Road Trip: Industrial Cleveland

Listen to the Story

The Cuyahoga River runs through Cleveland's Industrial Valley.(Photo: Flickr)
The Cuyahoga River runs through Cleveland's Industrial Valley.(Photo: Flickr)

You can still see the industrial history of Cleveland.

Start at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River where Moses Cleaveland stepped ashore from Lake Erie in 1796. That natural resource had already been long used for transportation inland by Native Americans. But George Washington had an idea on how the country could expand West– build a canal that could link to the Erie Canal.

With that, farm produce deep inside Ohio could be shipped to markets back East. Tim Donovan, Director of the Ohio Canal Corridor, said the young state of Ohio didn’t have enough money to build a canal so they found the money elsewhere

“There was a risk to be taken there, but New York City saw the advantage of that risk, and New York state and they went and they made the deal and the governor of New York at that time was the canal commissioner before he was governor. So he understood it from day one that this was going to be good for what we do here in New York.”

And it worked immediately; fueling growth of towns such as Akron and Massillon.

Once they opened that canal up from Akron, farm goods start shipping through…the port of Cleveland became a real port on the Great Lakes. We were feeding the eastern markets, and they were in turn feeding us with products from the early days of industrial revolution. So it worked really well in terms of creating mutually beneficial economies in both areas.

Eventually mines in Stark and Tuscarawas counties began sending canal boats loaded with coal up north.

Combine that with iron ore shipped on the Great Lakes from Minnesota, and you get the beginnings of the steel industry.

One man working as a broker in the warehouses off the canal was John D. Rockefeller. Historian Ed Pershey of the Western Reserve Historical Society says just as the railroads arrived, Rockefeller realized that oil had been discovered across the border in Pennsylvania.

“That’s when he starts his oil business. He sees the opportunity, goes to western Pennsylvania, buys the rights to that oil, essentially invents tank cars, puts the crude oil, pumping it out of the well in tank cars, brings it to Cleveland for refining on the banks of the Cuyahoga River,” Pershey says.

At first oil was used for lubricants and for kerosene, but Tim Donovan points out it helped make the city a center for paints and varnishes..

Sherwin Williams, their first plant was actually property owned by Rockefeller, used by Standard Oil.

Put oil, steel and paint together and Cleveland had all the makings to build the next mode of transportation – automobiles. White Motors began here, Winston, Peerless, and Chandler. At one time Cleveland was making more cars than Detroit.

Akron’s making rubber tires for the cars being built in Cleveland. That’s a great combination. And we were refining the oil on the banks of the Cuyahoga River.
Remember that John D Rockefeller of course sold out his interest in Standard Oil in 1905. And he was the richest man in the United States, maybe the world. They weren’t even making gasoline yet! The thing about the oil industry is it really takes off when cars begin to suck up gasoline! It’s astounding.

By World War One airplanes were being built here. And later the NASA Lewis Research Center along with aerospace companies in Akron and Cleveland made flight suits and rocket parts

“If it wasn’t for NASA – at the time “NASA Lewis” – in the late 50’s early 60’s we wouldn’t have put a man on the moon. The development of upper stage propellants and rocket designs. Cleveland was deeply deeply involved in that,” Pershey says.

Today, Cleveland is embracing its industrial history. Along the Cuyahoga River and the Ohio Canal there are visitor centers and interpretive way centers that tell the story.

There are even displays of actual steel slabs and bottle cars and machinery in the shadow of factories and mills that are still working.

You can download this audio tour by visiting SeeOhioFirst.org and clicking on “The New Ohio Guide.”

The New Ohio Guide is produced by the Ohio Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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