The Storied Legacy of Cleveland’s Industrial Heartland

If the weathered facades of the industrial structures lining Ashland Road in Cleveland, Ohio, could speak, they would regale us with tales of a rich and multifaceted history. Despite the paucity of readily available information and the occasional misinterpretation stemming from firsthand accounts and urban exploration, the complex’s narrative proves more intricate and captivating than initially envisioned. Though a wealth of materials has been uncovered, certain gaps remain unresolved, adding an air of mystery to this chronicle.

If the weathered facades of the industrial structures lining Ashland Road in Cleveland, Ohio, could speak, they would regale us with tales of a rich and multifaceted history. Despite the paucity of readily available information and the occasional misinterpretation stemming from firsthand accounts and urban exploration, the complex’s narrative proves more intricate and captivating than initially envisioned. Though a wealth of materials has been uncovered, certain gaps remain unresolved, adding an air of mystery to this chronicle.

Founded in 1796 near the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, Cleveland swiftly emerged as a manufacturing hub, owing to its strategic location along Lake Erie and its proximity to an intricate network of canals and railroads that branched out like limbs on a tree. In the burgeoning city’s early days, horse-drawn and mule-powered streetcars connected the growing neighborhoods to the bustling downtown. However, by 1890, there was a concerted push to electrify these lines.

In the spring of 1888, the East Cleveland Railroad Company, one of many streetcar operators, commenced construction on a power plant at the intersection of Cedar Avenue and Ashland Road. This facility, aptly named the Cedar Avenue Power House, was inaugurated on December 18, 1888, and boasted three high-speed engines belted to two No. 16 Edison street railway bipolar generators, the largest of Edison’s generators, operating at an impressive 1,000 RPMs. Three horizontal tubular boilers, equipped with Murphy stokers, supplied steam to the engines. One Berryman heater, with two pumps, supplied the boilers, and a 175-foot smokestack was constructed. Also inside was a hand crane of eight-ton capacity built by Phoenix Iron Works of Cleveland. Upon the start of the power plant, four electric cars were in operation, and the East Cleveland Street Railway extended its electric service to Public Square on its Euclid line in July 1889.

As the years progressed, the plant underwent numerous expansions, such as in late 1889, when three high-speed Armington & Sims engines of 250 HP and 200 RPM each were added. The new engines had twice the capacity of the first three and were belted to two No. 32 Edison generators, twice the size of the originals. Four additional boilers were added, as well as a 135-foot-high smokestack.

The next year saw the addition of two Cooper Corliss engines belted to a large jack shaft and seven boilers. A third Corliss engine was installed in 1892, and the three original engines were removed soon after – replaced with an Allis engine the same size as the Corliss, belted to two 150 KW Edison bipolar generators.

Yet another addition was finished in 1892, with four Cooper Corliss single-cylinder engines rated at 750 HP belted to a 500 KW General Electric four-pole generator operating at 350 RPMs. Eventually, there were two batteries of seven and one battery of ten boilers, each 18 feet by 72 inches and featuring 72 four-inch tubes rated at 130 horsepower. They were equipped with Murphy stokers and located adjacent to the C&P railroad tracks so that coal could be unloaded into the boiler room directly in front of the furnace doors.

In 1893, the East Cleveland Railway Company merged with Joseph Stanley’s Broadway & Newburgh Street Railroad Company to form the Cleveland Electric Railway Company. It soon added Tom and Al Johnson’s Brooklyn Street Railroad Company and the South Side Street Railroad Company. Soon after, the Cleveland Electric was better known as the Big Consolidated.

That year, a new boiler house was constructed, consisting of ten 400 HP Babcock & Wilcox boilers. In 1897, the foundations for a new powerhouse were laid. An engineer for the company described the new plant, which would include compound engines that would supersede the single-cylinder units and multipolar direct connected generators to supplant the belted two- and four-pole machines.  At its peak, the powerhouse featured seventeen generators with a capacity of 140 to 1,000 amperes each.

On January 1, 1899, a new 400-ton, 32-foot high General Electric generator – one of the largest in the world, was installed – measuring a whopping 4,363 amperes. Its size was second only to one ordered by the Metropolitan Electrical Company of New York and a duplicate of an order by the Louisville Street Railway Company. The flywheel attached was 25 feet in diameter and weighed 160,000 pounds alone. Steam for the new engine was provided by a battery of ten steel boilers built by the Babcock & Wilson Company of New York and was constructed to withstand a pressure of 200 pounds per square inch. The Cedar Avenue facility was the largest non-condensing direct-current plant in the United States. It was operated non-condensing because the exhaust steam was sold to a salt company adjacent at a price that made it difficult for the central station companies in Cleveland to compete with the Cleveland Railway’s powerhouse on a per-kilowatt-hour output.

