Whiskey Island

MR. COHALAN would not recognize the island at this writing (1998). The accurate drawing of its classic age is by Kinley Shogren, distinguished artist of the Great Lakes region.

On Shogren’s famous scene has now been superimposed a color photograph of apartments, rows of cabin cruisers and sail-boats and chic saloons.

While the Island is totally changed, many readers wrote that it was their “favorite chapter” or “best chapter.” Therefore, and since a major mission of this River of America series is history of the rivers, we repeat it here.

Mr. Cohalan, who dominates the chapter, was no longer available. The first interview was set up for me (1966) by a relative of J. C. Dare of the J. C. Dare Café. It was difficult to arrange, as Mr. Cohalan had no interest in it. To prepare for the interview, I asked, “What is his first name?” The answer, “Mister to you.”

And so it was.

I did not bring out the tape recorder until it became obvious to him I could not keep up with my pen and paper.

The high-rent island in coastal United States, except for Manhattan, is at the mouth of the Cuyahoga. It grows no crop of high-rise hotels and no reef of cabanas or marinas. It has Huletts, mountains of raw material, and a considerable glory. In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that in one sense the gangs of men who worked Whiskey Island built the modern iron complex just as Lorenzo Carter, on the same site, built Cleveland.

You can hear the story of Whiskey Island in the Greenbrier Room of the Terminal Tower and at the Union Club in Cleveland. But if you have better connections and if you can stand the snobbery of Flanagan’s Lookout or Old Angle Bar, it’s better to get the story there.

“I’ll bet you’ve listened your ears off trying to find out sumpin’ about Whiskey Island. I’ve seen you around here a week or so. But people here don’t talk about it unless they know you.”

The gray stubble hunched toward me over his coffee. His grin was battered, but it was also a badge, membership in a quite exclusive group.

Mr. Cohalan matched his surroundings. The double-breasted wide-lapeled pin stripe ran to wrinkles very like the rippled paint on the cafe walls. He wore a new tie and a white shirt with collar tips forced up like butterfly wings by a rugged neck.

However, I was able to show him enough proficiency in Whiskey Islandia - good names like Mr. Kilbain, Mr. O’Mara, Mr. McGranahan - that he considered having a beer with me, but not enough that he’d let me buy.

Mr. Cohalan nodded. He indicated the bundled overcoat across the room. “And you should talk to Mr. Tom Mallory over there.”

With outsiders, the islanders used such formality and often the Irish had a formality among themselves.

Whiskey Island in one way made this river. It served as terminal for Indian canoes, ore boats, and railroad trains. The Cuyahoga canyon itself is hostile to shipping with its narrow valley shelf and steep escarpment. But Whiskey Island was flat and accessible, making it possible for ships to drop cargo with-out attempting the trip up past Collision Bend and Irish Town Bend.

Today, Whiskey Island is a 500-foot wide strip from the mouth of the Cuyahoga to West Fortieth Street, 30 blocks paved nearly solid with dock surface.

Whiskey Island is man-made, created in the 1820s. The Cuyahoga flows under Superior bridge bound straight toward Lake Erie, but a hundred yards before reaching open water, it veers sharply west, cutting a deep bed parallel to the lakeshore as far as West Fortieth Street, where it finally flows north to the lake. This is the old river bed.

But man changed that, as we’ll see.

The Cuyahoga looped in a series of S’s as it approached the Erie shore. Within 500 feet of open water, it makes a last huge loop to the west. This loop was holding up midwestern commerce. It effectually dammed the entire Cuyahoga. Sluggish waters piled sand around the entrance to frustrate the most ingenious captains, and the torturous channel along the lake-front denied navigation to anything much larger than an Indian canoe.

In 1825, however, the leading men in Cleveland went to the state legislature and hammered through an appropriation of $5,000 to cut the river straight through from the beginning of its last big loop to the lake.

Although this meant the creation of only a 500-foot passage, it demanded more work than could be done for $5,000 even in 1825. When you remember that you had to have width and depth, you’re suddenly talking about moving a million cubic feet of dirt.

