When Cleveland Almost Went a Bridge Too Far

Plain Dealer article written by Bob Rich and published on September 17, 1995



Author: Bob Rich


Like two Balkan nations, Cleveland and Ohio City existed in a state of uneasy truce in 1837; but there was big trouble brewing, and it was coming to a head over a bridge. 

In 1822, when the Cuyahoga River could only be crossed by boat, the towns jointly built a float bridge from the foot of Detroit Ave. to the foot of Superior St. That was the end of their cooperation, however. 

A few years later, the Ohio Canal opened and created a boom for both communities. The river banks were lined with forwarding and commission houses, ship chandlers, merchants and artisans. Hundreds of wagons of produce from the south and west would run along Pearl Rd. and pass through Ohio City before crossing over the jointly owned float bridge at the foot of Detroit to ship their goods out of the port of Cleveland. 

West Side merchants and saloons prospered as much as their East Side counterparts when more than 1,900 sailing vessels and steamboats would weigh in at Cleveland Harbor in a year’s time. 

Cleveland grew to a population of 6,000 by 1836, with little Ohio City at 2,000, but when both communities raced to become the first city incorporated in Cuyahoga County, the West Side won the title by a few days. All the old bitterness emerged. 

There were other needles under East Siders’ skins: West Side developers were planning an 80-acre development in the Flats and were talking of digging another channel from the river so they could have their own harbor. They built a fine five-story hotel, the Ohio City Exchange, which came to dominate the whole area socially. The hotel’s dome lights were kept lighted all night, serving as a landmark and a guide for ships coming into Cleveland Harbor. 

Some East Siders, with an appalling lack of civic loyalty, were scheduling banquets and balls in the great new edifice. New arrivals in the Western Reserve were bypassing the East Side and buying desirable West Side lots just like in the old pioneer days. 

Then two buccaneering real estate speculators brought things to an explosive head. James Clark and his partner, Cleveland’s first city mayor, John Willey, bought up land ringing Ohio City to the south and west, built improvements on it, and extended Columbus St. from the West Side to the Cuyahoga River south of the Detroit Ave. float bridge. 

There, for $15,000, they built a roofed, enclosed drawbridge. The city director proclaimed, “This splendid bridge was presented to the corporation of Cleveland by the owners with the express stipulation that it should remain forever free for the accommodation of the public …” 

Traffic from the south could now be led up to Ontario and Prospect streets, where the partners had built commercial properties called Cleveland Centre. This may have had something to do with their high-minded community spirit. 

To encourage the traffic bypass even more, Cleveland City Council (remember, Willey was the mayor) directed the removal of the Cleveland half of the Detroit Ave. float bridge. 

“This act was performed one night while the Ohio citizens lay dreaming of future municipal greatness,” historian James Kennedy wrote 100 years ago. “And when the morning mists arose from over the valley of the Cuyahoga, they saw their direct communication gone, and realized that to reach the courthouse and other points of interest in Cleveland, they would be compelled to travel southward, and make use of the hated Columbus St. bridge.” 

At dawn the first morning the bridge section was gone, horse-drawn wagons from the West Side had to be desperately reined in before they plunged into the river. 

Now the dogs of war were let loose. “Two bridges or none!” became the West Side war cry. The Ohio City marshal and his deputies tried to dynamite their end of the Columbus St. bridge; when that fizzled, 1,000 West Siders descended on it with picks, axes, clubs and muskets, and were busily ripping up planks when the Cleveland militia arrived to join the melee. 

Shots were fired, heavy blows exchanged. Fortunately, the Cuyahoga County sheriff called a halt to the battle before anyone was killed. 

The courts eventually settled the matter in favor of two bridges, and both towns have mixed freely ever since.


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