IT WOULD BE fanciful, would it not, to say that a man should be careful what kind of fold in the land he lives on because some magnet in the land itself reaches up and bends or moves the men to fit the landscape or gives them orders what to do or how to go? Especially strong-willed men like the Eries, Ottawas, Mohawks, Boltons, Captain Bradys, Captain Bradleys, Kelleys, Crosbys, Carters, Goodrichs, Mathers, Pickands, Rockefellers, Goodyears, Seiberlings, Firestones, Bohns, Eatons, Humphreys - a wet crack in the rocks like the Cuyahoga could hardly command their destinies.
Yet, perhaps it’s not beyond the great scheme of things, when we consider that shaping the Cuyahoga was the work of a half a thousand million years.
Even a scant few thousand years ago only the barest traces of Cuyahoga river course were visible, here a rock tossed by the glaciers to turn the flow, there a valley etched by some river of the past. But until very late, there was nothing to suggest that the stream’s headwaters would originate just 15 miles from the lake into which it should empty, nothing to indicate it would ignore the proximity of its Lake Erie goal by flowing in exactly the opposite direction, south, then west, then north in its hesitant hundred-mile wandering.
However devious the river’s course may seem today, nature’s steps in sculpting the land in the way she did are more so. The geological clues to these ancient events are numerous, and their sheer multitude leaves a trail into the past so complex that even yet it has not been completely cleared. But it is said by the men who read the rocks that roughly 500-million years ago great volcanoes spewed out their molten rock and mineral to form the first solid foundation on which nature’s modeling could begin.
It began immediately. With wind, rain, heat, and cold for tools, she ground the rocks into a plain. Then she poured oceans over the land and let them stand several million years. They say the sea here was shallow by the standards of those ages, a mere 100 to 200 feet.
At its shores, the sea stored away the volcanic rock, ground it to silt, and spread it as mud and gravel over the rocky floor. Rivers and weather pulverized whole mountain ranges and added them to the shallow depths. After ages of this activity, nature heaved the continent above the waters to let the primordial accumulation of muck dry into sedimentary rocks and shales. Again and again, the area was deluged by inland seas. They raised the rock at intervals to let the weather wear it away (and to confuse geologists), then submerged it once more to collect the ooze that would eventually become earth’s blanket.
Sometime in the midst of this ebb and flow of sea and land, a spark created swimming creatures, some of them made in the macrocosmic image of that era; others were created so small that hosts of them could live in a drop of the monstrous sea. Among these were tiny creatures that spun limey shells, then died and left their bodies to collect into 200-to-400-foot thick layers of limestone. Eons later these would create along the Cuyahoga River some baronies and barons, and the town of Independence. Settlement was to follow these limestone outcroppings.
During the dry intervals, the waters marshed and puddled over the land, giving root to great ferny forests which flourished, overgrew the swamps, died and were buried again beneath the seas. Thus coal, which would someday seem to be the invention of Mark Hanna and other Ohioans on the river, was added to the foundation.
Finally, as if to show superiority over the ever encroaching water, the land made one last heave so magnificent that it peaked in a towering Alplike mountain range ... The Appalachian. It shuddered then and ruffled the surrounding surface into foothill ranges, rippling west, well out into what would become eastern Ohio.
Now, we can just see the beginnings of those features which would one day reveal a crack of dampness, the Cuyahoga. The elements attacked the mountainous wrinkles on the surface of the land, grinding away at the rocks. The softer rocks to the west fell readily before the rainy gales of centuries, the freezes and thaws, while those resistant rocks to the east were spared, wearing down only to a flat plateau.
Strangest of all was the division line between these two areas. It was as if the roughly square-shaped state of Ohio had been folded diagonally from the northeast to the southwest corners, and half the state had received the same erosion as the Allegheny-Appalachian highland. The other half, however, had been worn smooth into what scholars call the Erie Plain - and nonscholars call corn-hog country. But the fold or division line between the two areas remains even today as one of the astounding features of Ohio’s landscape. It rises in a sheer escarpment two to five miles wide, a jagged scar from northeast to southwest. Beginning near Erie, Pennsylvania, it runs along the shore of Lake Erie to Cleveland. There it forms Cedar Hill at University Circle and the cliff border of North Park Boulevard. Thence it jogs erratically southwest to the Ohio River and on into Kentucky and Tennessee.
