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Founding of the Finnish Settlements in Ohio

John I. Kolehmainen

In the fall of 1886 the septuagenarian Henry Howe returned to Ashtabula on his second historic tour of Ohio. Not the least interesting innovation which there captured the fancy of the beloved, white bearded chronicler was the presence at the Harbor of the "Fins", a "new element ... lately come into this region."1

The coming of the Finns to Ohio can be traced with some precision. About eighteen years before Howe's visit to Ashtabula, a tenant farmer, Aksel Sjöberg by name, migrated with his family from the parish of Ilmajoki in Vaasa to Titusville, Pennsylvania.2 Sjöberg, as a result of experience gained in a previous visit to America, was soon rewarded for his proficiency in laying track by being made foreman of a section gang on the New York Central Railroad. He thereupon wrote letters to his friends Andrew Bloom (Antti Hegbloom) and John K. Hilston (Johan K. Helsten) of Isokyrö parish urging them to come to Titusville and assuring them employment. The letters aroused great interest in the Old Country with the result that within the years 1871-1873 some seventy Finns left their native shores for the railroad construction camps in and about Titusville.3 These mobile labor units, while penetrating into Girard, Niles, Chardon, and Ashtabula Harbor as early as 1872, did not leave any permanent settlements behind them in Ohio. In the fall of 1873 twenty of the original seventy Finns left Erie, Pennsylvania, where they had worked the summer on the docks, for Astoria, Oregon, under the leadership of Sjöberg;4 others migrated shortly to Minnesota and Michigan. Indeed, less than a fifth of the total number remained to become more or less permanent settlers in the State.5 Among them were Andrew Bloom, John K. Hilston, and Matti Hedman of the 1871 stream of immigrants; Joseph Porkula and Antti Peltola of the 1872 immigrants; Kustaa Hakala, John Bloom, John Lankila, Charles Hilston, Karl J. Stenroos, John Taanonen, Jacob Markkoo, Jacob Kaukonen, and Liisa Kipley of the 1873 immigrants.

As early as 1872 one of the Finnish section gangs had been at work in Ashtabula Harbor laying track for the Ashtabula, Youngstown, and Pittsburgh Railroad.6 This labor crew was composed of twenty-five men and a female cook; among their number were Andrew Bloom and Kalle Kotka. The latter, a lad of about twenty, was killed by a train in the gravel pit of the A. Y. & P. Railroad on November 8, 1872, and thus became the first Finn to find his final resting place in Ashtabula.7 The Finnish laborers remained in the Harbor for only a short time but their presence did evoke the following comment from the Ashtabula Telegraph:

Finns. - Among our railroad operatives is to be found a considerable number of Finlanders - a class of people that have but recently made their appearance among us. Like their neighbors, the Sweeds [sic], they are a hardy set of men, steady of purpose and habit, frugal, sober, and industrious. Upon any rainy day they may be seen in cloisters upon the streets, always in the full possession of their unclouded faculties, soberly and orderly, and giving the best evidence of their value as an accession to our population, and hereafter to become good and wholesome citizens.... If the specimen among us is a fair sample of the race, their emigration to the country will prove highly advantageous to the country.8

In the autumn of 1873 a second group of migratory Finnish laborers spent some time in Ashtabula Harbor. Included in their number was Matti L. Beckman.9 The entire gang, as its predecessor, departed when its work was completed. Not until the following spring of 1874 was the first permanent settlement begun. At that time a section crew of fourteen men and a cook arrived in Ashtabula Harbor from Girard where they had been employed by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The company of Finns was led by Andrew Bloom and with him were his twelve-year-old son John, Joseph Porkula, Matti Kortesmäki, a certain Kotka, and the cook, Liisa Kipley.10 All fourteen found employment as ore shovelers at the Hanna unloading docks and thereby became the Finnish counterpart to Irish, Swedish, and Portuguese gangs already engaged in the backbreaking toil.

