By Pete Beatty
“Not a great while ago, passing through the gate of dreams, I visited that region of the earth in which lies the famous City of Destruction. It interested me much to learn that by the public spirit of some of the inhabitants a railroad has recently been established between this populous and flourishing town and the Celestial City”
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Celestial Railroad”
The Van Sweringen brothers started out as office boys at a fertilizer company. They ended up, like everyone else, as fertilizer. In the interim, they became very rich, and then went very broke. The brothers were millionaires many times over, but their name never became a metonym for wealth, like Croesus, Fugger, Carnegie, or Rockefeller.
The brothers—universally referred to as just “the Vans”—built the type of pile that outlasts a human lifespan. This level of wealth typically lingers on in the names of parks, museum wings, scholarships, or campus building, reminding the living world of just how much money O.P. and M.J. earned in their 50-odd years of existence. But the Van Sweringens have no such legacy.
The Vans hammered Cleveland into a new shape on the anvil of their ambition. They built one of the most affluent suburban communities in the world, Shaker Heights, from nothing, articulating a romantic, upmarket version of the American dream, and sold that dream to an upper middle class desperate to stratify itself from the soiled reality of Cleveland. They linked their utopian community to booming, dirty downtown Cleveland with rapid transit. They built Terminal Tower—a gleaming city-within-a-city meant to vault Cleveland into the front rank of American metropolises. And they built a massive train station underneath their skyscraper, and displaced thousands to do so. They remade the country, too. From a rattling six-mile streetcar line, the Vans improbably assembled a 20,000-mile railroad empire that spanned the continent.
By 1930, the year their Terminal Tower had its gala grand opening in downtown Cleveland, brothers Mantis James and Oris Paxton Van Sweringen shared a personal fortune of about $120 million ($1.6 billion in 2013 dollars), and controlled a railroad and real estate empire worth nearly $3 billion (which translates to $40 billion today).
They remade Cleveland and they remade themselves into lords of commerce on a national scale. But it wasn’t enough to merit a high school or a road named after them. Their name is vanished from the earth, save for their shared plot in Lake View Cemetery.
Why have they been forgotten? Partially because the brothers were fixated on avoiding publicity, even as their business holdings grew and grew. They shunned interviewers and photographers. A massive celebratory luncheon for thousands of VIPs marked the official opening of the Terminal Tower, but O.P. and M.J. stayed at home and listened on the radio. Their intense modesty had an eccentric edge. Both brothers were lifelong bachelors, and occupied twin beds in a single room of their 54-room mansion.
They have also vanished because their empire vanished; in fact, their kingdom crumbled before their eyes. Their businesses, a warren of interlocking directorates and paper holding companies, imploded in the Great Depression. The brothers—previously praised as the greatest of Cleveland’s self-made men—were denounced as crooks, fleecers of the public trust, examples of the financial recklessness that had brought about economic cataclysm.
Just a few short years after the Terminal Tower opened, the brothers were broke. The Vans were not the only business giants to lose it all, but they have no rivals for how far and how fast they fell.
Gerret van Sweringen sailed from Holland and arrived in the Delaware colony in 1657. He was the first in a dignified succession of sturdy, well-to-do Van Sweringens—landowners, gentleman farmers, pillars of various communities. For close to two centuries, the Van Sweringens thrived.
James Sweringen (the tussenvoegsel disappeared somewhere between 1657 and Jim’s adulthood) was the first Sweringen to find America less than hospitable.
He served in the Union Army in the Civil War, and was seriously wounded at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House in 1864. His injuries would always hinder him. He bounced from job to job and place to place with his wife, Jennie. He worked in the oil fields of Pennsylvania for a time, but by 1879, he was working on a farm in Chippewa Township, near Wooster, Ohio. There and then his fifth child (the fourth to survive infancy) was born, with the unusual name of Oris Paxton Sweringen. Two years later, the family had relocated to Rogue’s Hollow, not far away. A sixth child, and third son, was born in the summer of 1881. He was dubbed Mantis James. No definite explanation for the strange names was ever recorded—the other Sweringen siblings bear common names.
From the beginning, the two younger brothers were inseparable. Oris was the shorter of the two, with dark hair. He was slow and thoughtful. Mantis was blond, sprightly, logical, and in the words of one biographer, “somewhat intense.” They lost their mother early—Jennie succumbed to tuberculosis in 1886. Not long after, the family drifted to Geneva, Ohio, and eventually to Cleveland. Jim was an alcoholic by then, and no longer much for working. He looked to his five children to keep the family in their home near E. 105th Street and Cedar Avenue, in what was then a sparsely settled fringe of Cleveland, and is now an asphalt prairie of hospital-complex parking lots.
