There has always been a healthy rivalry between the city’s East and West sides. Playful teasing and jabs made in jest are about as serious as things get these days, but nothing a pitcher of Dortmunder shared over a corned beef sandwich can’t fix.
200 years ago, however, was an entirely different matter. On Halloween in 1836, tensions between the East and West sides boiled over, resulting in an actual battle, complete with muskets and a cannon, fought on what is now the Columbus Street Bridge.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Cleveland and Ohio City were separate municipalities that had only just been officially recognized as cities. As two of many small, unassuming port towns on Lake Erie, they were rather unremarkable; at the time, they were even smaller than neighboring cities like Painesville, Madison, and Ashtabula. There was no cause for major rivalry, and both Eastsiders and Westsiders coexisted quietly and peacefully.
This all changed when the Erie Canal opened on the east bank of the Cuyahoga River in 1832, making Cleveland the most important shipping center on Lake Erie. The ability to efficiently ship goods inland via the canalway caused Cleveland’s economy and population to explode. Across the river, residents of Ohio City watched with grim envy. Something had to be done if they wanted a slice of Cleveland’s sweet canal pie.
The answer? Bridges! If the Ohio City merchants could just get their goods across the Cuyahoga, they could also use the canal and attract the shipping industry to their side of the river. This was easier said than done, however. In 1836, large rivers like the Cuyahoga proved to be substantial obstacles, with crossings mostly relegated to ferries or pontoon bridges that were prone to being washed away into the lake. It became clear that a more permanent solution would be needed.
The Eastsiders caught of wind of this, though. They weren’t about to let those jealous, undeserving Westsiders move in on their golden goose! They had to act before Ohio City was able to build their river crossing and start eating into Cleveland’s profits. Luckily, they had something the evil Westsiders didn’t: cash, and a whole canal full of it.
The result was the Columbus Street Bridge, which then cost $15,000—an amount that equates to nearly $400,000 these days—and became the largest structure built in Ohio at the time. Meanwhile, Westsiders looked with shame at their pathetic pontoon bridge on Center Street.
Perfidious Cleveland had ulterior motives, as the bridge was deliberately built just south of Ohio City in order to divert commercial attention away from Ohio City. The Westsiders were livid.
The Ohio City contingent began to demand a second bridge—their slogan was “Two Bridges Or None!”—specifically one that would replace the makeshift bridge at Center Street, but the Eastsiders were unfazed by some whiny Westside malcontents and decided to escalate the rivalry.
One night, city officials ordered the east half of the Center Street Bridge to be dismantled under the cover of darkness. The act was the final straw for the long suffering Westsiders. It was clear that the filthy Eastside tyrants could not be reasoned with. For years, all Ohio City had wanted was access to Cleveland’s commercial market; now it wanted vengeance.
Ohio City gave Cleveland a dose of its own medicine by declaring the Columbus Street Bridge a public nuisance, vowing to remove the grandiose viaduct just as Cleveland had removed their modest Center Street crossing. An explosive charge was detonated under the west side of the bridge, but the damage to the stone support structure was minimal. Next, the city marshall and his deputies dug trenches at the eastern entrance of the bridge, rendering it impassable to vehicles.
But this was merely a temporary solution; only the total destruction of the bridge would satisfy the enraged Westsiders. Ohio City officials summoned a council of war—yes, an actual council of war—and an attack was planned. On Oct. 31, 1936, Ohio City carried out full-scale assault on the bridge. A posse of nearly a thousand men, armed with clubs, rocks, and rifles—they brought a lawyer and chaplain just in case things got really hairy—marched to the bridge and began dismantling it.
Cleveland reacted quickly, sending the militia to the bridge. They even wheeled an old cannon from the War of 1812 to the edge of the Cuyahoga. A standoff ensued. Shit was about to get real. Cleveland’s first mayor, John W. Willey, tried to reason with the enraged Westsiders, but he was greeted with a volley of rocks for his trouble. He quickly retreated back behind Cleveland’s militiamen.
According to the Nov. 1, 1836 edition of The Daily Herald, “The Sheriff commanded them to desist. The command was suffered to pass unheeded. He then ordered the cutting of the tackling with which they were endeavoring to destroy the bridge. In giving this order, he was knocked down by a bludgeon, and taken off the ground.”
A skirmish broke out. One heroic Westsider made a name for himself by making a mad dash for the Clevelanders’ cannon and disabling it. Finally, faced with the superior arms and organization of the Cleveland militia, the Westsiders were forced to retreat. According to the same Daily Herald article, “a few firearms were discharged, the mob dispersed, and order was restored. Thus ended the unpleasant affair. Two or three individuals were wounded.”
After the battle, armed guards were posted around the clock to prevent the wily Westsiders from making another attempt at destroying the bridge. While Ohio City may have lost the Battle for the Columbus Street Bridge, they ultimately won the war; the old flotilla bridge at Center Street was replaced with a new one that rivaled the glory of the controversial Columbus Street Bridge. The Great Cleveland Bridge War was over.
Years passed, fences were mended, and bridges were literally rebuilt. Cleveland eventually annexed Ohio City in 1854, setting their past differences aside and realizing that they worked far better as allies than enemies. Today, the Cuyahoga River is dotted with seemingly countless bridges. As we cross the river with ease on our way to our favorite pubs, The Battle of the Columbus Street Bridge seems like an impossibly distant memory, a testament to our city’s ability to recover from conflict and strife. We Clevelanders can be pretty silly sometimes, but we get it together when it counts most.