Before this settlement of the Bloom group at the Harbor there had been a Finnish family and a few Finnish laborers in Ashtabula. The householder, by name Runtti, had migrated with his family from Erie in 1872 and was operating a boarding house for a small number of Finns working in a mill located on the present site of the Ashtabula Fork and Hoe Company.11 Runtti, however, shortly removed his residence to the Harbor and thence to Minnesota; the fate of his boarders is not known.

With the development of the iron ore trade and the subsequent increasing demand for shovelers,12 the Lake Erie port replaced Titusville as the focal point at which the new immigrants directed their steps. By 1875 there were two Finnish gangs, fourteen men each, at work on the docks; one of them was under the command of Bloom and the other under Antti Peltola. Three years later it was estimated that the Finnish settlement contained fifty men, three wives, and seven young women. The population reached well over 200 in 1884 but by this time Ashtabula Harbor had become the stopping off point for many immigrants who, after a summer's toil with the shovel, resumed their migration to the West or South.13 In 1897 four enterprising Finnish residents made a house-to-house canvass in the community which showed the following:14

Families: 222

Foreign-born children: 98

Foreign-born males: 439

Native-born children: 440

Foreign-born females: 325

Total foreign- and native-born Finns: 1302

By 1900 the number of foreign-born Finns in Ashtabula Harbor had risen to nearly 1500.

The gradual diffusion of the Finnish people throughout Northeastern Ohio (Western Reserve) had its rise in two conditions. The first was the concentration of immigrants in Ashtabula Harbor, which provided a labor mart from which workers were imported into other localities. The other factor was the seasonal character of the iron ore trade which gave impetus to the voluntary migration of the ore shovelers from the ice-bound ports. As early as 1879 a body of seventeen "Finlanders"15 was taken from Ashtabula Harbor to the Youngstown mills. While a number of other Finns found their way to Youngstown in the following years, the real growth of a Finnish settlement in that city did not begin until the early 1900's. Indeed, there appears to have been only twenty-eight foreign-born Finns in Mahoning County in 1900.16 A number of these early Youngstown settlers left the steel-mills in 1885 to assist in the founding of a permanent settlement in Fairport.

Fairport in the fall of 1885 and summer of 1886 presented a picture of teeming activity. The narrow gauge of the Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Painesville Railroad (later the Baltimore and Ohio) was being replaced by a standard gauge track in anticipation of a heavy movement of iron ore; docks were being built; and ore unloading machinery was being put into place. A number of Finns from Ashtabula Harbor as well as a few from Youngstown were drawn to the town by the prospects of employment as ore shovelers. On the eleventh day of September, 1885, a group of twenty-three Finns arrived in Fairport and founded the first permanent Finnish settlement. Among them were Charles Hilston, Pekka Antilla, Jacob Tuoresmaa, Herman Kukilla, Isaac Mattson, Alex Kinnunen, John Ahonpää, Jacob Pikka, Isaac Ränni, John Forsbakka, Kusti Kaura, a certain Santeliin, Mikko Mänty, Niilo Katila, John Katila, William Hirvi, Mikko Pohto, Esa Poutto, John Lamu, Matti Riipa, Isaac Alinen, and "Iso Antti Karstulasta".17

These pioneers shortly erected their simple dwellings along the east slope of the Grand River and within a few years the population of "Finn Hollow"18 had increased considerably. By 1900 the number of foreign-born Finns in Fairport had risen to nearly seven hundred.

A crew of forty laborers and several female cooks from Ashtabula Harbor in the employ of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had worked in Warren during the early fall of 1883.19 It was not, however, until 1889 that a permanent Finnish colony was established in the city. In the late summer of that year, a number of Finnish immigrants, attracted by the possibilities for permanent employment in the recently constructed Paige Tube Mill as well as in the Warren Rolling Mill, settled in the community.20 Among the early Finns in Warren were Herman Hartvig, Fred Johnson, Johan Karhunen, and Erkki Pellinen. Prior to 1910 the growth of the settlement was very slow. In 1900 there were probably about a hundred foreign-born Finns. Their residences were for the most part in the "Flats", an area bounded by Main Street on the west, Williams Street on the north, Pine Street on the east, and Walnut Street on the south, with the heaviest Finnish settlement on Clinton and Fulton streets.21

About the same time as the Finns were entering Fairport, a masseur by the name of R. C. Stone settled in Cleveland with his family to become that city's first permanent resident Finn. The years following 1885 brought four score or more Finns, chiefly from Ashtabula Harbor, to the Cleveland ore unloading docks. A Finnish settlement took form on Detroit and Clinton avenues between West 25th and 38th streets but the growth of the foreign-born population was slow before 1900.22 The census of 1900 showed only seventy-nine foreign-born Finns in Cleveland and eighty-six in the county (Cuyahoga).

