The story of Dennis Clahane is an important part of the story of Columbus.
To some, he might seem like a classic example of the extraordinary success of immigrants to our country. To others, his story is that of a man who made his fortune and managed to keep it.
That Clahane was Irish doesn't matter to his story. He probably would have prospered had he been German, Italian or Hungarian instead. But the fact that he was Irish probably didn't hurt.
His story is a mirror in its own way of what Columbus was about 100 years ago.
Clahane was born in Columbus in 1850. His parents, James and Mary, were born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States "when young," according to a local history. They married in Boston, where they resided until moving to Columbus in 1846.
The Clahanes came to the United States before Ireland's Great Famine that caused so much disruption, heartache and immigration.
In Columbus, James Clahane "purchased a small tract of vacant property on what is now West Broad Street, which later became very valuable, and upon this he located and here reared his family," according to the local history.
Dennis Clahane was educated in what a later account called "the excellent public schools of his native city, graduating at the High School with credit."
Many Columbus students did not attend the high school, which was a few blocks east of the Statehouse on Broad Street. Many residents of Columbus were illiterate in English, and many of the rest had only limited literacy. Few people had high school educations.
James Clahane had gone into the grocery business soon after his arrival in the United States. "Groceries" in those days were the familiar products in home use that were not meat, vegetables, fruit or freshly baked goods. In 1893, Dennis Clahane and his brother, John, followed their father into business as "D. and J. Retail Grocers." A local account in the late 1890s noted that "the firm has built a fine business and have an extensive patronage."
Later, Dennis Clahane left his brother in charge of the family business and found some other ways to make his mark in Columbus:
"He was instrumental in the organization of the Hanover Pressed Brick Company in 1892, and upon the organization of the same was made its president ... The business has grown to vast proportions and is now reckoned among the important industries of the city," a history noted.
How exactly did brickmaking become so important? A look at the surviving side streets of German, Victorian and Italian villages might help explain why: The streets are set with paving bricks. At one time, all of the main streets of the city were paved in that way. Also, the major storm sewers of the city were not made with concrete pipe; they were large trenches lined and filled with brick and then covered over.
The brick business was one way to make a lot of money; having contracts with the city was another. Clahane did both.
"Mr. Clahane has always taken a very active part in all political matters, is a strong Republican, (when most Irish immigrants in central Ohio were Democrats) and in 1897 was made chairman of the Republican Central Committee. From 1888 to 1892 he served as a member of City Council, of which he was President one year. In May, 1900, Mayor Samuel J. Schwartz appointed him to the position of Sewer Commissioner, which position he has filled acceptably ever since. He is a genial, whole-souled gentleman, a progressive citizen, and an honest and efficient official."
In his time, he was called the Duke of Middletown. Middletown was the area between the Scioto River and old Franklinton, near where state Route 315 now crosses Broad Street. Today, we call it East Franklinton.
It was the place Clahane called home.
Many years ago, when I was young, an elderly, knowledgeable man who had lived in Columbus for many years told me a story about Clahane. This story has no documented basis, but it was said of Clahane that he proved the merit of a person by holding a meeting on the "deadline."
Running along Broad Street in Franklinton in those days were two parallel streetcar lines. Between them was a 3-foot-wide space called the deadline. Stepping into that space meant taking one's chances when streetcars whizzed by fast enough to draw the inexperienced or unsuspecting under the tracks to certain death.
Clahane, the story went, liked to hold meetings on the deadline -- just to see who had the gumption to stay put.
He was that sort of fellow.
Clahane died in 1907. He is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.