Side A: When the Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Ashtabula Railroad was finished in 1873, Ashtabula’s harbor became a direct route to ship iron ore to the booming steel mills of Youngstown and Pittsburgh. On the west side of the Ashtabula River, a brush-filled gulley became Bridge Street. New buildings and bridges attest to the harbor’s importance as a commercial and shipping hub from the late 19th through mid 20th centuries. Fires destroyed wood-frame buildings on the block closest to the river. A fire in 1886 nearly cleared the north side of Bridge Street. Another fire swept over the south side in 1900. Fire resistant brick buildings replaced frame structures and over the course of rebuilding, the level of the street rose approximately eight feet. In 1889, a swing-span bridge replaced the original pontoon bridge over the river. A bascule lift (draw) bridge replaced the swing bridge in 1925.
Side B: Demand for labor in Ashtabula brought Swedish, Finnish, Irish, Italian and other immigrants to the city. Bridge Street served these and other residents, and the marine and railroad trade. Businesses on Bridge Street included department stores, barbers, grocers, attorneys, undertakers, and restaurants, as well as pool halls, saloons, and brothels. Ashtabula’s harbor was one of the busiest ports on the Great Lakes, even surpassing Cleveland as an ore receiving port. It was also reputed to be one of the toughest ports in the world, sharing that distinction with Shanghai and Calcutta. Machines gradually replaced stevedores and this process was accelerated with the installation of Hulett ore unloaders on the docks in 1910. By the late 20th century, mechanization progressed to the point that, under a crew’s guidance, ships unloaded themselves. The City of Ashtabula placed the harbor commercial district on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.