Irish Americans of Cleveland

History of the Cleveland Irish

Whiskey Island

from The Irish Americans & Their Communities of Cleveland
by Nelson J. Callihan &
William F. Hickey

One must picture that land as it was when the Irish first huddled together on it. When Moses Cleaveland first came upon it, it was a delta and he had some difficulty finding the main channel to the river itself. The fact that he had to come upriver three-quarters of a mile before reaching ground solid enough to stand on gives one a clue as to its composition…The land around the river's mouth and for a half-mile south of it was pure swamp, with the exception of a ridge that had been formed by the Cuyahoga's current as it curved westward on its way to emptying in Lake Erie at a point just east of present day Edgewater Park. It would not be until 1827 that federal funding and engineering expertise allowed local citizens to dig a channel, creating the river's mouth as we now know it. The Irish, naturally, did the digging.

Since that knoll was the only habitable land anywhere about, the Irish took possession of it and began erecting tarpaper shanties on it., Amusingly enough, that stretch of slightly elevated land was once the "farm" of Lorenzo Carter, the city's first resident, who had built a still on its easternmost end. The land the Irish settled on had been called whiskey Island for years before they arrived, but if it hadn't been, it would have had to have been renamed.

The Irish who squatted there gave a new meaning to the island's name -- they made it a real island of whiskey. In its heyday it boasted of having 13 saloons, a considerable achievement since it was only a mile long and a third of a mile across at its widest point. It was from the first and for many years remained the wildest, bawdiest section of Cleveland.

Whiskey Island was not actually an island, but rather a peninsula…Irish dock workers would come to be known as "Iron Ore Terriers" or "The Dog People."

Be that as it may, when Moses made his way through the Cuyahoga's bullrushes, Whiskey Island was a peninsula jutting westward from where the river's present day mouth is to about West 54th Street. When the river was straightened to allow nature to assist in the clearing of the sandbars which clogged its mouth, the original entrance to the lake was filled in and the peninsula then became anchored on its western end. It is now difficult to imagine what a beehive of humanity Whiskey Island was from the 1830's to the turn of the century. All there is on it now are a number of grasshopper-like machines called Hulett Unloaders, oil storage tanks, a few warehouses, the International Salt Company's large works, railroad yards and, of course, docks. The only traces of humanity left on the island are remnants of Riverbed Road and footers from a number of houses and business establishments. Oh, what it was in the days of the early Irish settlers!

Whiskey Island was triangular in shape, almost an isosceles but not quite, with its northern boundary as its base. The island's northern limits were where the Penn-Central mainline tracks now run. The land now north of there resulted both from the action of the lake and the action of men, who carted fill there faster than the lake could reclaim it. It is even more difficult for one looking over Whiskey Island today to imagine that all told, it had 22 streets crisscrossing it. Any doubts of this can be dispelled by a consultation of early Cleveland area maps. The streets were laid out by a group of ill-fated investors who purchased the land from the estate of Lorenzo Carter. The longest thoroughfare was Bennet Street, which ran the length of the island along its northernmost boundary. It now serves as the roadbed of the Penn-Central mainline tracks.