Finding aid for the Peter Witt Papers

Repository: Western Reserve Historical Society
Creator: Witt, Peter
Title: Peter Witt Papers
Dates: 1888-1948
Extent: 4.00 linear feet (6 containers and 4 oversize packages)
Abstract: Peter Witt (1869-1948) was the Cleveland, Ohio traction commissioner (1912-1915) under Mayor Newton D. Baker and city councilman (1924-1927) who served as a transit consultant for several major United States cities. He was a close friend and ally of Cleveland mayor Tom L. Johnson. The collection consists of correspondence, speeches, articles, reports, campaign literature, interview notes made by Louis Plost, scrapbooks, and newspaper clippings, relating chiefly to Witt's political activities and especially to his association with Tom L. Johnson, mayor of Cleveland. Some of the papers relate to Witt's work as a transit consultant in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Newark, New Jersey, in the 1920s. Correspondents include Eugene V. Debs, Elizabeth J. Hauser, Tom L. Johnson, P.J. Mitten, and Brand Whitlock.
MS Number MS 3281
Location: closed stacks
Language: The records are in English

Biography of Peter Witt

Peter Witt (1869-1948) was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 24, 1869 to Christopher Witt and Anna Probeck Witt. He received only five years of formal schooling. He began working as a printer's devil in 1882, and then he entered the metal trades as a moulder, became involved in union activities, and after a strike, was blacklisted in his trade.

He soon became interested in politics and was active in the Populist Party when he first met Tom L. Johnson in 1894. The two men became good friends and Witt was closely allied with Johnson when the latter was may of Cleveland from 1901-1910. Witt first ran a tax school for the city and then became city clerk, serving in this capacity from 1903-1910. During the mayoral administration of Newton D. Baker, he was the traction commissioner from 1912-1915 where he worked closely with the Van Sweringen brothers. He ran for mayor of Cleveland in 1915 and 1932, and for governor of Ohio in 1928, but was unsuccessful in each case. He served on Cleveland city council from 1924-1927. On the national level, Witt actively campaigned for William Jennings Bryan, Robert A. LaFollette, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In Cleveland he played the role of gadfly, and his outspoken nature kept him in the public eye. He was a staunch defender of labor unions, engaged in frequent public appearances, where he often spoke on issues concerning public transportation, and he was involved in the controversy over the location of Cleveland's Union Terminal. Witt also served as a transit consultant for several major cities in the United States. Researchers should note that Witt delivered a speech entitled "Abraham Lincoln, the Man of Sorrow" at the Cleveland City Club in 1932 that was published in 1938. In 1939, he was active in the formation of the Lincoln Memorial Garden. Peter Witt died in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 20, 1948.

click here to view the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History entry for Peter Witt

Scope and Content

The Peter Witt Papers, 1888-1948 and undated, consist of correspondence, speeches, articles, reports, campaign literature, notes, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, caricatures, and phonograph records.

This collection will be useful to researchers studying the history of Cleveland, Ohio, and the public and political careers of Peter Witt in the first half of the twentieth century. The collection is not complete since Witt destroyed many of his papers before his death. The papers include much material from the period 1902-1910, however, relating to Witt's career as traction commissioner, as a public transportation consultant, and as a political figure. These papers also touch on Witt's labor union sympathies, the single-tax issue, Alfred E. Smith's 1928 campaign, the Cleveland Railway company, and the Cleveland Union Terminal. Also included are notes made by Louis Plost during interviews with Witt in the 1940s. Correspondents include a wide range of local and national political figures including Eugene V. Debs, Elizabeth J. Hauser, Tom L. Johnson, Brand Whitlock, and A. F. Whitney.

Statement of Arrangement

The collection is arranged by document type and then chronologically.

Restrictions on Access


Separated Material

All photographs have been removed to the WRHS photograph and print collection.

Indexing Terms

The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.


Cleveland (Ohio) -- Politics and government.
Cleveland Railway Company.
Lincoln Memorial Garden Commission.
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.
Local transit -- New Jersey -- Newark.
Local transit -- Ohio -- Cleveland.
Local transit -- Pennsylvania -- Philadelphia.
Ohio -- Politics and government -- 1865-1950.
Political campaigns -- Ohio -- Cleveland.
Street-railroads -- Ohio -- Cleveland.
Subways -- Ohio -- Cleveland.
United States -- Politics and government -- 1901-1953.
Witt, Peter, 1869-1948.

Preferred Citation

[Container ___, Folder ___ ] MS 3281 Peter Witt Papers, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio

Acquisition Information

Gift of Mrs. Stuart V. Cummins (daughter of Peter Witt) in 1967 and 1968.

Processing Information

Processed by Dennis I. Harrison in 1968.

