A Long Way Going Somewhere
To find the beginning the first time, I had a bird's-eye view my bird was a Cessna 170 piloted by my wife, research librarian Dorothy Ann Naiden Ellis.
More recently, we attempted a landlook.
The river begins in two branch streams 1,300 feet above sea level in Geauga County. This is lush area mostly marsh-land and swamp forests a perfect habitat for beaver and birds. But the headwaters are elusive ... we spent a day searching the general area without success.
According to Keith McClintock of the Geauga County Soil and Conservation District, "the exact sources shift depending on the time of year." As near as anyone can figure looking at maps, the east branch begins in Montville Township on private property somewhere near State Route 6 and Clay Street. The west branch begins in Hamden Township with two feeder streams: one in the Hamden Orchard Wildlife Area and the other on private property somewhere south of Routes 6 and 608.
These two branches meander separately and loosely parallel. The east branch flows through pine trees, slowed by an earthen dam creating East Branch Reservoir around an enchanting island.
Each stream is blocked, diverted, widened and flattened as it wanders south. When they ripple over pebbled patches, sunlight blinks off the stones. August shrinks the streams.
They straddle a village of horse corrals and long, winding driveways Burton. A little farther south, still in Burton Township, the two branches join.
From the confluence for 26 miles to Lake Rockwell (Portage County), the Cuyahoga flows gently through beauty. Ohio officially designated this stretch a "Scenic River." One of the most unique aspects of this wetland watershed is its unexpected wilderness in the heart of Northeast Ohio.
The river winds south leisurely, best viewed by canoe, past Burton's Eldon Russell Park. The current is subtle, held back by nature's rock bottleneck before Hiram Rapids.
The following story is relevant as prelude to the intense preservation attitude you may encounter most of the way down river.
Near the place called Troy at the turn of the century a Mr. E. P. Latham wanted to raise onions. He needed to drain the land and divert the river into a channel he dug. As a last step to turn the river into his channel openings, he needed to blast out some large boulders. However, upstream people don't welcome changes to their river. When the blasting crew arrived, the townspeople of Troy fired salt pellets at them. The onions never happened.
At Welshfield, four-lane 422 squeezes to two becoming Welshfield's Main Street. Best river view is from County Road 700.
In 1811, Jacob Welsh from Boston owned the land. To draw more settlers to his clearing, he offered 50 acres and money for a church with a stained-glass window if the place would be named Welshfield. However, his will made no provision for the church.
The town has been famous for the inn built in 1840 by Alden Nash. Nash Inn was the halfway stopover on the twoday trip from Youngstown to Cleveland. Later it became Hiram, founded before statehood in 1803, which crowns one of the highest ridges in Ohio looking down at gentle hills. For many this is the dream village. The population of 1,500 includes the respected Hiram College liberal arts but with a shrewd focus for these times on chemistry, biology, physics and applied mathematics.
Camp Hi Livery rents canoes from a metal dock that extends into the river; and the fishing is good.
At Garrettsville Colonel John Garrett knew specifically what it would take to make his forest draw settlement. Therefore, following statehood, he built here the advanced institution of civilization a gristmill powered by the fall of water just above Hiram. From 15 miles around people hauled their grain to the mill. New people settled closer. Gradually that created a peopled clearing. That water-powered mill is still in use today. The 15-mile radius, however, now circles 300,000 people.
Downstream, downtown Mantua hugs both banks. In this area are two preserves held by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Natural Areas and Preserves: The Marsh Wetland Preserve and the Chuck Tummons Preserve, named for a great defender of the Cuyahoga, great paddler and well-known canoe and kayak builder.
Mantua is perched on a hilltop; its roads cross the river several times. Although Mantua Grain & Supply (1850s) still centers town, Mantua calls itself the "fastest growing place in Northern Ohio." This gutsy little village has big plans.
The day we dropped in, the town hall was in command of three charming women: Dorothy Summerlin, assistant clerk-treasurer; Linda Wilke, dispatcher; and Vickie McFarland, maintenance.
Mantua started in the early 1800s as a shipping point for area farmers. It had a railroad station backed up by a store, 13 saloons and a house for questionable relaxation.
Today, the village shares firefighting with Shalersville, just downstream, a town with an airport above Brady's Lake.
South of the lake, the river comes close to Ravenna, followed also on the left bank by Kent.
