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Gangster tour operators open OTR Civil War tour

At the corner of 12th and vine streets in Over-the-Rhine, a tall man in a black vest and top hat commands the attention of a few dozen suburban-looking Cincinnatians.

"We're no Antietam, Gettysburg or Shiloh, but I guarantee you that this place was a battleground," he says. "It was a battlefield for the hearts and minds of Cincinnatians…who had to sleep with one eye open for four years."

Mac Cooley was delivering the opening lines of "Cincinnati Civil War; Heroes, Halls and Holy Houses," a new walking tour exploring Civil War History in Over-the-Rhine. The tour will start every Saturday in September in front of Mica 12/v on Vine Street.  It is the third tour that Cooley, Jerry Gels and their friends and family operate in the Greater Cincinnati Area - and the second in Over-the-Rhine.

While the other tours - Newport Gangster Tours and Queen City Underground - cover salacious topics like prostitution and beer, Gels said he thinks the history in this tour is the most significant they've covered yet.

It doesn't get any bigger than people who follow the Civil War and want to hear Civil War stories, so our goal is to put Cincinnati on the map for that," Gels said.

The tour begins on Vine Street and heads to Washington Park beneath a monument for the 9th Ohio Volunteer Infantry - the Dutch Devils - an all German speaking group from Over-the-Rhine. It moves into Memorial Hall, and then over to the Emery Theatre which sits on the site of the Eagle Ironworks, where as many as 3,000 muskets a day were rifled for Union Troops. The tour ends at Old St. Mary's Church.

Though no battles were fought in Cincinnati, much of the city's history was shaped by the war, and it provided a number of characters - like William Lytle, Powhatan Beaty and Sister Mary Anthony O'Connell -whose legendary actions figure prominently into Civil War history.

Gels teaches Biology and Cooley teaches English at Hughes High School in Covington. Gels won a Next Generation Leadership Award (NGLA) for the work he does in the classroom and mission trips he leads to Jamaica. The business began when Gels and Cooley, then amateur history buffs, decided to hold a Gangster tour in Newport as a fundraiser for the mission trips. The tours were a hit, and the rest is history.

They are now investigating commercial spaces in Over-the-Rhine for a potential new home.

"We're interested in having a bricks and mortar place in Over-the-Rhine," Cooley said. "It's the largest historic district in America, people love heritage tourism and that's what we're good at."

Writer: Henry Sweets
Photography by Scott Beseler
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