Thursday, August 3, 2017

River Towns: Utopia, Ohio

I never thought I would experience Utopia, and to be honest, I have only had a little taste. But I was there.

Utopia is the name of a small community in Clermont county in southern Ohio, on the banks of the Ohio River. Established in 1844 by followers of a French philosopher named Charles Fourier, it was an intentional community, an early commune, if you will. Fourier was a believer in "utopian socialism", a movement in those days whose followers believed that socialism could develop without class struggle or strife. He was one of the foremost thinkers of his time and is credited with coining the term "feminism".

from wikipedia
The intentional communities established by his followers were scattered across the country, with one being started by the author Nathaniel Hawthorne in Massachusetts. Bronson Alcott, father of author Louisa May Alcott, was a believer in utopian socialism and started a commune of his own.

The Fourier communes were called phalanxes, and each had a large central hall called the "phalansteres". In these buildings, which were usually four floors, the richer members got the fourth floors and the poorer you were the lower the floor assigned to you. One of Fourier's more bizarre beliefs was that the seas would one day turn from salt water to lemonade! He was ahead of his time in other areas of thought however, a proponent of women's rights and a believer in the freedom of people to marry or love whom they pleased, be it of the opposite or same sex. For a fee of $25, one could gain entrance to this community along with a small wooden house.

Fourier passed away in 1837, seven years before the establishment of the Utopia phalanx in southeastern Ohio. The settlers built a large, thirty-room building and several other buildings out of brick, but their experiment lasted only two years. Problems with cash flow, interpersonal differences, and probably the frontier terrain that confronted them proved too much and the phalanx was abandoned.

from the History Ring
Then the property was bought by John Otis Wattles, a radical abolitionist and, some say, a spiritualist who established communities around Ohio and other states. There is a good bit of information about Wattles and his abolitionist activities, and his moves to several communities which eventually led him to settle in Kansas, but there is only the Utopia history that mentions spiritualism. Perhaps, some say, it was a cover for an underground railroad operation. The underground railroad was very active in this part of Ohio which was just across from slave-holding Kentucky, so the explanation seems logical. It seems that at this time the community was known as Excelsior.

Whatever his spiritual leanings, he and his followers decided to move the large 30-room brick building built by the Utopians to the very banks of the Ohio. Locals warned them of the danger of floods; this was before the locks and dams system and the Ohio had devastating floods regularly. These new settlers paid no heed to warnings but went ahead with their building, moving it brick by brick. It had not been completed but a short time before the river did indeed flood on December 13, 1847. According to local lore, there were over 150 people in the building at the time of the flood. Community members had gone to the building, some by boat, to seek shelter from the waters, but almost all of them lost their lives. Only six survived. Was Wattles there at the time of the flood? I do not know. If he was, he was one of the survivors as he died in Kansas in 1859

The property was then acquired by Josiah Warren; he established yet another intentional community that continued to operate more or less successfully although by 1875 only a few of the settler's remained in the place they had renamed Smith's Landing. The name of Utopia was later restored by the Ohio Historical Society, and a sign with a brief history of the settlement was erected in 2003.

One of the few businesses left in Utopia
It is a fascinating and convoluted history, and I hope I got most of the details correct; there are conflicting accounts of the settlements, but all agree on one thing: Utopia has its share of ghosts. People have said they see people walking up out of the water at night, perhaps the spirits of those who drowned, or perhaps slaves who died trying to cross the river. Under the site of the large hall is an underground chapel that was only recently discovered, and some have reported seeing a large black man there. There are other reports of sightings, and given the strange history of this place, it's not surprising.

Today there is little to see in Utopia. A few scattered houses and the sign are about all there is. Well, those and the spirits that apparently roam the area at night, when the fog and the mists rise from the Ohio

You can read more about Utopia here and here.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

1 comment:

Bbj said...

You amaze me!
Such a diversity of blog writing-so talented!!! Hard worker! Congrats!!

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