Early History

Cleveland's Public Square is as old as the city itself. Laid out in the 1790's it was modeled on the common grazing areas that were a signature of New England towns of the time. Over the following century Public Square evolved into the heart of Cleveland's business district and a major transportation hub. The very first horse-drawn, wood rail streetcar line was established in 1834, but was out of business by 1840. Horse-drawn streetcars returned in 1859, and the first successful electric streetcar circled Public Square in 1889.

The multiple competing streetcar companies serving the city merged over the years, finally consolidating into the single Cleveland Electric Railway in August 1903. By that time seven different interurban lines had also converged on the square, connecting Cleveland with other cities such as Akron, Ashtabula, Lorain, Elyria, Norwalk, Toledo and Detroit. The Union Depot railroad station and the steamship docks were also nearby, only a short walk or streetcar ride from the square. In the period Cleveland's Public Square was considered by some to be the greatest place in the nation for watching streetcars due to the sheer volume of cars and the number of interurban lines.

Interurban Stations

The early ticket office for interurbans was a small stand in a hallway just inside the west entrance of the Williamson Building at 6 Public Square. Later, tickets for passenger steamships were also sold here. There was no waiting room other than the small "public comfort stations" on the square were the cars stopped.

In 1904 the interurbans moved their ticket office to a storefront at 47 Public Square, on the southwest quadrant. The commodious new station included a comfortable waiting room and baggage and package check service. This area, known as the loft district, was in serious commercial decline by 1910. The more prestigious businesses had moved to Euclid Ave. and the increasingly crowded, decrepit, and dirty buildings on the southwest side of Public Square had become an eyesore. Plans were being floated by a pair of developers to raze the loft district buildings and erect a large union station for all interurbans and streetcars, but it would be many years before this plan came to fruition in a different form.

In 1916 the Lake Shore Electric and the Cleveland Southwestern moved to a new station at 25 Public Square, a storefront in the American Trust Building (later to be renamed the Ulmer Building and then the Public Square Building.) Given the number of riders and the rising fortunes of the LSE at the time, the station was surprisingly small; so small it is nearly always obscured in photos or blends in completely among the other shops. The waiting room was bare except for a few benches and a ticket window.

The LSE used a relatively standard procedure for its passenger service in downtown. Between scheduled runs limited or express cars would layover at the East 9th Street Pier or the Eagle Ave. freight terminal. At departure time they followed East 9th Street to St. Clair and Ontario, snaking through the tight curves of Public Square to arrive in front of the station. Passengers boarded and luggage was loaded in the street. The cars would then turn west on Superior and cross the Cuyahoga River.

West 3rd Street, one block west of the station, was also used as a layover track, usually for local cars which left the station on a more frequent schedule, but photos also show limited cars here. It was also an unloading location for passengers arriving in Cleveland, and a connection between interurbans carrying mail and Postal Service trucks.

Cleveland Union Terminal

Cleveland real estate (and soon to be railroad) barons Oris P. and Mantis J. Van Sweringen first floated the idea of a railway terminal on Public Square in 1909. The brothers were in the process of planning a rapid transit line to connect their exclusive Shaker Heights neighborhood with Public Square. As they bought up loft district property the plan evolved from a stub-end rapid transit station into a major steam railroad and interurban termainal, a true hub for all rail traffic in and out of Cleveland. Separate concourses, platforms and even rapid transit style private right-of-way access were to be provided for the interurbans. Naturally electric railway officials enthusiastically supported the plan. The LSE, for example, would be afforded right-of-way alongside the Nickel Plate railroad from Rocky River to Public Square, bypassing the slow street route through Lakewood and Cleveland (where no stops were made) and significantly increasing the speed of service.

Ground breaking for the Cleveland Union Terminal occurred on March 5, 1920. The enormous project involved the demolition of 2200 buildings, the relocation of 1500 people, construction of new bridges, realignment of railroads, and massive excavations claimed to be second only to the Panama Canal.

Unfortunately, as the terminal was built and the tower rose skyward over the next several years the fortunes of the interurban lines were falling. By 1926 the Cleveland & Eastern and the Cleveland, Painesville & Eastern were gone. The Cleveland, Southwestern & Columbus was in receivership and would disappear in 1931 followed by the Northern Ohio Traction & Light in 1932. When the Cleveland Union Terminal was officially dedicated on June 28, 1930 only the Lake Shore Electric showed any real signs of life, and would itself enter bankruptcy in January 1933. Despite the obvious advantages of a rapid transit entrance to Public Square, which may have helped the LSE survive longer, the funds simply were not available to build a new interchange and pay rent to the Union Terminal Company. The LSE had no choice but to continue using the slow street route, passing the glorious new terminal on its way to the tiny storefront station.

End of the LSE

The LSE struggled on under bankruptcy, but in 1937 the final decision was made to replace electric interurbans with buses and the necessary corporate and legal arrangements were begun. Buses from the Lake Shore Coach Co. arrived to augment the electric cars on routes from Cleveland to Lorain, Sandusky, and Toledo. On May 14, 1938 LSE car 174 made the last Toledo express run with only a few passengers aboard - a trip that had once filled two and even three car trains. Car 167 made the very last passenger run, leaving Public Square for Lorain at 12:41 AM on May 15, 1938. For the next ten years the storefront was headquarters for the Lake Shore Coach Co. In 1990 the Public Square Building was demolished to make way for the Ameritrust Tower, which itself was cancelled before construction began. Today the site is a parking lot awaiting new construction.

