Cleveland’s Detroit-Superior Bridge

Cleveland’s Detroit-Superior Bridge

The Detroit-Superior Bridge is a 3,112-foot through arch crossing over the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, connecting Detroit Avenue in the west side to Superior Avenue in downtown. In function, it replaced the aging Superior viaduct that was dedicated December 27, 1878.

Detroit-Superior Bridge

The first proposal for a high-level bridge across the Cuyahoga River was brought up in the early 1900s as a way to alleviate congestion on the existing Superior Viaduct. City engineer William J. Carter favored the construction of a bridge from Superior Avenue to Franklin Avenue – the Lorain-Huron site, and the diverting of the present Superior Viaduct to serve as a connection between Detroit Avenue and St. Clair Avenue. A government engineer replied that a high level bridge was not necessary if a ban on high masts on lake vessels was enforced, believing that the masts were used mostly for derrick purposes and did not need to be so high.

The first bond issue, in the sum of $2 million, for a high-level bridge along the Superior Avenue route was held in 1905 and was passed 25,695 to 10,972. But it was found that the ordinance was not properly advertised and the vote was declared invalid. The location of the bridge was then questioned, with some advocating for a span from Lorain to Huron Avenue, and the proposition was submitted twice more, each time being defeated.

In February 1908, Mayor Johnson stated that a high level bridge built exclusively for streetcars would be one of the connecting links between the west and east sides but did not believe that it would serve as an immediate solution of the problem, which was the rebuilding of the Superior Viaduct into a high-level span for cars. Detailed estimates were prepared but the ability to pay for the bridge was in question. An idea to shift the burden of construction to the county was discussed, which would allow the county to hold a general bond issue that would require a simple 50% majority vote – unlike the city issue that required a two-thirds majority. But a county bond issue ultimately failed later that year.

A final route was decided upon in July 1910 along the Detroit – Superior alignment, but it was immediately opposed by various groups that it would be a duplicate of two existing bridges. An injunction was filed but dismissed, as were the subsequent appeals. In early February 1909, Assistant City Solicitor Wilkin proposed to let a bond of $2.5 million for a high level bridge. City councilman Schwartzer believed that it would be met with favor since the city was reluctant to spend over a million dollars to repair the existing viaducts.

Plans for a high level bridge to replace the Superior Bridge were submitted on March 30. The estimated cost of a high level span would be $1,374,779, and if the cost would be significantly over, the bond issue could be safely revoked.The proposed crossing would be erected just north of the present Superior Viaduct, and consist of numerous steel arches incased in concrete with columns extending from the arches to the floor, also of steel incased in concrete. The river crossing would be a steel arch with a span of 300 feet, allowing for a channel of 250 feet and a clearance of 93 feet. The bridge deck would be 58 feet wide with two 9.5 foot sidewalks.

The bond issue for the Superior Viaduct replacement failed, 17,992 for and 20,898 against.

A tentative plan and profile for a steel bridge across the Cuyahoga River valley was prepared by architect and engineer John Eisenmann in January 1910. The proposed span would connect Superior Avenue and Detroit Avenue, requiring the condemnation of the Atwater Building at Columbus Road and Superior Avenue just south of the present entrance to the Superior Viaduct. The bridge would proceed westward and swing to the south and reach the west side of the river directly over a portion of Detroit Avenue that descended to the river. It would require the condemnation of several structures at West 25th Street and Detroit Avenue, with a western terminus at a traffic circle. In August, Mayor Johnson proposed a committee of six, composed of representatives of four of the leading civic organizations, to prepare a report on the replacement viaduct over the Cuyahoga River.

A report by the High Level Bridge Commission in June recommended that the Superior Viaduct be sold to the Cleveland Railway Company for the exclusive use by streetcars. According to their plan, Superior Avenue and Detroit Avenue would be linked by a new high level bridge designed for automobiles and pedestrians. The Commission recommended that the new bridge start at Detroit Avenue at the crest of a hill, cross the Cuyahoga River in a northeast direction, go over the Commercial Milling Company’s mill, turn to follow Merwin Avenue to James Avenue where it would proceed east, cross the Erie railroad and depot, and connect to Superior Avenue at the Atwater Building. The Commission also recommended that the Superior Viaduct be rebuilt as a high level bridge to carry four streetcar tracks.

If only one bridge could be feasibly constructed, the Commission urged that the Superior Viaduct be rebuilt. To pay for the span, the county proposed a tax on all taxable property in the county. On November 8, the county bridge issue was carried by a majority vote – 33,957 for and 17,938 against.

