From Ohio History Central
Campaign button for Tom L. Johnson, a gubernatorial candidate from Cleveland, Ohio.
Tom Loftin Johnson was Mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, in the early twentieth century,
Johnson was born on July 18, 1854, near Georgetown, Kentucky. His family owned slaves, and Johnson's father fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. For much of the conflict, the Johnsons were refugees. The family resided in Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. In Virginia, Johnson sold newspapers at the train station in Staunton. Although he was only eleven years old, Johnson convinced the stationmaster to grant him a monopoly. The Johnson family used the money he earned to move to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1865. After moving to Louisville, the family traveled to Arkansas, where Johnson's father failed as a cotton farmer. The family then moved to Evansville, Indiana, and then returned to Louisville.
Upon arriving in Louisville, Johnson left school and took a position as a clerk in a local rolling mill. He moved on to an office position with a street railway company owned by the du Pont family. Johnson eventually became this firm's superintendent. He invented numerous devices for street railways, including a fare box. In 1876, Johnson left the du Pont organization and purchased his own railway line in Indianapolis, Indiana. He remained involved with this street railway until 1888. At the same time, he expanded his holdings in other firms, including companies in St. Louis, Missouri, Brooklyn, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio.
In Cleveland, Johnson found himself in competition with Marcus Hanna, a powerful businessmen and one of the leaders of the Republican Party. The two men eventually settled their differences by agreeing upon a uniform fare for all street railways in the city. Johnson also began to diversify his holdings and purchased an iron and a steel company in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He later sold the Johnstown businesses and established a new steel mill in Lorain, Ohio. In 1900, Johnson, now a very wealthy man, sold his steel mill to the U.S. Steel Company.
During the 1880s, Johnson became involved in politics. In 1888, the Democratic Party selected Johnson as a candidate for the United States House of Representatives. Johnson lost this election, but he won in 1890. He won reelection in 1892, but was defeated in 1894. A few years later Johnson was elected Mayor of Cleveland, Ohio. He served from 1901 to 1909.
As mayor, Johnson reduced the fares on street railways to three cents. He also argued that public utilities—such as railroads, electric plants, and trash removal services—could be taxed by local governments and should be regulated. Johnson actively assisted working-class residents and tried to improve services for all Cleveland residents. Johnson's popularity among the working class made him a powerful figure in the Ohio Democratic Party. Johnson was the party's nominee for governor in 1903. He campaigned for the state government taxation of railroad companies and other public utilities. Johnson did not win the election, but he remained a prominent member of the Democratic Party. His efforts as mayor of Cleveland also earned him national recognition. Lincoln Steffens, a well-known journalist at the time, called Johnson the best mayor in the United States. Tom Johnson ran for a fifth term as mayor but was not reelected. He died on April 10, 1911.