Here the waters split around 20-foot-high Standing Rock, which resisted erosion. On its flat top is Standing Rock Cemetery (Indian) which was once tended by volunteer John Davey, founder of the national tree service and father of Ohio's Governor Martin Davey (1935-1939).
The Upper River Defense
So far canoeists and hikers have only encountered beautiful, sparsely inhabited country. But downstream of the swamp, they encounter the advance dozer treads of invading suburbs. Ditches drain swamps to create land that kills the reedy shore, incubator of small life. Into this animal kindergarten wash killer pesticides and herbicides, lawn chemicals and silt. Next occasional rubbish
Trying to head off deluge is Elaine Marsh, conservation chair of an intense organization, Friends of the Crooked River. "We want to protect the upper Cuyahoga from what happened to the lower."
Her finger in the dike needs to be strong because the pressure is relentless. People are hungry to move into the sylvan river setting, which they then rush to destroy. "Gotta have closer shopping."
Elaine Marsh is also Greenways Coordinator for Rivers Unlimited, a group backed by a battalion of organized volunteers. This upper river may be the most aggressively protected water, mile for mile, in the United States. A sampling of the troops:
Upper Watershed Task Force
Headwaters Land Trust
Tinkers Creek Land Conservancy
Friends of Big Creek
Cascade Lock Park Association
Cleveland Metro Parks
Cuyahoga River Community Planning Organization
Ohio Department of Natural Resources Scenic Rivers
Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area
Cuyahoga Valley Trails Council
Kent Environmental Council
Metro Parks Serving Summit County
Geauga County Park District
Ohio & Erie Canal Corridor Coalition
Cuyahoga Valley Association
When we get to the lower Cuyahoga, we will find an even bigger army. Of course, they have a tougher enemy.
Kent is a turning point. The city's industry and homes are built on hills. Crowning several of these is huge, sprawling Kent State University which expands the city population every autumn.
Downstream Munroe Falls has a great view of an ancient dam. The river gives off a calming effect as it rolls gently over the dam in a broad, smooth, moderate fall. At City Hall, Carol Rymer showed us the best way to get really close to a long stretch of the river the walking and bike path going north along the right bank.
At the south tip of Munroe Falls the river narrows to begin the plunge through Gorge Park. The park channels the river into the east side of Cuyahoga Falls where Owen Brown bought the corner of Main and Cuyahoga streets and fathered John Brown, the abolitionist. Books about the Browns still come off press and are on the shelves at Bill Lammers' News Stand.
Although Riverfront Parkway on the west bank, and Ohio routes 83 and 59 on the east, limit hands-on contact with the water, the city has saved some river for people at Riverfront Centre.
Despite intense urbanization (pushing 50,000), a large piece of Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area Metro Parks lies within Cuyahoga Falls, where some 6,000 acres of pure nature are preserved. The parks in Cuyahoga Falls are managed by the city of Cuyahoga Falls and Metro Parks Serving Summit County. While these acres are included in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, they consider themselves autonomous from Federal control.
For two miles within Cuyahoga Falls city limits, the river drops 248 feet toward the lake. The gorge narrows increasing the pressures as the river thrashes downstream. (Until recently its 545-gallons-per-minute flow drove generators of a Gorge power company.) At one point the falls splash the dining room windows of the Sheraton Hotel's wing positioned on stilts over the water for view.
The Cold Hand of the Maker
How these falls came to be here deserves to be not dismissed as ancient history. Why?
Despite its slow motion formation over hundreds of millions of years, during its most recent milliseconds of time the last 100 years the gorge has put bread and meat on the table for generations of millions in the neighborhood.
Tributaries to the vast prehistoric pre-glacial River Teay flowed northwest to join the headwaters of the future Mississippi. These tributaries eroded steep-sided valleys into the sandstone hills of future Akron. Then, only 17,000 years ago (just yesterday), the multi-fingered Hiram ice sheet, a mile thick, was advancing again, pushing its own melt waters up nearly against the high Akron ridge, forming Lake Cuyahoga.
As the Hiram melted its way back north for the last time, it widened and lowered Lake Cuyahoga by stages uncovering the tops of the Akron hills. These stages, "terraces," were discovered by Professor E. W. Claypoole (born 1835), an Englishman teaching at Buchtel College (predecessor of the University of Akron). As the glacier withdrew farther, Lake Cuyahoga gradually shrank to a river at the bottom of a deep valley. Dr. Claypoole's terraces became a series of waterfalls.