As had been the case in Ashtabula Harbor and Warren, the town of Conneaut was visited by migratory groups of Finnish laborers several years before a permanent colony came into existence. A company of sixteen Finns from Ashtabula Harbor came to Conneaut in October, 1890, to excavate water mains for the waterworks then being constructed on the lake front.23 Their stay in Conneaut was brief; near the end of December the entire gang left the community to seek work elsewhere. A second labor crew, among them Charles Potti and Mikko Asikkala, was employed there during the following year but it likewise departed when its work was done. The construction of the iron ore unloading docks by the Pittsburgh and Conneaut Dock Company in late 1892 and early 1893 provided the necessary affinity which drew Finns into the town for permanent settlement. In the fall of 1892, a William Mäki, who had migrated that year from Fairport with his family, was authorized by the dock officials to procure Finnish laborers for unloading iron ore. As a result of his efforts there were some twenty men, two wives, and six children in the community at the end of April, 1893. A group of thirty-five Finns remained in the harbor through the winter of 1893-94. The demand for laborers on the docks continued so that by 1895 it was estimated that there were 150 Finns at work shoveling iron ore, most of whom had come from Ashtabula Harbor, a few from Fairport, and others directly from the Old Country. By the close of the decade the number of foreign-born Finns in Conneaut was very nearly double the 1895 figure. As a result of the increasing flow of Finns into the town two settlements took form: one on the very north end of Harbor Street and the other on the western extremity of the harbor along Park Avenue and Erie Street.

In addition to the larger settlements in Ashtabula Harbor, Warren, Cleveland, and Conneaut, a number of Finnish families were scattered throughout northern Ohio during the years 1872-1900. The most conspicuous of the Finnish lodgements were in Girard, Burton, and Chardon.24 The real growth of these settlements as well as the more effective diffusion of the Finns throughout the area did not take place until the first decade of the twentieth century.

The year 1900 found some 2,814 foreign-born Finns in Ohio, 2,753 of whom had settled in the Western Reserve. The growth of the Finnish population after 1900 was steady but not phenomenal; the number of foreign-born Finns at the close of each decade in the Western Reserve counties and in the State is indicated in the following table:25


































































Western Reserve










Living conditions in the pioneer settlements were deplorable. In such localities as Ashtabula Harbor, Fairport, and Conneaut, where the coming of the Finns antedated the installation of urban improvements, they became almost repellent. The lack of decent living quarters and the heavy demand for accommodations of any sort drove the Finnish immigrants into the so-called boarding houses. There is extant a contemporary description of one of these:

The house is located two doors from the corner of Lake Street and the road running east and west by the lake Shore, and is occupied by a party of thirteen Finlanders, among whom are two women. It is a small two story structure, about 16 x 20 feet, and was originally designed for a store. In this dirty, little house, destitute of furniture and all the comforts of life were housed and fed these men and women.26

Similar institutions, but hardly as repulsive, appeared early in Fairport, Conneaut, and elsewhere. Among the larger boarding houses in Fairport before 1900 were those of Charles Hilston and Gus Rantilla; the first in Conneaut was operated by William Mäki. The number of such communal homes increased rapidly in the first decade of the 1900's; a few have survived to this day.

