Invasive vegetation yanked out by its roots, native species planted in its place, trash picked up, canoes and kayaks meandering along the lazy river.
Well, OK, the river flow rate that day exceeded the 700 cubic feet per second limit, which made conditions unsafe to hold the canoe and kayak events. But still, the Friends of the Crooked River sure do love their Cuyahoga. And they show that love by coming out in force each year to take care of her. The occasional light shower this time did not seem to dampen their spirits.
That number has increased every year for the past 24 years according to Elaine Marsh, coordinator of the events and one of the founding members of the grassroots movement to help tend to this asset of Nature and to return it to its original state.
Additional area activities included the annual pancake breakfast at Monroe Falls Fire Department, followed by Brust Park hosting a visit from Abe and Mary Lincoln re-enactors and the MetroParks providing nets for children to catch river critters. An archery range was set up and the Hezlep Company of Artillery was on hand to fire off a regimental cannon and give musket demonstrations. Nearly 400 people visited Brust Park and the surrounding areas, said Matthew Roeser, president of the Monroe Falls Park Board, which organized the event. “This year’s River Day festival was a big success and tons of fun for everyone who attended,” Roeser said.
Even though the canoes were nixed, a new water trail from Buchert Park in Mantua south for six miles on the Cuyahoga River to a new takeout at Red Fox in Portage County’s Shalersville Township was dedicated. The Red Fox takeout is located south of Route 303 near the sewage treatment plant and was built by the Portage Park District with funding from the Division of Water Craft.
The water trail is complete in northern Portage and Geauga counties along 27 miles with six official launches/takeouts. Ten miles from Lake Rockwell to Waterworks Park in Cuyahoga Falls are also complete with six launce sites in that stretch. The water trail has been in the works since 2010 and will eventually cover 100 miles. “We’ve made big progress, but that takes big energy and big time,” said Marsh.
She said that involvement with River Day grows every year: “It started out as a grassroots campaign, just a small handful of people, and events get added each year. It’s really something.”
Marsh explained how the public views the benefits of the Cuyahoga River in their lives. “The city of Cuyahoga Falls, for example, is re-looking at the river within their boundaries and are planning what they need to do in order to provide safety for the community. They have this very interesting situation where their farthest upstream boundaries are good for beginners, and the medium part is good for intermediate, and then it goes into the falls themselves, which are good for only the most advanced paddlers. They are looking at ways to deal with it and they have very competent people who are looking at this, and we are catching up with the restoration of the river in terms of how it will affect recreation on the river,” Marsh said. “It’s impressive how adept the city is in looking at these issues.”
Planning for this one-day-a-year event is a nearly yearlong activity. “In June, we have a meeting to evaluate this year and to look at what we need to do next year. We don’t let grass grow under our feet…or water go under our bridge,” Marsh chuckled.
Some of the other 30 events at 18 locations along the Cuyahoga River in Portage, Summit and Cuyahoga Counties included: the city of Kent celebrated the new Harvey Redmond bridge across the Cuyahoga River in Fred Fuller Park; a hike was conducted along the Little Cuyahoga River at Akron’s Mustill Store off West North Street; there was education about the Little Cuyahoga River at Akron’s Cascade Village; and the grand opening of the refurbished Canal Visitor Center in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park on Canal Road in Valley View.
Canal Exploration Center
The new Canal Exploration Center features in-depth, interactive exhibits for children and adults who visit Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It is housed in a refurbished building from the late 1820s that was formerly a tavern, general store and residence. The house acquired a colorful reputation among canal travelers and is situated in an area once known as “Hell’s Half Acre.”
Located at Lock 38 in the northern end of the 33,000 acre federal park, and traditionally called the lock tender’s house, there is no record that a lockmaster lived there. The house doubled in size in 1853 and continued to be used as a general store. In 1982 National Park Service specialists restored the building’s exterior and later adapted the interior as the Canal Visitor’s Center.
“When you went through a lock, it took a while to get through, so passengers had time to get off the boat and businesses often grew at locks to cater to passengers, so that’s what this building was,” said Jennie Vasarhelyi, chief of interpretation, education and visitor’s services in the Cuyahoga Valley park.
“It’s very similar to Mustill store,” Vasarhelyi said. “In fact, when you look at our sales area we took some of our design guidance from Mustill Store because Mustill had more actual evidence of what it looked like inside.”
Vasarhelyi went on to explain that the building was treated as a small visitor’s center for the park for many years and there had been exhibits on canal history and on the history of the valley, but they were very lightly done. “We knew that instead of having this be a visitor’s center, we wanted one place for people to go in the park to get orientation to the park, and that’s Boston Store Visitor’s Center. We wanted to make this an attraction where people could come and do a deep dive in canal history.”
“We received a really nice grant [$1 million] from the Federal Highway Administration for the National Scenic Byway Program [plus $300,000 from the National Park Service] and that’s let us make it an attraction that people would travel the byway, or travel the towpath, travel the train to come and really do a dive in canal history. That’s what we’re trying to do,” Vasarhelyi said. “We received the funds three years ago. It’s a $1.3 million project, which for the square footage in here, is generous. For exhibits we could do things right, we could do some interesting technology.”