The Double U-Turn
What obstacle could ever stop this gravity-driven power? We are about to see.
South of the falls, the seemingly unstoppable force hits the Akron Summit, part of that long ridge of rock hills the continental divide. Half the rain drains north to the old schoolhouse at Everett and on to the Great Lakes. The other half drains south to the Ohio River and the Gulf of Mexico.
When the southbound Cuyahoga waters push against the rugged Akron ridge, that wall U-turns the river north. At the same time, the northbound Tuscarawas River strikes the other side of that same summit and is U-turned south.
That became very important. At that twin turning point the two watersheds are less than eight miles apart. Connecting them across the eight miles was an Indian canoe portage. This land link in their canoe voyages between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico served as an official U.S. west boundary for some time.
The Indians marked this portage path with signal trees by bending up the side branches of a sapling and binding them at the elbows forming, with the main trunk, a three-pronged candelabrum. One of these, now a giant three-trunked burr oak, stands at the Cuyahoga end of Portage Trail in Cascade Valley Metro Park, Akron.
Now U-turned, the Cuyahoga heads north downhill until impounded by an old, 65-foot-high concrete electric utility dam right across the canyon, an ugly cork in a beautiful stream.
The river teams in Akron with the Ohio Canal, which climbed up the continental divide in 42 laboriously built stair-step locks. Today the lock at the Akron summit is restored and surrounded by beautifully landscaped Canal Park.
The Canal made Akron a warehouse for canal cargo storage; it built hostelries and taverns for canalers and their mules and farmers hauling grain to the canal for transshipment. Ultimately the canal and the Cuyahoga brought the rubber companies, which needed rivers of water for cooling.
Other water-hungry industries followed.
Over the next 100 years, that canal town grew into an industrial giant rubber, sandstone, grain milling, lighter-than-air craft.
However, in the 1970s and '80s, Akron took a major hit. The big tire companies left town. That necessarily shut down hundreds of their suppliers and shuttered retailers who served both those armies.
At this writing, driven by an aggressive mayor backed by citizen leaders, a greater-Akron technical renaissance is building (see later).
Leaving industrial Akron, the Cuyahoga flows back to nature. It zigzags through 22 miles of protected Cuyahoga Valley National Recreational Area.
Before the 33,000 acres became a national park, they were farms and small crossroad villages. A few remnants remain. Everett is a classic example.
Between 1837 and 1852, during the packet canal boat era, Alanson Swan, a large land owner, operated a grocery store, warehouse and livery stable to service the canal at Lock #27. In 1880, a post office came and the Valley Railway gave the village a depot and the name Everett (after the secretary-treasurer of the railway company). The village prospered.
However, in the 1920s, automobiles came; the road to Akron was crudely paved. Everett was suddenly unnecessary.
After 1930, the one-room schoolhouse became Disciple Church; the depot was dismantled.
Today Everett, at the crossroads of Riverview and Wheatley, is 11 houses (including the converted schoolhouse/church now on the National Register of Historic Places) and the CVNRA South District Ranger Station surrounded by farms. Everett's buildings house a variety of park and park-related functions including housing student interns for the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center one of the best examples of public-private institutions that exists.
Inside the Cuyahoga Valley park is a long stretch of Ohio Canal towpath from Bath in the south to Lock #39 at Rockside Road in the north. It too, has its protective organizations, especially the aggressive Ohio & Erie Canal Corridor Coalition, headed at this writing by Daniel Rice.
After years of intense lobbying (led in Congress by Ralph Regula and his administrative assistant, Barbara Warnman), they succeeded in having the Ohio & Erie Canal Corridor designated a National Heritage Corridor so that director Timothy Donovan's canal territory reaches upstream from Lake Erie south to Akron.
Possibly the very best view of the Cuyahoga is on the outskirts of Peninsula. A wide, roughly semicircular loop of river flows concentrically outside the Ohio & Erie Canal. A feeder supplying river water for Lock 30 links the two. At your best observation place, the canal crosses over the river by Lock 29 aqueduct.
When Lock 29 was built, Herman Bronson knew business would develop around it, an ideal place to build a gristmill. He needed a dam on the river. He arranged for one to be built so he could get a six-foot fall to power his wheel. The mill continued working until the day after Christmas, 1931. Fire.
Today, a wooden stairway and boardwalk run next to Lock 29 and continue across the river where a remnant of the aqueduct stands as a testament to man's ingenuity.
