What is Willeyville?

Portrait of John Willey This website is an aggregation of US and Cleveland area news and other stuff that interests me, your humble webmaster "Goggles Paesano". This site uses RSS feeds from other sites to populate the various categories of links which allows the site to automatically update itself without the need for any manual input whatsoever. This gives the impression of a team of programmers constantly updating the site when no such thing actually happens.

So where did the name "Willeyville" come from?

John Wheelock Willey (pronounced "WYE-lee") (1797-1841) was Cleveland, Ohio's first mayor, a prominent lawyer, and land developer who played a large part in early battles between Cleveland and its west side rival, Ohio City. He arrived in Cleveland from New Hampshire in 1822 and although he was among the first lawyers to set up business in Cleveland, competition for clients was already considerable and he developed an agressive style to both his business practices and his legal arguments. He met and married Laura Maria Higby in 1829, but they had no children. Willey was elected to the state house of representatives in 1827 and to the state senate in 1830 as a Jacksonian Democrat. After his term in the senate he returned to his private law practice in Cleveland and became involved in village politics. When Cleveland was chartered as a city in 1836 Willey was responsible for writing the charter as well as many of the original laws and ordanances and became Cleveland's first mayor, serving two one-year terms between 1836 and 1838.

Willey also speculated in real estate and along with James S. Clark (for whom Clark Avenue is named) bought a section of The Flats along the Cuyahoga River's Ox Bow Bend and planned to turn it into Cleveland Centre, a business and residential district. Willey and Clark also bought land just southeast of Ohio City, named it Willeyville, and in 1836 constructed the first Columbus Street Bridge connecting the two developments. And here is where our story takes an interesting twist...

At this point in Cleveland's history there were no roads along the lakefront to the west of town between the Cuyahoga and Huron rivers. There was just a trail blazed by the native tribes that still populated the wilderness along Lake Erie. Most traffic to and from the west traveled the Medina and Wooster Turnpike (today's US route 42) which became Pearl Street (today's West 25th Street) where it entered Ohio City. Traffic then crossed the Cuyahoga River on a floating bridge at the foot of Detroit Street approximately where the Center Street swing bridge is today. Willey and Clark coveted this traffic and the two men put up $15,000 to build a permenent bridge at Columbus Street and deeded the new bridge to the City of Cleveland. This created a major shortcut to and from the M&W Turnpike that bypassed Ohio City altogether. Ohio City residents were understandably irritated by the diversion of "their" traffic and boycotted the new bridge. In response, Cleveland City Council removed the eastern half of the floating bridge which cut off and further angered Ohio City and the "Bridge War" had begun.

Original Columbus bridge, 1860
Image courtesy of The Cleveland Memory Project

In late October, 1836 a gang of Ohio City supporters using the rallying cry of "Two bridges or none!" tried to bomb the west end of the Columbus Road bridge, but their powder charges failed to do more than minor damage. A group of approximately 1,000 voluteers then showed up with shovels and dug deep trenches on either side of the bridge to prevent traffic from reaching the structure. Not finding this satisfactory, they began tearing the bridge down with whatever tools they could find until being confronted by armed Cleveland militiamen under the command of Mayor Willey himself. In the ensuing riot three men were seriously injured before the county sheriff arrived to restore order and make several arrests. The fight then moved into the courts.

Third bridge at Columbus Street, 1918
Third bridge at Columbus Street, 1918
Fourth and current bridge
Fourth and current bridge - open for an ore freighter

During November of 1836 an armed guard was stationed on the Cleveland side of the Columbus Bridge until the courts decided its fate. It was eventually ruled that Cleveland had the right to construct a second bridge but had no right to prevent Ohio City from using their existing bridge. The floating bridge was restored, but the new permanent bridge diverted most traffic and prevented Ohio City from ever rivalling Cleveland in size and wealth. Eventually Detroit and Lake roads were constructed and settlers finally had an easy route to the west along Lake Erie's south shore. In 1875 construction began on Cleveland's Superior Viaduct and upon its completion in 1878 traffic between downtown Cleveland and points west no longer had the need to descend into The Flats in order to cross the Cuyahoga River.

Map of Willeyville In 1854 Ohio City was annexed by Cleveland along with Willeyville (by then known as Scranton Heights), followed by University Heights (now known as Tremont) in 1867, Brooklyn Centre (now Old Brooklyn) in 1894, and finally West Park Village in 1923 giving Cleveland's west side its current borders.

Today the name "Willeyville" is no longer used and with the exception of a recent failed restaurant venture in The Flats it has been pretty much forgotten by all but us history junkies who enjoy telling the stories of our city. The area is now considered to be part of the Ohio City neighborhood. You have to wonder what old Mayor Willey would think about that.

Other links:
Bridges of Cleveland by Cleveland State University
Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
Wikepedia's description of the area known today as "The Flats "
Cleveland Memory's bridge page
Goggles Paesano on YouTube