River on Fire
Jun 5, 2010
|What does it take to get our attention?
Today we visited Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a recent addition to America’s national park system. The park was first created in 1974 as the Cuyahoga National Recreation Area, at a time when the National Park Service was establishing urban recreation areas as a way to bring national parks to people living in the cities. 26 years later the recreation area was finally promoted to national park status in the year 2000.
Named for the Cuyahoga River that runs through it, the Cuyahoga Valley has a rich if sometimes infamous history. The name comes from an aboriginal word meaning ‘crooked’, and true to it’s name the river meanders all over the valley on it’s short trip from it’s source in the hills near Akron to it’s mouth on Cleveland’s Lake Erie waterfront. As rivers go the Cuyahoga is neither long nor very navigable, but it’s importance to history, both Ohio’s and the nations, can not be overstated.
It is estimated that people have lived in the valley for at least 12,000 years. Early tribes used the river as an important transportation route, declaring it neutral territory so that all tribes might use it safely to travel from the Great Lakes to portages that would take them to the Ohio and warmer waters in the south.
Europeans showed up in the 1600’s and in 1786 Connecticut (which had no western boundary because no one knew yet how far the land extended) set aside 3.5 million acres in what is now northeastern Ohio. A Western Reserve for settlement by it’s citizens. Ten years later Moses Cleaveland arrived as agent for the Connecticut Land Company, and he helped lay out the city that now misspells his name.
The Ohio and Erie Canal opened in 1827. Built to provide dependable water transportation between Cleveland and Akron, the canal paralleled and was watered by the Cuyahoga River. It replaced the undependable and un-navigable river as the primary transportation artery, and it became part of a network of canals that opened the Midwestern inland to the markets and ports in the east and in the south. Merchants could ship produce or goods through the Erie Canal to the Atlantic coast, and they could now ship their wares south to the Ohio River and from there to the Mississippi and New Orleans.
Many canal systems made use of rivers, lakes and natural bodies of water when possible, and dug channels and installed locks only to connect them. The Ohio and Erie Canal used the Cuyahoga River only to provide water and did not otherwise connect or interact with it at all. The canal required a constant four feet of depth, and the river depth was neither constant nor dependable. In places where it was necessary to cross the river, locks were built on either side and the canal was bridged over the river without ever coming in contact with it.
Akron, Ohio sits atop the north/south continental divide, and Akron was an important point on the Ohio Erie Canal. It provided a link between the Cleveland/Akron section to the north and the next section that went on to New Philadelphia on the south. Due to it’s altitude there were a number of locks required to get past Akron, and while a normal trip through a lock took only 20 minutes, traffic would often back up and generate lengthy waits. Passengers and crews would get off their boats and flock to the stores, bars and restaurants - so more stores bars and restaurants opened up to take advantage of the business. That is how Akron got it’s start.
Railroads eventually put the canals out of business, and indeed canal boats carried in the rails and ties that were the seeds of their own demise. Canal travel had shortened transportation time from a week to a day or two. Railroads shortened it to a matter of hours. Today the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad connects Cleveland to Canton, and the railroad runs sightseeing excursions up and down the valley.
Today we took the train, getting on at Peninsula Station and traveling south to Akron, then north to Rockside Station and back again to Peninsula. The train provides audio sets that tell the history of the valley, and along the way we passed beaver marshes, heron and eagle rookeries and even a small ski resort. The rail bed parallels the old canal route, and you can frequently get glimpses of surviving portions of the canal and even some of the locks. The old towpath has been turned into a 28 mile biking and hiking trail and the train will take on bikes in their baggage car. Cost for the day is $15.00 per person, making it one of the most reasonable activities we’ve found.
But our history lesson for the day wasn’t over. We had yet to learn about the river’s famous fire. As early as 1863 the Cuyahoga River had become so polluted it was described as ‘muddy and murky’. It soon carried so much oil, debris and other pollution that by 1954 there had been 9 major fires already, one causing nearly 1.5 million dollars in damage.
On June 22, 1969 the Cuyahoga River caught fire again. As river fires went this was not a big one. It burned for only 24 minutes and was over so quickly the Cleveland Plain Dealer wasn’t even able to get a photograph. To quote a National Park Service paper, “Fame came later when Time Magazine ran an article about the incident in it’s August 1 issue, widely read because of the cover story on the Chappaquiddick scandal. The article described the Cuyahoga as the river that ‘oozes rather than flows’ and in which a person ‘does not drown but decays’. This, coupled with an oil spill in California that year became rallying cries for America to protect it’s waterways.
“The event helped spur an avalanche of pollution control activities resulting in the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and creation of state and federal Environmental Protection Agencies. The fire helped inspire the first Earth Day. The historical significance of the Cuyahoga River was recognized in 1998 when it was designated an American Heritage River.”
For the first eight years of this century fools in Congress and the administration made great efforts to weaken these protections at every opportunity. And why not? Their supporters will be quick to point out that we haven’t had a fire on the Potomac yet.