Bridge Street was a boomtown, built up over a few years, when railroads connected Ashtabula Harbor to the mills of Youngstown and Pittsburgh and iron ore and coal streamed in and out.
Near the turn of the 20th century, as many as 65 boats waited, loaded and unloaded by hundreds of immigrants who worked hard, and fought hard in the fledgling city.
“There are 53 saloons at the Harbor, not including those in Italy, Sweden or one near Woodland Park, also ten hours of alleged bad repute, and another one soon to go in,” reported the Ashtabula Beacon Record in 1901.
Then, from a confluence of factors – including new machinery, a decrease in demand for raw materials, the consolidation of the railroads and an increase in competition from other ports — the harbor quieted. And the enclave of sturdy brick buildings at the edge of Lake Erie went dark.
For decades they sat, until entrepreneurs at the turn of the 21st century began to repurpose them as captivating shops and coffee spots and acclaimed restaurants. When the building for Carlisle’s Home in the Harbor was renovated, it still had 12 tiny bedrooms for prostitutes on the second floor, with 12 old beds.
“I think things get accidentally preserved,” said Carl E. Feather, who captured the area’s unique history in the book Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio: A History of the World’s Greatest Iron Ore Receiving Port. “It’s the same thing that happened with our
covered bridges. We didn’t have the money to replace them so we just maintained what we had.”
The history, as well as the water, now enhances the charm of Bridge Street, a burgeoning tourist destination and National Register of Historic Places district.
The Lift Bridge Community Association – named for the bridge that leads cars over the Ashtabula River and onto Bridge Street proper – was created in 2008 and hosts an annual arts festival, Beach Glass Festival and Wine & Walleye Festival, which draws thousands of visitors. The area, also known Historic Ashtabula Harbor, is in the running for the country’s best Main Street. And a boutique hotel and luxury townhomes are on the way.
There’s talk of adding historical walking tours of the harbor, where the horizon is still dominated by a coal conveyor bridge over the river.
“I think it was always a place that the general public avoided because of its reputation,” Feather said of decades past. “If you were not involved in the maritime industry, if you didn’t run a bar or boats or on the railroad, you wouldn’t go there. In the past 20 years that has all changed. It’s become a bit of a hot spot for restaurants, tourism for shops.”
A few neat, did-you-know facts to entertain you the next time you’re in town.
Kent State University professor Richard Knopf identified 11 immigrant communities within the Ashtabula Harbor
“The Swedes, the Finns and the Italians are those immigrants which have forged the fabric of the present-day county,” Feather wrote in his book.
“Most of the migration was familial,” he said in an interview. They depended on having someone here who could put them up for a few weeks until they could get their own apartment.”
The immigrants worked hard, jockeying for jobs unloading the ships, said Ren Carlisle, who helped create the Lift Bridge Association. When the day was over and the work was done, gangs of immigrant groups might square off to settle the score.
At one time, Bridge Street was so well-known that immigrants could address letters to their family in Ashtabula with just “Bridge Street, USA,” and it would arrive, Carlisle said.
Ashtabula legend says that at one point Ashtabula was one of the three most dangerous ports in the world, along with Calcutta and what was known as Shanghai.
While Feather can’t validate the exact quote, he said it’s essentially correct, at least for a few years. The harbor grew so quickly, and it didn’t have adequate police enforcement.
”It came up quickly and it came up rough,” he said. “If you look at it at one point in history it was probably like that. Did it stay that way? No.”
Feather said he was most struck in his research by the number of workers who died doing their jobs.
”It was really dangerous working conditions. Men were horribly mangled, crushed, having limbs cut off by bale cutters. It just seemed like every week there was at least one death.”
Feather’s book is full of such sad stories. A 4-year-old who had his legs cut off by a train, horses who ran straight into the river. There were bigger disasters, too.
In 1876, A Lakeshore and Michigan Southern Railway train dropped 150 feet into the frozen river when a bridge collapsed. A fire started, killing 92 people onboard. The rest of the passengers were injured.
In 1955, a natural gas leak ignited, killing 21 people, injuring 15 and destroying six buildings.
Future from the past
Rennick Meat Market was owned by T.J. Rennick at the turn of the 20th century. Now the owners – New York chefs Jennifer Pockiask and Alex Asteinza – have embraced the décor and embraced cooking in old ways. They’ve won a host of rave reviews, including a feature on the Food Network’s “Guilty Pleasures.”