Finding aid for the Tom L. Johnson Papers, Series II

Repository: Western Reserve Historical Society
Creator: Johnson, Tom L.
Title: Tom L. Johnson Papers, Series II
Dates: 1901-1909
Extent: 0.60 linear feet (2 containers)
Abstract: Tom L. Johnson (1854-1911) was the reform Mayor of Cleveland, Ohio (1901-1909). He was most noted for his progressive administration of Cleveland's municipal government. The collection consists of financial receipts and records, and correspondence to and from the Mayor's Office concerning the operation of various city departments, commercial transactions, and constituents' requests and complaints.
MS Number MS 4021
Location: closed stacks
Language: The records are in English

Biography of Tom L. Johnson

Tom L. Johnson (1854-1911) was mayor of Cleveland from 1901-1910. He was born on July 18, 1854, at Blue Spring, Kentucky, the son of Albert W. Johnson and Helen Loftin Johnson. Soon after his birth the family moved to Arkansas where his father became a successful cotton planter. After the war the family moved first to Evansville, Indiana, and then to Louisville, Kentucky. At the age of 22 he invented a coin-fare box. With the $30,000 that he earned from the invention and a loan from Biederman du Pont he bought a street-railway line in Indianapolis. He successfully ran the railway until 1879 when he sold it and with the money he had made, came to Cleveland.

In Cleveland, Johnson again invested in street railways and merged several east-side lines into the Cleveland Electric Railway Company. His chief competitor was Marcus A. Hanna who, in turn, merged several west-side lines into the Cleveland City Railway Company. To make sure that he had enough rails for his railways he bought steel mills in Lorain, Ohio, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania. By the mid-nineties when he sold the plants he was among the top seven steel manufacturers in the country.

Johnson's life was profoundly affected by Henry George. In 1883 Johnson read George's Social Problems and Progress and Poverty. No longer content with being a successful businessman Johnson went to New York in 1885 to meet George and offer his services to him. With George's encouragement Johnson went into politics in the hope of spreading the single tax theory. He ran for Congress in Ohio's 21st district in 1888 as a Democrat and was defeated; but in 1890 he was elected and in 1892 was re-elected. After leaving Congress in 1895 Johnson began selling his businesses so that he could devote himself entirely to politics.

In 1901 Johnson was elected mayor of Cleveland, and took office on April 4. His first appointment was Charles P. Salen as director of Public Works on April 24. On the same day Harris R. Cooley, who was the minister of the church that Johnson attended, was appointed director of Charities and Correction. Madison W. Beacom became law director but left the position in November, 1902, when he was elected judge. Newton D. Baker became the law director in his place. Fred Kohler was appointed chief of police on May 1, 1903, after considerable controversy within the department. Edward W. Bemis, who has been a professor at the University of Chicago and was dismissed for his radical views, became superintendent of the Water Works on September 17, 1901.

In 1903 the Nash Code came into existence and provided for the election of boards of directors for the various departments. Most of the men whom Johnson had appointed in 1901 and 1902 were elected in 1903. William J. Springborn was elected to the Board of Public Service (formerly Public Works) and was responsible for lighting, garbage pickup, and street cleaning. Daniel B. Leslie was also on the Board and was primarily responsible for the development of the park system and recreational services. Walter Burr Gongwer had been a republican reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He quit that job and became Johnson's personal secretary. A year later he "converted" and became a Democrat.

As mayor, Johnson worked for tax equalization, "home rule," and the extension of needed services to Cleveland's citizens/ Most of Johnson's time, however, was devoted to the street-railway fight. He was opposed by the privately owned railways. The controversy raged between 1903 and 1907 and in April, 1908, it was temporarily settled in Johnson's favor. The city formed a municipal street-railway company, the Municipal Traction Company, but a strike of railway employees, financial problems, and a referendum in October in which the voters rejected the city-owned system led to its failure.

The railway dispute left Johnson ill and bankrupt. He was not re-elected in 1909 after being re-elected in 1903, 1905, and 1907. He left the mayor's office January 1, 1910 and died on April 10, 1911.

click here to view the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History entry for Tom L. Johnson

Scope and Content

The Tom L. Johnson Papers, Series II, 1901-1909 and undated, consist of financial receipts and records, and correspondence to and from the Mayor's Office concerning the operation of various city departments, commercial transactions, and constituents' requests and complaints.

This collection will be useful to researchers studying the history of politics and municipal governance in Cleveland, Ohio, during the Progressive administration of Tom L. Johnson.

Statement of Arrangement

The collection is arranged alphabetically by document type and then chronologically.

Restrictions on Access

While there are no access restrictions on this collection, researchers will be asked to use the microfilm of this collection.

Related Material

The researcher should also consult MS 3651 Tom L. Johnson Papers.

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.
Johnson, Tom Loftin, 1854-1911.
Railroad terminals -- Ohio -- Cleveland.

Preferred Citation

[Container ___, folder ___ ] MS 4021 Tom L. Johnson Papers, Series II, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio

Acquisition Information

Gift of the Human Support Systems Foundation in 1986.

Processing Information

Processed by Leslie Ann Solotko in 1986.

Detailed Description of The Collection

Tom L. Johnson Papers, Series II 1901-1909 undated

Box Folder
1 1 Correspondence 1901-1904
1 2-6 Correspondence 1905
Box Folder
2 7 Correspondence 1906-1909 undated
2 8 Financial records and receipts 1905-1909 undated