From this man-made perch, the view is magnificent. The bend in the river is most dramatic as the water rushes around the corner and swirls against the far shore before bouncing off and continuing downstream.
Care & Handling of Yesterday
We spent time in the village itself. It vigorously plays out the classic fight between progress and nostalgia, perhaps the same one, which goes on in your own heart.
Peninsula is important as the example of what you will encounter in the next 20 miles dozens of intense groups dedicated to preserving nature and history here and wherever you live.
Sleeping on the banks of the Cuyahoga at Route 303, Peninsula watches the decades roll down. For over 100 exciting years, the world passed through here on the Ohio and Erie Canal.
Then the railroads took the trade from the canalers and left the town quiet with its memories.
Two jet-streamed highways skirt Peninsula east and west. But as two-lane Riverview Road winds through the town, time stands still. Square, white, Connecticut Western Reserve houses with functional storm shutters, abjure thermopane retrofits and frown at developers.
Sometimes village tranquillity is shattered as Peninsula battles for its status quo. Like the day the wrecking crews came to knock down the old Woods Store. One of the crew cupped his hands and called to the small woman in a red raincoat in front of the store, arms around her two children. "Lady, you're gonna get hurt if you stay there!"
Lily Fleder pulled the children closer.
"Lady, yer kids'll get tetanus on them rusty nails."
Lily withered them, "They're inoculated!"
The scene drew townspeople.
Another woman entered the scene. Her bulk and authoritative voice labeled her the new owner. "What do you think you're doing, Lady?"
Lily yelled back, "I'm not going to let you tear down this building; it's a landmark."
Lily was losing the debate when the tall young man strolled up. He wore a corduroy jacket and sport shirt, and he approached with the air of a country squire about to make a law. The crowd grinned.
He addressed the owner and crew, "Look down there," he pointed to the river. "Over a hundred years of American commerce has flowed right by this store."
"What's that got to do with this crummy old building?"
The squire answered with restraint, "Why, everything. This was the first store built in Peninsula. These show windows displayed the first jewelry for sale here." He pointed across the street. "That church was built in 1835. Your ancestors might have worshiped there."
"Not mine," the owner said.
Indicating the row of fine white houses stretching up the hill, the gentleman said, "Every one served as a rooming house for canalers."
The woman heard a voice in the crowd. "So Hunker finally got here!"
The woman challenged, "Are you Hunker?"
"Then you can just get the hell out of here you ..."
Quite a long speech followed.
This is quite understandable. There are groups at work to modernize the town of Peninsula. Hunker on the other hand, a designer/architect, leads a crowd with a feeling for preservation and restoration.
He is also a businessman, coupling his talents with a self-confidence which frequently get him his own way. This argument progressed in public to what seemed a stalemate until finally Hunker asked, "What would you take to sell the store?"
He bought it.
For decades Peninsula people witnessed the drama of "progress" vs. history and Hunker. For example the church.
Bronson Memorial Church stood opposite the Woods Store with a belfry clinging to its roof. The roof beams, savaged by squads of squirrels, were hazardous. Weather punished it inside and out. By 1960, the church had been closed ten years.
Just a few miles away, the Jonathan Hale Homestead, operated by the large Western Reserve Historical Society, wanted Peninsula's Bronson Memorial Church for its Hale Farm and Historic Village. The Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Cleveland, which owned the church, was hugely relieved. He wanted to shed the maintenance of that wreck.
The only hurdle in the Bishop's way was a small woman, often underestimated Lily Fleder.
Marching a committee of umbrella-armed women through the rain into the Bishop's Cleveland office, she demanded that the landmark church stay home. The astonished Bishop eyed the ladies with a twinkle that turned into a frown. "The Diocese is not interested in restoring that church," he explained. "The church is being moved to the Hale Farm."
Lily filed an injunction to halt the move. Peninsulites added voices.
The Bishop heard a tale about a local bank in Hudson, which had occupied a quaint brick building for years. When the bank decided to tear it down and rebuild new, important savings accounts were suddenly withdrawn.
The Bishop did not want to hear of empty pews in Western Reserve Episcopal Church. Neither did he want the cost of restoring and maintaining the Bronson church. On the other hand ... there was Lily Fleder.
She banded with nearby Hudson to save not just Hudson's buildings, but the entire upper Cuyahoga Valley from industrial invasion.
The Bishop and his trustees became aware that Lily was an army.
