Destination: Ashtabula Harbor

Things are perking up in the port
It’s Friday morning in the Harbor District of Ashtabula, Ohio, and the promise of a hot cup of coffee lures a steady stream of customers into Harbor Perk on flower-lined Bridge Street just west of the Ashtabula River. In the center of the shop, the roaster is churning another batch of aromatic coffee beans that have just arrived in burlap bags covered with stamps from far-off destinations, such as Burundi and Sumatra. 

If you ask any of the locals, this part of Ashtabula would have been far less desirable a few years ago.
“My friends would ask me, ‘Why would you want to go to the harbor?’” says barista Shanen Keenan as she keeps pace with the steady stream of orders for cappuccinos, lattes, mochas and espressos. “But now, it’s really blossomed.” 

These days, things are buzzing in on Bridge Street  — not just Harbor Perk’s highly caffeinated customers sitting under umbrellas on the sidewalk. The once-empty 19th-century merchant buildings now are filled with specialty retail shops, eateries and taverns that draw visitors from the summer resort town of Geneva-on-the-Lake and beyond. 

“It’s really nice,” says John Matricardi of Cleveland, who visits when marine engineering work in the area beckons. “It reminds me of a mini version of the Flats when it was a popular place to go in Cleveland.”

In a few short blocks, visitors can go from strolling through the commercial corridor and watching the town’s lift bridge raise and lower every half hour to hanging out at Walnut Beach on Lake Erie. In between, there are two museums and a Finnish-American cultural center, which all offer a great perspective on the area’s history. 

“When people visit, we emphasize the museums,” says Paul Goode, owner of the Michael Cahill Bed & Breakfast. “They will really get a good understanding about the area.”

Boom and bust on the riverbank

Upon completion of the Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Ashtabula Railroad in 1873, Ashtabula quickly grew into a strategic Great Lakes port town supplying the steel mills of Youngstown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pa., with shipments of iron ore and coal arriving in the harbor. Demand for labor attracted Irish, Italian, Swedish and Finnish immigrants to the area and many took jobs loading and unloading cargo on the docks.

“We were the busiest port at one time,” says Shelly Mullen, chair of the Lift Bridge Community Association. It even surpassed Cleveland in ore shipments.

The commercial district ballooned with department stores, barbers and grocers, not to mention pool halls, saloons and brothels. The town earned a reputation for being one of the world’s toughest ports, on par with Shanghai and Calcutta. 
Although economic prosperity in Ashtabula continued into the 1950s, the boom era in came to an end when ore unloading was mechanized in the early 20th century. Business activity shifted from the harbor to the town’s Main Street. 

Orchestrating an overhaul
Interest in reviving the historic Harbor District brought new businesses to Bridge Street in the last decade. Things were on the upswing until construction on the lift bridge shut down traffic in the Harbor District for a year in 2008. At the same time, one of the largest and most expensive clean ups in the nation was undertaken to remove high levels of contaminants from the bottom of the Ashtabula River. The long-term benefits for residents and tourists were clear, but in the meantime, area merchants, who were concerned their business wouldn’t survive, got together and formed the Lift Bridge Community Association.

“Our regular traffic stopped when the bridge was out of commission,” says Mullen. “We wanted to find a way to showcase what we had to offer and give people a reason to come. It took a significant commitment of great people wanting great things.”

Several events were born from those meetings that have kept area business afloat. Both in their fifth years, the Beach Glass Festival in June and the Wine & Walleye Festival (Aug. 23-25) keep growing in popularity. The festivals attract visitors who might not have come before to Ashtabula’s harbor district, but who find plenty of reasons to return. 

At any time of the year, beach glass aficionados can hunt for treasure on Walnut Beach, or buy beautiful one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces from Beaches on Bridge Street. Wine enthusiasts can tour the wineries in the Grand River Valley or order a glass of their favorite local varietal with dinner at one of the restaurants in town. As for the fish, Ashtabula lives up to its Native American name that means “always enough fish to be shared around.” Charter fishing boats are a frequent sight on the Ashtabula River and just outside the harbor’s breakwall.

The initiatives to promote the area’s unique qualities are starting to pay off. “There are people who come here and go out to buy a cottage immediately,” says Mullen. “Things have happened that you would never imagine. It’s crazy.”

If You Go

For more info on Ashtabula, or call 800-337-6747.

Outside of a few private cottage rentals in the area, there are few options for lodging within the Harbor District itself. However, the Michael Cahill Bed & Breakfast (440-964-8449, has been smack in the middle of the neighborhood for almost 30 years and offers four rooms with private bathrooms starting at $80, including a full breakfast. Built in 1887 by a prosperous Irish saloonkeeper, the home was restored a century later and listed on the National Register of Historical Places for its stick-style architecture. From the front wrap-around porch, it’s only a couple of hundred feet to the maritime museum and Point Park, which overlooks the Ashtabula River where it flows into Lake Erie.

Located next to the bascule-style lift bridge, the River’s Edge Diner (440-536-4038, opens every day at 6 a.m. to serve up breakfast specialties, including homemade corned beef hash or omelets made with farm-fresh eggs. As an added bonus, the fresh coffee comes from Harbor Perk next door. If you’re hankering for Southern-style barbeque in a casual environment, head down the street to Briquette’s Smokehouse (440-964-2273, The meats are smoked over locally harvested timbers and enhanced with house-made rubs and sauces. Wash it all down with a cold one — choose from a large selection of curated craft beers. For fine dining, the Bascule Bridge Grille (440-964-0301, has steak and seafood specialties, plus locally sourced seasonal dishes and an extensive wine and martini list.

In the summer, the beaches on either side of Ashtabula beckon. Walnut Beach is within walking distance of the harbor to the west. It has a swimming beach, wildlife preserve, concession stand, a short boardwalk and a view of the Ashtabula Lighthouse. East of town, the scenic Lakeshore Park has a wide stretch of beach, concession and picnic facilities, plus a pond, where people gather to feed the ducks. Offshore, fishing charters ply Lake Erie for walleye and perch. “The fishing is really good from June to August,” says Capt. Tim Caruthers of T&V Charters (440-474-2179,, who runs trips seven days a week during the season. Customers often come back with their maximum allowance, he adds. If you prefer land-based activities, the Hubbard House (440-964-8168, details life in the 19th century and Ashtabula’s role in helping escaped slaves reach Canada. If you’re interested in Ashtabula’s history as one of the busiest port towns on the Great Lakes, visit the Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum (440-964-6847,, which overlooks the harbor.