Filed Under Biography

Harold H. Burton Memorial Bridge

Republican Justice Harold Hitz Burton served as Cleveland's 45th mayor from 1936 to 1940, U.S. Senator from Ohio from 1941 to 1945, and U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice from 1945 until his retirement in 1958 due to failing health.  Burton was born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, in 1888, and graduated from Bowdoin College and Harvard Law School.  Law was Harold Burton's calling, and in his various practices he sought to uphold it as dispassionately as possible.  Upon the United States' entry into World War I, he sought commission as an officer in the 361st Infantry of the 91st Division and achieved the rank of Captain by fall 1918.  In his service he fought in Verdun during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, was  awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre "for extraordinary heroism and gallantry in action," and was  recognized by General John J. Pershing "for exceptionally meritorious and conspicuous services during the Argonne Offensive."

Following the resigning of his commission in 1919, Burton moved to Cleveland with his wife to practice corporate law in a local firm before forming his own firms: Cull, Burton & Laughlin and Andrews, Hadden & Burton.  After a brief stint as Cuyahoga County Commander of the American Legion he was persuaded to join the world of politics by local Republican Party leader Maurice Maschke. In 1921 Cleveland constituents voted to create the position of City Manager, an individual to work closely with the city government to oversee city development and governance with the  goal of  eliminating party politics in the interest of the city's progress. Burton initially served under City Manager William R. Hopkins as City Law Director from 1930 to 1931, though some of his time in office was  as interim City Director following the removal of Hopkins by the city council. The position of City Manager was  eliminated in November 1931, thereby restoring the mayoralty. Burton later ran for the recreated position of Mayor in 1935 as an independent Republican seeking to oust the corrupt Harry L. Davis. By 1936 Cleveland had become rife with corruption in the form of gambling, racketeering, and protection rackets.  Burton's desire to eliminate corruption led him to hire Eliot Ness as City Safety Director, tasking Ness with cleaning up the city.

As a mayor during the Great Depression, Burton benefited from a number of New Deal programs designed to put people back to work and rebuild the aging infrastructure of the city. One of the most successful and influential of these was the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, a federal program that provided economic aid to workers and cities through construction projects and infrastructure renovations that often could not be afforded by the cities themselves. Cleveland's Memorial Shoreway, now a segment of Ohio State Route 2, was originally constructed to provide transit to the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936. This roadway was expanded using WPA funding to provide access to downtown Cleveland from the West Side as one of the nation's first limited-access expressways, with the majority of it completed in 1939.  Mayor Burton worked closely with the WPA and its administrators to increase the funding given to Cleveland for its development.  With federal assistance, under Burton Cleveland's unemployment was reduced from 125,000 persons to 75,000 using the almost $1.5 million that the WPA provided in relief funding to the city government each month.  Following Burton's death, the Main Avenue Bridge, a segment of Memorial Shoreway, was later renamed the Harold H. Burton Memorial Bridge in his memory.

Harold Burton served as Mayor of Cleveland for only four years before pursuing election to the U.S. Senate, and he was ultimately appointed into the Supreme Court by Harry S. Truman in 1945.  As an Associate Justice he later voted in favor of and helped produce unanimity in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which can be considered the highlight of his career on the court.

Harold Burton served as a model soldier, Republican Mayor, and Associate Justice throughout his life, seeking only to do what he considered to be righteous and just.  It is because of this that he left a very noncontroversial legacy, and as such has been somewhat ignored by history which remembers great and controversial figures alike.

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Main Avenue Bridge Construction, 1939 The WPA provided a great deal of federal funding to city governments during the Great Depression that was used on projects such as the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway, of which the bridge is a part. The construction effort was not without its difficulties, as racial tensions between an Italian foreman and Ethiopian laborers delayed the start of the project for several days due to an argument over the Second Italo-Abyssinian War that had recently erupted. The WPA program provided tens of thousands of jobs each year, providing workers an average of $63.98 a month (in 1936), well over the national average. Other WPA projects included the Cleveland Municipal Airport, as well as power infrastructure and sewage disposal modernization that is still largely in use today. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Harold Hitz Burton Associate Justice Harold Burton served on the Supreme Court from September 22, 1945 to October 13, 1958. Despite voting in favor of African American Civil Rights, he was widely regarded as a failure of a Supreme Court Justice in a 1970s poll of various district judges due to his deliberate and conservative nature that didn't make changes but instead upheld precedence. Source: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States
Captain, 331st Infantry, 91st Division Here Captain Burton is seen alongside his wife, Selma Florence Smith, as well as Colonel Ernest J. Rarey at the American Legion's First Annual Army Navy Ball on April 8, 1932. It is here that Burton made his entry into politics after being persuaded by Maurice Maschke as well as Chester C. Bolton. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Burton for Mayor Cartoon, 1935 Harold Burton ran for mayor in 1935 as an Independent Republican, since he did not gain the support of the Republican party, seeking to oust Harry L. Davis and his corrupt administration. Winning by a margin of over 40,000 votes, a record up to that point, Burton began his mayoral career, and was re-elected twice in landslide victories. Following his tenure as mayor, the Republicans would lose control of the office for the next thirty-one years, something that they have never recovered from in the region. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Mayor Burton with Eliot Ness, 1937 Former member of the Untouchables, Eliot Ness was appointed as City Safety Director, on the premise of elimination of city corruption. Under Mayor Burton, Ness led a number of raids of gambling and prostitution dens, as well as the elimination of corrupt city officials including police Captains Louis J. Cadek and Michael J. Harwood. Ness hired a number of people to work under him to ferret out corruption, the most unusual being the son of Mayor Burton, Billy, who asked his father if he could aid the Safety Director during his summers off from school. Harold Burton agreed, and Billy was immediately put to work staking out a local bookie hideout. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Mayor Burton alongside Jesse Owens Following his winning of four gold medals during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Jesse Owens stands alongside Ohio Governor Martin L. Davey, Mayor Harold Burton, and City Council member Lawrence O. Payne. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Opening of Main Avenue Bridge, 1939 Here a detachment from the Army Corps of Engineers is seen parading down the completed Main Avenue Bridge during its October 11, 1939, opening celebration. The Main Avenue Bridge would be renamed the Harold H. Burton Memorial Bridge on January 18, 1986, following Burton's death on October 28, 1964. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections

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Metadata

Steven Nickels, “Harold H. Burton Memorial Bridge,” Cleveland Historical, accessed January 28, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/688.