The rows of empty railroad cars, deserted lakefront docks and barren rail yards at Ashtabula Harbor hint of a busy time, much like the traffic on iconic Bridge Street.
The story of those docks and railroads, as well as the harbor town they built, is captured in a new book by local writer Carl E. Feather.
“Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio: A History of the World’s Greatest Iron Ore Receiving Port,” was released July 5, 2017, by The Feather Cottage Media of Geneva. The profusely illustrated book is available on amazon.com and the CreateSpace store. In Ashtabula Harbor, Carlisle’s Home Store in the Harbor and the Ashtabula Maritime Museum stock the book. Signed copies are available from the author.
The 9.5-by-7.25-inch book tells, in more than 400 pages, the story of Ashtabula Harbor from the earliest days of settlement to the era of schooners and the age of 600-foot and larger ore carriers.
“Ashtabula Harbor’s early shipbuilding industry seemed to be cursed with mishaps, both at launchings and in the operation of the dozens of small, wooden vessels built here,” Feather says. “One history called this a “singular fatality” that was often overlooked by investors who would pin their fortunes on the success of these schooners.”
Some 50 persons lost their lives in the most tragic of these Ashtabula-related shipwrecks, that of the Washington, a passenger steamer built. “The Washington really was the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster of the community’s shipbuilding industry,” Feather says. “Yet most residents have no idea that the town suffered this tragedy more than 40 years before the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern train went down. As with that disaster, passengers burned to death as the steamer was engulfed in flames miles off the New York coastline.”
The Hubbard family saw great potential in connecting Lake Erie to the Ohio River, and it was through their efforts that federal money was obtained to transform a swamp into a commercial harbor. The effort to bring a railroad connection to The Harbor eluded the family, however, and it was not until 1873 that the connections finally arrived.
“And when that happened, The Harbor took off. Immigrants arrived to unload the vessels, all types of complex machinery was built to ease the burden of unloading ore and loading coal, and Bridge Street came into being,” Feather says.
Prior to the railroads, development had been on the river’s east side. With the railroad connections in place, there was need for all manner of services, from saloons and chandlers to undertakers and brothels. What had been nothing more than a big ditch was transformed into a commercial district set against a muddy backdrop. We know it as Bridge Street today.
The book includes chapters on the rowdy aspects of the community that emerged in those early years, the many businesses that operated on Bridge Street and the immigrants who ultimately built the town through their hard labor and sacrifices.
“What bothered me most as I researched this story was the high incidence of industrial accidents during the early decades of the ore boom. Men were being chewed up by machinery, crushed by buckets full of ore and dismembered by the wheels of the locomotives and rail cars,” Feather says. “Even children were not immune from these horrible deaths.”
Lakefront resorts sprung up to take advantage of the rail connections, the most memorable being Woodland Beach, which is occupied by Kinder Morgan’s Pinney Dock. Smaller parks are recalled, as well, in the history.
There are chapters devoted to tug tragedies, the lighthouses, lift bridge, car ferries, Huletts, shipyards, fisheries and shipwrecks, as well.
Illustrations came from the author’s collection as well as the Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum, the Petros collection and Library of Congress. Maps from the era help the reader visualize how the ore trade first transformed the river south of the swing bridge, then later marched to the lakefront when the vessels became too large to navigate the twisting Ashtabula River.
“This book would not have been possible without the assistance of the Maritime Museum,” Feather says. “Their collection of photographs help pull together the narrative.”
Feather spent many hours combing through the newspaper records of the ore era and shares his discoveries in sidebars throughout the book. “These breakouts provide quick, entertaining reads, while sidebars amplify the subject matter in the narrative,” Feather says. “This is not intended to be a technical book about what could be a pretty boring subject, moving ore from a boat to a rail car, but a walk through our heritage, a story that every person who has roots in Ashtabula County can be very proud of and should know about.”
Feather will sign his book at the Jefferson Community Center from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 15 during the Train Show, sponsored by the Jefferson Historical Society.
He also will hold book signings at Carlisle’s Home in the Harbor on Bridge Street during the Wine and Walleye Festival. He will be at the store 2 to 4 p.m. each day, July 29 and 30.