But the U.S. Engineering Corps officer in charge of the work was Major T. W. Maurice, and a man who knew how to use his imagination.

During the dry season, the Major constructed a dam at the angle, cutting off the unnecessary loop. This forced the waters to flood, building up pressure against the land toward the lake. When the rains came, softening the earth, the pent-up river tore its way through the last few yards to the lake, by the shortest route, gouging a straight ten-foot channel to open water.

That created an island - Whiskey Island.

Widened by 500 feet of fill to create more land, Whiskey Island thus became the transfer point between lake and land transport.

In the 1850s, it gave birth to a world of dockwallopers and mules surrounded by mountains of ore and studded in succession over the next 60 years with a fantasy of ore unloading mechanisms ranging from the simple wheelbarrows to Huletts.

The men who made their livelihood on Whiskey Island spilled onto the angle of land where the old river bed turns west. That’s how the Angle, as it came to be called, grew layers of piled-high dwellings to house their families.

The Angle became the roughhouse of the river, a community of rock-shouldered men who worked together, drank together, and fought together. But they say if you made the grade in this Irish community, your neighbors would never let you go for want.

The Angle was the country of a laconic group who needed no strangers and eyed authority with icy hauteur. Old-timers from the tugs and docks and shore installations met in dim cafés like this one at the west end of Superior bridge topping the Willow Street hill where it dips down into the Angle.

This is where Mr. Cohalan received me over 13 years ago.

“You’ll hear a lot of people say Whiskey Island got its name from the bootleggers and rumrunners that landed there during prohibition,” he said. “And it is true - lotta people made their living through the depression that way, but that isn’t how Whiskey Island became Whiskey Island.

“You’ll hear the railroaders say Whiskey Island got its name cause there’s no water here. That’s a fact; but nobody who worked on the island drank water anyways.

“Twenty-four hours a day, the ore was unloaded and the trains were loaded. They had five saloons on that hunka land. Sold thirty-two barrels of beer a day. When we were makin’ up trains, we’d send a kid over to Fat Jack’s or Corrigan’s four times a day to bring back beer in buckets slung on a yoke around his neck.

“Still, that’s not why Whiskey Island got its name. Man named Carter had a store here on the Cuyahoga mor’n a hundred years ago, when the Indians were here. And right across the river, right on the tip of Whiskey Island, was where they had the still. It was there for a helluva long time. That’s why they call it Whiskey Island.”

When the ore boats were smaller and coming in faster, Whiskey Island practically made the city. In those days, the island looked as if a couple of kids had gone wild with a giant Erector set. There were Brownhoists, Hoover-Mason buckets, and whirleys all sticking their skeletons up in the sky. Everywhere you looked, the piles of ore were crisscrossed with wooden catwalks for the men to trundle their wheelbarrows. Inbetween were railroad tracks. It was hard to tell where the island left off and the man-made part began. The railroads put in fill dirt to extend the island. Then they covered it with tracks.

Mr. Cohalan described the most distinguished saloon on the island, “You walk down Willow Street hill outside here, and you’ll come to Willow Street bridge. It’s brand-new steel now. Back then it was wood. You cross it now and there’s nothing. You cross that bridge back then, and there was Fat Jack’s.

“J.C. Dare was his real name, but nobody called him that. He was a good-lookin’ fellow and not exactly fat. Just stocky. Jack ran the only place on the island where you could pick up your change and have a fair chance of getting out with it. Nobody fooled with Fat Jack.

“About a hundred feet down from the J. C. Dare Café, right on the river, was Mother Carey’s place. Now that was a place I can’t tell you about. I was tough back then, but Mother was tougher.

“The poison she served was iron ore and ammonia. But her place was very interesting.

