The Ohio City Bridge War

After my last Cleveland post, a friend asked if I would write something about the Ohio City War. “The what?” I thought I knew my hometown pretty well, but it turns out I knew squat.

The origins of the “Bridge War” lie in Cleveland’s inherent schizophrenia. There are two sides of the city: west of the Cuyahoga River, and east of the river. The Cuyahoga is that squiggly blue line running through the center of the city in the map below.

Cleveland, OH, 1910. Source: US Digital Maps Library.

I am actually one of those relatively rare beings who have lived on both sides, but most of my life has been spent on the east. We sometimes joke that you need a passport to go from one to the other.

After Cleveland was founded in 1796, the west side was populated by captains of industry, and most of Cleveland’s factories are on that side of the river. The east side came to be inhabited primarily by lawyers, bankers, executives, and the like. Although the east side had its “Millionaires’ Row” in Euclid Avenue, the west side had Franklin Avenue, which had its own grand houses, some of which still exist today (including Franklin Castle, which is rumored to be haunted, but I’ll leave that as a teaser for another post). As the city grew and prospered, the east side far outstripped the west in terms of wealth and development.

Because the west side was separated from the east by the river, and the ferries that had moved people from side to side were inconvenient, a bridge was built to connect the two halves of town. The near west side was an incorporated municipality in its own right, known as Ohio City. 

One of Cleveland’s first bridges was a floating bridge off of Center Street which connected Cleveland with what became Ohio City, and was jointly owned and maintained by the two municipalities. It was made of large whitewood logs chained together. When a ship wanted to pass, a section of the bridge was floated to one side and then drawn back into place by ropes. The bridge was carried away by flood a number of times, each time replaced by something they thought might be a little better. 

In the spring of 1836, an group of east side developers constructed a bridge south of the floating bridge on Columbus Street.

Columbus Street Bridge, c1836. Source: Cleveland Historical Society.

The new Columbus Street Bridge provided a direct route to Cleveland from the Medina and Wooster turnpike (now known as Pearl Road) and bypassed Ohio City’s main commercial thoroughfare. It was a covered bridge with a draw at the center allowing ships to pass. Ohio City residents, justifiably fearing that the new bridge would divert commercial traffic, were incensed. In retaliation, they boycotted the bridge. Unimpressed, Cleveland quietly removed its half of the floating bridge in the middle of the night. 

Ohio City then made a number of attempts to destroy the bridge, including an ineffective explosion. Either in late 1836 or 1837–I am not sure which historical account is accurate–a mob of Ohio City residents marched to the Columbus Street Bridge with guns, crowbars, axes, and other weapons, intending to finish the job. They were met by Cleveland’s mayor and armed Cleveland militiamen. In the ensuing fight, three men were seriously wounded, and a number of arrests were made. In the end, the courts wisely decided that Cleveland needed more than one bridge. Cleveland restored its half of the Center Street Bridge, and Ohio City stopped trying to blow up the Columbus Street Bridge.

Columbus Street Bridge, c1986. Source: Cleveland Memory Project.  

The original wooden Columbus Street bridge was replaced by a steel span in 1870, then by a double swing bridge, and finally by a lift bridge in 1940. The 1940 bridge is currently closed and is being restored. Ironically, it is now a popular route between Cleveland and Ohio City.

Center Street swing bridge. Source:

The many incarnations of the Center Street Bridge were finally replaced by a steel swing bridge in 1900, which remains in use today.

Ohio City was annexed by Cleveland in 1854, and is now home to Cleveland’s historic West Side Market and some of the best restaurants in town.

There are a number of great resources on Cleveland’s bridges, among them: 
Bridges of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County (1918), available on Google Books. 
The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
The Cleveland Memory Project, in particular
The Cleveland Historical Society, which also has an awesome free app that puts Cleveland history at your fingertips as you travel around town.