This past weekend I took a drive to Ashtabula, Ohio, to explore the old Ashtabula Harbor area. Ashtabula, loosely translated from its Native American origins, means “river of many fishes.” Not long after Eastern settlers came to claim land in this corner of the Western Reserve, it became clear that the area nestled between the beaches of Lake Erie and the mouth of the Ashtabula River could be an excellent port serving the growing shipping industry on the Great Lakes.
By the latter half of the 1800’s and early 1900’s, Ashtabula was a very rough and tumble boom town. Immigrants primarily from Sweden, Finland and Italy swarmed to the area to work on the docks, each group vying to get assigned to unload the ore ships that stopped there. As many as 150 burly men were needed to unload a ship of coal or ore, repeatedly filling a wheelbarrow then manhandling it over to railroad cars parked on the spur heading south to the mills in Youngstown and Pittsburgh.
Bridge Street, the main drag, was bustling with shops and bars and brothels. A descendant of the family that built one of the earliest stores there, Ren Carlisle, said that the original Carlisle’s store made a healthy profit on its sales of linoleum. Apparently, after the Swedes, Finns and Italians settled their scores with knife fights and brawls, it was easier for saloons and brothels to install new flooring than to clean up and make repairs after each brouhaha.
If you visit the Harbor today, you can still shop at Carlisle’s – or I should say, you can shop there again. Today’s Carlisle’s is a delightful store with stylish housewares, gifts, wall art, books and jewelry. I rarely walk out empty-handed when I visit, even if I’ve only purchased a beautiful greeting card from a line you can’t find in the chain stores where I usually shop.
Next door to Carlisle’s is another unique and high-end home goods and furniture store, DeFina’s. And other stores along the street offer Lake Erie beach glass jewelry, women’s clothing, handmade chocolates and even a delightful general store, Lift Bridge Landing. There you’ll find local, and many locally made, souvenirs, as well as grocery items you might carry back to your hotel or bed & breakfast for a light lunch or snack.
Speaking of snacks, you’ll find a nice selection of restaurants, too. Stop for tasty barbecue at Briquettes Smokehouse, indulge in fine dining at the Bascule Bridge Grille, or visit Hil-Mak Seafood where I get a kick out of the throwback-to-the-60’s atmosphere while feasting on some of the freshest, tastiest Lake Erie perch around.
Rather than sitting in the restaurant, I decided to swing by the tiny Hil-Mak’s Seafood Market on West 5th Street, just off Lake Avenue. In addition to having a nice selection of fresh fish and seafood you can take home to cook, the friendly ladies who work there will fry up a fresh perch sandwich for you that is out of this world. After grabbing my sandwich, I drove down to a pretty little parking area by the river to watch the boats go by. Heavenly!
There are some interesting historical places to visit, too. Across the street from the park where I savored my sandwich is the Marine & Coast Guard Memorial Museum. I like the photos and old nautical memorabilia on display in what was once the lighthouse keeper’s home.
I only recently learned of nearby Hubbard House which was one of the last northern stops in Ohio for the Underground Railroad. Those who miraculously made it to Hubbard House would wait until dark to walk the quarter mile to boats docked on the Ashtabula River that would take them safely across to Canada. I didn’t have any luck finding out how far it is between Ashtabula and Canada, but since I did learn that it’s 54 miles from Cleveland to Canada, I would guess it can’t be more than half that distance. Regardless, how brave of those people to attempt that journey! And thank goodness for those who sheltered and transported them to freedom!
When a device for mechanically unloading boats came into practical use in the 1920s, it didn’t take long for things to quiet down considerably in harbors like Ashtabula’s. Most of Bridge Street’s stores and restaurants eventually closed and fell into disrepair, until the once-busy thoroughfare was all but a ghost town. There wasn’t much commerce for years, but it continued to be a picturesque, if industrial, scene. One of the last working lift bridges in Ohio continued to raise and lower (I enjoyed watching it in action during my visit – see photo) to allow the high-masted sail boats and other larger boats access to the lake from their docks on the river. Ashtabula Harbor also has long been home to an important Coast Guard station on this Northeast corner of Lake Erie.
But Bridge Street is kind of like the Little Engine that Could. It never completely gave up and kept struggling along for close to a century since its first decline when shipping practices changed. Thanks to local businesses and organizations like the Ashtabula Harbor Lift Bridge Community Association, it’s great to see how the community has been on the upswing for the last decade or more – and getting stronger every year.
In addition to the retail, restaurants and places of historic interest, the group has created a number of increasingly popular special events to introduce even more people to the Harbor each year. In June there’s a Beach Glass Festival; in July, an arts festival; in August, the Wine & Walleye Festival (FYI, Lake Erie is known for the best walleye fishing in the world); and later this month there’s a “Bridge to Bridge” half marathon and 5k run.
The Ashtabula Arts Center moves its theater activities down to nearby Walnut Beach in the summer for its “Straw Hat Theater” productions featuring remarkably talented local actors. And of course, there are those lazy summer days lying in the sun and swimming at Walnut Beach. If you’re lucky enough to know someone with a boat, perhaps you’ll be invited to go water skiing or help crew during a sailing regatta on one of the many sailboats that make their home at the Ashtabula Yacht Club.
As I write this, I realize we’re heading into winter – not the optimum time to visit Ashtabula Harbor or much of anyplace in my neck of the woods, to be frank. I love all the festivities of the Christmas season here in Northeastern Ohio, but not many want to brave the weather for a visit between January and April.
So, tuck away this idea for next spring or summer. The charming Michael Cahill B & B is on Walnut Boulevard, just up the hill from Bridge Street if you want to spend the night. It gets nice reviews and I’m sure Google or Trip Advisor could give you additional ideas if you want to come and stay.
Note to my girlfriends: let’s plan a day in the Harbor next summer!
And happy travels to all!