Rediscovering history: Veterans Memorial Bridge open for exploration

The iconic Veterans Memorial Bridge will be open for exploration this weekend for Cuyahoga County’s much-anticipated event, Rediscover the Veterans Memorial Bridge, part of Cleveland History Days, an annual celebration of the city’s heritage, hosted by Canalway Partners.

The lower level, subway deck will be open on Friday, June 21 from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Saturday, June 22 from 12 p.m. to 11 p.m. for free, self-guided tours.

Rediscover the Veterans Memorial Bridge subway level 2023Rediscover the Veterans Memorial Bridge subway level 2023Visitors can enjoy the original streetcar station and tracks while taking in the views of the Cuyahoga River, Lake Erie, and downtown Cleveland.

This year, the bridge becomes a canvas for Cleveland artist Chuck Karnak, whose art installation “Go Dream” will integrate music and performances in a series of kinetic sculptures—or Dream Sails—which will be suspended from the bridge's ceiling. The Dream Sails will move in random ways, creating endless possibilities in how they tip, twirl, and reflect light and breeze.

“The Veterans Memorial Bridge, a symbol of connection and unity, has long been admired for its stunning design,” said Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne in a statement. “This year’s Rediscover Veterans Memorial Bridge event is where history and art intertwine. The tours provide a unique opportunity to explore the area’s rich history, envision the limitless potential of the bridge’s lower level, and show support for our local artists.”

Shortly after taking office as Cuyahoga County Executive in January 2023, Ronayne announced he was exploring options for a “Low-Line Park” on the lower level.  In November 2023, his office opened a Call for Artists to reimagine the bridge.

In March 2024, Cuyahoga County, in partnership with the City of Cleveland and the Ohio Department of Transportation, received $7 million in Federal funds to transform lower bridge to include two-way bicycle lanes, walking paths, and create a more parklike space.

Rediscover the Veterans Memorial Bridge subway level 2023Rediscover the Veterans Memorial Bridge subway level 2023Take A Hike

Additionally, the Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corporation is offering monthly Take A Hike walking tours of the streetcar level of the bridge, which started June 9.  

As tour guests walk the span of the bridge, they will be greeted by actors dressed as historical Clevelanders who share stories of the city's past on a 90-minute tour.

“We're thrilled to collaborate with the Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corporation to extend the offerings of our bridge tours,” Ronayne’s transportation advisor Annie Pease said in a statement. “These events allow us to journey back in time and imagine the bridge’s future role in multimodal transportation. We aim to find innovative ways to enhance connectivity and accessibility, ensuring the Veterans Memorial Bridge will again serve as a vital link for all.”

Tours run the second Sunday of the month—July 14, Aug. 11, and September 8—at 1 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 2 p.m., and 2:30 p.m.

Registration is required and minors must be accompanied by an adult. Guests are required to sign a waiver before the event.

A bit of history

The Veterans Memorial Bridge opened on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22, 1917. Originally known as the Detroit-Superior Bridge, it was renamed on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 1989.

Veterans Memorial Bridge under construction, ca. 1916Veterans Memorial Bridge under construction, ca. 1916The bridge replaced the 1878 Superior Viaduct, a type of bridge that incorporates a series of arches to carry a road or railroad across a valley, which was originally built to easily move the rapidly growing city traffic across the Cuyahoga River without having to navigate the steep river banks, but had become congested.

Construction on the 5,600-foot Detroit-Superior Bridge began in 1912 and cost nearly $5.3 million to build. Sitting 96 feet above the Cuyahoga River at its center span, the bridge is made up of 12 concrete arches and two decks. The upper deck carries vehicular and pedestrian traffic, while the lower deck, known as “the subway,” carried streetcars on four sets of tracks.

Entrances to the subway were at West 6th Street, West 25th Street, and Detroit Avenue, with passenger stations at each end of the bridge. The streetcars stopped running in 1954 and in 1955 the ramps leading to the level were sealed.

With 70,400 cars crossing the bridge each day by 1930, it was considered one of the busiest bridges in the country. The 1932 completion of the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge (Hope Memorial Bridge) and the 1939 opening of the Main Avenue Bridge helped accommodate the ever-increasing traffic over the Cuyahoga River.

The Veterans Memorial Bridge underwent a $6 million, two-year, renovation in 1967 that added two traffic lanes and narrowed the original 15-foot sidewalks to five feet.

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.