And Lily's army was taking the church problem all the way to Washington's National Trust for Historic Preservation. Helen Duprey Bullock, then director of the Department of Information, made a special trip to see the valley. Robert Hunker drove her through the two towns, pointing out landmarks.
Late in the afternoon, they stopped at a restaurant situated at the River Bridge almost precisely where canalers used to fight for the locks. Imagine the coincidence they met there a curator of the Western Reserve Historical Society.
After a series of cool introductions, Mrs. Bullock commented, "You realize that the church is not really 1830s Western Reserve on the inside. It was completely renovated in 1880 to Victorian style."
Mrs. Bullock set her glass on the table and asked, "What are you going to do with the church if you move it out of Peninsula?"
The curator looked at her confidently. "We'll put it back the way it was in 1830."
"If you do that," said Mrs. Bullock, "you might as well build a new replica church."
"Now just a minute," Mrs. Bullock said. "Just because 1830 was a little before 1880 doesn't mean that 1880 isn't going to be an important part of American History."
Nothing was settled in the restaurant, but Mrs. Bullock's visit brought about the formation of the Peninsula Valley Heritage Association. Charlie Conger stood up in the first meeting and said: "It's time to fight for the things that made our town!"
Lily Fleder added: "Let's see that it stays!"
By October 1964, Peninsula's 650 residents had contributed $18,500 to restore the Bronson Church and establish an endowment fund for maintenance. The Summit County Historical Society brought the total to $20,000 and the church was saved.
However, Peninsula's fight continued. Proposed super-highway, I-271, aimed its six-lane racetrack directly at the little town. Again Peninsula went to Washington with their heavy hitters, speeches ready. They were Galen Rousch, president of Railway Express; Charlie Conger, vice president of Bender Louder Freight Company; J. Kubinyi, engineer; George Fischer, mayor of Peninsula; Mr. Sarison and Robert Hunker.
In the office of the Director of Highways in Washington, Hunker began, "Mr. Director, two-seventy-one will split our town in two, a grave mistake."
The Director of Highways, a master of negotiation simplification nodded, quietly rummaged through his desk drawer for a rubber band. He cut it into one long length and stretched it across the map the men had spread on his desk. "What's wrong with that line?"
"Up a little," said Hunker.
The rubber band moved up. "All agreed?"
"Thank you, gentlemen." The Director rose, "Glad to have met you all."
I-271 cuts across the Cuyahoga valley in a line as straight as a stretched rubber band.
Then came the hot wires. The plan was to cut a mile-wide swath across the valley for high-tension wires. But Peninsula refused to conduct electricity. No wires.
And today you can walk Peninsula and still see Woods Store, built 1820; Bronson Memorial Church, 1835; Peninsula Inn, 1850; and more.
The river takes a big jog outside of Peninsula while Riverview Road makes a fairly straight path through a large wetland home of herons, beaver, raccoons, deer and underwater life.
As the canopy of trees opens, a surreal pocket of old and new is revealed on the flat valley floor. The buildings of Boston Mills tell of the village's historic canal beginnings. High above the trees, however, the road of crisscrossed modern highway bridges spoils the historic illusion. This small rural village with its canal lock ruin, corn cribs, bridge and village cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Before leaving the Boston area behind, take a little jog down Stanford to Brandywine Road. You will be amazed. Brandywine Falls on the right bank stops the breath. The highest falls in the valley, it hurtles down 65 feet over rock shelves into a deep canyon where it bounces up off huge boulders in a misty spray.
The Brandywine Gorge is lined with towering, ancient hemlocks which make the scene a Christmas card in winter.
On my last visit it was unsafe to get close. Now a color blended multi-level walk lets you get spray in the face. To emplace the support columns, the contractor drilled 12-15 feet into the rock.
Although the Brandywine River is only 11 miles long, it flows through six towns.
Double back through Boston Mills to Riverview Road as it continues to wind through the Valley paralleling (as much as possible) the railroad, the river, and the canal and its towpath. The rails and road are undoubtedly the straightest route, for the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail is almost as crooked as the river. While the river is not always in sight of the road, it is never more than a slight jog in one direction or the other.
After a few miles the trees open to reveal grassy fields. On a hill in the distance are a classic red brick farmhouse and an imposing red barn. The new asphalt drive and parking lot studded with official vehicles are concessions to officialdom Central Dispatch for the rangers who maintain this living monument with farmhouse flowered landscaping. The rangers are in evidence throughout the 33,000 acres ... walking the rails, patrolling the roads and trails. Maureen Mackey, in charge of North District Rangers, showed how, whether at the station or in her car, she is in radio contact with her rangers.