Other Finding Aid

A list of major correspondents represented in this collection is available at the Reference Desk of the WRHS Research Library.

Detailed Description of The Collection

Peter Witt papers 1888-1948 undated

Box Folder
1 1 Correspondence concerning unions, 1904; Witt's political philosophy, 1905; the Federal Building, 1906; the structure of city government, 1907; transit problems, 1907-1909; and Tom L. Johnson's autobiography 1895-1910
1 2 Correspondence relating largely to Witt's campaign for mayor in 1915 and the role of the Single Tax in this campaign; Tom L. Johnson's autobiography; and Witt's1913 proposal to Henry Ford concerning car rentals 1911-1915
1 3 Correspondence relating largely to Witt's campaign for mayor, including charges of newspaper distortion and Witt's attitude toward defeat and towards proportional representation 1915
1 4 Correspondence, including letters relating to the Philadelphia transit system, 1919-1923 and undated correspondence related to this period; Eugene V. Debs' talk at the city Club, 1923; Witt's race for council, 1925; and the 1926 automobile license issue 1916-1927 undated
1 5 Correspondence, including letters relating to the gubernatorial campaign, 1928; Alfred E. Smith's Campaign, 1928; the Lincoln Memorial Garden Campaign, 1939; and transit questions relating to the Cleveland Railway Company, 1939 1928-1939
1 6 Correspondence relating to the Lincoln Memorial Garden Committee, 1940; Cleveland Railway Company transit problems, 1940; Cleveland Railway Company transit problems, 1940; Rapid transit and subway proposals, and Witt's concern that the central city would degenerate without public transporation, 1943-1948; Roosevelt's election campaign, 1944; Senator George Norris, 1944; Shaker rapid, 1946; and correspondence relating to Tom L. Johnson, Charles P. Salen, The Lincoln Memorial Garden Committee, and streetcar and transit questions 1940-1948 undated
Box Folder
2 1 Miscellaneous brochures and notes including material on economic depression, "Cleveland Day," Tom L. Johnson, and Witt's "Tribute to Edward W. Doty" 1888-1935
2 2 Political material, including "Political Czolgosz" (Mckinley's assassin); analysis of Dewy's victory in Ohio, 1944; attack on Smith - Connally Act; essays on Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt; and miscellaneous campaign material 1915-1944
2 3 Material on Abraham Lincoln including essays and speeches, Witt's "Lincoln, the Man of Sorrow" in rough draft, typescript, and printed forms, material on the Lincoln Memorial Garden Committee, including an interview with Dr. A. Caswell Ellins dates vary
2 4 Traction, transit, and streetcar material, including speeches, essays, and printed material on the Cleveland Railway Stockholders fight of 1939-1940, "the Schweid Analytical Survey," proxy statements and stockholder's meeting notices by the Cleveland Railway Company, 1930-1940, and a rapid transit and subway proposal, September 1, 1939, with blueprints [material on the Union Terminal location fight] 1930-1940
2 5 Traction, transit, and streetcar material including a testimonial dinner speech in honor of A. F. Whitney, 1945; a speech in honor of A. F. Whitney and Alvanly Johnston, 1946; material relating to the Union Terminal location fight, promotional brochures for Witt's streetcar, ca. 1918; "A Comprehensive Plan for Downtown Cleveland Traffic," 1935; and an article entitled "The Car Rider's Viewpoint" from 1925 1918-1946
2 6-7 Notes [made during interviews with Peter Witt] by Louis Plost who intended to write a biography of Witt undated
Box Folder
3 1-2 Speeches and articles by Peter Witt 1897-1932
3 3 newspaper clippings relating to Peter Witt dates vary
3 4 Miscellaneous brochures relating to Witt dates vary
Box Volume
4 1 Scrapbook 1903-1915 1929
4 2 Scrapbook 1914-1915
Box Volume
5 3 Scrapbook 1913
5 4 Scrapbook 1913-1914
Box Volume
6 5 Scrapbook 1914-1915
6 6 Scrapbook 1915
6 7 Scrapbook 1911-1915
6 8 Scrapbook, including enclosures removed from correspondence and mounted on the last page 1913
6 9 Scrapbook 1916-1918
6 10 Scrapbook 1921-1927
6 11 Scrapbook (includes material from "miscellaneous years") 1927-1931
12 Scrapbook, including newspaper clippings concerned with Witt, Tom L. Johnson, and Harris R. Cooley 1902-1922 1932
13 Scrapbook, including newspaper clippings and campaign material 1924-1933
14 Scrapbook 1931-1940
Oversize material in "Package 4": including caricatures, map of a proposed Cedar Glen Rapid Transit Station, mounted obituary clippings, and recordings of "Lincoln, the Man of Sorrow" dates vary 1948