Ohio City (The City of Ohio)

Building the first Urban Community on the West Bank of the Cuyahoga River

While other early New England settlers in Brooklyn Township envisioned growing acres of corn and building a rural community, Josiah Barber, a Connecticut native who arrived there in 1818, saw an entirely different future for the township located on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River.

Josiah Barber might have never set foot in Ohio if his first wife, Abigail Gilbert, hadn't died in 1797, leaving him with a young daughter to raise. In 1802, he married Sophia Lord of East Haddam, Connecticut, and, in doing so, became a member of the prominent Lord family. Several years later, after his new father-in-law had purchased nearly all of the land in what would become Brooklyn Township, Josiah became a partner in the family business of selling land in the new township. In 1818, he and his wife and four children moved to Brooklyn township, where he organized the first township government and then laid out the first village lot development. While the survey of this village, which included a public square probably not unlike that in the village of Cleveland, appears to no longer exist, county deed records suggest that the approximate village boundaries were Detroit Avenue on the north, West 28th Street on the west, the Cuyahoga River on the east, and Monroe Avenue on the south. The first village lots were sold in 1820 and the village soon became known as Brooklyn.

In the same year that village development on the west bank began, Barber and Noble Merwin, who owned land across the river, obtained a license from the Ohio Legislature to build a permanent bridge across the Cuyahoga River. However, the demand for village lots in the 1820s turned out to be not sufficient to justify the expense of building that bridge, and the two men, probably wisely, allowed their license to expire. In the decade that followed, that would all change.

As a result of the building of the Ohio-Erie Canal (1825-1834), land speculation fever hit northeast Ohio in the early 1830s. The first investors to seize the opportunity that presented itself on the west bank were two Cleveland merchant bankers, Charles Gidding and Norman C. Baldwin, who were capitalized by a group of investors from Buffalo led by Benjamin F. Tyler, son-in-law of a wealthy judge. In 1833, this group--known as the Buffalo Company, purchased Lorenzo Carter's farm and laid out a village on the west side near the mouth of the Cuyahoga River with 52 blocks and 1,100 lots. The development was bounded on the east by the river, on the north by the old river bed, on the south by Detroit Avenue, and on the west by what is today West 28th Street. With its warehouses and docks located in the west flats and its houses and retail shops up on the hill, it soon became known as West Cleveland, or simply West Village.

Josiah Barber too capitalized on this speculation fever. In 1831, he and his brother-in-law Richard Lord, who had moved to Brooklyn Township in 1826, formed a real estate partnership, and in 1835, they began planning for a redesign and re-subdivision of Brooklyn Village. They replaced the original public square with a circle-- at first called Franklin Place but later Franklin Circle, which featured streets emanating from it like spokes of a wheel, and they greatly increased the number of lots in the subdivision. The new village design and development was not altogether different from that of Cleveland Centre on the east side at Oxbow Bend, which had been laid out in 1833 by an investor group led by former county sheriff, James S. Clarke. This group decided to invest also on the west side, and in 1835 purchased land from Barber and Lord east of today's West 25th Street that extended south beyond Lorain Avenue. The group named their new development "Willeyville," after one of their investors, John Willey, who also happened to be the mayor of Cleveland. As part of the land purchase, the Clarke group was assigned the new state bridge license that Barber had obtained and undertook an obligation to build a bridge across the Cuyahoga River connecting the nearby developments on both sides of the river. Within the year, the Columbus Street bridge--the first permanent bridge across the river, was built.

As the decade continued to unfold, village development in the West Village area also expanded. In 1835, Ezekiel Folsom, a partner of Josiah Barber and Richard Lord in the Cuyahoga Steam Furnace Company, purchased 100 acres of the Charles Taylor farm--located immediately to the west of both West Village and Brooklyn Village, and laid out streets and village lots on the north and south sides of Detroit Avenue, pushing the western boundary of village development all the way to Harbor (West 44th) Street.

In the same year that Folsom began converting Charles Taylor's farm into village lots, community leaders on both sides of the river began openly discussing the need for a city charter to effectively address all of the issues and problems that came with rapid urban growth. Many on the west side--undoubtedly led by Josiah Barber, supported forming a single city on both sides of the river. However, most Clevelanders disagreed, fearing that the new city would be controlled by investors from Buffalo, then a much larger city than Cleveland. In the end, separate charters were sought for each side of the river. On March 3, 1836, Ohio City, officially known as the City of Ohio, came into existence. Notable in its charter was the new western boundary line set along the western line of original Brooklyn Township Lot No. 50, which today would be between West 58th and West 59th Streets.

Josiah Barber, who, more than anyone else, shaped the first urban community on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River, was elected the first mayor of Ohio City in 1836. He served only one one-year term and died just five years after that in 1842, more than a decade before the annexation of Ohio City to the City of Cleveland in 1854. He also didn't live to seen one last territorial change for the historic first city on the west bank. In 1853, one year before the City of Ohio was annexed to Cleveland, its voters approved an annexation proposal that, among other things, extended the western territorial limits of the city all the way to Alger (West 67th) Street. Given the efforts that Josiah Barber had made to establish this west side urban community and to then literally build a bridge between it and Cleveland on the east bank of the river, both annexations would likely have been events that he would have celebrated heartily.