The rangers have a big job. More than 3.5 million visitors come to the park each year, 1.6 million of whom use the Towpath Trail. The CVNRA is rated 20th of the 375 National Parks and receives more visitors each year than Yellowstone!
Around the corner from Central Dispatch, just past the intersection of Snowville and Riverview, are two neat mustard-yellow, "two-flat" houses carefully trimmed in gray. Both are what remain of a row of five double houses built in 1906 by Charles Jaite to house managers at his nearby Jaite Paper Mill.
Almost immediately, Vaughn Road intersects from the right sporting another mustard-yellow row. Turning east on Vaughn, the first and largest of the five was the Jaite Mill company store and post office; second floor was home to the store manager and family. Today this is headquarters for the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. Inside and out, it is a refreshing change from government anti-citizen decor.
Inside works a small enthusiastic staff, headed by superintendent John P. Debo, Jr., and deputy superintendent Thomas Bradley. The superintendent is young, but already a 21-year veteran of national parks: Fire Island; Acadia National; Boston National Historical Park; Charleston Navy Yard Freedom Park. Debo has been here nine years. His vision is a credit to the park, the valley, the river and the people of Northeast Ohio.
The other four houses were built in 1917 to house mill workers.
This crossroads was originally Vaughn Station for the family who settled this area in the 1840s; Edward Vaughn donated two acres to the railroad when the Valley Railway line completed to here in 1880 as a shipping point for timber. After the mill came, in the 1920s, the name was changed to Jaite.
Across the street, right next to the tracks of the Cuyahoga Valley Railroad Line, are the Jaite Depot buildings, passenger and freight. Small green clapboard structures neatly inscribed in white JAITE.
Today, despite a diesel powered engine on either end, one for the upstream trip, one for the return, the train moves at a snail's pace, making frequent stops to allow passengers to absorb the area's beauty. Each railroad car wears a sponsor's nameplate, even engines, which this day have Goodyear pulling in one direction and BFGoodrich the opposite ... still competing.
Crossing over the track, less than a quarter mile down the road a straight, calm stretch of the Cuyahoga is bridged. Just up the hill on our right a large sign begs for attention, "Dover Lake Water Park and Boston Mills Ski Area." Ignore that and look to your left.
Across the road, parallel to the river are the remains of Lock 34, called the Red Lock ... no one remembers why exactly, perhaps the red clay workmen found when excavating or the red paint that once covered the lock gates.
All that remains are remnants of two walls, a puzzle of gigantic stone blocks. Even concrete reinforcement applied between 1905 and 1909 is crumbling now. The signage is new:
Portage Summit; elevation 968 feet at Lock one
Everett Lock #27
Peninsula Lock #29
Cleveland Lock #44 is 573 feet
From Akron to Cleveland the drop is 395 feet
Backtracking to Riverview Road ... heading downstream again, Jaite disappears as the road turns quickly and dramatically, winding through and around the narrowest section of the park bordered by Sagamore and Walton Hills.
Just before Independence, Riverview Road stops. Go north on Canal Road to Tinkers Creek Road, then east to Tinkers Creek, named for the surveyor who drowned in the service of General Cleaveland's party. It is the largest of the 37 tributaries.
When I last saw her she was beautiful as a meadow brook with morning fog just rising off her. Today she is being crowded, suffering as disposal system for development "progress."
Backing out of Tinkers Creek to Canal Road, you parallel the river into another world a flat-water world industrial valley. The waters, which plunged down from Akron in hours, will now take ten days winding six miles to the Lake. The Cuyahoga here has been widened and deepened, its shores locked in place by steel sheath piling to allow bulk carriers to maneuver the curves without grounding in earthen banks.
You cannot walk or drive close to the river for a stretch. There are industrial roads, but your view of the water is walled out by industry's awesome skyline.
In the 18th century, this fiery, smoke-filled, Vulcan's workshop was the industrial heart of the region between Pittsburgh and Chicago. It made iron and steel in rolls, bars and plate. The metal-using industry then made rails, built steam locomotives and steel ships. It forged anchors and parts for its own valley steel mills. It manufactured tools for farmers, joiners and plumbers. It made plate steel for locomotives, boilers, platforms and wire for western ranches and pipe for the underground universe of cities and beams for the skyscrapers of 1880 rising to 12 stories. And then they rolled tin plate with flowered designs for the ceilings in offices, barbershops, restaurants and saloons.