“I’d say Mother Carey was about forty or forty-fivish when I saw her. Good-lookin’ woman in a rough sort of way. She sure did get along with men. She pulled the roughest bunch this side of Sandusky. I say Sandusky ’cause that’s how far the Lake Shore Gang operated. The gang had a thriving business on Whiskey Island back in the nineteen hundreds. They had nothing to do with the main business of the island, unloading ships. They were ... well, crooks. They’d bomb a safe in Sandusky and time it so they could follow a freight on a handcar. It was impossible to catch them. Their hangout was Mother Carey’s.

“Mother was kind of a recruiting agent for the boats, too. Those days it took a little time to clear the holds, so the crews would take off for Mother Carey’s and Fat Jack’s. I guess Mother had some more exciting entertainment for the crews, too.

“Lotta times some of the crews didn’t come back, and a vessel was left short-handed. So Mother Carey unofficially helped out with this recruiting problem.

“The other saloons on the island never equaled Fat Jack’s and Mother’s place. There was Sweeney’s - and Corrigan’s where the dockmen got their soup. And there was Kilbane’s.

“I don’t think this Kilbane was any relation to Johnny Kilbane who got to be featherweight champ, although both of them were Irish and both came out of the Angle.

“In a way you had to be something of a fighter on Whiskey Island. Generally nobody’d bother a guy with a lamp in his hand. That’s a railroad man. But even when we were switchin’ and had to walk from one end of the train to the other, we went with a buddy. Either that, or you got to be a helluva good fighter.

“Johnny Kilbane was the most famous of the Whiskey Island fighters. I remember him when he was just fresh out of the Angle. His job was to man the big puzzle switch in the center of the island. We had about ten tracks comin’ into this puzzle, so it was pretty important to have someone there all the time. But that Johnny Kilbane, he was always jiggin’ and dancin’ around, throwin’ punches at the moths that used to gather ’round his lantern on summer nights.

“I remember plenty times the yardmaster, Tom Corrigan, would holler at Johnny, ‘Yuh gonna take care of those switches ’r keep shadowboxing?’

“Johnny’d fling back, without missing a punch, ‘Corrigan! One day ye’ll pay tuh see me fight!’

“I know for a fact that when Johnny got to be feather-weight champ, Corrigan personally went all the way to California to see him fight. I’d read about his fights in the newspapers, but I couldn’t help laughin’.

Later, Johnny went into politics. That’s a different story.

“Lotta important people come outa the Angle. They live up in big houses now in Shaker Heights and Pepper Pike and other parts of town.”

“Could you name me a few?”

“Could - but I wouldn’t care to.”

“Why is that?”

“We-ll, it’s a kind of a-unspoken deal. They’re not eager for people to know they cut their knuckles on Whiskey Island.”

“Isn’t that kind of irritating?”

Mr. Cohalan looked at me to see if I’d understand. He wasn’t sure. “It isn’t quite like that. The other half of the deal is - we need something, we ask. They come back and help. I mean real big help.”

“But I also hear some big men brag that they came from Whiskey Island.”

“True. But those are the medium-sized big shots. And not ones that stayed in the iron business. And that kind didn’t really work here. More like sons of men who did. Or men that only spent a year or so here.

“There are a lot of guys you never heard of, too, and probably never will. But there was one - Doughbelly Garlock - was boomer on a line of cars we was feeding into the switch-back one time. The switchback is a kind of dip in the tracks with a switch at the bottom. The engine shoves boxcars one at a time down the incline, and the momentum carries it up the other side aways. Before it rolls back down, the switcher throws the track over so it coasts onto the other track to the coal unloader.

“Well, Doughbelly’s riding the first car down the dip, but this time the engine coupling breaks. Before you know it, Doughbelly and twelve cars is riding down the dip and up the other side. They’ve got more momentum this time and the whole string goes over the top headed straight for the river.

“There’s not awful much you can do with twelve runaway boxcars but watch ’em. We just stood there looking at the bub-bles comin’ up from where all those cars had disappeared in the river. Then someone pipes, ‘Gee, Dough’s a good old plug. We oughta dive down and see if we can find him.’

“None of us were too willin’ to jump into that river and pull him up, but it was a kind of bond among islanders.

