In 19th-century Cleveland, bridge-building was big. The Columbus Street Bridge—a 200-foot covered structure completed around 1836—was the city’s first major span. It supplanted a series of less-permanent crossings such as a chained platform of floating logs and a wood-surface structure supported by pontoon boats. The opening of the Columbus Street Bridge (combined with Cleveland’s destruction of an older bridge to the north) fomented the infamous Ohio City Bridge War. Other projects followed, including the Center Street Bridge, the Main Street Bridge and the Seneca (West 3rd) Street Bridge. Foreshadowing later disasters, the Seneca Street structure collapsed in 1857. The official cause was “overloaded with cattle.” In 1878 a milestone was reached when the Superior Viaduct was completed. This was the first Cleveland span tall enough to let river traffic pass under it without enacting a swing or levitation mechanism.
But the century’s largest bridge by far—as well as the one most beset by misconception and misfortune —was the Central Viaduct, built by the King Iron Bridge and Manufacturing Company and completed in 1888. What most people refer to as the Central Viaduct stood roughly where the Innerbelt Bridge (I-90) is now located. It was 2,839 feet long and extended from Jennings Avenue (now West 14th Street) to Central Avenue (now Carnegie Avenue). Known as a "stilt" type bridge, it had a turntable section that pivoted horizontally to let tall ships pass. However, the Jennings-Central span was only part of the Central Viaduct initiative. A second bridge—the Walworth Run section—connected Abbey Avenue to Lorain Avenue at W. 25th Street. Rebuilt in 1986, the 1,088-foot bridge continues to link Ohio City with what is now Tremont.
Even before the Jennings-Central portion of the Viaduct was completed, tragedy struck. On the afternoon of January 5, 1888, part of the structure collapsed, killing several workers. Investigators concluded that a large water-carrying machine ran off the end of a temporary wooden trestle. On the way down, it took out two sections of the nascent bridge which collapsed on workers beneath. In 1892, disaster struck again when a speeding streetcar jumped the tracks and crashed into an oncoming car.
Would that that were all. On the foggy evening of November 16, 1895, Railcar 642 of the Cleveland Electric Railway Company, heading west from downtown, crashed through a gate and plummeted 100 feet off the Viaduct into the Cuyahoga River. Unbeknownst to the passengers and crew, the center section (the “draw”) had been opened to permit the tugboat “Ben Campbell” towing a lumber barge to pass underneath. And unbeknownst to motorman Augustus Rogers, the power cutoff switch (designed to stop the streetcar when the draw was open) was broken. Of Car 642’s 21 passengers and crew, 17 died, including conductor Edward Hoffman who left behind a wife and 10-month-old son.
"Nothing like it recorded in the history of the Forest City," mourned the Cleveland Press. Interviewed by the paper, bystander Phil Beck recalled that "the car was running rapidly up until the time it reached the safety rail. It came to a standstill and the conductor jumped out and threw the switch. Then the motorman put the power on and the car moved forward at a high rate of speed. We all yelled to the motorman to stop, but he did not seem to heed nor hear us. [After crashing through a gate] he saw his peril and, without reversing the power, sprang to the bridge. He saved himself by catching the edge of the footwalk. Then the car dropped over the edge. It was going at such a high rate of speed that it did not seem that the front end dropped first, but seemed to sail out into the air and then drop down." On its descent, the car struck the bridge pilings and plunged head-first into the river. It took two days of searching with grappling hooks to recover the bodies from the river. Only one passenger, Patrick Looney, survived the plunge. Disabled and traumatized, Looney returned to County Clare, Ireland, where he lived out his life.
Upon seeing the open draw, motorman Augustus Rogers and three passengers had jumped from the car before it plunged. Rogers was accused of manslaughter and jailed. A month later he was freed and charges were dropped. Responsibility for the tragedy was placed on conductor Edward Hoffman, who had told the motorman to proceed through the gates.
The Viaduct’s draw span was replaced with a high-level truss bridge in 1912, but even that failed to put an end to the structure’s sad track record. On May 25, 1914, a fire at Fisher-Wilson Lumber Company underneath the bridge destroyed 300 feet of the Viaduct. The span was rebuilt but safety concerns remained, exacerbated by continuous sinking of land at the bridge’s western end.
Declared unalterably unsafe, the Central Viaduct was closed in 1941 and demolished shortly after World War II. By that time, plans for a grand “Innerbelt” project were underway, but funding and property-acquisition issues delayed the initiative. A new structure following the general path of the Central Viaduct was completed in 1962. Other than congestion, the new bridge was largely devoid of problems, although commercial truck traffic was banned from the bridge between 2008 and 2010 due to structural concerns. The entire span was replaced by the new George V. Voinovich Bridges, completed in September 2016. All that remains of the hard-luck Central Viaduct are several stone piers—fully visible from a ramped section of the Towpath Trail in northeast Tremont.