Cleveland, Ohio is one of the most interesting cities in America. Once one of the most populous for much of its history but not in today’s world, it shares that distinction with St. Louis. It most certainly is not the “Mistake on the Lake;” it is complex, gritty and forcing itself to reinvent itself in the Twenty-First Century, as all former industrial powerhouses are being forced to do. I joked to myself that if American cities were people, Cleveland would win in a barroom brawl against everyone else, though it might fight to a draw with St. Louis and Baltimore!
Anchored by one of the most stunning collections of skyscrapers in the world, the Terminal Tower, Cleveland’s downtown is beautiful, reinvigorated and healthy–but as I have noted before–that does not mean that rebirth has reached all of the city’s residents.
I visited Cleveland way back in 2004 and 2006, and I will never forget looked down what I think was Euclid Avenue in downtown and seeing nothing but abandoned, filthy buildings. I couldn’t find that street today because things have changed so much for the better.
Burned out by mansions in Detroit, I skipped Shaker Heights and instead sought out the working class, industrial side of Cleveland, and how it powered the rise of the United States in the Twentieth Century.
Almost nobody knows about it today, but the steel industry in America and its peaceful, uninterrupted development free of enemy interference is one of the keys to why this country became so wealthy. The map above, from the Library of Congress, shows how important the longest peaceful border in the world, between the United States and Canada. For over a century, iron ore from the Iron Ranges has been mined from Taconite by immigrants. Bob Dylan grew up in one of those mining towns.
The ore was loaded into Great Lakes freighters, distinct in their appearance, which would then travel down the lakes, passing by Detroit, where Henry Ford would build his first auto plants, eventually waylaying some of those ore shipments on their way to the steel mills south of Lake Eire.
But the majority of that ore wasn’t purchased by Ford, and those freighters docked at Whiskey Island, where it was unloaded by some of the most amazing symbols of the Industrial Revolution: Hulett Loaders. Their invention sped up the unloading of taconite to less than a day, when before it would take men with shovels to clear out a bulk cargo hold. The results were greater yields of steel in the mills.
Some of the ore would rumble up Cleveland’s Flats to its own steel mills, but most would be loaded into the Pennsylvania Railroad’s trains where it would continue on to Youngstown and Bethlehem.
Cleveland was and is a big, burly city, and its wealth during its heyday shows through the coal dust that still clings to many of its buildings. We’ll take a look at one of America’s most iconic cities.