Water Under the Bridge: Cleveland’s Abandoned Streetcar System

The streetcar system that once represented radical accessibility now sits abandoned under the Detroit-Superior Bridge. The man who built it is immortalized in Cleveland’s Public Square with perhaps the toughest victory of his career forgotten. Cover graphic by Jason Mecchi for Midstory.

Built in 1918, the unassuming gray steel of the Detroit-Superior Bridge arches over the Cleveland skyline. The bridge was originally fitted with two levels: the upper level for cars and the lower level for a streetcar system.

While the former bustles with cars traveling between Ohio City and Ox Bow Bend, the latter remains still; a yellow streetcar from the 1950s sits in the inadvertent time capsule. Nearly undetectable under the upper level of the Detroit-Superior Bridge, the abandoned streetcar platform serves as a relic of Cleveland’s public infrastructure.

Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library via Wikimedia Commons.

Then-Mayor Tom Johnson proposed Cleveland’s streetcar system in 1901, a plan bitterly contested by a staunchly pro-highway Cleveland City Council.

The streetcar was a war against privilege; Johnson was said to have resented the word, once saying, “It is privilege that causes evil in the world, not wickedness; and not men.” From selling newspapers to support his family in financial ruin to eventually owning a mansion on Cleveland’s “Millionaire’s Row,” Johnson vowed to use his wealth and influence to eliminate socioeconomic hierarchy.

And thus Johnson’s campaign for a low-cost, accessible streetcar morphed into a battle against Cleveland’s city council who upheld street ordinances and scrutinized the path of the streetcar around the city. After a year of back and forth, construction of the streetcar system was set to begin in April 1902

Once construction started, however, miscommunication over the streetcar franchise once again caused delays. As Mayor Johnson worked to negotiate with the construction committee, inflammatory news articles spread misinformation on the project and brought the hard-fought streetcar system to a halt for an additional year.

The streetcar system finally opened in 1906. It was an immediate success with the public, fueled by the economic mobilization created by the world wars. 

Johnson’s next battle was affordability: He soon began lobbying to bring the streetcar fare from five cents down to three — “two-cents closer to nothing.” 

The transit companies Johnson had worked with agreed to uphold the reduced fare for four decades, but by 1950 the streetcar system started to lose money. The city council quickly began the process of phasing out the short-lived public transit system, with the last streetcar running through Cleveland on January 24, 1954.

Tom Johnson’s statue now sits proudly in Cleveland’s Public Square — his streetcar system sits abandoned under a bridge.

Where did Cleveland’s commitment to accessibility go?

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Joshua Davidson, a Cleveland-based scholar in urban planning and professor at Oberlin College, echoes the sentiment of skeptical members of the Cleveland city council — even as a pro-public infrastructure researcher. When asked if, hypothetically, the Cleveland streetcar system could now be maintained if it had survived to this day, he responded an emphatic “no.” 

“Cleveland is a city built for 1 million people — instead there are just 400,000 people,” Davidson said. “I definitely wish for a better transit system, but it’s complicated to imagine transit here.” 

Cleveland’s original streetcar system has since carried a myriad of names synonymous with failure: among the kinder ones, “A Hole in the Ground” and “Modern Urbex Dream.” The monikers denote the ways in which Cleveland has fallen short of what it could have become — a hub for connectedness, employment and growth, akin to the subway systems of major metropolitan cities that allows residents and tourists alike to navigate the city without a car.

“I bike about 50% of the time to get around Cleveland,” Davidson said. “Before I had children, I definitely used public transportation a lot more. But it takes one hour just to get places, so travel quickly accounts for two and a half hours of the day; to use public transport for this would take forever.” 

Davidson’s struggle with the feasibility of public transit within Cleveland’s car-centric infrastructure echoes the demise of the city’s streetcar system over 70 years prior.

As Cleveland’s population began to grow around the midcentury, the streets were often packed with cars. The original streetcar system was considered too large to expand on above-ground roads, and its consistent loss of money expedited feasibility concerns. The city council then ruled in favor of creating a new transit system called the Red Line Subway system

Image courtesy of Christo via Wikimedia Commons.

Cleveland’s still-operational Red Line Subway system’s history began in 1955, just one year after the streetcar system had been abandoned. 

The new system was funded by sales tax and consumers rather than consistent government funding, a notable departure from its radical ancestor. Fares jumped from three cents to 25–35 cents, limiting accessibility but allowing the construction of a direct public transit line to Cleveland Hopkins Airport in 1968 — the first of its kind in the country.

Contrary to Johnson’s efforts, who believed public utility should prioritize citizens over profit, the Red Line Subway’s economic model intended to repair the financial losses from the original streetcar system. Nonetheless, the Red Line Subway struggled for years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic with decreasing ridership.

Ridership has been on the rise since 2021, but the subway system remains limited by selective routes and inconsistent schedules.

Johnson’s passion for accessibility remains strong among Cleveland residents: In protest of frequent tardiness and lack of maintenance on the Red Line Subway, commuters challenged public officials to rely on Cleveland’s public transit system for a week in February 2023. 

The result was a debate over funding positioned in a positive direction for public transportation. Officials say they can only justify increasing RTA’s budget if ridership increases — but ridership can only increase if the subway system proves its reliability.

“What comes first?” Davidson asked. “People or transportation?”

Image courtesy of Tom Hart via Wikimedia Commons.

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