The outcry against the despoilers of the lower river was justified because the industries, which had turned it into a chemical sewer, had taken no corrective action. They could hardly do so; if only one or two quit polluting while the others continued, it would not help. Additionally much of the pollution came from as far upstream as Akron.
Much of the enormous equipment for sanitizing plant exhaust and liquid effluent was not yet invented.
However, the malignment in the 1960s did not soften nor acknowledge that this last six miles of water had employed generations totaling millions of people. Many of the great grandfathers were from Eastern Europe. The great grandsons and daughters now working in air-cooled uptown, far from the heat and grit-filled smoke and noise of the coking ovens and the blast house floors, today proudly celebrate their ancestry in a dozen ethnic associations, clubs and churches.
The river's notoriety went national in the environmentally intense era, especially triggered by media convergence when the river caught fire. Media were not aware this stretch caught fire several times every year. From the outpouring of the mills the river was 130 degrees with effluent water, petroleum and industrial pickle liquor. Add a tangled float of oil-soaked, cast-off pallets, dunnage and driftwood, the fires were inevitable.
The lower river fields an army as aggressive as the upper. Called RAP, Remedial Action Plan, it is a battalion of high-horsepower individuals and organizations corporations, city, federal and county governments, and dozens of specialized environmental clubs. At this writing these troops are guided by Jan Rybka, RAP's Public Involvement Coordinator. They keep the pressure on the clean up.
The initial jolts were from the federal. It came down on industry summarily demanding implementation of EPA standards. Their so-called "hearings" were conducted with prosecutorial format. Eager federals demanded nearly absurd clean air and water. Using steel as an example: the industry spent literally billions on engineering and installation of huge clean-up apparatus to meet the standards. Then EPA enforcement would demand another part per billion be removed, making the air cleaner than nature.
However, today the fish are nosing into the river mouth.
The best view of this part of the river is aboard the new Goodtime sailing from the mouth.
If you are on this vessel at dusk, downbound on return leg, the silhouette of the sprawling LTV steel mill, last basic steel producer here, looms a mile of raw production power astride the river. Tall banks of coking oven silos are still silhouetted but inactive. The conveyors still climb to the top, not with coal, but with briquettes for the blast furnaces. In the dusk the plant becomes a range of low hills, including small mountains of iron ore, limestone and slag.
The blast furnaces, which cook a mix of ore, coke and limestone at up to 4,000º and blow hot air up through it, light up the bottom of the clouds. But most of the action is inside the buildings. We may see the bottle car on the LTV railroad carry this hot brew toward the basic oxygen furnace. We won't see the mix joined by scrap and flux to enter the oxygen furnace. We'll see the cloud of steam from the resulting molten steel hitting the dramatic continuous caster which produces slabs to be hot or cold-rolled into sheet steel. You've seen trucks carrying the resulting coils headed for the automobile plants.
(Today the molten steel plunges down a long, enclosed, water-cooled channel, curving down to the conveyor below producing a thick, red-hot slab, for whatever you want to make of it.)
Below the Steel Plant
In the stretch below the steel plant, on the lower Ca-hawga, you can drive again. You will see a ballet of moving bridges and hear a concert of base horn signals from the ships "open the bridge" and the trumpet replies "bridge opening." There are 11 of these anchor bridges. The Center Street swing bridge rotates, stopping traffic about three times per hour. At the mouth is the "Iron Curtain," nearly in constant motion; at ground level to let the trains through, then lifting 98 feet for vessel passage. There are nine more dramatic bridges in this five-mile stretch.
The lower Ca-Hawga doubles back on itself several times taking you by a grain dock, the fire boat station and a famous restaurant where one can watch the 750-foot carrier try to bend around the corner.
In the same vicinity is the giant, four-lane double opening drawbridge.
On the right bank under the sky-high bridge connecting the west bank's Detroit Road to the east's Superior Avenue is a replica of a settler's cabin and an historical marker citing the landing of General Moses Cleaveland's surveying party.
From here, no more curves; a straight mile and a half to Lake Erie. But what a mile and a half!
"The Flats" was once a sneer. Especially during the Great Depression its Whiskey Island was campsite for men of the road, traveling the rails without tickets, seeking a city with jobs. Some called it Hooverville in honor of the U.S. president, unaware the Depression was worldwide.