On January 3, 1911, the county chose the location of the new Detroit-Superior Bridge after a conference with representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, Chamber of Industry, Builders Exchange, Federation of Labor and the city. Every major business interest was in favor of a Detroit-Superior route sans the Chamber of Commerce, who preferred a Superior-Detroit route, stating that it would parallel existing facilities and be an unnecessary financial burden. The Chamber desired a bridge midway between the Superior and Central Viaducts.

The new bridge was proposed to be 3,150 feet long with a width that varied from 81.6 feet at center to 94.9 feet at the approaches, with a right-of-way of 120 feet. A ten-foot buffer would be cleared to prevent business owners from constructing structures and gain access to the span other than the approaches. The center span over the Cuyahoga River was also proposed to be a 665-foot cantilever truss. The bridge was designed with three concrete arches west of the river and nine east of the river, the longest with a clear span of 174 feet, the shortest at 58 feet. Each concrete arch had four arch ribs to support the beam and slab streetcar deck on heavy spandrel columns, spaced 10 feet apart on center. The spandrel columns continued above the lower deck to support the roadway, also of beam and slab construction. Arch no. 12, between piers no. 11 and no. 12, required a different design due to its travel over the Big Four Railroad. Instead of centering, which would interfere with the railroad, a high rise curve using three hinged steel arches for both the erection and reinforcement was used.

The ratification of the site was made on February 4 in a public meeting at the courthouse. One of the only opponents of the bridge was the Walton Realty Company, owner of a 120-foot strip of land that was in the path of the new bridge. The Lake Shore Railway also voiced concern that the viaduct would prevent the construction of a large joint warehouse which had been proposed along the river for the Big Four and Baltimore & Ohio Railroads.

On February 29, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed off on the bridge. On March 23, the first contract was awarded for test bearings, and the first bridge bonds were put on sale on June 28. A commission to appraise property included within the right-of-way was appointed on July 1. On May 4, 1912, a contract was awarded to the O’Rourke Engineering and Construction Company for the construction of two main piers. The bridge would be built under the direction of W.A. Stinchcomb and A.W. Zesiger, and K.D. Cowen, engineer of construction.

The Chamber of Commerce desired the streetcar tracks on the upper level and automobiles and pedestrians on the lower level, and to eliminate one pier that would prevent a planned improvement of the Cuyahoga River to remove a bend, according to comments they made in September 1913. It also requested that the bridge be raised even higher, which was at present 83 feet over the channel. The Chamber also critized the change from caisson to cofferdam construction. The county was opposed to the modification of the design of the bridge, but was open to the idea of removing a pier.

Work on the Detroit-Superior Bridge was scheduled to progress without the construction of subways along Detroit Avenue and West 25th Street on the west side of the Cuyahoga, and in Superior Avenue around Public Square on the east side. The subways were suggested to connect into the bridge as a way to avoid congestion at the terminals of the bridge. But people on the west side of the bridge were regarded as “hostile” when the discussion of subways was brought up that the matter was dropped. The main opposition was on the ground property valuations of real estate in the vicinity of Detroit Avenue and West 25th Street that would depreciate due to the distance from the subway station, according to property owners. The entrance on Detroit Avenue would be at the corner of West 29th Street and that on West 25th Street would be near Church Avenue. The property owners urged the bridge to be completed as originally planned, as did W.J. Hunkin of the Hunkin-Conkey Construction Company. The money saved could be used for another high level bridge, they stated. But the company was instructed to sink the foundations deep enough at the ends of the bridge to permit the building of the subways in later years.

Construction on the arches began by the King Bridge Company in the fall of 1912. A report on January 22, 1913 reported that excavation for the east river pier had been completed and that the bottom was being leveled for concrete. By November 1, 1913 work started on two caisson piers on the west side of the river and seven concrete pile piers on the east side. Construction was expedited at a cost of $2,500 to the county, and additional machinery and workers were brought in to allow for the erection of six of the secondary piers at once instead of four.

By July 18, 1914, the caisson construction for piers no. 1 and 2 was underway, and excavation for pier no. 3 had started. Piers no. 4 and 9 were complete, and concrete piles had been driven for pier no. 5. Test piles for pier no. 8 were down and concrete piles were about to be driven. That work was nearly completed by December 11, 1914, nearly half of the time required.

It was originally intended that the sequence of work begin on the easterly end of the steel span and proceed eastward, however, it could not be done because the erection of the center span across the river was already started by the King Bridge Company, who had subcontracted its erection to the Ferro Construction Company of Chicago. in conjunction with the completion of the arch ribs by Hunkin-Conkey. It was decided to work with the second arch east of the steel span, between Piers 5 and 6, and progress eastward. This would produce considerable strain on Pier 5, but it was predicted that the soil pressure was safe within limits.