The Portage Escarpment, as it is called by geologists, is important to the story of the Cuyahoga because it forms a basin for the river’s headwaters in the northeast corner of Ohio. Here the Cuyahoga rises and meanders, looking for a lip that will allow it to pour into Lake Erie.
But we are ahead of our story. The 400-million years we have covered so far have merely set the stage for the second act of nature’s gigantic drama; and the watershed divide is an elusive changeling on this stage.
The divide might be visualized as a wavy ridge running roughly east to west. Like the ridgepole of a cabin, it tips the land so that all waters below it flow south to the Ohio River; every drop above flows north to Lake Erie. In the days before the glaciers of the ice age began their descent, the rivers collected their waters and flowed without turns or twists in straight, uncomplicated torrents, almost like troughs. One in particular, geologists of the preglacial history named the Dover. It could be called the grandfather of our Cuyahoga. Roads, towns, grapes, schools, and a hardware store have been named for Dover. It began its mighty flow, 116 miles from Lake Erie and ran due north. During the several million years of its existence, it sliced a channel everlastingly into the land.
And then there was ice.
Two miles high it came, smashing down mountains, filling the valleys, rivers, and lakes with debris plowed up from its path. The wars of nature were brutal. Rocks, soil, hills, and forests were fused into the hulking ice until it resembled a great, dirty mountain of frozen earth. Along the forward edge of it some say there was always deafening noise, a cracking of rocks, snapping of trees, a sliding of land. Others say, “How could there be noise with no ear to hear?”
We trace the progress of the ice across Cuyahoga country by the glacial scratches, drift, till, and the great hard heads or lost rocks strewn about on farms. The Cuyahoga is not granite country, yet occasionally the glacier dropped great granite boulders from the Adirondacks here.
In some areas, the glacier seems to have been guided in its southward progress by the Portage Escarpment, but here and there the ice broke down the wall of rock to wreak its havoc in the Allegheny foothills to the east.
The rivers received the worst of the devastation. The frozen hulk jammed billions of tons into the north-flowing rivers, blocking their waters, collecting them into vast lakes that were forced to find new outlets south. When the southern suns checked the glacier’s progress at last, the silent task of melting billions of tons of ice began. Now waters gushed forth, carving new valleys into solid rock and carrying acres of ground-up boulders, sand, and gravel over the land.
This period postdating the first glacier is sometimes referred to as “deep drainage,” during which the rivers, now released from their ice dams, rushed north again, furiously seeking their old beds. You can imagine the energy of these gushing waters, gouging their old troughs into deeper, narrower canyons. In draining the land, the ancestor of the Cuyahoga sliced a line straight north, its canyon walls towering fully a thousand feet straight up, its turbulent waters all of a mile across.
Drive to see the canyon at Cuyahoga Falls today - and multiply the whole, including the sound, the width, the depth of the canyon, by 100, and you may get an idea of how the scene once looked.
The valley of this river was spared the next invasion of ice which covered only the western half of Ohio, but the last great glacier filled the river. Sweeping southward, the ice turned the waters once more.
As the ice unveiled its handiwork, our present network of rivers was revealed. The southward-flowing stream was named the Muskingum and that farther to the north, draining the melting glacier, the Tuscarawas. But now the elusive watershed divide was revealed at last. During each glacier, its position had been bent, twisted, raised, and lowered. Now it had reached a new position, like a hogback ridge running east to west, just eight miles above the head of the Tuscarawas.
This divide was not enough to block the turbulent waters melting from the receding glacier. As the ice backed into the Great Lakes, these waters rose and fell with the melt. To release the floods from the basin, exits were found, first near Fort Wayne, then northward at the Grand River, then the thumb of Michigan. Later, the waters drained to the east through Niagara, pouring down through the Mohawk Valley to the Hudson and at long last unblocking the channel of the St. Lawrence leading to the sea.
In this final aquatic act, the Cuyahoga was born.
As the waters of Lake Erie fell, they left a lake which formed in that basin bounded on the north and west by the wall of the Portage Escarpment and on the east by the Appalachian foothills. The south boundary of the basin was the watershed divide. The water spilled right over this to join the southbound Tuscarawas.
