During the American Civil War's famed Morgan's Raid, Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan paused in Nelsonville in July 1863 and burned ten wooden canal boats. However, the 400 confederates failed to destroy a covered bridge over the Hocking Canal when citizens rushed to extinguish the blaze after the raiders rode off. This allowed Union cavalry to continue their pursuit of the fleeing Confederates when they arrived in Nelsonville two hours later. Upon arriving in town, the Union cavalry was delighted that the townspeople had prepared a feast for them.
In 1888, Nelsonville became the first city in the United States west of the Allegheny Mountains to have citywide electric street lights.
Recent years have brought a revival of sorts to Nelsonville, capturing its artistic spirit in an effort to restore the Public Square into an Arts District. Most recently, Nelsonville was admitted into the national Main Street Program, and named a Preserve America Community. The central business district has also been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and both the Dew House and Stuart's Opera House have been listed separately. Nelsonville was home to a number of companies that used the area's dense clay to produce many different types of bricks, particularly glazed paving bricks, some with a distinctive star pattern (see photo). Many of the sidewalks in the public square and historic district contain these bricks.
The main commercial district is centered on the Canal Street strip that runs from the eastern to western corporation limits. Recent development has occurred on Canal Street over the past decade.
Stuart's Opera House, built in 1879, is one of Ohio's last remaining fully operating opera houses, and is located in Nelsonville's Historic Square Arts District. Stuart's hosts over 75 events a year including: concerts, plays, films, art and more. Several theater groups perform at Stuart's, including the local Athenian Berean Community (ABC) Players. The theatre produces the annual Nelsonville Music Festival, which is held at the Historic Robbins Crossing on the campus of Hocking College. The Dew Hotel is also located on the Historic Public Square. The former hotel has a noted balcony where presidents Taft, McKinley, Harding and Roosevelt all campaigned.
Nelsonville's Historic Square Arts District is also known as the Public Square. Nelsonville's Historic Square, adorned with Star Bricks, is home to over a dozen retail shops and restaurants.
Rocky Brands, Inc. was founded in Nelsonville in 1932 and the corporate headquarters are still located in the city. The former shoe factory now serves as the Rocky Outdoor Gear Store, and features three floors of outerwear, clothing, home interiors, specialty food products and boots.
The Nelsonville Cross was erected on Kontner's Hill in April, 1973. It is a Memorial Cross to Mrs. Elizabeth Smith Schwartz by her husband Mr. Walter L. Schwartz. The body of the cross is 4.5 feet by 4.5 feet, the cross arm is 25 feet in length and the body is 65 feet tall, anchored to a base of concrete which rises 8 feet above the hilltop. Manufactured of metal of special composition which includes steel and aluminum, it bears a porcelain white color. Newspapers in all parts of America and Europe have carried photographs of it as the "World's Largest Metal Cross", illuminated at night. Nelsonville has received much publicity from its location.
The Hockhocking Adena Bikeway, an 18-mile (29 km) long bicycle path, connects Nelsonville with the county seat of Athens. The Nelsonville portion of the bikeway runs from the Inn at Hocking College to the Rocky Outdoor Gear Store. It is designed for walking, running, biking, cross-country skiing, skating, and wheelchairs.
The Brick Kiln Park is located on the grounds of the former Nelsonville Brick Company. In the 19th century, the Hocking Valley was known for its abundance of natural resources, particularly clay. Numerous brick companies began to form after the iron furnaces went out of blast. One of the first to emerge was the Nelsonville Brick Company. In 1877, the Nelsonville Brick Company began their extensive operation. The Nelsonville Block, Hallwood Block, Hocking Block, and the Star Brick were all manufactured by them. In 1880, more kilns and stacks were constructed as an expansion. Nearly twenty-five million blocks and bricks were manufactured each year to keep up with the high demand. The railroads stayed busy transporting their products throughout the Midwest. The blocks and bricks manufactured in Nelsonville were very popular. One of them in particular was known as the king of all pavers, the Nelsonville Block. The salt glazed surface not only made it watertight, it also gave it a distinct and attractive finish. In 1904, the Nelsonville Block won first prize at the World's Fair in St. Louis. The Great Depression, combined with the use of concrete, led to the demise of the Nelsonville Brick Company. In 1937, the plant closed down. Although the main plant is gone, a few kilns and stacks, which were part of the expansion in 1880, still remain. An effort is underway to save the remaining kilns and stacks.