Oris and Mantis dropped out of school after 8th grade. Their business careers got off to very modest starts: newspaper routes, hauling groceries, running errands, tending cattle, lighting streetlamps. Eventually, oldest sibling Herbert drafted his brothers into clerkships at the Bradley Fertilizer Company, on salaries of $15 a week.
Fertilizer wasn’t their calling, though. Herbert and Oris soon started a short-lived stone dealership. Mantis launched a dairy delivery. Then O.P. and M.J.—they went by their initials professional, although they called each other by their given names—teamed up to launch of a cartage company. They would be inseparable in business thereafter, but the cartage firm didn’t last. Neither did a subsequent bicycle shop.
Nothing stuck—in part because O.P. was pursuing a vision. He would enter the world of real estate at the age of 21, he had decided. And so he did. The Sweringen empire began very modestly. O.P. negotiated an option to sell a house on the East Side of Cleveland. This entailed listing a house that he didn’t yet own, but would pay for out of the proceeds of the eventual sale. The leveraged buyout, wobbly financed, was a Sweringen trademark from the very beginning. The brothers cleared $100 in the deal. They were in the game.
Their momentum didn’t last long. They bought a number of lots in the emerging west side suburb of Lakewood, but their investment was foreclosed upon. The reasons for the foreclosure are lost to time, but the judgment discouraged the Vans from doing business under their own names for two years. They bought and sold under the names of their sisters for a time. When they re-emerged, the Sweringens had become the Van Sweringens once more. Some biographers have speculated that this was to distance themselves from the Lakewood foreclosure; perhaps it was just a mild affectation.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Cleveland was booming. The lost decade of the 1890s was over, and the city’s industrial heart was pumping furiously. The boom was making many Clevelanders rich, but it was also crowding them. The city’s population had rocketed from roughly 92,000 in 1870 to 380,000 in 1900; it would double again by 1920.
The business and residential center of the city was perched on a narrow lakefront wedge, with the heavy industry of the Cuyahoga Valley to the south and Lake Erie to the north. Crossing the river to Ohio City to the west meant navigating the steep walls of the valley and waiting through traffic gnarled by the constant interruption of ships on the river. The opening of the Superior Viaduct in 1878 had made westward expansion more feasible. But the mighty viaduct still had to swing its drawbridge center open multiple times a day for ships to pass on the river. The first high bridge across the river would not open until 1917.
The West Side would do for immigrants and the laboring classes—they had no choice but to accept a slow streetcar ride home. But the well-to-do sorely needed an escape from the increasingly busy, dirty, and overcrowded center. Dirty is no exaggeration; even as late as the 1940s, it was estimated that the average Cleveland resident inhaled as much as five pounds of soot per year. The industry that was making some Clevelanders rich belched storms of smoke into the air, in addition to hundreds of trains and thousands of chimneys.
With western suburbs still lacking in quality, and water to both north and south, the east was the only feasible outlet for Cleveland’s bourgeoisie. After the Civil War, the extremely swell had built a strip of small castles along Euclid Avenue. This district became famous beyond Cleveland for its grandeur. But rapid growth thwarted even the ultra-rich; Millionaire’s Row wasn’t safe from the sprawl of downtown. Regular workaday rich folks wanted to distance themselves from the overly vibrant city center, without the burden of a lengthy commute.
The land that would become Shaker Village was first surveyed in 1796, and “found to be well stocked with timber, grapevines, howling wolves, Indians, bees, and honey,” according to historian Ian Haberman. Very little of note happened on the land until 1822, when the North Union Society of the Millennium Church of United Believers built a colony there. The Shakers, as they were better known, had come into the land when one of their number inherited a section of a Western Reserve land grant.
The Shakers referred to their 1,360-acre spread as “The Valley of God’s Pleasure,” even though it was actually on a bluff. The valley referenced the stream running through the acreage, which the Shakers dammed for a mill. The Shakers set about waiting for the second coming, farming and making crafts. Their colony prospered for a time. But eventually their policy of celibacy caught up with them, as it always does. Their numbers dwindled, and by 1889 the colony had only a handful of ancients remaining. The Shakers decided to close down their utopia.
The remaining believers sold out for $316,000 to a consortium of businessmen from Buffalo, New York, headed by a man named William Gratwick. The Buffalo syndicate hoped to develop the spread, just six miles from downtown Cleveland. But they had chosen the wrong decade. The stock market cratered in 1893, setting off the worst economic depression in the nation’s history to date. Thousands of businesses collapsed, including many banks. Double-digit unemployment was pervasive; in some larger cities, the unemployed rolls swelled to 33 percent of eligible workers. It was not a good decade to be developing suburbia.
