Brown Hoisting & Machinery Co.: From 19th Century industry to 21st Century creative community

Alexander Ephraim Brown was one of many forward thinkers of 1800s industrial Cleveland—using his mechanical engineering degree to develop a cantilever crane that was equipped with wire cable to carry a clamshell bucket to remove cargo from a ship’s hold on the Lake Erie docks.  

Brown, a native Clevelander and graduate of Central High School, earned his civil engineering degree, and became chief engineer at Ohio Bridge Company in Massillon from 1873 to 1874. While employed by Ohio Bridge, Brown developed a system for building bridge columns from scrap iron and steel.

After returning to Cleveland, he began testing methods of automating cargo unloading on steamships. He met with success with the Brown hoist, which reduced lake transportation costs and shortened the turn-around time of the vessels.

Brown obtained hundreds of patents on his invention, which was so lucrative that he and his father, Fayette Brown, a businessman, started the Brown Hoisting & Conveying Machinery Co. in 1880 with $100,000.

J. Milton DyerJ. Milton DyerThe Browns hired Cleveland architect J. Milton Dyer—known for his designs of the 1892 Tavern Club and, later, the 1907 Cleveland City Hall—to design the five-story red brick and sandstone building on East 45th Street and Hamilton Avenue.

Brown Hoisting was incorporated in 1893 and ultimately distributed its cranes and other equipment to customers all over the world. By 1900, it was estimated that 75% of ore shipped on the Great Lakes was handled by Brown Hoisting Equipment.

In 1900, a fire destroyed the original factory complex on Hamilton Avenue. Alexander Brown decided to move the main building to 4403 St. Clair Ave. and once again commissioned Dyer to design wings on either side of the original building to accommodate Brown Hoisting’s growing company, as well as a new factory behind the building. The expanded building opened in 1901 under its new name, Brown Hoisting Machinery Company.

Brownhoist No. 4 steam locomotive crane, ca. 1918Brownhoist No. 4 steam locomotive crane, ca. 1918The 34,000-square-foot building has maple and oak hardwood floors, features 14-foot ceilings, and tall windows to let in plenty of light. Seven original vaults, once used to store payroll checks, remain in the walls. The building also features a conference room with a sandstone fireplace, and the original iron cage elevator—the oldest operating elevator in Ohio—is still in use today. The penthouse features vaulted rooms and a library.

In 1927, Brown Hoisting Machinery merged with Industrial Works in Bay City, Michigan, which made locomotive cranes, to become Industrial Brownhoist Corp. and headquartered in Bay City.

By 1950, Industrial Brownhoist boasted it had built “more than 20,000 cranes of all types.” The company lasted in Bay City until 1983.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Brownhoist Building eventually became an office building and was then sold to current owners Brownhoist Partners LLC this past March. The Brownhoist is now home to a gathering space for creatives, small businesses, and collaborators who want to give back to the St. Clair-Superior and MidTown neighborhoods.

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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.