12 Most Significant Events in Cleveland History

12 Most Significant Events in
Cleveland History

by Joe Frolik

Any list of the 12 top events in Cleveland history is obviously a series of judgments calls that probably reveals more about the person doing the compiling than it does the city. Certainly as I ran down some of the milestones I was considering, my wife’s reaction was immediate and, as usual, probably correct: “Money and politics, money and politics. Is that all you think about?”

I don’t think so, but then again as an editorial writer for Ohio’s largest newspaper, I do spend a lot of my time trying to figure out how Greater Cleveland became the place – politically, economically and socially – that it is today. And much of that evolution involves the interplay of powerful economic, demographic and political forces. Sowith that caveat about the blinders I bring to the task at hand, here is one person’s list of the events that did the most to shape Cleveland’s history, for good and ill.

— Joe Frolik

1) The last Ice Age ends roughly 10,000 years ago, and the retreating Laurentide glacial sheet leaves behind massive basins and plenty of meltwater to fill them: Today we call this gift of nature the Great Lakes. The world’s largest concentration of freshwater made possible both Cleveland’s settlement (Moses Cleaveland) and his party from Connecticut Land Co. sailed east from Buffalo and the mouth of the Cuyahoga River) and its economic boom (without easy access to iron ore from the far end of Lake Superior and waterways to ship out the finished product cheaply, there’s no steel business here). Perhaps the greatest guarantor for Greater Cleveland’s future remains this incredible and increasingly valuable liquid asset.

2) In 1850, Henry Chisholm, a 28-year-old immigrant carpenter and contractor from Scotland arrives in Cleveland to help build a breakwall on the lakefront. Seven years and several major construction projects later, he enters Cleveland’s fledgling iron and steel business by becoming a partner in a plant that re-rolls worn out iron rails. In 1859, Chisholm builds the first blast furnace in Northeast Ohio and in 1868, the first Bessemer converters west of the Alleghenies. His Cleveland Rolling Mill Co. becomes a major integrated producer of iron and steel products and by the 1890s has more than 8,000 employees. Cleveland by then is a major center for making steel and the finished products that use it. It is a transportation center for the ships and railroads that bring in raw materials and take out finished goods. All that also makes it a magnet for tens of thousands of immigrants like Chisholm eager to make their fortune in the New World.

3) Charles Brush is barely 30 years old on April 29, 1879, when he quite literally lights up the town (sorry, LeBron): At 7:55 p.m., Public Square is illuminated by a dozen of the Euclid native’s newly refined arc lights, all mounted on poles significantly higher than traditional gas street lamps and powered by a Brush-patented generator in a building just off the square. Brush’s latest invention proves a sensation: within two years, Brush street lights are in use from Boston to San Francisco. In 1891, his Brush Electric Co. becomes a building block of the new General Electric Co. Brush is not alone in his ability to turn good ideas into useful products. A 1900 Census report ranks Cleveland fifth among U.S. cities in “important patents’’ awarded between 1870 and 1890. This fuels a highly innovative, entrepreneurial – and fast-growing— industrial economy.

4) On April 1, 1901, Cleveland voters elect a new mayor: Tom L. Johnson, the “Great American Paradox,’’ as the New York Times called him, a wealthy businessman who talks like a labor agitator. Over the next eight years, Johnson makes Cleveland a laboratory for Progressive Era civic invention and arguably the best-run city in America. He builds playgrounds, parks and grand public buildings, makes public health the city’s business and holds public meetings in huge circus tents so average citizens can observe and join the deliberations of government. But Johnson’s successes – and those of Newton D. Baker, his like-minded and exceptionally talented protégé who served as mayor from 1911 to 1916 – have one downside: They inspire many communities surrounding Cleveland to embrace the “home rule’’ he and Baker advocate, eventually limiting the city’s potential growth and leading to generations of political Balkanization in Cuyahoga County.

5) In 1917 and 1918, amid the carnage of World War I France field hospitals, four accomplished doctors from Cleveland – Frank E. Bunts, George W. Crile, William E. Lower and John Phillips – begin making plans for a new hospital they will start when they got home, one based on the cooperation across specialty lines that seems to work well in the military. In 1921, they dedicate the first Cleveland Clinic building on Euclid Avenue and East 93rd Street. From the beginning, they set aside part of their revenues and raise additional funds solely for medical research. The result, nine decades later, is not only one of the most highly regarded research hospitals in the world, but the contemporary city’s most important economic engine. With some 40,000 people on its $2 billion annual payroll, the Clinic is far and away Cleveland’s largest employer.

6) On Dec. 11, 1918, the Cleveland Orchestra, under the direction of Russian-born, Yale-educated Nikolai Sokoloff, plays its first concert at Grays Armory on Bolivar Avenue downtown. The 50-plus member ensemble is the brainchild of local impresario Adella Prentiss Hughes, who in 1915 organized the Musical Arts Association and began exhorting the city’s wealthy elites to create a world-class orchestra as a symbol of Cleveland’s rising status. By 1922, Sokoloff and the orchestra are playing Carnegie Hall and establishing a global reputation for themselves and the city they represent. Thanks to a generous gift from industrialist John L. Severance — a memorial to late wife Elizabeth – the orchestra in 1931 gains a permanent and spectacular home in University Circle, an anchor for one of the nation’s premier cultural districts.

