When you drive north on Virginia State Route 15, the first indicator you are anywhere at all is Point of Rocks Bridge. The concrete maze of suburban sprawl is tamed by crooked brooks, wizened oak trees and fieldstone walls. Route 15 turns steeply downhill and the blue steel bridge beckons you into Maryland. To the west, Catoctin Mountain juts out over the Potomac River, its rocky patina blasted through long ago to make room for the Baltimore Railroad.
I have lived in Northern Virginia for more than twenty years. Two or three times a year, I return to Cleveland, where my family has lived for three generations. Growing up, my parents drove my younger brother and me around the United States on all manner of family vacations, so the heritage of the Great American Family Road Trip is in my blood and bones, along with a kind of clairvoyance for scenery. All landscapes harbor stories of the natural forces and the people who shaped them, if you look closely, and listen.
Following the rolling hills of Maryland I am met by the imposing Allegheny Mountains. They are petulant hosts: some days they welcome me with lilac sun rays, other times they spit heavy rain or snow showers. Under the gaze of their unreliable hospitality I approach the Allegheny Tunnel. Each time I enter the belly of the mountain I marvel at how the tunnel has borne for so long the geological forces of rock and water.
Rural Pennsylvania is dotted with white steeples, trailer parks and clapboard houses with front porches that sag under the weight of household detritus. An oversized highway sign announces the split of I-70 to St. Louis and I-76 to Ohio, the demarcation between points west and the Great Lakes. The sign makes an impression on me each time I see it: the stark, singular word, ’west,’ which I choose to read as West!—a cartographic nod to things wild and untamed.
I bear right and northward toward the farms and flat fields of Ohio, toward a city of immigrants at the mouth of the serpentine Cuyahoga River.
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Cleveland was conceived by a group of investors from Connecticut who foresaw the potential of a midwest terminus with access to southern agriculture and northern lakes. From the early 1800s through the 1920s, Irish, German, Italian, and Slavic immigrants arrived en masse to work in the shipyards and railroads. Cleveland evolved from a wilderness outpost into a vibrant commercial center for industrial magnates. John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Mather and their ilk built extravagant mansions with ballrooms, manicured lawns, fountains, and carriage houses along Euclid Avenue, known as “Millionaire’s Row.”
The city reached the height of its industrial boom in 1928. The photographer Margaret Bourke-White considered it an architectural paradise for the camera lens. In one of her sepia-toned collections, she captured Cleveland’s most distinctive landmark, the Terminal Tower, looming over the industrial valley, shrouded in atmospheric clouds. Bourke-White’s photograph emanates elegance, height, toil and grit—fitting for a city with high ambitions fueled by the labor of immigrants.
Both of my great-grandfathers emigrated from Poland through Ellis Island to Cleveland in the early 1900s. One lived in Warzsawa and the other in Poznan, two burgeoning Polish enclaves on the perimeter of Cleveland’s industrial flats. They lived with their large families packed into small, wooden houses where the pungent smell of homemade horseradish and moonshine conjured in basements and backyards wafted into dreams of sleeping children. The neighborhood bakeries sold babka (raisin bread) and kolaczki (lily cookies, pronounced ko-lotch-ki)—buttery petals of dough tucked like loving arms over dollops of jam and dusted with powdered sugar. I imagine my great-grandfathers rising from their warm beds and heading out in the cold, gray pre-dawn hours to follow the labyrinth of railroad tracks to their jobs rolling steel and cutting wire in one of Rockefeller’s anonymous factory buildings.
One great-grandfather remained in Cleveland, the other returned to his family farm in Poland, just outside of Krakow. However, his adolescent daughter (my grandmother, Helen) was less enthusiastic about rural living. The story goes that my great-grandfather found her repeatedly standing with a book at the end of row of wheat or barley. Deciding she would never make a good farmer’s wife, he sent her back to Cleveland at age 15 to live with relatives. In my grandmother’s passport photo, taken the same year as Bourke-White’s photograph, she wears a dark peasant dress of indeterminate color, her face is full with the roundness of youth.
From today’s perspective, it is hard to fathom a young girl traveling alone on a steamer across the Atlantic Ocean. I wonder what my grandmother felt boarding the White Line in Bremen, Germany. Who was there to see her off? Did she receive catcalls from rowdy dock workers? Did she fear the open sea? What were her impressions of Cleveland, the Cuyahoga River, and the Terminal Tower that rose above it all?
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