Cleveland Union Terminal endured (although its use as a railroad terminal ended in 1973) and the Terminal Tower has become a cherished symbol of the city. From the opening of the terminal in 1930 the Shaker Heights rapid transit used the east traction concourse as its Public Square Station. The west traction concourse, intended for the Lake Shore Electric and Cleveland Southwestern, sat empty and unused until 1955 when the Cleveland Transit System opened its crosstown rapid transit service to West 117th Street (today's "red line.") In 1975 the Shaker Heights Rapid Transit and Cleveland Transit System were merged into the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA). In 1990 the original traction concourses in the terminal were demolished and a new Public Square Station built during renovations for the Tower City Center shopping mall. Thus the last traces of the interurban era disappeared from Public Square.


Wood engraving of Public Square as it appeared in 1873 with
horse drawn streetcars. (Cleveland State University)

This 1910 photo illustrates what a busy transportation center
Public Square was at the time. (John A. Rehor)

Lorain & Cleveland 15 on Ontario Street circa 1900.
(Karel Liebenauer)

Loft district buildings on southwest quad in 1922. The first
Lorain & Cleveland ticket office was in the building at far
right from 1897-1902. (Cleveland State University)

The second interurban station circa 1910. The former Higbee's
Building of Cleveland Union Terminal is now at this site.
(Thomas Patton)

The deteriorating loft district on Public Square, seen here in
1916, would become the site of Cleveland Union Terminal.
(Cleveland State University)

Early 1900's postcard showing the American Trust Building,
home of the LSE station, on the northwest quadrant of
Public Square. (Cleveland State University)

The small storefront of the LSE's third Public Square station
is visible in this 1934 photo. (Dennis Lamont)

This 1916 panoramic view of Public Square looks east. The old interurban station is just off camera at the far right.
The streetcar at the bottom left is stopped near the new station. (Library of Congress)

1925 map of electric lines and stations in Public Square. Lake
Shore Electric is marked with a "9". (Dennis Lamont)

Map of the interurban routes through
downtown Cleveland. (Victor G. Wagner)

Newly rebuilt Cleveland Southwestern parlor car 205 poses at
the shared Public Square station in 1924. (John A. Rehor)

This odd photo shows 166 at the southeast quadrant of Public
Square (opposite the LSE station) for unknown reasons.
(Dennis Lamont)

179 passes the Public Auditorium on St. Clair on its way from
the E. 9th St. pier to Public Square in 1933. (Dennis Lamont)

LSE 163 winds through Public Square toward the station next
to a Clifton Blvd. streetcar. (Thomas Patton)

The last turn to the station is a tight one for sixty foot
wood combine 166. (Dennis Lamont)

166 at the station April 4, 1938, about to embark on the last
chartered railfan trip. (Drew Penfield)

LSE 159, 152, and a Detroit United Railways car make up a
three car Detroit limited train in 1923. (George Krambles)

166, as the Toledo express, and 170, as the Lorain local, are
ready for boarding at the station in 1938. (Dennis Lamont)

168 at the station (with the Old Stone Church in the background)
prepares for an express run to Toledo. (Drew Penfield)

Passengers board the Toledo express at the station in 1936.
(Harry Christiansen)

182 turns onto Superior Ave. after leaving
the station in 1936. (Ralph A. Perkin photo)

Same view as photo at left in 1998.
(Drew Penfield photo)

174 passes the Hotel Cleveland on Superior Ave. after leaving
the station, April 14, 1938. (unknown collection)

Barney & Smith combine 5 passes the Rockefeller Building
at Superior and W. 6th Street. (Thomas Bailey)

LSE 157 and Detroit, Monroe & Toledo 7528 wait on W. 3rd
in 1924 as a third car approaches. (Corman E. Moore)

165 on W. 3rd St. in 1936. Hotel Cleveland visible in background.
(Bill Volkmer)

Niles passenger car 158 makes the loop on West 3rd Street
toward the station in the 1930's.(Harry Christiansen)

180, as the Lorain local, meets with a U.S. Mail truck on W. 3rd
Street in 1938. (Harry Christiansen)

178 on layover near intersection of W. 3rd and Superior. Proof
that express cars used W. 3rd as well as locals. (Tom Bailey)

Rear view of 167 on layover on W. 3rd Street circa 1938.
(Dennis Lamont)

Floor plans showing traction lobbies, ramps, and concourses
inside Cleveland Union Terminal. (Cleveland State University)

Diagram of railroad and interurban tracks in Cleveland Union
Terminal. (Cleveland State University)

Drawing of the east traction concourse which would later be
used by the Shaker Heights rapid. (Dennis Lamont)

Looking north toward an LSE car at the station as utility work
continues in front of the new Union Terminal. (Dennis Lamont)

Streetcar descending ramp of Detroit-Superior
bridge under recently completed Union Terminal.
(Cleveland State University)

LSE combine 5 on W. 3rd Street in 1934 with
Terminal Tower looming in the background.
(Ralph A. Perkin photo)

178 leaves the LSE station in 1937 in the shadow of the Union
Terminal the LSE will never get to use. (Franklyn P. Kellogg photo)

The east traction platform inside Cleveland Union Terminal
being used by RTA in 1978. (Robert E. Pence)

Lake Shore Coach Company buses began replacing interurban
service from Public Square in early 1938. (Harry Christiansen)

174 was the last car to make the full Cleveland to Toledo trip
on May 14, 1938. (Harry Christiansen photo)

Waiting room of the LSE station on the night of the very last
interurban run. (Harry Christiansen photo)

167 made the very last LSE trip from Public Square to Lorain
after midnight, May 15 1938. (Bruce Triplett photo)

Ticket agent Andy Palcisko poses out front
after the switch to bus service.
(Dennis Lamont)

In 1940's sign still says Interurban Station, but all service has
been replaced by Lake Shore Coach Co. buses. (Bruce Young)

The Public Square Building being demolished
in 1990. View is to the east. (Frank Gerlak)

Parking lot on site of LSE station as seen
from Terminal Tower observation deck.

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