Despite the presence of the boarding house system, a considerable number of Finnish immigrants constructed or owned their dwellings prior to 1901. The January 5, 1902, issue of the Amerikan Sanomat published the results of a survey of Finnish-owned homes in Ashtabula.27 There were eighty homes in the Harbor and one in Ashtabula proper owned by the Finns, sixty of which had been built within the decade 1892-1901. Thomas Mäki in 1894 was the first Finn to erect a dwelling in Conneaut, a two story frame building on the west end of Park Avenue. Three years later a second house was built on Broad Street by Antti Laituri. Many Finns found quarters in the eight houses built in 1899 by the Pittsburgh and Conneaut Dock Company on its property near the waterworks; two of the eight were boarding houses accommodating twenty persons each.28 Two Finns at least, Salomon Joopinoja and A. F. Lundberg, purchased lots in Conneaut Harbor in 1899.29

Lack of facilities for the proper disposal of sewerage and wastes, the absence of pure drinking water, and overcrowded quarters gave early Finnish immigrant life an unhealthy character. In the large settlement at Ashtabula Harbor, for example, the immigrants did not have a sewerage system on Bridge Street (where a great many Finns lived) until 1886, or palatable drinking water until 1887.30 The prevalence of typhoid and diphtheria with their heavy toll of human life can be readily surmised in conditions such as described in the Ashtabula Telegraph on August 15, 1885: "The houses on Bridge Street are built on a side hill and are crowded with immates, as many as forty living in some of the houses. Directly in front is a ditch and into it flows the filth and refuse matter from these houses."31 Conditions were not much different elsewhere. A heavy rain usually flooded Finn Hollow in Fairport and left "obnoxious"32 and disease-bearing ponds of stagnant water throughout the settlement. Of the immigrants, a few were not too fastidious in their habits. One Finn, for example, raised the ire of a Conneaut board of health by permitting a nuisance on his premises in the form of "a water closet, pig pen, slops, etc., all of which emptied into the gulley which runs past the pump station".33 It was, thus, no difficult matter for a careful observer to account for the frequent epidemics of typhoid and diphtheria which were the scourge of early immigrant life.

The years after 1900 witnessed great activity in the construction of new and commodious homes and in the amelioration of unsanitary, pioneer conditions. The overcrowded boarding houses gave way to private dwellings; the open sewer was replaced by a lawn of green grass; a garage has appeared where once stood the proverbial cowshed; comfort and health instcad of wretchedness and disease.

With the passage of pioneering days, the Finnish immigrants were able to devote their undivided attention to the development of their family and institutional life. Their indefatigable activity in many fields - religious, educational, temperance, journalism - has resulted in an immeasurable contribution not only to immigrant history but to the history of their adopted state, Ohio.

1 Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Ohio (Columbus, O., 1889), I, 275.

2 S. Ilmonen, Amerikan Suomalaisten Historia (Helsinki, 1923), II, 314-25.

3 Ibid. Immigrants listed as arriving in 1871 were: Andrew Bloom Matti Hedman, Peter Ylijärvi, John K. Hilston, John Piltti, and Kalle Kotka; arrivals of 1872 were Matti L. Beckman, Antti Anderson (Huhtaketo), Kustaa Astrom (Uusitalo), John Gustafson (Maunumäki), Herman Hedman, Joseph Kippo, Antti Kopsala, Emanuel Maunula, John Tuomaala, Joseph Porkula, Matti Taipale; arrivals of 1873 were John Bloom, Kustaa Hakala, Charles Hilston, Jacob Kaukonen, Liisa Kipley, John Talso, Kaarlo Smith (Korpijärvi), John Salmi (Santalahti), Antti Autio, Jacob Hautala, Jacob Johnson (Ollikkala), Antti Kari, Jonas Kivela, Jacob Kotila, A. Krigsman, John Marcus (Markuksela), John E. Marjapori, John Mitchell (Antti Hill), John Orjala, Jacob Punkari, Leander Rusko, Gustaf Wakkinen, John Lankila, Jacob Markkoo, Karl J. Stenroos, John Taanonen, and Jacob Wainionpää.

4 Sjöberg had evidently given up his railroad work in 1873. In the summer of that year he and a score of Finnish laborers were employed on the docks at Erie, Pennsylvania. Most of this company left for Astoria, Oregon, in the fall of 1873. A second fairly large group of Finns left Ashtabula Harbor and Erie in 1877 for the Far West. See Ilmonen, Amerikan Suomalaisten Historia, II, 248-59, 319-22.

