By Rebekkah Rubin
Old River Road in Cleveland winds alongside the final bend in the Cuyahoga River, just before the latter empties into Lake Erie. In the nineteenth century, immigrants, weary from their journeys to the New World, disembarked at that bend and found themselves immersed in a bustle of industry, surrounded by sailors and shipbuilders. They smelled the stench of the pollution in the river, and the smoke in the air caught in their throats. These newcomers sought shelter up the hill from the low-lying industrial area where they first arrived and walked down again each day to work between the river and the plateau of the city, in a floodplain known colloquially as “the Flats.”
The Flats would never have existed without the Cuyahoga River. When New Englanders first settled in Cleveland, in the 1790s, they came up the river and built their homes in the floodplain. Illnesses caused by the river’s proximity would force most of them to abandon their log cabins, but some stayed and navigated relations with the Native Americans who called the area home. Those interactions were short-lived. The U.S. government forced most tribes from Cleveland in 1795 with the Treaty of Greenville, which pushed the northwestern boundary of the United States to the Cuyahoga. Yet their names for the river live on: “Cuyahoga” comes from the Seneca language, while the Mohawk meaning of “crooked river,” which comes from their name, “Caygaga,” still endures in common parlance.
A steady stream of immigrants sailed into Cleveland from Europe, providing the labor force that transformed the Flats into an industrial center. One place along Old River Road was called “Immigrants’ Landing.” In the 1870s, Clevelanders traveled by carriage to the same port to catch a boat to Cedar Point, an amusement park in Sandusky, some sixty miles west along Lake Erie’s coast. Life in the Flats came to revolve around the manufacture of goods, as the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie provided transport for both factory laborers (heading to Cleveland) and the goods they produced, which were shipped throughout the country.
The river and the lake would shape life and industry in Cleveland’s Flats for the next two centuries. Recently—within the past sixty years—industry has slowed. At the same time, parts of the area have been revitalized and gentrified. The Flats is now touted as an entertainment district and tourist destination, with marketing boasting of incredible waterfront views, but some of this development has come at the cost of forgetting Cleveland’s industrial past along the banks of the Cuyahoga.
On a Friday afternoon in December, I drove into the development that is now located at Immigrants’ Landing. The original building, which was long considered the oldest in Cleveland, is no more. Instead, a brick high-rise, with apartments, themed bars and restaurants, looms over the river. The building is large enough to block the river view from passers-by. Following the winding path of the river, I arrived at Settler’s Landing Park, which marks the location where white settlers, including Moses Cleaveland, the city’s namesake, first landed. Moses Cleaveland arrived in 1796 as a surveyor with the Connecticut Land Company. After his work was finished, Cleaveland returned to Connecticut and would not set foot in the city again. Although Cleaveland is celebrated throughout the city, a lesser-known settler, Lorenzo Carter, is commemorated in the park.
Carter, determined to eke out a living in the Flats despite the malarial climate, would not return to his native Vermont. Instead, he rooted himself along the banks of the Cuyahoga with his wife, Rebecca, and their nine children. A replica of Carter’s cabin stands in the park, near its original location. The Cleveland Women’s City Club commissioned the replica in 1976, alongside other historical preservation projects and reenactments celebrating the country’s bicentennial.
I got out of the car and walked around. The weather was unseasonably temperate, but I felt the bite of the wind off the nearby lake. Today, the giant concrete Detroit-Superior Bridge arcs over the top of the replica cabin, casting the antiquated structure in its shadow. The cabin itself was pad-locked. On certain occasions, the cabin is open to the public and staffed by a historical interpreter, but when it is not open, a different visitor would have a hard time figuring out why it’s tucked there beside the river, save for a small engraved stone that credits the Cleveland Women’s City Club with its construction.
That same visitor would also not know that a Native American man spent a night chained to the rafters of Carter’s cabin as he waited to be executed the next morning. The man, John O’Mic, allegedly killed two fur trappers near Sandusky. When he was brought into custody, there was not yet a jail in the area, and he was consequently held in Carter’s home. The cabin, like the Flats, does not suggest any of the complicated, violent history that always accompanies the arrival of white settlers.
Yards away, a small plaque nestled alongside the river marks the northern terminus of the Ohio-Erie Canal. Although settlers landed in the Flats forty years earlier, the area only began to prosper and grow with the creation of the Ohio-Erie Canal, which first connected Cleveland with the city of Akron in 1827. Five years later, the canal stretched a total of 309 miles south to the Ohio River. Lock 33, the northern terminus of the canal, shared the banks with Lorenzo Carter’s cabin.
The canal transformed the Flats into a shipping center. The expanse of land perfectly accommodated docks, shipyards, and warehouses. Cleveland began to make its name in industry. Although the natural landscape of the river was responsible for this development, government and business leaders set about changing the landscape to best meet their needs; nineteenth-century industry refused to be constrained by the limitations of the natural world. In 1827, the state of Ohio joined with the federal government to dig a trench through the Flats from the river to the lake, adjusting the mouth of the river and allowing ships to sail through more smoothly.
I drove farther south, following the river upstream into an oxbow. Here, the railroad tracks weave together between industrial buildings—raised scars left over from the Flats’ industrial heyday. When railroad technology emerged in the 1850s, it could have threatened the preeminence of the canal. Actually, the twin enticements of the railroad and the canal brought industry flooding to the area. Oil refineries, flour mills, lumberyards, and paint and chemical factories all headquartered themselves in the Flats. Iron and steel manufacture became popular, with the growing supply of iron ore and other natural materials in nearby regions. By 1880, about fifty-three percent of Cleveland’s workers were involved in that industry.
The Visitors’ Directory to the Engineering Works and Industries of Cleveland, Ohio, published in 1893 by the Cleveland Civil Engineers Club, gives a sense of the many feats of industry in the city. “It would be impossible in a work of this size to describe all the hundreds of mechanical industries in this busy city,” it claimed, continuing: “only a careful selection of representative concerns has been attempted, though it is with regret that many deserving works are necessarily omitted.” By the end of the nineteenth century, Cleveland’s industry, headquartered largely in the Flats, was a sight for tourists to behold.
Today, the oxbow still houses some industry—iron works, rail yards—but it is also home to the Cleveland Centre Historical District, officially listed on the National Register of Historical Places in 2014. The area is crossed with 150-year-old railroad tracks and nineteenth-century factory buildings with historical architectural details in need of repair. A grist stone from 1856 is exhibited in front of the Grain Craft grist mill site, which has been home to various milling operations over the course of that stone’s lifetime.
During the height of Cleveland’s industry, commemorated by the Cleveland Centre Historical District, technology again began to push the limits of the natural environment. The Cuyahoga River became a liability, rather than a boon. New, larger lake vessels could not navigate the curves of the river. A complicated system of bridges, intended to make traversing the river easier, instead triggered traffic delays. New roller-lift bridges and viaducts replaced the old swing bridges. Their builders were hoping to limit these challenges, but they were not always successful.
Plans were proposed over the years to make substantial changes to the course of the river, none of which were ever adopted. An article from 1940 claimed that Cleveland’s “basic commodity is transportation,” arguing that “the Cuyahoga is today both Cleveland’s biggest asset and its biggest physical obstacle.” Four years later, another article, this one in Scientific Monthly attempted to come to terms with that contradiction. The writer evaluated the costs of straightening the river and suggested it would have been a third of the cost if those changes had been attempted seventy years earlier, attributing this change to the infrastructure, such as bridges, buildings, and docks, that had appeared in the intervening years, and which would have to be moved if the river’s path were changed.
Business in the Flats slowed during the Great Depression, but it picked up again as factories churned out the necessary supplies for the Second World War. This boon continued through the middle of the twentieth century. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the role of the Flats in the city’s fabric began to shift. The area became known for its nightlife, and people who lived (and worked) elsewhere in Cleveland flocked to the Flats in the evenings. Revitalization projects began around that time, although the popularity of the Flats decreased in the 2000s, when three bodies were found drowned in the river.
Most of the nightclubs and restaurants that flourished in that first wave of nightlife have since closed, but new venues dot both the east and west banks of the Flats. Across the river from Settlers’ Landing Park is an outdoor music venue where I saw my first concert. In the early 2000s, my dad drove myself and two friends an hour north to the Flats to what seemed, to an impressionable preteen, to be the largest outdoor auditorium in the world. During the show, a ship sailed along the river behind the stage, lighting up the night. I had never witnessed anything so grand. But in December, from my vantage point across the river from the venue, it seemed tiny compared to my memory.
Development in the Flats has happened in fits and starts. A project to construct chain restaurants and contemporary buildings in the new East Bank complex, the former site of Immigrants’ Landing, has provided fodder for newspapers for years. Restaurants were announced and never opened. New restaurants opened and then closed. Most recently, new apartment buildings have been announced with the intention of catering to millennials. Down the street, other developers have adapted industrial buildings into apartments. These brick warehouses also tower over the river—the original reason for their existence.
The West Bank feels weathered compared to the newness of east bank development. The streets are lined with old brick warehouses, some of which have been adapted into apartments and workspaces. The West Bank and the historical district in the oxbow seem so far away from the high-rise across the river, branded with a neon sign proclaiming: “Flats East Bank.” The river is perhaps all that bridges these two worlds.
Standing there in the Flats, at the end of 2018, I was surrounded by pockets of large-scale development. Some of these projects are examples of what’s known as “adaptive reuse”: outfitting a historical building for a new purpose. If done correctly, adaptive reuse developments are eligible for tax credits from the state of Ohio for expenditures in the rehabilitation of historical buildings. The practice is slowly making its way into Cleveland and throughout the Rust Belt. Within the past few years, Heinen’s, a local grocery chain, opened a new location inside an old bank building in downtown Cleveland. Elsewhere, Michigan Central Station, a one-hundred-year-old train station in Detroit, which had been vacant for thirty years, is being renovated by Ford, for the development of self-driving cars.
But adaptive reuse doesn’t necessarily guarantee interaction with our past. South of the new East Bank complex on Old River Road, the nineteenth-century buildings that line the street now house restaurants, stores, and offices. These structures may be a reminder of Cleveland’s past, but—like the replica of Lorenzo Carter’s cabin—absent large-scale efforts for collective memory, they neglect to teach us anything about our history.
I believe the river represents our best hope for remembering. The Cuyahoga has been subject to centuries of manipulation by humans—it’s been dug out, altered, and polluted. Yet still it persists. The Cuyahoga River continues to link the old industry in the Flats to the new developments. It pools alongside the Lorenzo Carter replica cabin in Settler’s Landing Park. It sits, almost stagnant, underneath impressive feats of engineering. In spite of all our transformations to the Flats, the river is a reminder—of who we’ve been, and what we’re capable of. ■
Rebekkah Rubin is a public historian and writer from Canton, Ohio. Her writing has appeared in outlets such as Smithsonian Magazine, The Week, and Electric Literature. You can find her other work at rebekkahrubin.com.
Cover image by Eric Drost. (CC BY 2.0.)
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at $5 per month.