Transportation History

The decision by the Ohio Legislature in 1825 to make Cleveland the northern end of the Ohio & Erie Canal opened the village to the economy of the outside world. The canal made Cleveland a transportation hub, and can be credited with bringing people, commerce, and industry to the area. The influence of transportation routes in defining the shape and character of the city would continue to play a pivotal role in Cleveland's rise to prominence and eventual decline as an urban center. Clues to uncovering this history can still be discovered by examining the landscape of the city.

Cleveland has constantly adapted to technological advances in transportation throughout its relatively short history; the accommodating infrastructure developed as new modes of movement through the city became economically viable. Railroads quickly replaced the dominance of canals as the preferred method of shipping goods. Horse-drawn cars were out-shined by the efficiency and speed of streetcars, the latter of which were phased out in part due to the freedoms of navigation offered by buses and automobiles. Each transition to a new mode of transportation allowed for further expansion away from the urban center, and promoted commercial and residential development adjacent to the newly laid infrastructure consisting of rail lines, bridges, roads, airport terminals, and freeways. By the late 1920's, the contrails from airplanes departing from and arriving at Cleveland Airport could be examined by the city's first commuters as they waited in traffic as part of their daily routine.

Changes in transportation methods and routes touched upon every aspect of urban life, and were accompanied by a host of economic, social, and political implications. Just as the development of new transportation routes provided access to and promoted development in one section of the city, the choices made to the placement of these passages also had the capability of drawing traffic away from existing commercial districts and destroying residential neighborhoods. Conflicts emerged over who had the right to define these pathways, where routes were needed, and the underlying motives of the individuals/organizations promoting their construction.

Advances in transportation methods also had negative consequences for Cleveland. The cost and accessibility of transportation to residents created an increasingly socially stratified and racially segregated city. The construction of freeways following World War II not only destroyed existing neighborhoods and communities, but funneled residents, businesses, and industry away from the urban center; while proving disastrous to Cleveland's economy, these freeways promoted incredible growth in the outlying regions of the city and have provided inroads to new residents and visitors.

More recently, questions have been raised about the environmental impact of transportation choices, and the need to redefine methods and routes to create a more ecologically-conscious and pedestrian friendly city.

By exploring the history of bridges, roads, canals, railways, and airports in Cleveland, one has a chance to reflect on the impact of transportation routes and technology on the development of cities. The decisions we make about transportation continue to shape the urban landscape and the lives of Cleveland residents.

Ohio and Erie Canal

It is hard to imagine Cleveland developing into the city that it did had it not been chosen to be the northern end of the Ohio & Erie Canal. George Washington discussed the possibility of building a canal to connect Lake Erie with the Ohio River…

Columbus Street Bridge

Anyone who has lived in Cleveland for a while knows that a certain rivalry exists between its east and west sides, separated as they are by the Cuyahoga River. What most people don't realize is just how far back in history the rivalry goes, or…

Superior Viaduct

Clevelanders met the opening of the Superior Viaduct in December 1878 with great fanfare, celebrating the city's first high-level bridge. The bridge in many ways symbolized Cleveland's continuing economic growth and development into a…

Detroit-Superior Bridge

Bathed in blue light at night, the Detroit-Superior Bridge (also known as the Veterans Memorial Bridge since 1989) is a striking feature on the Cleveland skyline just west of Public Square. Cleveland's King Bridge Company built the span between…

Lorain-Carnegie Bridge

The Lorain-Carnegie Bridge opened in 1932, becoming the second fixed high-level span in Cleveland. It was built in part to relieve traffic on the Detroit-Superior Bridge (the city's other fixed high-level bridge) which opened in 1917.…

Shaker Hts. & The Van Sweringens

Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen, the brothers responsible for the construction of both the Union Terminal Complex and the Village of Shaker Heights, are two of the least remembered contributors to the development of Cleveland and its suburbs. The shy,…

Cleveland Hopkins Airport

When Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport opened on July 1, 1925 it became the first municipally owned airport in the country. City Manager William R. Hopkins took much of the credit for this feat, and the airport was named for him on his 82nd…

Shaker Lakes & The Freeway Fight

The Shaker Lakes are man-made bodies of water created by the North Union Shaker Community in the mid-nineteenth century to power a series of mills. When the Shakers left and their lands became part of the suburb of Shaker Heights, the lakes remained,…

Regional Transit Authority

Cleveland, like many American cities, experienced its heyday of streetcar transit lines in the early decades of the twentieth century. Many Clevelanders still fondly recall their trips downtown aboard the creaking, groaning streetcars that plied the…

Downtown Subway Plan

Imagine descending an escalator from Star Plaza and boarding a subway bound for Tower City Center. Mayor Tom Johnson first proposed a Cleveland subway in 1905, and the idea surfaced repeatedly thereafter. After several failed attempts between the…

Jetport in the Lake

The story of the failed Lake Erie International Jetport is one that generated a flurry of political interest but ultimately succumbed to the grandeur of its own ambition. Mayor Ralph Locher first introduced the idea of a new airport for Cleveland in…