7) Cleveland voters go to the polls in a special referendum on Jan. 9, 1919, and agree to a major modification of Daniel Burnham’s Group Plan for downtown. The referendum is orchestrated by the reclusive Van Sweringen brothers, real estate developers Oris and Mantis, who want to include a new central railroad station as part of a massive office complex (Terminal Tower) that they hope to build off Public Square. Burnham’s plan put the depot on the lakefront just below City Hall and Mall C – and voters had ratified it just three years earlier. But the Vans – who want the terminal also to serve as the end point of their Shaker Rapid — mount a massive, modern campaign with heavy use of advertising and carry the day. Terminal Tower becomes a Cleveland icon, but moving the station also turns the city’s back on the lakefront. It will be decades before Cleveland begins to rethink its decision to squander an asset other cities regard as priceless.

8) African Americans, just a generation removed from slavery, begin to move north around 1910, following word that industrial jobs are available. This first Great Migration accelerates when World War I creates a labor shortage and continues until the Depression. Cleveland’s black population, estimated by the Census Bureau at 4,010 in 1900 grows to 70,755 by 1930 with more than half of them arriving during the Roaring ‘20s. Among that decades’ newcomers are Georgians Charles Stokes and Louise Stone. They marry here and by the time Charles, a laundry worker, dies in 1928 have two young sons: Louis and Carl. The Stokes brothers grow up in public housing, go on to law school and as blacks continue to pour into the city – the second wave of the Great Migration includes rabble-rousing Marine veteran from Memphis named George L. Forbes –build a political organization that challenges both white business establishment and the Democratic Party. In 1967, Carl becomes the first black mayor of a major northern city. A year later, Louis becomes Ohio’s black member of Congress.

9) On November 1, 1952, chemicals and other debris floating on Cuyahoga River catch fire and do roughly $1.5 million worth of damage. But the event draws little attention – let alone outrage. There’d been occasional fires on the river since 1868 and as far back as 1881, Mayor Rensselaer R. Herrick had called the Cuyahoga a “sewer that runs through the heart of the city.’’ But in those days, pollution was seen as little more than an unfortunate byproduct of industrial prowess. A very different story unfolds on June 22, 1969, when the Cuyahoga again blazes. Although damage this time is barely $85,000, an angry Mayor Carl Stokes leads a delegation of reporters to the banks of the Cuyahoga the following day and demands help from Washington to clean up the mess. His timing was perfect. With a Time magazine team already in town working on a cover story about pollution’s toll on Lake Erie, this fire becomes a rallying point the nascent environmental movement and leads to passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

10) After 140 years of uninterrupted growth, Cleveland’s white population begins to decline in the 1940s, in part because white GI’s can get low-cost federal home loans to move to the suburbs, while black veterans cannot. “White flight’’ continues into the 1960s, accelerating after two major riots –Hough in 1966 and Glenville in 1969. But the last straw for many whites comes on Aug. 31, 1976, when U.S. District Judge Frank J. Battisti signs a 203-page decision that, among other remedies, orders cross-town busing to end racial segregation. However well-meaning Battititi’s decision may have been – other northern districts had been hit with busing orders before Cleveland – the impact here is devastating.. White flight morphs into middle-class flight. In the 1970s, Cleveland’s black population falls, too, with an exodus of 30,000 people, many to suburbs perceived to have better schools. Battisti’s order remains in effect until the 1990s, when the city’s second black mayor, Michael R. White, leads the charge to end it.

11) On Dec. 15, 1978, a year-long battle between Cleveland’s populist “boy mayor,’’ Dennis Kucinich, and a combative business community, led in this case by Cleveland Trust CEO Brock Weir, comes to a head. A consortium of six local banks calls in $14 million in loans, knowing Kucinich cannot come up with the cash because he refuses to sell Cleveland Public Power as they recommend. Cleveland, its finances held together for nearly a decade by chewing gum, baling wire and accounting tricks, becomes the first U.S. city since the Depression to default. The debacle leads to Kucinich’s defeat in 1979 and effectively ices his political ambitions for another 15 years. But default also forces the business community to rethink its relationship with the city. Under Kucinich’s successor, George V. Voinovich, City Hall and the newly engaged corporate sector form a celebrated public-private partnership that produces several major downtown projects and helps burnish Cleveland’s national image as a “comeback city.’’

12) For decades, good-government groups warned that Cuyahoga County government was a relic of agrarian times with power so diffuse that no one could be held accountable for anything. Not even a poorly supervised investment fiasco in 1994 could prompt more than a study of government reform – that was shelved as soon as public angry subsided. All that changes on July 28, 2008, when nearly 200 federal agents descend on the County Administration Building, the homes of the county’s two most powerful Democratic politicians and the offices of numerous county contractors. They fill U-Haul trucks with documents and computers. After a year of stony silence from federal prosecutors, the indictments begin to flow. On Nov. 2, 2009, appalled voters overwhelming fire the entire county government and concentrate responsibility in a powerful new county executive.


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