Reminisce: The history of Lima’s Blue Bird Hill

In his more than six decades of life, Theodore D. Robb had been a lawyer, a judge, a bank president, and the mayor of Lima.

On a day in early May 1905, while delivering the opening remarks at the dedication of Lima’s new high school at the corner of High and Pierce streets, he became a boy again, seeing Lima as he had seen it as a 9-year-old arriving from Bellefontaine with his family in the early 1850s.

“I have a mental picture, taken fifty-two years ago last November, from a point now marked by the intersection of Main and Circular streets, then known as Cunningham hill,” Robb said, according to a Lima Times-Democrat account of his speech. “It presents a country road leading along the meanderings of the Ottawa River to a long low covered wooden bridge that spanned the stream, and thence on north a few hundred feet to a modest little village of unpretentious frame houses, an occasional brick residence, a few country stores, two taverns and a courthouse; the streets were not paved, not even stoned, and as I now remember not even graded …”

By 1905, the town Robb so vividly remembered was fading from memory. Lima in the 1850s was a village of fewer than 1,000 people. When Robb spoke in 1905 Lima was a booming industrial city approaching 30,000 in population.

The covered bridge Robb remembered was long gone and Cunningham’s hill, a high bluff south of the Ottawa River known to most as Blue Bird Hill, had all but disappeared as the city grew to the south. And the river itself, which once flowed in a loop to the south roughly bounded by Main and West streets after passing under the Main Street bridge, had been straightened. Gone with the loop was an area known as Buckeye island, which was nearly encircled by the loop.

“When the stream was straightened and the loop was taken out there was no island, although at one time the stream followed the foothills along Circular Street, and Blue Bird Hill – once the Cunningham homestead — overlooked Buckeye island, occupied by the Ehrich property and the Risser property adjoining it,” William Rusler wrote in his 1921 history of Allen County.

The Allen County Democrat in a May 1880 story mentions the Risser property. “We just passed a pleasant hour a few days since, looking through the greenhouse of H. Risser, on Cunningham’s Blue Bird Hill,” the newspaper wrote. “It is located just a pleasant walk from the Public Square across the iron bridge, a few roads off Main Street.”

Although an 1880 map of Allen County does not show Blue Bird Hill, which was graded and leveled as Main Street was extended south in the 1870s, it does show the loop in the Ottawa River and the “island” it created. Buckeye Island, the Lima News wrote in June 2005, was a popular tourist location, but also created a flooding problem. Conditions, the Republican-Gazette wrote in a January 1925 reminiscence, “were ideal for freshets and overflows. And the creek certainly enjoyed it, for with very little excuse it covered all the territory between the bridge and Circular Street and seemed in no hurry to get back into its banks.”

To help pedestrians keep their feet dry while the river tarried outside its banks, a quarter mile-long elevated oak plan walkway was built between the bridge and Circular street around 1870. By 1895, work was under way to straighten the river channel. “The advance gang of men who are only removing the loose obstructions are now working just below the Main Street bridge, where they are excavating an eight-foot channel, making the water course as straight as possible,” the Times-Democrat wrote in October 1895.

“It is said the owner of the Ehrich land thus surrounded had sufficient vision to offer his service in straightening the Ottawa River for the privilege of using the dirt in filling the channel, and pedestrians along Elizabeth Street today do not know it was once an island,” Rusler wrote in his 1921 county history.

According to the 1925 story in the Republican-Gazette, a channel was cut “straight from the Main Street bridge, on the north side of Buckeye Island, and intersecting the old channel again at West Street, as at present. A dam was thrown across the old channel and willow trees planted to retain it, some of which still remain.”

By the second decade of the 20th century Buckeye Island and Blue Bird Hill survived mostly on old maps and in old memories, prompting Lima attorney Elmer McClain to write in a June 1915 letter published in the Republican-Gazette: “As an illustration of how rapidly well known facts pass out of public memory, how many people know that the high land on the south side of Circular Street was known as ‘Blue Bird Hill?’ That the Ottawa river formerly spread over the bottoms and wound itself around islands south of the present river channel?”

One person who remembered was Lima historian Ezekiel Owen, who had personal knowledge of Blue Bird Hill. His mother, Fannie Rose Owen, “has lived either in Lima or within two miles of the city for the past 73 years,” the Republican-Gazette wrote in June 1911, “and since 1868 has occupied her present home on the high bank of Main and Circular Street.” Ever independent, Fannie Rose Owen died in her home in December 1915 at the age of 92.

In May 1918, Owen addressed the Blue Bird Hill club, a group founded several years earlier and comprised of people living in the neighborhood of Main and Circular streets.

“The founder and originator of Blue Bird Hill was Col. James Cunningham who came to Lima in 1831, a schoolteacher. He established his home on the hill in the early ‘40s,” Owen told the group according to the Republican-Gazette. “Mr. Owen traced the history of the hill from Col. Cunningham’s time to the present, noting the reduction of the old Cunningham mansion to its present tenement proportions, the cutting down of the hill some twenty feet, and dealt entertainingly with the picturesque view of the river etc. …”

Cunningham, the newspaper noted, “taught school of some forty pupils in a cabin belonging to Jacob Downs on Water Street.” He died in his home on Blue Bird Hill in 1864.

At a subsequent club meeting that month, Mrs. Thomas Greenland, “a granddaughter of old Cunningham,” spoke on “her memories of the hill and the origin of the club,” according to the Times-Democrat. “She brought forth the origins of the name of the hill in her vivid description of the blue birds who every year made nests in the trees of the hill and in the gables of the old house.”

In 1855, nine years before “old Cunningham’s” death, a group of Lima capitalists had a town surveyed just south of the southern boundary of Lima. The town initially had 29 lots and was called Eureka. It covered territory east of South Main Street, south of what is now Eureka Street, west of what is now Central Avenue and north of Kibby Street. It included Blue Bird Hill and disappeared as Lima grew south.

Today, what remains of Blue Bird Hill can be seen on East Circular Street just south of the 20th Century Lanes bowling alley.





This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


See past Reminisce stories at

Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected].