Cleveland Centre

An International Trade Center Proposed for the Flats

This 1833 development proposal in the Flats featured streets named after foreign countries, all radiating from a hub called Gravity Place, to signify that this place was destined to one day become the center of Cleveland business and trade. Historian Samuel Peter Orth, looking back at the idea in 1910, called it "pretentious."

As the Ohio-Erie Canal, built between 1828 and 1832, was nearing completion, many in Cleveland caught "canal fever" and began to believe that their town was so strategically situated on the Great Lakes and along the new canal that it was destined to become an important world trade center. One man who invested in that belief was James S. Clarke, the former Sheriff of Cuyahoga County and, in the decade of the 1830s, one of the biggest real estate speculators in Cleveland. In 1831, Clarke, Richard Hilliard (a wealthy dry goods merchant), and Edmund Clark (an insurance agent and banker) formed a partnership and purchased fifty acres of land just south of the Village of Cleveland in Cleveland Township. The acreage constituted the southern part of a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Cuyahoga River and located just south of the river's first bend. On this land, then known as Case's Point (but which today is a part of the Flats we know as Ox Bow Bend or Columbus Road Peninsula), the partnership platted a development in 1833 called "Cleveland Centre," which featured streets named after foreign countries—British, French, German, China and Russia—radiating from a hub called Gravity Place, an appropriate name, they thought, for a future center of world trade and business. The land was ideally situated just south of the new Canal Basin, where Great Lakes ships traveling up the Cuyahoga River were expected to anchor and receive or transfer cargo to or from awaiting canal boats.

Lots in the new development sold well in the early years and soon a small village sprouted at Cleveland Centre. Commission merchant offices, warehouses and docks were built on the western side of the development, primarily on Merwin Street, where a young John D. Rockefeller got his first job as an accounting clerk years later. On the east side of the development, a residential neighborhood formed around Columbus Street (today, Columbus Road), the main avenue running north-south through the Centre. It wasn't long before there were so many Irish and German working-class immigrants living there that, in 1838, they built the first Roman Catholic church in Cleveland, St. Mary's on the Flats. Cleveland Centre also received a boost in the 1830s by Clarke's construction of the Columbus Street Bridge in 1835—the first permanent bridge across the Cuyahoga River at Cleveland—and in 1836 by the platting of Willeyville. Another development by Clarke and others, Willeyville was located on land directly across the river from Cleveland Centre and connected to it by the Columbus Street Bridge.

Despite James S. Clarke's optimism and promotion, and the promising beginning in the decade of the 1830s, Cleveland Centre, which was annexed to Cleveland in 1835, did not become a center of international trade and business. Instead, a national economic crisis—the Panic of 1837—intervened, ending "canal fever" in Cleveland and ruining James S. Clarke. After the economy recovered, it was the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad (CC&C), rather than international trade merchants, that arrived in Cleveland Centre. In 1851, the CC&C purchased twelve acres of land on the south end of the Centre—almost one-quarter of the entire development—and there built an engine roundhouse and other maintenance and repair facilities for its trains. The arrival of railroads here and elsewhere in Cleveland in this era coincided with the city's early industrial development, and in the years that followed a number of industrial buildings went up at Cleveland Centre, on or near the tracks of the railroad. Sometimes, the construction of these buildings required that portions of the streets that radiated from Gravity Place be vacated, and this, over the years, damaged the beauty and symmetry of the original street plan. The residential neighborhood on the east side of the development likewise suffered from the arrival of the railroad and the intensive industrial development. By 1880, St. Mary's had closed its doors and many of its former parishioners had moved out of the Flats.

The name "Cleveland Centre" itself lost its cachet sometime in the late nineteenth century as the place became better known as just part of the industrial Flats. When Cleveland experienced de-industrialization in the mid-twentieth century, Cleveland Centre, like the rest of the Flats, languished for several decades as a place of mostly closed factories and empty warehouses. That began to turn around in the decade of the 1970s when the Flats experienced rebirth as a city entertainment district. Cleveland Centre was not, in the early years of this rebirth, home to many of the entertainment venues, which tended to locate to the north, closer to the lake. However, in the early twenty-first century, a number of acres in the southern part of the Centre, formerly owned by the CC&C Railroad and its successors, were re-purposed for recreational use and became home to the Commodore's Club Marina, the Cleveland Rowing Foundation and Cleveland Metroparks' Rivergate Park, which featured a skatepark and a riverside restaurant called Merwin's Wharf. With Cleveland Centre becoming a trendy place once again, Dan Rothenfeld, a local artist, taking it all in and perhaps channeling the ghost of James S. Clarke, proposed in 2016 that historic markers be placed there and that the original radial streets and hub at Gravity Place be lighted so that both on the ground and from the air people could remember and commemorate this early era attempt to build an international trade center in the Flats. And why not? It is not the first time that grand plans have been laid out at this place.