In the winter of 1915, one rib of a 145-foot concrete arch span cracked and was discovered on May 1, 1916. An examination of the crack found that water had intruded and froze, most likely during the pouring. An excess of water in the concrete may have been the cause, and the material, improperly worked, could not shed the water. It was not a tension crack as there was no tension at that point. The span, which was poured on May 27, 1915, was connected to Pier 5 that was being watched for any horizontal or tipping movement. Only the arch ribs were built between Piers 5 and 6, and the arch ribs and first floor between Piers 6 and 7, which increased the load further on Pier 5. It was discovered that Pier 5 was moving westward due to an unbalanced load on the pier, and advanced so much as to threaten the structural stability of the uncompleted bridge. It was at this point that King Bridge had lowered the steel arch into place and had released the backstays that extended from Pier 4 to Pier 5. The lower chords of those stays consisted of lattice girders, and it was decided to use those girders as struts between Piers 4 and 5 to prevent any further movement of Pier 5.

Pier 6 was also shifting with Pier 5. But the first floor on the arches between Piers 5 and 6 proceeded, which increased the load on the arches and evened out the load, leading to no further movement of Pier 5; Pier 6 began to move eastward.

Below: Construction progress, photograph taken by Hunkin-Conkey Construction Co., October 25, 1916. A portion of arch no. 12 can be seen.
Cleveland, Ohio Detroit-Superior Bridge
A saw mill and framing yard was built to construct the forms for the arches, with materials transported via the cableways. The east span was built with the use of a double cableway with a span between the towers measuring 1,200 feet. The steel towers were 130 feet and 180 feet high, and the main cable was 2.5 inches in diameter. Each cableway could hold eight tons, but in emergencies could hold 12.5 tons. Materials for the west approach were hauled via the Cuyahoga River, and then hauled up a 12% grade along Detroit Avenue to the hill on the west end of the site via motor trucks that were then novelties.

By the spring of 1915, the west approach was nearly completed. Construction then proceeded on the 90-foot steel towers for the center Pratt truss. The towers were built with the aid of a gin pole, which was then dismantled and used for the identical east tower. Eyebar backstays held the half-arches in place until they were joined in the center. Work then started on the center truss, comprised of nickel and carbon steel, over the river on July 29 and was completed on October 8. On that day, the two arms were lowered beginning at 10:30 AM, and the arch was closed at 2:23 PM after a two-hour intermission. There was a gap of 1/8-inch, which was adjusted via a cable.

The plan to construct inclines for the streetcars to approach grade-level from the bridge was abandoned in February 1916 after the city planning commission agreed on plans to construct a subway, several hundred feet in length at each approach, to reduce interference with automobile traffic. On the east side, the subway continued for 185 feet to a point on Superior Avenue at West 9th Street. On the west side, one subway continued west under Detroit Avenue to West 28th Street for 725 feet, and another south beneath West 25th Street to Church Avenue for 560 feet.

Below: The subway entrance along Superior Avenue. Photograph by Office of the Cuyahoga County Engineer.
Cleveland, Ohio Detroit-Superior Bridge
Four pedestrian entrances were located at Detroit Avenue and West 25th Street – one located in the Forst City Building on the southwest corner, and one on the south side of Superior Avenue at the bridge’s east approach. The stations above ground were built as small, wood-framed buildings with hipped roofs. Below ground, they featured white glazed tile walls with recessed lighting, a waiting area, boarding platform and public toilets. Tunnels under the tracks at both stations gave access to east-, west- and south-bound trains.

Below: Photograph by Office of the Cuyahoga County Engineer.
Cleveland, Ohio Detroit-Superior Bridge
By December 22, 1917, the lower deck was nearly prepared for regular streetcar use. Work cars were running on the bridge conducting final preparations for regular use by Christmas.

The Detroit-Superior Bridge was dedicated for traffic on Thanksgiving Day 1917 at a cost of $5,407,000 million. No ceremony was held as it was during wartime. The first streetcar crossed on Christmas eve, carrying 50 prominent officials, including the Cleveland mayor. The car left the West 25th Street station and headed east shortly before 4 PM. The mayor proclaimed that Cleveland was “getting more and more like New York.”

The completion of the span marked the first fixed high-level crossing, and the third high level span across the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. It was the largest steel and concrete reinforced bridge in the world and led to a real estate boom in Cleveland’s west side and Lakewood.

By 1927, there was a proposal to pave and use a portion of the streetcar track on the lower level for automobile use. Automobiles had grown in popularity and in response, county bridge engineer Felgate stated that an unused portion of the lower deck could be converted into a roadway at a cost of $1.1 million and could accommodate 4,400 automobiles per hour. The Cleveland Times noted that it could provide relief to the “almost hopeless traffic congestion.” But no work progressed. By 1930, the Detroit-Superior Bridge carried 70,400 vehicles per day and was one of the busiest in the United States. Traffic was slightly relieved with the opening of the Lorain-Cernegie Bridge and the Main Avenue Bridge within the decade.