5 A study of the dispersion of the original company of seventy Finns reveals the following: twenty left Erie for Astoria in 1873; six emigrated to Astoria in 1877; two other immigrants went there but the time of removal is not indicated; seventeen remained in the Ohio-Pennsylvania area; eleven migrated to Minnesota; four went to Michigan; nine migrated to unindicated regions of the West; and one returned to Finland.

6 Kalle H. Mannerkorpi, Ashtabula Harborin Bethania Seurakunnan 25 Vuotis Julkaisu, 1891-1916 (Hancock, Mich., 1916), 16-26. This 25th anniversary publication of the Bethany Finnish Lutheran Church of Ashtabula Harbor, compiled and written for the most part by the Rev. Mannerkorpi, is a trustworthy guide to the history of the Finns in the community as well as an interesting account of the congregation.

7 Ashtabula (Ohio) Telegraph, November 16, 1872. See also Ilmonen, Amerikan Suomalaisten Historia, II, 320.

8 Ashtabula Telegraph, November 16, 1872.

9 Mannerkorpi, Bethania Julkaisu, 16.

10 Both Mannerkorpi and Ilmonen err in stating that the female cook in Bloom's gang was at the time the wife of Jacob Kaukonen. The woman, Liisa Kipley, was not married to Kaukonen until July 4, 1875; the ceremony was performed by the Rev, Dr. Moore of St. Peter's Church in Ashtabula. See Ashtabula News July 7, 1875. Another early wedding was that of Louisa Ranta and Gustaf Wakkinen on December 3, 1877, also performed by Dr. Moore.

11 The name of the mill was perhaps the Phoenix Iron Works. Mannerkorpi does not suggest the number or the identity of the Finns living with Runtti in Ashtabula. The real settlement of Finns in that section of the city began in the early 1900's.

12 The shoveling of ore was not the easiest work in the world. A reporter with a flair for figures submitted the following: "The shoveling of ore is an occupation that requires quick movement. A shoveler in order to make $5.00 a day at 10½ cents per ton must shovel 50 tons or thereabouts. In other words, he must fill 50 ore buckets, each holding 1 ton, which quantity is a trifle below the maximum capacity of the bucket. As 125 shovels are required to 1 bucket, he fills and empties his shovel 6,250 times, with an average weight of 21 to 23 lbs." See Conneaut (Ohio) Post Herald, May 31, 1899. The Ashtabula News July 25, 1877, remarked: "A person's symphaties cannot but go out to the dock hands in their hard lot. It does seem to us that they are living a life of death by inches."

13 Akseli Järnefelt, Suomalaiset Amerikassa (Helsinki, 1899), 68-80. See also Mannerkorpi, Bethania Julkaisu, 18; The Chautauquan (Chautauqua, N. Y., 1880-1914), XLVIII (1908), 247-54.

14 Mannerkorpi, Bethania Julkaisu, 20-21.

15 Ashtabula Telegraph, December 12, 1879. See also Conneaut Post Herald. October 28, 1898; Painesville (Ohio) Daily Republican, January 4, 1899. The seasonal flow of labor continued well into the new century. The Post Herald, December 24, 1901, noted that over one-half of the community's ore shovelers had left for Youngstown, Pittsburgh, and Michigan.

16 U. S. Census office, Twelfth Census, 1900, I, 776. It is difficult to get accurate statistics on the number of foreign-born Finns in Youngstown, Warren, Girard, and other interior settlements. During the winter months the population was swelled considerably by the in-migration of ore shovelers from the lake ports; during the summer months the reverse movement occurred.

17 The names of the pioneers as well as the date of the founding of the Fairport settlement are from an unpublished MS. of Mr. Matti Lahti. There is a different version of the coming of the Finns in Niilo Killinen, "Fairport Ennen Ja Nyt", Suomi Kirkko (Hancock, Mich., 1925), 46-51. See also Mannerkorpi, Bethania Julkaisu, 28. Among the early Finnish women in Fairport were Mrs. E. Kinnunen and her sister. The first marriage was that of Mr. an Mrs. Herman Kukilla in 1886.

