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Not Underground Any More

Jerry Gels' idea for a Newport walking tour has sprouted a growing company and increased interest in local history

By Tana Weingartner · October 6th, 2010 · CityLiving
What started as a fundraising idea has turned into a full-fledged company that's taking Cincinnati and Newport by storm ... or at least on a tour. Seven years ago Jerry Gels II — along with his father Jerome Gels, sister Laura Gels and friend Dave Kohake — founded the Newport Gangster Tour. Mac Cooley and Brad Hill quickly joined the team, and last year the group formed Newport Walking Tours LLC.

In addition to the original tour, the company operates the Queen City Underground Tour and several other popular walking expeditions. This month the company introduced its newest creation, Civil War Cincinnati: Heroes, Halls and Holy Places.

Jerry Gels grew up hearing stories about Newport’s rich gangster history. He found the tales of bootlegging and illicit gambling fascinating, and they stuck with him.

The Lloyd High School teacher runs a yearly service trip to Central America and dreamed of a way to put his passion for history to good use raising money to help students pay for the trip.

“Cookie sales and bake sales don’t work for me,” he says, so he started organizing events such as reptile shows and laser tag competitions. Then, after attending a ghost tour fundraiser, the wheels started turning.

“I loved the gangster history of Newport,” Gels says. “I grew up reading about it. I read Razzle Dazzle (a book dealing with the Newport crime syndicate by investigative journalist Hank Messick) when I was in high school, and I remembered there was a map in the book that showed where all the casinos were, all the houses of ill-repute.”

Gels delved into researching the area and looking for interesting people and stories. He expected 200 people might show up for the first tour. Instead, “We had 1,200 people turn out in the first two weekends,” he says. “At that, the city called us and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got something here.’ ”

Not everyone was excited about the project. Area business owners had spent years trying to get rid of Newport’s seedy, gangster image and weren’t pleased to have that history suddenly brought back to light. But city officials liked the way the tours attracted people into a part of town they wouldn’t normally visit, and soon businesses started seeing an increase in people coming into their restaurants and shops.

With the community on board and a strong interest from the public, the annual fundraising event was transformed into a full-fledged company in August 2009.

“We saw somewhere around 3,000 to 4,000 people, so we wrote a ghost tour,” Gels says.

“And what we learned from the ghost tour is that one tour fed the next. We’d see 200 people for the ghost tour in the evening, and the next morning we’d see the same people back in the seats for the gangster tour.”

The next step was to enlist the help of several prominent Cincinnati politicos to brainstorm ways to promote the company and generate publicity. “And the thing that came out of that meeting,” Gels says, “was they said, ‘If we do this for you, we’d really like for you guys to do a tour in Cincinnati.’ ”

The team tackled the idea with vigor, hunting down historic buildings in Over-the-Rhine, seeking out hidden gems and conducting a lot of research. According to Gels, more than 300 hours of research goes into creating a tour.

“My wife called herself a ‘walking tour widow’ last year,” he jokes.

The result was the Queen City Underground Tour: Bosses, Breweries and Burials. Stops along the route include a look inside one of Cincinnati’s few remaining indoor German biergartens, a trip into a hidden burial vault and a trek below Vine Street to survey the remains of an underground beer tunnel. Between locations, guides in bow ties and derby hats describe a vibrant community and share stories forgotten by time.

The recently launched second tour through Over-the-Rhine, Civil War Cincinnati: Heroes, Halls and Holy Places, steps even further back into the city’s history, telling stories about the historic Black Brigade and the first all-German Civil War regiment. Sites visited include Washington Park, Memorial Hall, Emery Theater and Old St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

According to Gels, the walking tours aim to achieve several goals.

“Everyone appreciates the buildings, but the history in this area is so significant,” he says. “The history of Over-the-Rhine is really the history of Cincinnati.”

And he isn’t just talking about locally significant events. Gels spent two weeks in Savannah, Ga., this summer studying the popular walking tours there. He says he came back inspired but a tad unimpressed.

“They have historical stuff they talk about, but it’s a mill-keeper or a hotel owner,” he says. “No one of national importance or, in terms of what we’re talking about on the Civil War Tour, no one of this caliber.”

He says it’s important to bring Cincinnati’s history back to life and to get people walking in Over-the-Rhine again.

On a hot Saturday morning in late August, David Jenkins of St. Bernard took the Queen City Underground tour with his wife and son. They’d heard about it on Facebook.

He says he wasn’t worried about going into Over-the-Rhine. “No, it’s getting a whole lot better. It’s not a big deal, and nobody bothers you.”

Business owners in the Gateway Quarter on Vine Street and along Main Street like the sound of that.

“It takes a while for retail to support other retail, and you’re not going to see a mall or that kind of traffic set up here,” Gels says. “So you have to bring in foot traffic, and that’s what we do.”

As native Cincinnatians, the folks behind Newport Walking Tours have a heartfelt interest in seeing the area prosper. They expect to draw 15,000-20,000 visitors per year and will add a pair of new ghost tours in October.

But Gels isn’t stopping there. He’d like to see the company grow into a full-time career and a model that can be expanded to other cities around the country.



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