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From industrial powerhouse to tourist attraction: 24 hours in Ashtabula's fun and funky Bridge Street district

Ashtabra, Ohio – While paddling the rippling Ashtabra River, I thought: not long ago, this would not have been possible.

The river was too dirty and the harbor too harsh. Indeed, no one rented Tandem his kayak to a tourist for his $40 an hour.

Fast forward to 2022 and this waterfront destination where the Ashtabula River meets Lake Erie has become one of Northeast Ohio’s most unexpected tourism success stories, with trendy restaurants, luxury retailers and boutiques. A hotel is under construction.

It was no coincidence.

More than a decade ago, a group of local business and community leaders came together to brainstorm ways to reinvent the Ashtabula waterfront, once one of the busiest industrial harbors on the Great Lakes. Industry has mostly pulled out of this small town, leaving behind a polluted river and a block of empty shops.

“The only things that weren’t being used were the bars and buildings,” said Brandon Hart, who started renting Harbor Yak Boats on the river in 2017. Some good restaurants have opened and then some shops and restaurants have opened. There is no place that is not used now. ”

Among the residents are breweries, coffee houses, ice cream shops, speakeasies, and more. There are shops selling art, kitchenware and gourmet popcorn and chocolate. Some restaurants only serve fried chicken sandwiches (and they’re great).

And the river? Last year, after decades of cleanup efforts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency removed the Ashtabula River from its list of the most polluted Great Lakes tributaries (the EPA’s so-called “areas of concern”).

Toni Carlyle said the community’s efforts to turn around the port district and attract tourists were “extraordinarily successful”.

She and her husband, Len Carlyle, were among the early adopters who opened Carlyle’s Home at the Harbor Gift Shop on Bridge Street in 2002 and hoped to encourage more development. . And it worked.

“Over the years, we’ve moved from serving locals to serving townspeople,” she said.

Anyway, for me it was all pretty amazing.

I have passed Ashtabula many times before. We toured the county’s many covered bridges on our way to the wineries in the area and spent the night at a lodge near Geneva on the Lake. But it wasn’t until earlier this month, when I spent a full day eating, drinking and rowing a place that evolved into one of the region’s most unique destinations, that I stopped and looked around. There was not.

An almost 100-year-old lift bridge opens every 30 minutes to allow boats to pass. It is a popular photo spot for visitors.

Ashtabula City Administrator Jim Timonea admitted that locals and visitors have very different views of the bridge, which was built in 1925 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

“I know I have to avoid Bridge Street every half hour,” he said, to avoid the inevitable traffic jam. “It’s something we take for granted.”

Afternoon traffic on the Ashtabula River in northeastern Ohio.Susan Glaser,

Historic Ashtabra Harbor

Traffic waiting to cross a lift bridge that rises and falls every 30 minutes over the Ashtabula River in northeastern Ohio.Susan Glaser,

Historic Ashtabra Harbor

A conveyor that once transported coal from one side of the Ashtabula River to the other has been stopped by the Norfolk Southern Railway. The city asked the railroad not to demolish the building due to its historical and aesthetic value to the community.Susan Glaser,

Easy day trip from Cleveland

About 60 miles east of Cleveland, Ashtabula is an easy day trip for northeastern Ohioans. Spend the night, however, checking out some of the small history-focused museums nearby, signing up for a fishing charter, strolling barefoot on the sands at Walnut Beach, or enjoying the water at Harbor Yak. Plenty of time to rent a motorbike. On some Friday nights there is also a ghost tour of him.

I was traveling on Sunday and Monday and several of the restaurants I wanted to try were closed or had reduced hours. Rest assured you’ve eaten without going hungry at Lennick Meat Market, which opened in the town’s historic butcher shop in 2014, and Briquette Smokehouse, which serves stacks of plates of barbecue on a large patio overlooking the water. Lunch was great at both fires! Chicken sandwiches and blended smoothies and ice cream.

What’s your drink? We started the day at Harbor Park and finished with a speakeasy at the 1035 Club, enjoying his brewing at Clawvenhoof in between. You can hear it while sipping on a great IPA, a coffee stout, or something called a Banana Baptism, or some other home brewed beer.

Before and after eating and drinking, I browsed the shelves at Bridge Street Art Works. There was a lot of pottery, jewelry and other creative items there, mostly by local artists. Founded in Connaught in 1963, we wandered through the many temptations of Marianne Chocolates, a Bridge Street staple since 2009. And we chatted with Gallo, the block’s newest owner, who opened Harbor Gardens earlier this year and specializes in locally grown Ohio foods, food demonstrations, classes, and more.