An engineer with the Big Consolidated Street Railroad discussed the power plant’s future at that time, stating that electrical power distribution, similar to what was being instituted by the Metropolitan Company of New York, may be implemented for Cleveland. The land would be purchased at an area outside of the city, where land is cheap and water plentiful, and the current would be transmitted to substations within Cleveland, where it would be distributed to various streetcar lines. The main wires would be laid in conduits and carry an alternating current of at least 6,000 volts. The current would be passed through rotary converters at the substations and transformed into a direct current of 500 volts.

In mid-1901, Big Consolidated added a storage battery facility. It consisted of 216 cells with a normal rating of 4,000 ampere-hours and weighing 2,500 pounds per cell. A differential booster, installed by the Bullock Electric Manufacturing Company of Cincinnati, was connected to the storage battery.

In 1902, a new coal handling apparatus was installed. An entire car of coal could be brought in on a transfer table and then lifted into an elevator. From there, the coal would follow an overhead track and be dumped into an overhead coal storage bin. By this point, the powerhouse was burning through 60,000 tons of coal a year, averaging 215 tons per day during the winter months. The plant also consumed 50,000 cubic feet of water per day.

On November 15, 1912, the Cleveland Railway outsourced some power generation to the Illuminating Company to offset a power plant that was over capacity. In 1916, Cleveland Railway requested permission from city commissioners to rebuild and enlarge the power plant for $345,000, stating that the equipment was obsolete. The request was made initially in July 1915, but no action was taken. The company noted that $95,000 would be taken from the maintenance fund and $250,000 would be classified as capital. Street Railway Commissioner Fielder Sanders investigated the need for improvements and whether outsourcing all power generation would be cheaper than improving the existing facilities. It was later decided that upgrading the Cedar Avenue power plant was prohibitively expensive. The production value at the Cedar Avenue facility was $1.2 million, which, deducting the salvage of machinery and equipment estimated at $115,565, could be paid off at a rate of $20,000 per month. The cost of outsourcing electric production to the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company was less than 6 mills per kilowatt. The cost of energy production in the Cedar Avenue plant was about 1 cent per kilowatt.

After the Cleveland Railway Company left the Cedar Avenue powerhouse in 1917, three one- and two-story structures were used by the Cleveland Ice Machine Company. Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company post-1922 used the structure to manufacture and sell circuit breakers, elevator motors and controls, fans, fuses, insulating materials, lamps, lighting fixtures, motors, panelboards, ranges, safety switches, small turbines, solar glow heaters, stokers, switchboards, water heater, watshour meters, and welding equipment. A five-story addition on the southern end of the plant, 2203-2209 Ashland Road, was completed in 1922 of reinforced concrete with a brick exterior. It contained “Westinghouse Electric” over the primary entrance.

On April 10, 1933, Westinghouse transferred its local sales and service offices to Edgewater Park, where an existing lighting products division was located.

On January 26, 1936, Thompson Products purchased several buildings from the Cleveland Railway Company. Containing 60,000 square feet of space, it housed the company’s service division. Thompson Products originated in 1901 as the Cleveland Cap Screw Company, with their initial products being bolts with heads electrically welded to the shafts. They soon expanded to automobile engine valves and were the largest valve manufacturer in the United States. Some of their high-performance valves were later used in aircraft engines beginning with World War I. In 1926, the company was renamed Thompson Products after the general manager, Charles Thompson.

On January 10, 1941, Tapco, or Thompson Aircraft Products Company, was founded as a subsidiary of Thompson Products, and called the Ashland Road facility its base. Production under Tapco soared due to the escalation of World War II, and made not only valves, but new products such as booster pumps and high-altitude fuel systems.

Following victory over Japan and the conclusion of World War II, Thompson Products saw a rapid decline in defense production. During the month following V-J Day, or August 14, 1945, the company noted more than 3,000 canceled contracts or more than $50 million in total value. By the end of August, Tapco employed just 650, down from 12,000 at the peak of the war. But by the spring of 1946, an estimated 3,600 would be hired back due to increasing demand for automotive values and parts.

