Police Buildings: Watch houses, 1853 to 1875


Shortly after Cleveland officially became a city in 1836, its residents instituted a new form of policing – the marshal system. Aside from regular police work, the Marshal’s duties included serving as the collector of customs, supervising the city’s street cleaners and preventing hogs from roaming the streets. The City Marshal’s subordinates, called watchman, served much like modern day patrol officers, walking the streets armed with a lantern and a Newfoundland dog.

Cleveland Daily Herald, February 20,1836
Cleveland in 1853, lithograph by BF Smith

Badge worn by Cleveland’s watchmen
Watchman’s lantern

Prior to 1853, the city rented buildings to house both the Watchmen and the prisoners.  Newspaper records show Council authorizing the payment of rent and repairs for a Watch House as early as March of 1840. 

The first identified official police facility was an office rented above R.H. Worthington’s Store at the corner of Superior and Water Streets (40 Superior Street).  The office was rented by City Marshall Stoughton Bliss and Constable Thomas McKinstry in July of 1845.  It was described in the Cleveland Plain Dealer as a place where “…all infractions of the laws and ordinances of the city can be reported, and where officers can be found in time of need.” 

News articles then reflect that in 1850, Council approved a motion to pay rent to secure a Watch House.   Payment in the amount of $19.35 was authorized to E.F.Gaylord to rent his rooms for a Watch House for 37 weeks


Daily Cleveland Herald, March 28, 1840
Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 17, 1845

The Council authorized the construction of a Watch House in 1852. In September of 1853, the Watch House on Johnson Street near Water Street was completed. The Cleveland Daily Herald called it a “large and neat edifice; excellently planned and executed–in short, just what was needed.”

According the Cleveland Plain Dealer (09/05/1853) …”it is two stories tall, and is built of brick in a very substantial manner. It probably cost the city about $3,000.

On the first story are two rooms in front – one for the jailor’s office, and one for his sleeping room. Back of these are two ranges of cells, five cells on each side of the aisle. Each cell is about 8 by 10 feet in size and has a strong and substantial iron window and door. The walls are very thick and are lined on the inside by two-inch plank. The cells will be supplied with beds and other furniture.

In the second story are ten rooms to be used for temporary prisoners, women, boys, etc. But none of these rooms are large enough for the occupancy of the Police Court, which certainly should hold its sessions in that building. It was decided at one time, we understand, to keep the Court away from the building, but it is now intended to have it there and consequently the partitions in the second story will have to be torn down. The house is well built.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 5, 1853


An entry from the Journal of Council from the March 22, 1852 Council Meeting for a claim filed by architect Edward Harris for submitting the plans for the new City Watch House.

At the end of August 1853 the Police Court moved into the City Prison building. The City Council passed a resolution in November instructing the Police Judge to sentence all persons convicted in Police Court, except for state offenses, to the City Prison. By city ordinance, the City Marshall was given charge of the prison and was responsible for maintaining it in a clean and comfortable condition and he was required to supply the prisoners with sufficient food. He was told to submit a bill to the city for his expenses.

In 1855 a second Watch House was opened west of the river, after Cleveland merged with Ohio City. The West Side Watch House was located in the old Vermont Street schoolhouse at Vermont and State Streets that had been remodeled at a cost of $856.13. This building was then named the 4th Precinct Station House and later renamed as the 8th Precinct in 1875 and remained at this location until a new headquarters was constructed in 1875 on the corner of Detroit and State Streets. Vermont Street was changed to Detroit Avenue.

By 1858 the City Prison was deemed to be in deplorable condition and the City Health Officer was asked to inspect it. A citizen petition, signed by “…260 responsible citizens…” was presented to city council in May of 1859 requesting a “…new and more commodious City Prison be provided.” In July of 1861, the Cuyahoga County Grand Jury issued a report whose final statement read: “We find the City Prison to be a common nuisance and burning shame to the city of Cleveland.” Construction of a new City Prison finally began in May of 1862.


The Johnson Street Watch House served as the Police Office, Court Room, Clerk’s Office and Jail for about a decade. In 1861, the Grand Jury of the Cuyahoga County inspected the Johnson Street Watch House, finding it infested with vermin, in poor condition and “a common nuisance and burning shame to the City of Cleveland.” Construction of a new police station and city prison commenced the following year. The Johnson Street Watch House was abandoned on February 10, 1864, when the entire force moved to the new Police Headquarters on Champlain Street.  The property was put up for sale in 1867 and torn down in 1868.


Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 11, 1864
Cleveland Daily Herald, September 18, 1867

In 1855 a second Watch House was opened west of the river, after Cleveland merged with Ohio City.  The West Side Watch House was located in the old Vermont Street schoolhouse that had been remodeled at a cost of $856.13.  This building was then named the 4th Precinct Station House and later renamed as the 8th Precinct in 1875 and remained at this location until a new headquarters was constructed in 1875 on the corner of Detroit and State Streets. 

Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 1, 1855

Public Square, looking east, 1857
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