The Wayne National Forest, the only national forest in Ohio, surrounds the city. The forest headquarters are located just outside the city limits on US Route 33, overlooking the Hocking River. It includes Ohio's largest collection of ATV trails. Tourist activities include: hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, ATV riding, and bird watching.
Nelsonville has three connections to Hollywood. It is the birthplace of actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who is best known for her portrayal of Carrie Bradshaw on HBO's Sex and the City. Nelsonville is also the setting of the 1985 film Mischief starring Kelly Preston. The Public Square was also filmed in a nationwide commercial in 1986 for the television game show "Wheel of Fortune" where Pat Sajak and Vanna White traveled around the Nelsonville Victorian square in their convertible.
History and Culture
First settled in 1814 by the Daniel Nelson, Nelsonville was incorporated in 1838 with Charles Cable as its first mayor. Nelsonville blossomed into a classic Appalachian town by the mid-19th century, relying on the extractive industries of coal, clay and salt. Like many large mining towns, Nelsonville was home to a large hotel, The Dew House, and a thriving theater, Stuart's Opera House, both located on the Public Square.
Nelsonville owes its existence to the coal mining industry. In more recent years, its main industrial base was the Rocky Shoes & Boots factory, which has since moved out of the country, but continues to maintain the new Rocky Gear Store, set in the recently renovated, original factory next to Rocky Brands corporate offices. Another important employer is Hocking College. Other major employers in Nelsonville include: Tri-County Vocational School, ED MAP (a course materials management company), OhioHealth Nelsonville Health Center, Nelsonville-York City Schools, Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail, Hocking Valley Residential Center, and SEPTA Center.
Nelsonville is organized around a historic downtown district called Public Square with art galleries, restaurants, bar(The Mine Tavern) and cafes. Every month, a "Final Friday" celebration is held with vendors, art show openings, and often shows at the recently renovated Stuart's Opera House, a 19th-century theater.
The Hocking Valley Scenic Railway began as part of the historic Hocking Valley Railway in the early 1870s. Today, the railway offers scenic excursions from Nelsonville to Logan, traversing the Hocking Hills. Known for their specialty trains, the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway hosts thousands of passengers each year. Seasonal train rides include: Easter Train, Robbery Trains, North Pole Express, Fall Foliage Trips, Haunted Hills Train, Santa Train, Caboose Train, Great Hocking Valley Train Pull and wine trains. During World War II, the original Hocking Valley Railroad ran 138 steam locomotives, 70 passenger cars and 15,000 freight cars along 340 route-miles of track. Today, the trains of the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway again pull out of Nelsonville, for pleasure this time, to take passengers on leisurely glides through beautiful, historic Southeastern Ohio. Two train rides depart from the railroad depot at U.S. Rt. 33 and the Hocking Parkway Drive on Saturdays and Sundays, Memorial Day Weekend through the end of October, in addition to the seasonal train rides. The Nelsonville Yards was once the busiest railroad yard in the entire state of Ohio.
Hocking College provides several tourist opportunities in Nelsonville. One stop at Hocking is Robins Crossing, a restored pioneer village located on both the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway train route and the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway. This collection of restored log cabins showcases pioneer life, and includes a general store, school house, and a blacksmith's shop. During the warm season, demonstrations are performed at Robins Crossing on most Saturdays and Sundays, and the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway is available to experience the village. Hocking College also is home to Hocking Woods Nature Center where visitors can learn about wild animals.