The neighborhood’s biggest, and perhaps most influential, new business is slated for next spring.The new Riverbend Hotel, which broke ground in 2019 and was delayed by funding issues during the pandemic, is now on Goodwill Drive. It’s under construction on half of – a block from Bridge Street. A 43-room hotel with a top-floor wine bar and sea views will be brought into the neighborhood.

Historic Ashtabra Harbor

Walnut Beach in Ashtabula at sunset.Susan Glaser,

Historic Ashtabra Harbor

Cahill Bed and Breakfast in Ashtabula.Susan Glaser,

Historic Ashtabra Harbor

Stairs to the 1035 Club speakeasy in Ashtabula’s harbor district.Susan Glaser,

Historic Ashtabra Harbor

A quiet Sunday night on Bridge Street, Ashtabula.Susan Glaser,

spend the night

My bed for the night was the Michael Cahill Bed and Breakfast, built in 1887, a short walk from the harbor, with a large front porch and four bedrooms for overnight stays. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the house has been an inn since 1986 and was purchased in 2018 by Ashtabra natives Bob and Joan Cerbera.

Bob is the former executive chef of Stouffers Top of the Town and other Cleveland restaurants. Jo Anne was a nurse and a hospital administrator. “Bob retired happily until I surprised him with this,” Jo Ann joked. He is now in charge of preparing the inn’s excellent gourmet breakfasts, including the spinach quiche on the morning of my stay.

They have watched their hometown systematically evolve from an industrial center to a tourist one. (Of course, industry hasn’t died out entirely; the port is still an active port, as evidenced by his Petmin USA plans to build a new pig iron mill on the east side of the river.)

“It’s been a very slow process,” said Jo Anne Surbella of the city’s transition. And it’s not over yet. “I think there will be big changes in this community in the next 10 years.”

In fact, recent neighborhood developments feature residential components, including new townhomes on Bridge Street that opened in 2019. And there is talk of expanding the neighborhood to the east, across a lift bridge.

However, the success of the port area did not spur the entire city.

The city’s population is about 18,000 and continues to decline. Also, according to recent Census Bureau statistics, her 30% of Ashtabula residents live below the poverty line, well above the state and national averages.

Downtown Ashtabula, about three miles south of the lift bridge, is marked by a number of empty shops along Main Avenue.

City manager Timonea said the downtown area presents a greater economic development challenge than the port district. Larger buildings are spread over a much larger area. However, he said several redevelopment efforts are underway downtown, including a project to restore the historic Castle His Block complex and the original Carlisle department store.

However, downtown lacks the one thing that makes the harbor area so special. It’s close to the sea.

In 2017, Brandon and Alexa Hart came up with the idea that visitors might want to get closer to the water. They started renting Harbor Yak with a handful of kayaks and paddleboards and have expanded their fleet every year since.

The business recently moved to an old Coast Guard station on the east side of the river and now has 60 boats for rent, including trendy hydrobikes and newer pontoon boats this year.

“No one else was doing it, and we needed it here,” said Brandon Hart, a barber. “It exceeds my expectations.”

The company is also experimenting with sunset tours, yoga classes, and paddle and pint events.

My husband and I rented a two-seater kayak for a quiet Monday morning and kept it simple.

Your first stop is the scenic Ashtabula Harbor Lights. Built in 1905, automated in 1973 and accessible only by boat.

Getting close enough to inspect the seams of the steel structure, we headed east across the harbor to check out the moored Canadian-flagged freighter MV Tecumseh. Then we paddled west again, kayaking to an area called Cove. Kayak Cove is a narrow channel between the shore and breakwater, perfect for small boat exploration.

The current here created a sandbar-like island adjacent to the breakwater where we moored our kayaks and took a short walk on the beach. This is a true hidden gem.

On the way back to the docks to return the kayaks, when I suggested a final detour – south, up the river and under the bridge – was.

Just as the sirens sounded, we turned our kayaks to let road traffic know the bridge was about to rise.

Historic Ashtabra Harbor

Kayak up close to the Ashtabra Harbor Lights, accessible only by boat.Susan Glaser,

Historic Ashtabra Harbor

Hydrobike in the harbor.Susan Glaser,

Historic Ashtabra Harbor

MV Tecumseh awaiting repairs at Ashtabura port seen from a kayak tour.Susan Glaser,

Historic Ashtabra Harbor

Ashtabula Harbor kayakers access this hidden beach, which is attached to the breakwater and only accessible by boat.Susan Glaser,

If You Go: Historic Ashtabula Harbor

Visit for a list of restaurants, shops and activities.

Stay: $170 per night including breakfast for a room at the Michael Cahill Bed and Breakfast at 1106 Walnut Blvd. See

Historic Ashtabra Harbor

Ashtabra harbor at dusk.Susan Glaser,

Historic Ashtabra Harbor

The Ashtabula River near the historic lift bridge is lined with fishing charters and pleasure boats.Susan Glaser,