This transient population was mixed. Among the men were executives, lawyers, professors felled by the Depression. After the Depression, semi-permanent population camped there, less elite.
The Flats also had a collection of undistinguished shot-and-a-beer taverns.
That is the reaction of people who have been away from Cleveland and return to visit the new Flats.
Flats chic arrived in full blast in the 1990s. The right bank is lined with 17 modern restaurants, nightclubs, gift shops and saloons. Many have floor-to-ceiling glass walls and decks on the river side. These clubs come in many distinct styles of food, lighting, music and prices. Boaters tie up for dinner and dancing along restaurant row. Patrons of the riverside restaurants stare spellbound when an ore carrier seven-and-a-half house lots long crawls by on slow bell. Until recently, the bulk carriers had the whole width of the entrance to themselves. Now they must handle the wheel and chadburn extra carefully. Pleasure boats tied up on both banks narrow the channel. An ore carrier cannot make crash stops; and if a frolicking motor boater plays chicken with the ship, his boat can become instant kindling.
Some names painted high on buildings preserve history for people in the marine community over age 50. Rumrunners Club reminds of Prohibition era when ship chandlers imported strong waters from Canada and supplied it to the ships along with rope and paint.
The Hausher Building housed Hausher & Sons ship chandlers. In 1854, they were butchers supplying ships' galleys. Later they supplied a whole line of supplies for the paint locker, the galley and the firehold and engine room.
Samsel, an equally famous chandler, kept a huge inventory of ship hardware in a building emblazoned with his name. If a moving vessel needed uncommon parts, the chandler would search and acquire the parts and run them out to the ship as it passed the port here. Samsel's name and number were in all the pilothouses.
Basements in these buildings were stations on the Underground Railroad.
Today in the Flats, the west bank features the Nautica shell, a stadium for music. Here too, buildings have been converted to restaurants.
Whiskey Island, infamous home of the damned, down-trodden and abandoned, is suddenly the playground for the well to do. A deluxe yacht club building now centers row upon row of pleasure boats.
When we wrote the 1985 edition, Alan W. Sweigert, a bearded bear of a photographer could listen to his marine scanner and hear what bulk carriers were approaching the mouth of the Cuyahoga and how far out were they. He could time his arrival to synchronize with his other assignments. He could pick up a vessel as she came under the curtain-rising, railroad lift bridge. From beside the raised drawbridge he could get a good shot. While the boat rounded the grain elevators on slow bell, Al could beat her to steakhouse curve for beautiful close-ups of the pilothouse.
At this writing, however, his lens is blocked by concrete walls on the Superior Avenue bridge, by a new lakefront railroad and a row of new restaurants.
"But worse now very few old bulk carriers enter the river. You get the newest boat on the river, The American Republic, and she's already fifteen years old. You get the Earl W. Oglebay and David Z. Norton. The Oglebay is twenty-five years of age. And now my beard is half gray. And I have to realize that with the Oglebay I was there that night back in nineteen seventy-three when she made her maiden voyage as the Roesch and got some of the most spectacular shots of my career, and those darn negatives are already a quarter of a century older and so am I."
You are now at the mouth. To your west lie the commercial docks where the foreign vessels tie up. To your east lies a brand new and shiny lakefront, all connected by a harborside walk and a greensward.
First structure is from outer space, The Great Lakes Science Center, filled with hands-on science demonstrations and one of those giant wraparound screens. A dominant theme is environment. Next comes the famous, glassy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Beyond that is a tiny harbor at the foot of a landscaped hill.
Finally you come to real live history of Cleveland the Steamship William G. Mather Museum. She looms above the dock, a stately statement of Cleveland. She was the flagship of the Cleveland-Cliffs fleet, representing all the long ships which hauled upper lakes iron ore down to lower lakes furnaces where it was smelted into dollars for the foundation under the region's proliferating metal-working industry.
Iron dollars founded the city's cultural action and launched every institution within the world-unique University Circle including four distinguished museums, one university, two famous hospitals and schools for art and music.
When the Cuyahoga River enters Lake Erie the oldest, shallowest and smallest Great Lake (volume) it becomes part of the tenth largest freshwater lake in the world (surface, excluding polar caps). Within this lake, the river joins 36 other tributaries from the U.S. and Canada. While the Maumee River is the largest of these, the tiny, 100-mile Cuyahoga is the most influential U.S. Tributary.
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