“The Ohio Air-Ship”

September 20, 1902

William A. Rogers

“The Ohio Air-Ship”

Presidential Election 1904; State Elections; Transportation, Aircraft;

Johnson, Tom L.;


No caption

This cartoon features Mayor Tom L. Johnson of Cleveland as a hot-air balloon.  Johnson was a wealthy businessman turned political reformer, who at the time of this cartoon's publication had set his sights on the Ohio governorship and possibly the White House.

Tom L. Johnson was born in Kentucky in 1854.  After the Civil War impoverished his former slave-owning family, they moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1868.  As a teenager, Johnson worked for a Louisville streetcar company owned by the DuPont family, patented the first coin box for fares (the first of 31 patents during his lifetime), and became the company superintendent in 1873. Three years later, Johnson took a loan from the DuPonts to buy a streetcar company in Indianapolis, Indiana, and in 1879 purchased a streetcar company in Cleveland, where he moved.

In the early 1880s, Johnson became a disciple of reformer Henry George, whose influential book, Progress and Poverty (1879), denounced the power of wealthy landowners.  George's "single-tax" solution was to replace all personal and corporate taxes with a steep tax on speculative land purchases.  Johnson continued expanding his business holdings, operating a streetcar manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania, buying other streetcar lines in Brooklyn and Detroit, purchasing steel and iron mills, and (despite his professed single-tax belief) becoming a land speculator.  The "3 cent fare" banner in the cartoon refers to a streetcar controversy in Detroit, where in 1895 the city's reform mayor, Hazen Pingree, pressured Johnson's company to lower its fares from five to three cents.  During the battle, Johnson came to symbolize the greed and power of wealthy streetcar owners.

Johnson served uneventfully as a Democratic congressman (1891-1895) from Ohio.  After having been chastened by the Detroit press in the streetcar battle, he sought to develop a more populist image by becoming the champion of the average citizen.  In 1901, he won the first of three terms as Cleveland's mayor.  Like Mayor Pingree of Detroit, his former nemesis, Mayor Johnson, forced Cleveland's private streetcar companies to lower their fares.  As mayor, he also reformed the property tax system, improved prison conditions, provided public bathhouses, and constructed a civic center planned by famed architect Daniel Burnham.

Johnson gained national attention as a reform mayor, spawning many imitators across the country, and sparking speculation about his prospects for state and federal office.  As this cartoon indicates, he was flying high in 1902, casting a formidable shadow over the Ohio landscape.  The next year he won the Democratic nomination for governor, but lost in the general election to the Republican candidate.  He had been discussed as a possible presidential candidate in 1904, but his gubernatorial defeat undercut his chances and he chose not to enter the race.  He finally lost reelection as mayor in 1909, and died two years later.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Ohio Air-Ship”
November 28, 2023

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