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Issue Date: December 2004 Issue


The Early Days

The fabled antagonism between the East and West sides of Cleveland boasts a lengthy pedigree. We offer a timeline for the serious student.

4.5 billion to 3.9 billion years ago (Hadean Eon) — Earth's early atmosphere coalesces from volcanic outgassing, its composition including H2O, the water that will one day form, among other bodies, the Cuyahoga River.

18,000 B.C. — The Wisconsin glacier peaks after gouging out the basins that will become the Great Lakes and throwing up an escarpment near Akron that obstructs the north-south proto-Cuyahoga's southerly flow. Blunted in its tracks by that ridge, the river bends northward toward the infant Lake Erie along a deep, preglacial valley.

10,000 to 7,000 B.C. — Ice Age Paleo-Indians settle in the Lake Erie basin. They leave behind no expressed preference for east or west.

1795-1803 — The Cuyahoga River serves as the western boundary of the United States, the earliest recorded instance of an Us-vs.-Them mentality between the two banks.

June 1796 — Leading a Connecticut Land Co. survey party, General Moses Cleaveland bargains with representatives of the Iroquois Confederation, ultimately purchasing the land from the Pennsylvania line to the Cuyahoga River for £500 in New York currency, two beef cattle and 100 gallons of whiskey.

September 1796 — Cleaveland's party lands on the east bank of the Cuyahoga. A month later, Cleaveland, having contributed his name for future misspelling and knowing a malarial swamp when he sees one, departs, never to return. Lorenzo Carter, on the other hand, becomes Cleveland's first permanent white settler on the east bank, near what is now Superior Avenue (the west bank has already been home to a cabin belonging to the North-West Fur Co. for more than a decade).

1805 — The west bank of the Cuyahoga is purchased from the Seneca Indians, opening up the "Firelands" to settlement by the descendants of Revolutionary War veterans in a sort of delayed GI Bill.

Dec. 30, 1835 — At a meeting convened to prepare a charter for incorporating Cleveland, the "point which excited most interest, was that of embracing the village of Brooklyn, across the river, in the limits of the proposed corporation of Cleveland. The proposition was rejected by the meeting." Cleveland residents apparently don't want the upstart West Siders of Brooklyn (which swiftly incorporates as Ohio City) to benefit from the east bank's larger population and tax base.

1836 — After years of traffic by ferries or over floating log and pontoon bridges at Center Street, the first substantial bridge over the Cuyahoga, a roofed structure 200 feet long and 33 feet wide, is erected at the foot of Columbus Street. The natural consequence of this more solid union of east and west is ...

Oct. 31, 1836 — The Great Bridge War between Cleveland and Ohio City.

Confrontation is sparked when Cleveland city council orders its half of the floating Center Street Bridge removed under cover of night, redirecting all commerce over the new Columbus Street Bridge to bypass Ohio City, its rival in efforts to attract residents and industry. (Legend has it the altered state of affairs is discovered by the driver of a wagonload of fish when, in the early morning darkness, he abruptly runs out of bridge in midriver.)

Outraged Ohio City citizens declare the Columbus Street Bridge a public nuisance. As dutifully sworn upholders of civil order, their marshal and a posse of deputies detonate a dismally ineffective powder charge on the bridge, then cross over the undamaged span to block its eastern end with a trench.

Armed men from both communities converge on the bridge, the Cleveland authorities calling out a company of militia and trotting out an old cannon normally reserved for Fourth of July celebrations. As Charles Whittlesey notes in his "Early History of Cleveland," "crowbars, clubs, stones, pistols and guns were freely used on both sides" (fortunately, a West Sider spikes the cannon's touchhole with a file before it can kill anyone). Partisans on both sides are injured, several seriously.

The Cleveland marshal — who's also the county sheriff — takes possession of the bridge. The whole godawful mess ends up in court, but the cases are dismissed in 1838.

April 3, 1854 — The rivalry between Cleveland and Ohio City finally officially ends when the former annexes the latter by a popular vote of citizens on both sides. As Whittlesey blithely records, "all jealousies and all rivalry between interests, that had never been in reality opposite, were happily terminated, by an union which did away with the arbitrary and unreal line of separation."

As a prophet, he makes a keen historian.


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