“Turns out we didn’t have to. Here comes Dough, crawlin’ outa the weeds alongside the switchback, his pants all slits and slavers and mouthin’ language fit to boil that river.

“That was railroadin’ Whiskey Island in the ore-unloadin’ days. It lasted about twenty years, until the Huletts beat out the Brownhoists and the Hoover-Masons.

“Me? I got bounced out with the wildcat strike in nineteen twenty. I always felt like Whiskey Island was my home, though. Lotta guys felt that way during the depression. That hobo jungle? Well, after railroading moved out and the island started to fall apart some, a lotta guys moved in there. That whole strip fronting the lake was a jumble of boards and corrugated iron scrounged outa junk piles. The guys put together shacks, open on the side away from the lake with the backs and sides banked with dirt. Hooverville.

“The smells on Whiskey Island never were choice, but whenever I smell liver and onions frying, it brings back those days with the tin cans over the open fires. There’s something about outdoor cooking, right?

“We even had a mayor. John Grady. He elected himself.

“Couple guys used to spot a hunk of scrap at the same time and there’d be all kinds of cussin’ and fightin. Grady’d step in and settle the argument. ‘Arbitrate’ is what he called it. I think he just liked to argue louder. He used to make three hundred dollars a week as a lake diver. But he’d get paid on Friday and be broke by Monday. That was Grady.

“Grady was kind of a last-ditch stand for Hooverville. The city police and the railroads got together one day in nineteen hundred and thirty and marched down on the shacks like an armored tank division - with bulldozers. I heard Grady was right out in front, throwing bottles like he was fighting for his life. They say the language he used soured the ground. Why not? They were destroying a way of life. After they wiped out Hooverville, he just hung around the cafés. It took twenty years more before he really died.

“Whiskey Island had a couple of mayors, but after Hooverville there were no people. Mickey Kane lived on a houseboat, called the Titanic, underneath the old Willow Street bridge. Mickey practically had to duck his head every time they swung the bridge open. He left when they announced they were going to put a garbage incinerator on the island. All the waste from every factory south of Cleveland flowing right underneath his house, sea gulls perching on his clothesline, but the thing that makes him move is the thought of a garbage incinerator in his front yard.

“Bill Hoey struck oil. He was pumpin’ crude outa Whiskey Island. It was nineteen fifty-two before anyone found out about it. Funny part was that Bill had been pumpin’ oil for fifteen years.

“They say for all those fifteen years, Standard Oil was sendin’ a truck around to pick up something like a hundred twenty barrels a month. That guy was pullin’ over five thousand bucks’ worth of oil a year outa that junk pile.”

I left Mr. Cohalan at his club.

The sinking sun was just setting fire to the high level bridge when I hit the open air, so I sauntered down Willow Street for another look at the Island. The Angle has changed since Mr. Cohalan’s days when the streets were mud and the houses looked like something a kid might draw on a black-board.

Now you look up at low, lean apartment houses that give it a thrifty residential atmosphere. Down near the river, the apartments give way to great piles of bluestone, sand, and ore.

The old Willow Street swing bridge is gone now. In its place is a towering lift bridge so new it’s still structural-iron orange.

I stood looking over the loneliness that is now Whiskey Island after quitting time. To my left, stretching west, is an old dirt road running alongside the old river bed, which is really a deep and navigable channel. Wasn’t that where Mother Carey’s used to be? And Kilbane’s and Sweeney’s? All I could see now were weeds.

I wondered if Mr. Cohalon could have embellished all those stories.

I walked back to the little cement building in the curve of the road where it angles in front of the new bridge. It stood like an old, lonely guardian of the river’s history. And very faintly, in faded paint on the dirty wall, I could make out the peeling letters: “J.C. Dare Café.” It stood right across from where Lorenzo Carter had built Carter’s Tavern.

Walking off Whiskey Island, I marveled that twice, this strip of land had been the birthplace of the midwest, once when Carter made it the headquarters of the Western Reserve, and again when the steelmen made it the center of the midwest economy - transfer point for iron, coal, ore, and limestone ... foundation of mid-America.