The construction of Bulkley Boulevard necessitated the reconfiguration of the west approach, and the wooden subway house on the northeast corner of Detroit Avenue and West 25th Street was demolished in 1939. In addition, a stairwell was relocated and a new sandstone subway house was built. But by 1946, the subway stations and the entrances at street level had become deteriorated and vandalized. A December 1953 proposal by Mayor Celebreeze called for the lower deck to be converted into an auto-only thoroughfare, but it was dismissed by county engineer Albert S. Porter as “engineered murder.” A trial roadway was implemented for a short time, though, in February 1954.

Below: Southeast end of the bridge, taken by Herbert H. Harwood, Jr. of Baltimore, Maryland in January 1954.
Cleveland, Ohio Detroit-Superior Bridge
Below: A view of the lower level in mid-1978. Photograph taken by John T. “Jet” Lowe for the HAER in mid-1978.
Cleveland, Ohio Detroit-Superior Bridge
Cleveland, Ohio Detroit-Superior Bridge
Below: A view of the bridge in the early 1950s.
Cleveland, Ohio Detroit-Superior Bridge
But the streetcar was not long for the city. The last “free ride” celebration from Public Square to West 65th Street and Bridge Avenue, which crossed the Detroit-Superior, was held on January 24, 1954. The last streetcar on the Detroit Avenue line had run several years prior on August 25, 1951, and the last car on the West 25th Street line had run on August 15, 1953. In May 1955, the city council passed an emergency ordnance that granted the city the right to fill in the streetcar wells. In November, the open wells were filled with gravel and paved over. The spandrel arches closest to the approaches were sealed with cinder blocks, and the stairwells to the subways were closed and covered up, with the station houses removed.

In 1965, the county hired consulting engineers to inspect and conduct a rehabilitation study of the Detroit-Superior that concluded that “because of age and corrosive atmosphere, the bridge deteriorated to the point that normal maintenance is no longer adequate and the structural stability of some members has become questionable.” The upper deck slab and sidewalk had failed in some areas and been covered with steel plates. From 1967 to May 1969, the span was rehabilitated at a cost of $6 million that added to two new traffic lanes to the bridge. The width of the bridge increased from 44.9 feet to 72 feet, and the sidewalks reduced from 15 feet to 5 feet. The extra auto lanes were added by cantilevering the new lanes on the outside of the central arch. The roadway deck and sidewalk was rehabilitated, and new railings and lighting fixtures were replaced. The ornamental pylons were removed.

Below: Photographs taken by John T. “Jet” Lowe for the HAER in mid-1978.
Cleveland, Ohio Detroit-Superior Bridge
Cleveland, Ohio Detroit-Superior Bridge
Cleveland, Ohio Detroit-Superior Bridge
Cleveland, Ohio Detroit-Superior Bridge
The Detroit-Superior Bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places on January 18, 1974. On November 11, 1989, Veterans Day, the Detroit-Superior Bridge was renamed the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

On September 9, 2002, Cuyahoga County Commissioners tentatively approved the conversion of the two outside traffic lanes added in 1969 for pedestrian and bicycle use. The converted lanes will contain a wide pedestrian promenade, sheltered seating, racks and public art. It received final approval in July 2003. The project will cost $2.7 million, with 80% of the funding coming from the federal Transportation Enhancement program, distributed by the Northeast Ohio AReawide Coordinating Agency. The city paid for the remainder. The design was paid for by a grant from The Gund and Clevealand foundations to Cleveland Public Art. Construction began in 2004 after your years of planning.

The lower level and subway stations are opened to the public for tours free of charge on certain days of the year.

Below: More recent photographs.

Detroit-Superior Bridge

Detroit-Superior Bridge

Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Cuyahoga River Bridge Number 3

Center Street Bridge

Center Street Bridge

A more detailed history of the planning, construction and current status of the Detroit-Superior Bridge can be found after the jump »

About Sherman Cahal


  1. I use to takr the stret car down town and back dad drove ateree car tooo.

  2. I remeber riding the street car down town and going under the high level bridge, like a subway. At the middle there was no floor and you could look down and see the river below.


  3. This is my favorite bridge in Cleveland. I recently heard they may open the lower level again like it was when I was a little girl. Loved looking through the streetcar tracks to see the river below too. We were going to visit my grandparents. Fond memories! Every now and then it pops up in my dreams. Fabulous photos Sherman. Thank you so much.

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