Images

Cleveland Centre This sketch portrays the nineteenth century village development at Ox Bow Bend as it appeared in 1851. The bridge on the left is the Columbus Street Bridge built in 1835. It connected Cleveland Centre (center of sketch) on the east side of the Cuyahoga River with Willeyville (not shown), another early nineteenth century village development, on the west side of the River. The building with a spire in approximately the middle of the Centre is St. Mary's on the Flats, the first Roman Catholic church built in Cleveland. The bucolic nature of this trading center/residential neighborhood as exhibited in this sketch was shattered in this same year (1851), when the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad arrived and built tracks, a roundhouse and a number of other train repair and maintenance buildings on 12 acres of land in the southwest part of the Centre. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
The Original Development Plat In 1833, developers James S. Clarke, Richard Hilliard and Edmund Clark submitted the above plat to the Cuyahoga County County Commissioners in order to obtain permission to sell lots in the village development they proposed for 50 acres of land on the east bank of the Cuyahoga River at Case's Point, now known as Ox Bow Bend or Columbus Road Peninsula. The plat shows the radial street plan they proposed, featuring a number of streets named after foreign countries emanating from a hub called Gravity Place. Source: Cuyahoga County Archives
St. Mary's on the Flats This undated sketch is said to accurately portray the first Roman Catholic Church in Cleveland built in Cleveland Centre, at the corner of Girard and Columbus Streets, in 1838. Its original parishioners were Irish and German immigrants, but later other immigrant groups worshiped there, including French, Bohemians and Poles. As Cleveland began to industrialize in the decades of the 1850s and 1860s, the residential population of Cleveland Centre shrank, and in 1879 St. Mary's on the Flats closed its doors for good. The church building was torn down in 1888. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
The Railroad Arrives By 1850, James S. Clarke had gone bankrupt and had left Cleveland, but Richard Hilliard and Edmund Clark were still very much involved in the continued development of Cleveland Centre. Both at about this time became involved in promoting the languishing Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad, and soon became directors of the railroad, selling to it twelve (12) acres of Cleveland Centre, upon which the railroad built an extensive yard, with an engine roundhouse and a number of maintenance and repair buildings. With the arrival of the railroad, Cleveland Centre would never quite be the same again. This portion of the 1874 County Atlas graphically shows the impact that the railroad had upon the Centre. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection
Bird's Eye View Map - 1877 This map of Cleveland shows that in the year it was drawn Cleveland Centre had already become a very industrial place, with many railroad and factory buildings dotting its landscape, but few, if any, residential houses. Source: Library of Congress
The Great Flood of 1847 The arrival of the CC&C Railroad in Cleveland Centre in 1851 wasn't the only event that made residential life in the Centre difficult. Fires from lumber yards in the Centre and periodic floods of the Cuyahoga River imperiled the lives of the residents there. The cartoon above which appeared in the Plain Dealer on February 17, 1934, reflected upon the extensive damage done to Cleveland Centre in the Great Flood of 1847. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
A Sooty Place These buildings on the southwest corner of French Street and Columbus Road reveal what a sooty place Cleveland Centre had become in the early twentieth century as the Flats became home to many of Cleveland's industrial facilities. The center building housed a restaurant on its first floor and suites for rent on its upper floors. For most of us today, it would not be a very appealing place to dine, much less in which to reside. The photograph was taken in 1922. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Photograph Collection
The Warehouses and Docks of Merwin Avenue From the start (1833), Merwin Avenue, which winds down and around the west and south sides of the Columbus Road Peninsula (Ox Bow Bend), was a street in Cleveland Centre notable for its offices, warehouses and docks. This photo from 1925 shows that that was still the case almost 100 years later. Young John D. Rockefeller in 1855 got his first job as an accounting clerk in a commission merchant's offices located on Merwin Avenue. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Photograph Collection
A "bird's" view of Cleveland Centre in the Early Twentieth Century In this 1926 photograph, taken from the west bank of the Cuyahoga River, many factory and warehouse buildings can been seen covering what at one time was Cleveland Centre, its original radial street design no longer discernible. The Columbus Road Bridge appears on the right of the photo, as well as a good portion of Columbus Road itself. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Cleveland Union Terminal Viaduct, ca. 1926 In the mid-1920s, construction began on a lengthy new high-level bridge for the Cleveland Union Terminal tracks over the Cuyahoga River. A good number of the bridge's piers were planted on Cleveland Centre, resulting in further damage to the original radial street plan. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Photograph Collection Date: Ca. 1926
Gravity Place in the Twentieth Century By 1939, Gravity Place, as shown in this photo taken in that year at the intersection of French and Leonard Streets and Columbus Road, bore little resemblance to the business and trade center of Cleveland that 100 years earlier its promoters had hoped it would become. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Photograph Collection
Cleveland Centre - 1835 and 2015 These two maps, the one on the left drawn by County Surveyor Ahaz Merchant in 1835, and the other one created by Google Maps 180 years later in 2015, give an idea of the changes that occurred at Cleveland Centre over this long period of time, not only to its radial street plan, but also to it land mass, which was reduced and re-shaped as a result of many government river channel projects. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection, and Google Maps

Location

Metadata

Jim Dubelko, “Cleveland Centre,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 25, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/767.