Friday, August 11, 2017

The Currier Sisters Stop a Train

One of the greatest challenges to the safe and efficient operation of the Marietta & Cincinnati Railroad occurred in July of 1863, when General John Hunt Morgan and 2,000 Rebel cavalrymen stormed across southern Ohio, terrorizing the citizenry and pulling up railroad tracks. The militia were called out and placed along the rail routes to prevent disruption of train service. In just under two weeks, the Rebels were defeated and captured, and Morgan’s Raid through Ohio was over. The situation was not so simple, however, when General Joseph Hooker's courageous Union soldiers, along with M&C Railroad officials, encountered the fury of the Currier sisters with whom they went to battle in 1865.

Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad map, 1854

The Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad came into existence in 1851 as a reorganization of the Belpre and Cincinnati Railroad, founded in 1845. The original route went west from Marietta through Vincent, Athens, Chillicothe, and on toward Cincinnati. Construction of the tracks through Southeastern Ohio’s hills and valleys was a laborious and expensive undertaking, and the company suffered numerous financial difficulties. Serving alternately as a director, vice president, or president of the M&C was William Parker Cutler of Constitution (Warren Township), Washington County, Ohio. In 1865, he was vice president and general superintendent with a salary of $10,000 per year, and most of the management of the road fell upon his shoulders. 

William Parker Cutler portrait from the Cutler Family Collection, Marietta College Library  Special Collections.

Part of the M&C’s plan for the tracks through Athens was to build a shoo-fly, or temporary alternate path, around a hill south of town, until the permanent route north of town could be completed. Unfortunately, this shoo-fly track passed over the land of the Currier women (in the vicinity of present-day Morton Hall on the Ohio University campus), who took issue with the compensation offered by the M&C and were ready to go to battle, not only in court, but also on the very railway tracks that crossed their property.

Plat of Athens, Ohio, showing the main route of the Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad running north of town and the shoo-fly running across the Currier property on the south. Atlas of Athens County, Ohio, D.J. Lake, 1875.

The Curriers were one of the most prominent and affluent families of nineteenth-century Athens, Ohio. Ebenezer Currier (1772-1851) had come to Marietta from New Hampshire in 1804, and he settled in Athens in 1806. In 1807 he married Olivia (or “Olive”) Crippen (1786-1868), and the couple had a large family. Ebenezer was a successful merchant who held many local public offices and also served in the Ohio legislature as both a senator (1825-27) and a representative (1830-32). By the time he died in 1851, he had accumulated a large fortune and a considerable amount of land, which appears to have been inherited by his family when he died in 1851.

Olive Currier, portrait from
Atlas of Athens County, Ohio, D.J. Lake, 1875.

The 1860 census lists most of the Currier (spelled “Courier by the census-taker) women at the family home in Athens, with Olive, (widow of Ebenezer Currier), aged 73, noted as head of the household. Olive had real estate valued at $8,000 and personal estate valued at $3,000. Her daughters were also women of substantial means. Josephine B. Currier, aged 43, had $5,000 in real estate and $3,000 in personal estate; Mary A. Currier, aged 40, had $10,000 real estate and $33,000 personal estate; Priscilla Currier Brown (widow of Joseph W. Brown), aged 34, $8,000 real estate and $2,600 personal estate; and Sarah Virginia Currier (noted as “insane”), aged 32, had no real estate, but $6,000 personal estate.

Josephine B. Currier, portrait from
Atlas of Athens County, Ohio, D.J. Lake, 1875.
Mary A. Currier, portrait from
Atlas of Athens County, Ohio, D.J. Lake, 1875.

Also living in Athens, but not in the same household were two more of Olive Currier’s daughters. Olivia Currier Atkinson (widow of Mahlon Atkinson and mother of five children), aged 50, was a “money and land speculator.” Her real estate was valued at $45,000 and personal estate at $20,120.  Adeline Currier Brown (wife of Oscar W. Brown and mother of seven children), aged 48, had real estate of $15,000 and personal estate of $700, designated specifically to her. 

It is not clear to what extent the senior Olive Currier was involved in the great railroad fracas, or exactly which of her daughters participated. It may have been all of the Currier women participating in different roles at different times, but the trouble they collectively caused for the officials of the Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad became legendary in Southeastern Ohio. 

In March of 1858, the M&C had filed a statement in the probate court of Athens County, claiming that, while its main route was to pass north of the town of Athens, for the past year they had been using a temporary track south of the town that crossed over land belonging to Olive Currier. The right of way for the temporary track had been granted by Mrs. Currier for a limited amount of time. However, the M&C had not completed the main route during the time allotted, and the right of way had expired. They expected that it would take about three more years to finish work on the main route, but they had been “unable to agree with her or with her agent or attorney upon the compensation to be paid for the right of way,” which was necessary to complete the railroad. The M&C therefore proposed to begin condemnation proceedings that would appropriate the land for continued use of the shoo-fly for three more years. Olive would be paid for the use of her land and have the right to reclaim it when the track north of town was completed. 

Olive Currier’s attorney asked that the case be dismissed, but the motion was overruled. A jury awarded her compensation in the amount of $322, and the land was condemned and appropriated for the use of the M&C for three years. Mrs. Currier was not satisfied, and the disagreement moved on to higher courts. By 1865, the situation had escalated to the point of physical combat. 