On September 20, Thompson Products announced an agreement to purchase land for a Tapco plant in Euclid, which would serve as corporate headquarters and manufacturing hub. Five days later, Thompson announced a reorganization of its Cleveland-area operations into five divisions based on product lines. Four of the five units, Light Metals – its aluminum foundry operations, Piston Ring, Parts and Accessories, and Valve and Jet Propulsion, were housed at Tapco, with only the Special Products Division – automotive replacement parts and other forged-metal products located at its main plant.

Following World War II, Thompson focused heavily on aerospace and defense contracts, especially during the ramp-up to the Vietnam War and Cold War.

A 1951 Sanborn map noted that the Westinghouse Electric plant was home to Tapco, Pump Division:

  • 2203-2209 Ashland Road, a six-story service building.
  • 2176-2203 Ashland Road, various manufacturing areas one to two stories in height.
  • 2151-2175 Ashland Road, a finished products warehouse, five stories in height.
  • 2225-2229 Ashland Road, a three-story machine shop.
  • Other portions of the Thompson Products plant extended across the railroad tracks towards East 65th Street and north to Cedar Avenue.

Thompson Products merged with Ramo-Wooldridge in October 1958. An April 27, 1959 article listed the Ashland Road facilities as part of Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge’s Light Metals division. On January 27, 1961, Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge announced plans to acquire a 55-acre tract in suburban Independence for a $3 million master warehouse and headquarters for its automotive replacement parts division, which would replace their Ashland Road and Cedar Avenue facilities. The new warehouse would be located on Pleasant Valley Road east of Ohio Route 21, including 320,000 square feet of warehouse space and 50,000 square feet of office space on one level. On November 1, 1962, Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge, later known as TRW, sold their Ashland Road structures for approximately $500,000 to Albert A. Levin, a Cleveland attorney and realty investor. They continued to occupy the buildings now used by the Light Metals division under five-year lease terms. Buildings formerly housing Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge’s replacement facilities in Independence were leased to other tenants.

After Thompson vacated, the Ashland Road plant became home to the Virden Manufacturing Company. Originally named the Howler Manufacturing Company, the business was renamed after its president, John C. Virden. In October 1919, his factory relocated to a building along Longfellow Avenue near its intersection with Longfellow Avenue.

In 1920, a two-story, 40-by-92-foot addition at Ashland Road and Longfellow Avenue, designed by E. McGeorge, was let to contract in May for $60,000. Five years later, a contract was awarded to the Griffin Construction Company of Cleveland for a one-story machine shop and storage building designed by McGeorge, measuring 40 feet by 80 feet. Another expansion took place in mid-1936 when a contract was awarded to the Albert M. Higley Company, and again in mid-1940 when a new two-story 150-by-70-foot warehouse was built by the Higley Company. Over the years, the company expanded into manufacturing fluorescent and incandescent lighting equipment and commercial and residential lighting products.

By 1968, Virden was the third largest among the nation’s 1,400 fixture manufacturers, with production tripling from eight years prior. The company sold over 1,000 varieties from its biennial catalog and produced 10,000 to 15,000 fixtures daily, consuming more than a million components per week. Virden constructed 600 to 800 units of one design per run, which were moved to distributors in lots of 10 to 2,000 per week, some designs totaling 150,000 units per year. Its designers sketched 2,500 fixtures annually, selecting 100 patterns to be prototyped.

In 1946, Virden was elected a director of Eaton Manufacturing Company and became director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland in January 1951 – later rising to board chairman. On September 28, 1958, Virden was named president of Eaton Manufacturing Company and diversified the company, believing in “divisional autonomy.” He also announced his resignation as chairman of the board of the Virden Company. In 1965, the Virden Company was acquired by Scott & Fetzer Company of suburban Lakewood, with no changes taking place at its operations at Longfellow Avenue. The company became known as the Virden Lighting division.

Scott & Fetzer laid off several hundred from the Virden Lighting division due to a housing slump in 1970 and again in 1975. The company sold off its Virden Lighting and Rembrandt Lamp divisions in December 1977 to a newly formed company, Virden Corporation, which at the time of the sale had 360 employees.

On August 6, 1979, Virden failed to pay 300 employees. According to the company, Virden had closed three days prior because of a parts shortage. Still, Robert M. Allen of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1554 stated that the company owed Cleveland Trust Company $5 million and Scott & Fetzer Company $2 million – and paid them first instead of its employees. Virden’s president stated that he hoped Virden would be open by the end of the week, but employees were officially laid off in January 1980. On October 28-31, a complete auction was held at the Virden Lighting Company, including its metal working machinery, punch presses, lathes, machine shop, $700,000 in inventory, $1 million in parts, print shop, and real estate.

