Ghosts, forgotten graveyards, heroes and rogues come alive on Dayton walking tour

Downtown Dayton is still a place where a ghostly convicted killer strolls Third Street to his gallows, flood victims race to safety and you can hear the distant shoe taps of phantom chorus girls who won’t quit burlesque past death.

On your own, you won’t see them. But with Leon Bey, the ghosts, business moguls, rogues and angels of the past materialize. Bey, a history-obsessed retired Dayton Metro Library employee, has made a new career for himself.

With the 100th anniversary of the Great Flood in 2013, Bey is assembling a new program that will take participants on a dramatic tour of survival amid catastrophic destruction. He’s taking a one-hour presentation on the road to Dayton Metro Library branches starting in February.

There will also be a walking tour every Friday in March starting at 7 p.m. called “The Great Dayton Flood Walk.”

Bey, 69, is downtown’s time tunnel tour guide. His Gem City Walking Tours, in its seventh year, has hosted walks for at least 1,000 people in 2012.

Ever wonder why Dayton is called the Gem City? Who was Dayton’s 19th century gypsy queen?

Bey can tell you.

How do you move thousands of old bones from an abandoned cemetery at Fifth and Ludlow streets to Woodland Cemetery?

You had to ask.

Bey works the part in theatrical black cape. He starts many tours at the Old Courthouse. There’s a walk for the Oregon Arts District, ghosts, cemeteries and murders, tales from the route of the Miami and Erie Canal, and a Main Street walk crammed with business history.

Armed with a hot sheet of most-asked questions gathered from his work at the library, Bey fields the puzzling, obscure and tricky.

Bey draws on work by local historian Curt Dalton of Dayton History, author of “Spilt Blood,” the “Breweries of Dayton” and “How Ohio Helped Invent the World.”

Bey could use some help from the public for one mystery — the hand-me-down family rumors about Prohibition-era secret rooms, bookie joints and speakeasies beneath the city streets, accessible only by tunnels and hidden entrances. Bey is still working this case. Nothing has been firmly established yet.

But with the popularity of the “Cities of the Underworld” show on the History Channel, hopes are that someone will surface with the real goods.

Dalton has heard the rumors, too. An underground tunnel connected the old Union Train Station around Ludlow and Sixth streets to the Victoria Theatre. It was large enough to accommodate the passage of circus elephants who appeared in local shows.

Typically, it’s major cities that have walking tours. Famous ones include gangster John Dillinger’s haunts in Chicago and a Dallas tour that commemorates the assassination of president John F. Kennedy.

Such tours were more common in earlier decades, Dalton said. The Internet and wider access to historical data has put a damper on them, he added. “People are less inclined to be entertained outside the home than they used to be,” he said.

But there’s nothing quite like experiencing the places where actual historical events happened.

“Leon is very entertaining, and people like it,” Dalton said.

Nancy Horlacher, the local history specialist at the downtown Dayton Metro Library, said new exhibits to commemorate the Great Dayton Flood of 1913 will be unveiled at the library Tuesday.

The Great Flood is up there with the Wright Brothers and Paul Laurence Dunbar as most popular subjects for library researchers. The library’s local history room offers 4,000 photos, as well as maps, posters and old city directories dating to 1850, among many other items. There’s a separate library genealogy department to serve family researchers, Horlacher said.

Dayton History is now constructing a new exhibit building at Carillon Park to house a permanent display of artifacts from the Great Flood. It should be open in March, the flood’s anniversary.

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