Noah L. Wilson, President of the Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad, wrote to Vice President William P. Cutler on January 16, 1865, regarding the problem with the Curriers. “My great apprehension is that they will give us trouble – stop our trains,” he said. “This would be a fearful calamity as I now look for a rapid & satisfactory increase of our traffic." 

Wilson’s forebodings were correct, for about six weeks later, the brawl began. William Cutler’s sister Julia made the following entry in her diary on February 25, 1865:

"This morning about four o’clock, William was called up by Mr. Frost who had come on an extra train for him to go to Athens where there was trouble apprehended on the Railroad.  It seems that some women had objected to having the road pass over a few acres which they owned unless the Company would give them $50,000.  They had been at law about it for years, and refused to touch the money which had been awarded to them & had been awaiting their acceptance for years.  They had now got a decree from some Buckeye Judge – under which they proposed to tear up the track.  They had given notice that they should do so last night, but the Railroad Company had prepared  themselves for this contingency by referring the matter to General Hooker now in command of this Department who at once said the road was a military necessity and must not be obstructed.

"William and Mr. Frost went out on an extra, taking Levi Barber, the Provost Marshal with them.  When they came to the scene of operations they found rails &c. piled up on the road & two of the discontented females standing on the track with red flags in their hands, which they waved vigorously upon their approach.  Barber told them he had Gen. Hookers order to prevent the obstruction of the road, but it was as if one talked to the wind.  They would not hear to reason and when the passenger train made its appearance, Mrs. Brown planted herself on the track with the National Flag wrapped around her (which she had single handed captured from some twenty Copperheads in Valandingham times) and with a red flag in either hand she stood prepared to dispute their passage – exclaiming that she was not the first person who had died for freedom.  She stood her ground and when the train stopped the cow catcher almost touched her. 

A page from the February 25, 1865, diary entry of Julia Cutler. Cutler Family Collection, Marietta College Library

"It happened that one of the cars thus stopped was filled with recruits who upon seeing her singular costume began to gather about her singing 'We’ll rally round the flag boys.'  Charlie Wood seized a rail to remove it, but she clung to the other end.  Altogether it was a very ludicrous scene. 

"Soon after these indignant females were reinforced by three other warlike damsels (sisters to the first party) who came down to participate in the melee.  William said he walked along the track with one on either side both talking at once a perfect torrent of argument and invective and he should as soon hope to have made himself heard in the midst of a West India hurricane as to get a word in there.  They denounced the Railroad and its officers, and 'the little switched off town of Marietta, that pretended to have 5000 inhabitants and had not half the number' – &c.  After the passenger train had passed they again piled up the rails and trash on the railroad, when Mr. Barber told them that he had orders to keep the road open, and if they persisted in obstructing it he should be obliged to arrest and imprison them which they dared him to do. 

"Gen. Hooker was appealed to by Telegraph who immediately ordered up a detachment of soldiers from Cincinnati to protect the road.  Finally all the five rioters (who are daughters of the late Judge Currier) subsided with the exception of Mrs. Brown who was defiant to the last.  William came home very tired about midnight . . . " 

Perhaps the Currier women were also suffering from battle fatigue, for the matter quieted down for awhile. On March 4, 1865, Julia Cutler wrote, “The women at Athens have agreed to let the track alone for the present, and General Hooker has recalled the soldiers who were sent to guard the Railroad.”

The Currier home in Athens, Ohio.
Atlas of Athens County, Ohio, D.J. Lake, 1875.

In April, William T. McClintick, an attorney for the M&C Railroad, traveled from Chillicothe to Athens to attempt more peaceful negotiations with the Curriers. This was a difficult mission as, in McClintick's view, the women “assume to know a good deal about the law & talk as if they ‘knew it all’ but really they are very ignorant & therefore very unreasonable.” Adaline Currier Brown was in Cincinnati, waiting to see General Hooker, so the lawyer was unable to conclude a settlement, saying that, “All the other members of the family seem to regard her as the Rock of Gibraltar that never can be moved.” He met with four of the women and believed that some progress was made, with three of them being willing to consider annual payments for the right of way. The fourth, Olivia Currier Atkinson, whose ultimatum had been “$50,000 for the farm or quit the premises,” said she would talk with her sister Adaline about the possibility of annual payments. 

The long-awaited agreement was finally reached later that month. On April 26, 1865, William P. Cutler recorded in his journal, “Trial before Probate Court. The women attended to their own case – a most ridiculous and unpleasant scene. Jury returned verdict of $1500 – outrageous." 

While the Currier women did not receive the $50,000 they had demanded, they did get more money than the M&C wanted to pay, as well as the satisfaction of their rights having been steadfastly defended. The Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad Company retained the shoo-fly, and their trains passed through Athens unassaulted from that time forward.


William P. Cutler and Marietta & Cincinnati Railroad, Volume 6, unpublished manuscript by Mary Dawes Beach, The Cutler Family Collection, held by Marietta College Special Collections. 

Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Ohio, New Series, Vol. XI, by Leander J. Critchfield (1874). 

Diary of 1865, unpublished manuscript by Julia Perkins Cutler, The Cutler Family Collection, held by Marietta College Special Collections.

Atlas of Athens County, Ohio, by D. J. Lake, Titus, Simmons & Titus, Philadelphia (1875).
History of Athens County, Ohio, by Charles M. Walker, Robert Clarke & Co., Cincinnati (1869).

Linda Showalter
Special Collections Associate
Marietta College Library