There's More Than Meets the Eye on
Stories from the Road:
Cleveland is home base for the Museum of the Open Road, and several of our programs start, stop or go through the Cleveland metropolitan area. When you’re driving I-71, I-77, I-80, or I-90, you might find yourself in or near this city.
Cleveland might be considered the quintessential American rustbelt city. It’s seen good times and bad times; it’s flown high and fallen hard; some of her people have become immensely rich, many more have stayed poor. A lot of lives have been lived here and, in the process, the people of Cleveland have had a major influence upon this region and the American nation.
The story of Cleveland begins in April of 1796 when a contingent of 50 people left Connecticut on a voyage to for the northeast section of the Ohio country. They were sent by the Connecticut Land Company, which had purchased most of the property in Northeast Ohio. Leading the expedition was a lawyer named Moses Cleaveland, one of the organizers of the Connecticut Land Company. The mission of this expedition: to survey the land this company had purchased.
It took the party from April until late June to make its way through New York State to Buffalo. And then almost another month to reach the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, where it empties into Lake Erie. This location had already been visited by previous exploration parties: British, French, and American. All noted the strategic location and suggested it would make a good site for a fort. That fort never came to be, but Moses saw it as the site of a city. East of the river he paced out a large ten-acre public square, following the form of a New England town. Today’s downtown Cleveland is built around the original outline created by Moses Cleaveland in the wilderness back in 1796.
The idea was to name the new settlement Cuyahoga, but the crew that accompanied Moses Cleaveland wouldn’t hear of it. “Cuyahoga?” No way. “We’ll name this new village after our beloved leader.” And so when the plan for the town was completed, it bore the name: Cleaveland.
Moses Cleaveland left the city he and his crew had laid out and returned to Connecticut and his law practice. He never returned. By the year 1800, four years after its founding, Cleaveland, Ohio, had grown into a village of one resident: a guy named Lorenzo Carter who built a log cabin by the river and complained about the mosquitoes. Ten years later, the population had grown to 57. Yet, Moses Cleaveland had big dreams for the city that bore his name. “Someday,” he predicted. “Someday, Cleveland, Ohio, will grow to be as big as Wyndham, Connecticut!”
This town of 57 hardy souls was to see many transitions. For one, its name changed, slightly. The original Cleaveland was spelled as its founder’s name: C-L-E-A-V-E-L-A-N-D. But at some point, the first “a” in Cleveland was dropped. The story is that the change can be traced to the editor of a newspaper, the Cleaveland Gazette and Commercial Register. Now, that’s a long name. So long that something had to go to fit it on the paper’s masthead. The most expendable letter was that silent “A,” in Cleaveland. Out it went, the change caught on, and soon Cleveland was spelled as it is today, C-L-E-V-E-L-A-N-D.
During its first 100 years—from 1796 to 1896—Cleveland went through several successive identities. First it was a frontier settlement consisting of a few log cabins, two stores, two taverns, and a school.. Then in the second quarter of the 19th century, Cleveland developed as a center of trade, thanks to its location at the terminus of the newly-completed Ohio and Erie Canal. Goods from the farms came through Cleveland on their way to the cities of the East, while manufactured items were sent into the territories. Then, from about 1860, Cleveland began building an industrial base and transformed itself from a commercial economy to a manufacturing center.
In the process the population changed. As with other cities in northeast Ohio, the original settlers were largely from Connecticut, upstate New York, and New England. The transition of Cleveland into a manufacturing center changed that. Now there was an influx of immigrants to work in the factories. By the centennial year of 1896, over 1/3 of Clevelanders were foreign born. And by the mid 20th century, over 48 nationalities were represented and at least 40 languages were spoken in the city.
The oil and steel industries were dominant in Cleveland at the turn of the century. John D. Rockefeller had organized Standard Oil in 1870, and Cleveland became the oil center of the nation. As steel mills were established along the Cuyahoga River, iron ore was shipped into the city, and vast quantities of steel were produced. In the process, some people got rich. For a time, Cleveland claimed more millionaires than any other city in the nation.
But the Depression hit Cleveland’s industrial economy hard, and the city struggled to recover. By mid-century, its aging factories were less competitive with those elsewhere, and many closed. Cleveland came to demonstrate and symbolize the problems of Midwestern rust-belt cities whose economies faltered in the face of competition from newer cities in this country and from abroad. In 1966, race riots leveled parts of the city and underscored the hopelessness many Cleveland residents felt.
The challenge facing Cleveland has been to reinvent itself, once again. Today, that change is still in process. The gray clouds of pollution that once hovered over Cleveland have lifted, and the traditional Cleveland heavy industry has been supplemented by newer, high tech companies. Service and professional industries have become more important to the economy, and the largest employer is not a manufacturer but a hospital complex: the Cleveland Clinic.
In the old city neighborhoods, once characterized by decay and despair, changes are also taking place. Cleveland has become a model in the nation for neighborhood development as residents remodel old structures, build new homes, and welcome retail businesses back into inner city neighborhoods long starved for services. People have started to work together to reclaim their neighborhoods and, as a result, more people choose to stay in their communities. Reversing a decades long trend, some are even returning to the city from the suburbs.
Cleveland, then, is a city in the midst of change. There is tension between the pull of the new and the tug of the old, between visions of the future and scars of the past—with the patterns of the future still forming.
For more about Cleveland and its surrounding communities, see the programs for I-71 South: Cleveland to Columbus, I-71 North: Columbus to Cleveland, I-77 South: Cleveland to New Philadelphia, I-480/80 East: Cleveland to Youngstown, I-80/90 West: Cleveland to Toledo, I-90 East: Cleveland to Erie, I-90 West: Erie to Cleveland.
Museum of the Open Road, Inc
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