The exhibits include an interactive touch screen allowing visitors to steer a virtual canal boat through a lock with 11 steps. Visitors will learn that the mule-driven boats traveled 4 miles per hour. Guests can also learn about John Malvin, an African-American canal boat captain who came to northeast Ohio as a free man in the 1830s. There is canal era clothing to try on and chats to listen to involving those living and working along the canal and to find out how the canal changed Ohio economics.
“The lock outside has working mechanisms with the gates and levers so you can see how it was operated. It’s been a working lock for a while.” Vasarhelyi explained how, by near the end of the canal era, when railroads had taken over freight shipments, canal usage had given over to leisure boat rides.
Park Ranger Scott VanHouten was outside explaining the lock operation to the more than 500 visitors that day to whom the occasional rain seemed to be no deterrent. National Park volunteers dressed in period attire are a part of the daily operation and helped manipulate the huge lock gates open and closed.
Ranger VanHouten has a quarter of a century of experience with a background in geography and transportation theory and American transportation from college. He has worked for the National Park Service at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal with a canal boat and mules in the operation there and the benefit of seeing how it works with the mules and disconnecting the tow lines, and directing and handling the mules. “They do respond to ‘Gee over,’ and ‘Haw over’ and ‘Whoa.’ We had to slow the boat down by means of the snubbing post,” VanHouten said, adding he had done the operation there for a full year at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
VanHouten said when the canal boat was in the lock it was a break for the mules. “If the driver is coming downstream the driver would stop them, unhitch them, then they’d walk down and wait downstream for when the boat was through the lock. So they’d have about 10 minutes, or more, to stand there. Somebody would have to stay there with them or they would wander off into the pasture.”
Lock 38 demos are from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., every weekend from now until the third weekend of October. “We have water in the canal now but that can get to be a challenge. We have a little sediment problem upstream for a feeder, so we may get to a point where we don’t have enough water. If we get to that point, we try to make work what we can. In other words, if I don’t have water, I, or others, will be out there in period clothing, outside the visitor’s center greeting people and telling them about what is possible to talk about. Even if we can’t do the actual demo with water, we’ll still do what we can.”
The Canal Exploration Center will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week in the summer, June 1 through Aug. 31 with lock demos on the weekends for now. On June 7 there will be a program that is an evening canal exploration including an outside lock demo. “We usually try to do it with lanterns, so I’ll wait and do that at dusk, so this will be starting at 7 p.m. and we’ll give people an opportunity to see the visitor’s center, we’ll talk, I’ll tell some canal stories, walk on the towpath a little, then wind it up with a demo of the lock at dusk,” VanHouten said.
From the Ice Age to the Industrial Age and Beyond
The Cuyahoga River was created when the glaciers gouged out the Great Lakes then melted back. Then primal growth forests covered the land and buffalo trails snaked their way through the trees. Native First Nation peoples used the crystal clear waters for transportation and fishing. After the Connecticut Western Reserve was created and surveyed, the early settlers arrived using a “slash and burn” technique to create space for farming and building towns and villages.
Removing the pristine, old growth forests created massive land erosion, which muddied the once sparkling waters. Dams were erected and manufacturing mills were soon constructed to harness the force of the running waters. After the industrial revolution began, those harmless water wheels used to crush grain and saw the trees into lumber were replaced by factories dumping their toxic wastes into the soiled water. Eventually, conditions were created where fires would routinely erupt on the surface.
But a small group of people began to say: “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore!” and the Friends of the Cuyahoga was formed. And trash was beginning to be picked up along the banks. And old tires and shopping carts hauled out. And legislation was campaigned for and enacted prohibiting pollutants from being discharged. And the unneeded dams began to come down. And slowly…slowly, the water quality began to improve, eventually reaching the point where it was possible to once again use the river for recreational purposes.
On Jan. 14, Judge John Adams approved the consent decree between the City of Akron and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allowing the city to move forward with its $1.4 billion project to eliminate the discharge of raw sewage into the river during high rain events. Its planned completion is in 2027.
“Very interestingly, this is the 10th year anniversary of the Kent dam removal, and look at everything that has happened in the City of Kent on recreation on the river since that happened,” Marsh said.
Removal of the Sheraton and La Fever dams is complete, begun on July 30 and ending on Aug. 20, 2013. This section of the river is open to the public for the first time in more than 100 years and she’s beginning to look like her old self again. “Have you seen the dams removed in the city of Cuyahoga Falls? It’s a river again. If you go on the boardwalk from the old pontoon launch all the way down to the Sheraton, what you notice is, it’s not a lake, it’s a river, and that is immensely cool.”
The Gorge dam in Cuyahoga Falls serves as the biggest impediment to the free flow of the Cuyahoga River, and sediments have accumulated there over the last century. It towers 68 feet above the surface of the river. Originally known as the Ohio Edison Company dam, it was built in 1911-12 to generate electricity for Akron trolley cars and later provided cooling water for the coal-fired Gorge Power Plant.
In 1958, the hydro-power operation was shut down, along with the power plant, more than two decades ago. The Ohio EPA wants it taken down to improve the river’s water quality. Removing the dam would also expose the waterfall, which gave the city its name.
“Eventually, the removal of the dams, as we’ve seen, as the communities catch up with their recreation planning, it’s made an impressive difference,” Marsh concluded.
To follow the Friends of the Crooked River’s activities, visit: www.cuyahogariver.net.