The Shaker lands sat fallow for more than a decade, the farms and outbuildings gently decaying. In 1905, the Van Sweringen brothers, all of 26 and 24 years old, approached the Gratwick syndicate with a peculiar deal. They wanted options to sell lots, no money down. They’d pay once they sold the land, out of the proceeds. For the landowner, this doesn’t seem like much of a bargain. But the Buffalonians were already worried about their investment. They had paid $316,000 in 1889. But in 1900, the land was appraised for just $240,000.
Permitting two twenty-somethings to flip a few homesteads likely seemed better than sitting around watching the investment sink farther underwater. The Vans took 30-day options on small plots. Their deal with the Buffalo group stipulated that if the brothers successfully sold their first option, they would receive a 60-day option on twice as much land. Each successive deal included the same clause. The brothers made good on their options repeatedly.
Even as the Vans sold their modest options on the Shaker land, a master plan was coalescing in their minds. With ambitious planning and careful executions, the brothers would build the utopia that those three hundred Shakers had sought in vain. Where the old Shakers had sat around waiting for Jesus and making furniture, O.P. and M.J. would build up a garden city, a place where the white-collar workers of Cleveland could build a “forever home.” In the words of their own marketing pamphlet, their new model suburb would be “a secure haven for the home-harried; for those ruthlessly ousted from the paths of the City’s progress; for those wishing to establish homes which shall memorialize them for generations to come.”
Shaker Village, as the Vans called it, would have everything a suburb could possibly need. There would be stately homes built to splendid and harmonious styles, fine schools, country clubs, and designated retail districts, all “conspicuously free from the throat ailments so prevalent on the City levels,” promotional material touted. Curved streets would create a bucolic environment, and allow for larger lots and more space between houses. There would be a salubrious mix of mansions and slightly more modest—but still very luxe—homes.
The Vans were no longer interested in flipping real estate for a quick profit. They intended to develop Shaker Village from the sewers on up to the eaves of each home. They would sell a complete package, and every last detail of construction and architecture would be governed by restrictive covenants between buyers and the Van Sweringen Company. If they haphazardly built their new village, would it not soon be swallowed by Cleveland, a city spreading like a brush fire? “Most communities just happen; the best are always planned,” announced one article of Van Sweringen propaganda. Another pamphlet crowed that Shaker Village would be “large enough to be self-contained and self-sufficient. No matter what changes time may bring around it, no matter what waves of commercialism may beat upon its border, Shaker Village is secure … protected for all time.”
The new forever-suburb was to be divided into nine readymade neighborhoods, each with a primary school. Within and across the neighborhoods, the lots were to be divided into zones, with each zone earmarked for a home of a different price tier. The streets were given stodgy-sounding English names. As Shaker Village was built up, some critics mocked its affected hauteur, and dubbed it a “bastion of high-level Babbitry” in the mid-1920s. But the affectation worked—in part because it was deathly earnest. The Vans spared no detail in turning Shaker Village into a model suburb. The Shaker mill ponds were joined by additional artificial lakes. Park land was set aside, never to be developed. More acreage was earmarked for private education. Shaker is still today the home of three elite private schools, Hathaway Brown, the University School, and the Laurel School.
But one all-important piece of their ten-year plan was not yet secure. Their suburban promised land could not be realized without a transit connection to Cleveland. As their marketing arm mused in yet another piece of persuasive advertising, “whenever and wherever a railroad is built it upturns seeds which immediately spring to life as home communities. It is an interesting reversal of this universal article for a new home community to grow a railroad as part of its development.” But that was precisely what the brothers planned. After all, without convenient, comfortable transportation, the burghers of Cleveland would never reach the celestial city the Vans had built for them.
O.P. and M.J. approached the Cleveland Electric Railway as early as 1906 with a deal. They wanted the railway to extend a streetcar branch out deep into the Shaker development. In exchange for a car line, the brothers would gift the needed land to the transit concern, and cover the interest on construction costs for five years.
The railway declined the offer, but a streetcar connection to the edge of the Vans’ development was built. The scattering of rich pioneers who had scaled the heights already were happy enough to have some way into town, and for their gardeners and maids to be able to get to work.
But the streetcar would not suffice. O.P. and M.J. knew that Shaker Village needed a fast connection to downtown. Streetcar service took three-quarters of an hour or more to reach Public Square. But a car line, or better yet, an electric train, running on its own right-of-way, free from surface traffic, could cover the six miles from Shaker to the heart of downtown in a quarter-hour. But where could they find that right-of-way?