But as the outlets of Lake Erie seesawed from east to west, as the waters rose and fell and finally settled into the general boundaries we know today, the waters of Lake Cuyahoga also receded. They dwindled to a river. Almost like a lost child, it wandered aimlessly over the glacial fill of the basin, turning this way and that seeking least resistance. As though confused, it sought the opposite direction from its natural northern outlet, dropping about nine feet per mile of flow. Finally, it uncovered what was left of the old river valley, now packed with rocky gumbo left from the glacier.
Joyously, the Cuyahoga begins to run at Akron, then leaps into a series of rapids at Cuyahoga Falls to rush north through the mile-and-a-half gorge. After this one wanton leap, the Cuyahoga slows down to meander. The sides of the buried canyon form a margin; the river tries the limits of its prison, touching first one wall and then the other while scooping its own flat bed in the glacial fill. The twisty little river winds its way toward the lake, leaves the old bed, audaciously looping away to cut a new and kinky path to the lake it has sought for 90 miles.
And now, because it was made as it was, men who live on it, astride it, and beside it, will live their lives in a certain way.
Many different strata can be seen and used in the Cuyahoga Valley and in the gorges leading into it. About a hundred feet of soft argillaceous shale is found from Peninsula north. Just above it in the stratification is Cleveland shale, black and highly bituminous. This erodes quickly, producing cascades.
Above that layer is Bedford shale (first found in Bedford), and above that, Berea grit, white fine-grained sandstone which built a grindstone, curbstone, building stone industry along the Cuyahoga shore line.
Above Berea grit, a ten-foot layer of Berea shale. Above that, Cuyahoga shale, as seen exposed below Cuyahoga Falls, runs 175-feet thick some places. Near the top of this is a layer of impure limestone which gave the canal builders a fair water lime for below-water-level masonry.
Above that, a layer of carboniferous conglomerate comes here and there in a handsome iron oxide red. Used for construction, it was quarried extensively at Cuyahoga Falls and Boston. This building stone conglomerate is the foundation for the coal rock layer which will in turn become the foundation for several industries.
At Cuyahoga Falls and downstream from it, the soft clayey shale under the sandrock disintegrated, creating a precipice once over 100 feet high. The fall of water would start some men dreaming of harnessing the power.
So the folds in the river lands reach up to influence the lives of men walking alongside.
And these men will want a name for it.
Caujahoga appeared on an ancient European map and correctly placed, just north of a short trail marked The Carrying Place. It showed some Indian villages, one at Akron called Caujahoga Town. Some say it was an Erie Indian village.
Moravian missionaries were the first whites in the valley, settling where Tinker’s Creek joins in. They wrote in records Gajahaga.
Cayagaga is what the Mohawks called it. Crooked river is what we believe they meant by that. We must say that with reservation, because displaced Senecas living there called it the Cuyohaga which meant to them place of the jawbone. It is recorded that in early days the skull and jawbone of a mastodon were discovered five miles from the Cuyahoga mouth. It is understandable that men might make a legend from the fact that they had found a jawbone 20 times bigger than the jaw of a large horse. Yet after the jawbone had disappeared, men looking at the river could assume it was crooked like a jawbone.
Diohaga was the name given the stream by the Delawares. Others called it Cauahogue. Heckwelder, the missionary, said Cujahaga.
Now what of that great Cuyahoga Lake that receded and receded until it became the Cuyahoga River? It makes a man want to go back to the source to see if anything there speaks of those tumultuous eons. In a way the source of a river may be the closest a man can stand to the six days and six nights of creation. That was my impression when I visited in 1985.
Fifteen miles south of the Lake Erie shore in the middle of a field in Geauga County, there was an oval-shaped half acre of cattails, elderbushes, high weeds, and small trees, 1,370 feet above sea level, perhaps the vestige of the Cuyahoga Lake.
In the middle of that tiny marsh, the wondrous thing took place.
Pushing through the reeds and briars, the ditch was a foot wide, half that deep with an inch of water. It is hard to believe less than 100 miles downstream, this water can float 20,000 tons of cargo in a 600-foot hull.
Standing at the fountainhead of the west branch of the Cuyahoga, it is hard to remember it took 500-million years to build this; that it became the once-west border of the Republic of America; that it became the once-main route from Canada to Mexico.
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