law, organized crime, bootlegging and speakeasys flourished throughout the Ohio Valley and is what led to Steubenville’s nickname “Little Chicago.” I could relate many stories, as I am sure most of the oldtimers can, of speakeasys, hidden tunnels on Water Street and bootleggers that have been told to me during the years.

Prohibition was not a grand time in Steubenville. “Dry” agent deaths, illegal gambling establishments, houses of ill repute and other places of questionable activities were established during this decade. Raids, gun battles in the streets, car chases, bombings of homes of federal Dry Agents all persisted in the early years of the decade. It was a tumultuous time.

In 1920, the Market Street bridge was more than 15 years old. The official census for the city of Steubenville was 28,508 people. On Dec. 26, 1920, the Fort Steuben Hotel opened with a party. In 1925, two theaters were completed, the Grand and the Capitol. Dec. 1, 1927, saw the creation of Baron Von Steuben Day in the city of Steubenville. The population of the city was 38,310 in 1928, jumping 10,000 people from eight years previous.

1928 saw the construction of the Fort Steuben Toll Bridge, and the contract was awarded for Harding Stadium, which was completed in September 1930. In 1929, “talking pictures” were installed in the Olympic Theater, a first in Steubenville.

Also that year, Weirton Steel would be at the forefront of an industrial merger that would be known as National Steel, making it a player on a national level, after which Weirton Steel began a $6 million expansion project in the area.

A merger between the Steubenville Bank and Trust Co. and the National Exchange Bank formed the National Exchange and Trust Co. The area thrived amid the stock market crash of 1929.

The 1920s were not as rosy as some may think. It was a complex decade of crime, building and improvements as well as advances for women and business. The area changed in those years. The population boomed and continued to climb. The hope of prosperity filled the hearts of many in the valley.

Today in 2020, we pray that this decade would be a period of prosperity for us, too. The best is yet to come.

(Zuros is director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitors Center.)