The Vans quietly assembled parcels of land along Kingsbury Run, a watershed running down to the Cuyahoga from the heights to the east. Kingsbury Run wasn’t much to look at; O.P. himself described it as “a tin can disposal plant.” The area sprouted shantytowns during the recurring economic crises of the early 20th century. Later on, it would be the site of the notorious and still-unsolved Torso Murders.
But the Vans saw something in Kingsbury Run: the hollow provided a natural runway for a rapid transit link between their Shaker Village and the downtown offices of prospective white-collar homeowners. So they bought parcels of land where they could, even as their ten-year plan was just getting underway. But they were still far from a clear right-of-way that would allow streetcars or trains to quickly reach downtown.
Billion-dollar fortunes don’t happen without luck. And in 1911, a large measure of luck found the Vans. They had bought a 25-acre farm in what is now Pepper Pike the year before, to the east of the Shaker lands (eventually the brothers would own a total of 4,000 acres of the eastside suburbs). Across the road from their property was a spread owned by the widow of a lately deceased railroad man. O.P. called upon the widow, who put him in touch with her brother, who spoke for her in business matters.
The widow’s brother was Alfred Holland Smith, a vice president of the New York Central Railroad, soon to become the president of the massive Central. In the course of making one modest real estate transaction, Smith and O.P. made a connection that would alter both of their fates profoundly.
The Central moved more rail traffic—freight and passenger—through Cleveland than any other line. Accordingly it was suffering badly from Cleveland’s rotten railroad facilities. The outdated Union Depot station and the lakefront tracks were hopelessly snarled. The Central had recently built a short freight bypass that cut to the south of the congested center, but they needed both a new freight yard and a convenient location for that yard.
Kingsbury Run could provide both. Smith didn’t waste much time in seeing the what a partnership he could make with the two brothers. In August 1913, the freshly incorporated Cleveland & Youngstown Railroad began construction on a four-track railroad stretching from E. 34th Street to E. 91st. Smith’s Central quietly paid the bills, although the tightlipped Vans would neither confirm nor deny that particular point. The New York Central would build a freight depot in Kingsbury Run, and would use two of the four tracks. The other half would belong to the Vans.
With more discreet assistance from the New York Central, the Shaker Heights Rapid commenced service in April 1920. The line cost $8 million to build. Its electric cars ran express from the heights down to E. 34th Street, finishing the final mile and a half to Public Square on city streetcar tracks. The journey took 27 minutes. Eventually the time would be trimmed to just 12 minutes.
A commemorative brochure handed out on the first day of Rapid service stressed the vision the Vans had now completed: “Think what it will mean to Cleveland business people to have protected homes where there is no possibility of invasion by unwelcome buildings of any sort; where they can depend on this protection as long as they live; where the inevitable growth and spread of a ‘million city’ cannot alter or affect the simple conditions under which their homes are established.”
With the rapid transit link secure, a decade of planning paid out spectacularly. The Vans were rich. The Shaker land had been appraised at roughly a quarter million dollars in 1900. A decade later, it was worth $2.5 million. By 1920, the former Valley of God’s Pleasure was valued at $11.8 million. A mere three years after that staggering leap, Shaker Village was worth $29.3 million in 1923. From a population of 1,600 in 1920, Shaker would be home to 18,000 by the end of that roaring decade.
And in dabbling in transportation, the brothers had stumbled—or were gently pushed—into a new line of business. Railroading would transform the Vans from local operators to titans of business, and it would also destroy them.
Pete Beatty is the Editorial Director of Belt.
Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience
Ian S. Haberman, The Van Sweringens of Cleveland: The Biography of an Empire
Herbert H. Harwood, Invisible Giants: The Empires of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen Brothers
Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States
Louise Jenks, O.P. and M.J.
Kenneth L. Kolson, Big Plans: The Allure and Folly of Urban Design
William Ganson Rose, Cleveland: The Making of a City
Ronald R. Weiner: Lake Effects: A History of Urban Policy Making in Cleveland, 1825-1929
Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America
“The Story of the Rapid Transit,” Van Sweringen Company publication
“The Heritage of the Shakers” Van Sweringen Company publication
Journal of Architectural Education, Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics, Nation’s Business, Fortune, Ohio State Engineer, Harper’s, The New Republic, New York Times, Cleveland Press, Cleveland News, Cleveland Plain Dealer
Special thanks to Ware Petznick at the Shaker Historical Society and Tim Beatty at the Western Reserve Historical Society for their help.