18 Painesville Telegraph Republican, July 80, 1907.

19 S. Ilmonen, "Warrenin Suom. Ev.-Luth. Seurakunnan Vaiheista", Kirkollinen Kalenteri Vuodelle 1913 (1912), 144-48; W. Rautanen, "Warrenin Seurakunta", Kirkollinen Kalenteri Vuodelle 1927 (1926), 110-14.

20 Warren (Ohio) Western Reserve Chronicle, July 81, 1889; February 12, 1890.

21 The names of the older residents are given in Raittiuskalenteri 1918 (1917), 201-02. During the war years the Finns were forced to yield their original settlement before the steady encroachment of Negroes.

22 W. Rautanen, "Piirteitä Clevelandin Seurakunnan Historiasta", Kirkollinen Kalenteri Vuodelle 1925 (1924), 117-23; Charlotte M. Parker. comp., "Immigration to Cleveland", Western Reserve University Bulletin (Cleveland O.), XIX (1916), 84; Twelfth Census, 1900, I, 776, 797.

23 There are two excellent accounts of the coming of the Finns to Conneaut: Kalle H. Mannerkorpi, "Conneautin Suomal. Ev.-Luth. Seurakunnan Historia 20 Vuotisajalta, 1895-1915", Paimen Sanoma (Hancock, Mich.), XXVII (1915), 529-64; and Kustaa Kujala, Kilpi Raittiusseuran 20nen Vuotisen Toiminta Historiaa Kirjoitettu Sen Kahdenkymmeneenteen Vuosijuhlaan; Tähän On Myöskin Liitetty Conneautin Alku Historiaa Ja Osia Kansamme Kansalaistemme Pyrinnnöistä, unpublished MS., Conneaut 1915.

24 Henry Howe observed the rural movement of the Ashtabula Harbor Finns: "Fins, young men and women are scattering on the farms of the State." Historical collections I, 275; however, the drift of Finns from the cities to the rural areas has assumed no significant proportions in Ohio. For miscellaneous items on Girard, see Western Reserve Chronicle, January 2, 1889; Conneaut Post Herald, August 21, 1899; Kirkollinen Kalenteri Vuodelle 1913 (1912) 156-59. For Burton, see Raittiuskalenteri, 1914 (1913). 170-73; Painesville Telegraph, July 14, 1887. For Chardon, see Painesville Telegraph, September 23, 1886, and the Telegraph Republican, May 21, 1900. There were a few Finns living in Sheffield and Kingsville in the eighties.

25 The statistics are from the census reports for the indicated years.

26 Ashtabula Telegraph, March 17, l876. The Ashtabula News, March 15, 1876, supplies additional information: "... James Hulce's old store building, which has been lately used as a boarding or messing house for the Finnish laborers employed in various was at the Harbor. These men board and lodge there, doing their own cooking - as many as eighteen having stayed there at one time."

27 Mannerkorpi, Bethania Julkaisu, 20. Henry Howe was perhaps stretching the point when he spoke of the Finns and Swedes of Ashtabula Harbor as "a thrifty people, most of them owning their homes". Historical Collections, I, 278.

28 Conneaut Post Herald, January 13, 1897; August 11, 1898; January 17, 1899.

29 Ibid., January 22, 1900; October 16, 1902. An assessment of property owners made in 1902 for the paving of Day Street from Park Avenue to Lake Road showed 22 out of a total of 71 lots owned by Finns.

30 Ashtabula Telegraph, October 1, 1886; Mannerkorpi, Bethania Julkaisu, 15.

31 Ashtabula Telegraph, August 15, 1885.

32 Painesville Telegraph, July 21, 1987; May 17, September 6, 1888. See also Painesville Daily Republican, May 4, 1899.

33 Conneaut Post Herald, August 4, 1896; October 13, 1897.

Published in The Ohio State Archaelogical and Historical Quarterly, Vol. 49, 1940, p. 150-159.

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