Before 1987, the property from Cedar Avenue to Thackeray Avenue along Ashland Road was transferred to Weiser Management Inc. A quit claim deed for $60,000 was filed on July 7, 2008, to Bleacher Beast Inc., which was foreclosed upon on February 28, 2012. On June 21, the parcels were transferred to Sandusky Solutions LLC.

What is still unknown is when Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge officially vacated its Ashland Road facility and for how long the Cleveland Ice Company occupied the complex.


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Wow. Thank you for a thorough history! While attention is being paid recently to manufacturing’s decline, any Clevelander knows this story is decades old, even half a century. Thank you for contributing to the body of knowledge, and with such good photos.

A question: What became of all the generating equipment from the buildings first iteration as a power plant? That stuff was massive. Makes me want to look further into the history of direct current power. I know the Hotel Martinique in NYC was originally DC, this from Jonathan Kozol’s book “Rachel and Her Children.”

We have a Virden Waverly Series 3 light hanging light. The number on it is 4209.Trying to find any
information regarding this fixture and what it’s value might be today.

My Great-Grandfather used to work in this building as a mechanical engineer for Thompson Products. I have a couple of photos of the inside taken around 1940, when he worked there. Thank you so much for posting this amazing article! I’ve learned so much about the history of the building, and feel a little closer to my great grandfather, too. I’m so proud of him!

I just bought lights with the sticker Virden Lighting Issue C. 498.385 Div of the Scott and Fetzer
Milky white 2- wall sconts, 1-that looks like them that hangs & and one round hanging ball with medal flowers on it. I can I find out when they were made or what they are worth?
Thank You

I love industrial archeology. Being from Cleveland, I know the city is full of these old wonderful sites. This Cedar/Ashland power plant is one of my favorites and I usually make a pilgrimage to it every 6 months. It’s too scary to venture inside owing to its apparent state of dereliction, so I’m glad you’ve done it for me! It would be nice to preserve the building but to what end; also, it appears to be too far gone. You have also done a monumental job researching its story. My interest lies in its history as a generating plant. I wish I knew where all the steam engines, boilers and DC generators went. I thought I was the only one interested in this building! It’s nice to see others who share the interest.

I just wanted to say thanks for this after stumbling across this site, I grew up in Cleveland, and have been around this area a lot, I used to work for the RTA, and worked in the bus garage on Woodhill and Quincy, so I went past this place quite a lot and always wondered what its history was.

Really amazing article and great pics. I just spent my lunch hour yesterday exploring this beautiful old building.

Going back for more photos when I have a friend to accompany me.. 🙂

I recently got a wall light fixture with a very antique looking tag on it saying it was a Virden, Division of the Scott and Fetzer Company. The lamp looks quite dated. I have looked to try and figure out when the Virden Light company started, but to no avail. The design of this thing looks Art Deco, but that couldn't be because of it being a Division of Scott and Fetzer. OR, when all this was sold, did the division just come in and put their labels on all inventory and then sold it? I am curious. I did not pay that much for it, and it is used, but it sure does not look like it came out of mid-century. When did Virden start in business. How old could this wall light actually be? Thanks so much.

I sold for Virden from 1971 to 1978 . Scott and Fetzer owned Virden from 1965 to 1978 . The quality was quite good and had a lot of craftsmanship. The. Lighting fixture catalogs went back to the early 1930 ‘s. The gauge of metal was usually thicker.

As an IBEW shop, by 1980 Virden had to have found it impossible to be price competitive in the lighting fixture business. It's impressive that Virden even lasted that long, considering what their labor cost must have been relative to non union manufacturers.

Some minor corrections regarding the end of Virden Lighting. The company did not "fail" to pay the employees on August 6, 1979; Cleveland Trust closed the company's checking accounts and cancelled the line of credit. The checks that were issued were returned NSF. The company re-opened under Chapter 11 on September 1, 1979 and operated for another year before going totally bankrupt in August of 1980.
Jeff Martin
Former Human Resources Assistant

very nice research man! just wondering where you got the sanborn maps from.. I've never heard of these but they are an excellent research tool! Thanks for posting this, I've been in this building a million times and have seen it decay so much over the last 5 or so years.

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