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The Cuyahoga River, Ohio, USA

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The Cuyahoga River is the major river in north-eastern Ohio, USA, draining 813 miles2 (2,100km2) of land and over 37 tributaries in four counties - an area that contains over 16% of the state's population. The river begins in Geauga County, and takes a 100-mile (160km) U-shaped course through Portage, Summit and Cuyahoga1 counties, emptying into Lake Erie just 30 miles (48km) from its headwaters.

The Crooked River

The river itself can be divided into three sections: Upper, Middle and Lower. The Upper Section is the most pristine, featuring over 1,300 acres (5.25km2) of lush wetlands. For this reason, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has designated 25 miles (40km) of the Cuyahoga in Geauga and Portage counties as a 'State Scenic River'. The Middle Section through the 'Falls' area of Kent, Cuyahoga Falls and Akron is more populated, and as a consequence, more polluted. However, the river is still in good shape due to the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, where development is restricted, and natural cleaning mechanisms such as the wetlands, which partially eliminate contaminants. The Lower Section in Cuyahoga County is the most urbanised and problematic. This is also home to two thirds of the watershed's population; 12% of the land area is dedicated to industry. Land is often developed right up to the riverbanks, leading to heavy run-offs and more contamination during floods.

Geological Setting

The Cuyahoga is unusual in that it's a relatively young river, flowing through an ancient valley, originally part of the Upper Muskingum or Tuscarawas watershed. That changed during the most recent glaciation, about 20,000 years ago. When the ice sheets came south from Canada, they acted like continent-scale earth movers, scouring out valleys and piling up ridges. When the glacier receded 7,000 years later, it had irreversibly rearranged the drainage patterns and created a new watershed divide, forcing the Cuyahoga into its present crooked course.

Other features can be attributed to the glaciers as well. Kettle lakes formed in depressions that the ice left after it retreated. Buried valleys contain glacial sediment in which gold from the Canadian Shield may be found. Many of the bogs and fens in the upper Cuyahoga also owe their origins to the retreating ice as well, forming when glacial ice melted in shallow clay depressions. Kames2, eskers3 and ridges of glacial till, called moraines, dot the landscape.

Biology and Ecology

As the Cuyahoga flows through many different riparian environments, it provides a home to many species of fish, amphibians and macro invertebrates 4, such as insects, arachnids, and molluscs. Most of the invertebrates that dwell in the river are insect larvae, so stonefly, mayfly, caddisfly, midge and dragonfly are common sights along the banks.

The Upper Section is famous for walleye and bass fishing, whereas fish like shad, freshwater drum, carp, northern hog sucker, goldfish, golden shiner, northern largemouth black bass, bluegill, three species of sunfish, northern pike, perch, channel catfish, black bullhead, steelhead trout and minnow inhabit other areas. Because amphibians are so sensitive to pollution, they have been in decline. However, in the better-managed parts of the river, salamanders, newts and frogs abound.

Non-aquatic creatures also reside here. Beaver dams and mink latrines are common in the Upper Section. Other wildlife that depend on the river include great blue heron, turtles, ducks, geese, hawks, kingfishers, songbirds, white-tailed deer, porcupines, foxes and coyotes. Occasional sightings of bears indicate that they may be ready to move back to their old range. Sadly, some species such as elk and wolf have been eradicated.

Rich floodplain soils along the Cuyahoga support incredible plant diversity. Trillium, bloodroot, dogtooth violet, phlox, wild geranium, Virginia bluebells and toothworts are typical of the northern Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. The Upper Section delivers large displays of beautiful red cardinal flower, water lilies, arrowhead and turtlehead. Many species of plant protected by the Endangered Species Act thrive on the Cuyahoga's banks.


Native American Settlement

'Cuyahoga' is an Iroquois word meaning 'Crooked River'5. However, settlement of the valley predates the Iroquois culture. The first evidence of humans in Cuyahoga Valley dates back to 12,000 years ago. It is likely then, that Paleo-Indians hunted mammoth, mastodon and other large game that inhabited the area. These groups grew in size as better tools and technology became available, namely cold-hammered copper tools. Archaeologists working north of Stone Road in Valley View recently uncovered the earliest evidence of permanent habitation, a four-acre settlement called South Park. This was a well-used Native American site, with evidence to support the existence of communal structures, hunting and agriculture. This particular site was abandoned and reoccupied several times between 1000 and 1600AD, but it is the most recent pre-European archaeological site discovered. The last evidence of Native American habitation has been dated to approximately 1620, 40 years before the first European set foot in the Valley. Beyond that, no signs have been found of indigenous peoples. There are many theories as to who they were and why they disappeared, but nothing conclusive. Whoever the indigenous peoples were, they are gone, leaving a mystery that may never truly be solved.

Shortly after the disappearance of the indigenous peoples, the Ottawas6 began settling by the shoreline of Lake Erie, and moving south along the floodplain. These were the people who met the first Europeans in the Cuyahoga River Valley.

European Settlement

In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the first Europeans arrived in the Cuyahoga Valley. Many of these were fur traders looking for muskrat, beaver, otter, mink and other valuable pelts and they traded with the Native Americans (guns and gunpowder for furs). The first European-American settlement in the Valley dates back to John Heckewelder's Moravian mission 'Pilgerruh' in 1786. This was abandoned after just a year, but the Cuyahoga Valley would never be the same. The first trading posts were established soon after by French traders at Portage Path, and at the junction of Tinkers Creek and the Cuyahoga River.

Military posts came soon after. When Ohio's fame as a fur centre grew, the three most powerful nations in the Americas at that time - Britain, France, and to a lesser extent, Spain - vied for control over the watershed. Native Americans became pawns for the powerful empires, especially when British-French tensions came to a head in 1753, ushering in the French-Indian War. By the war's end in 1763, the British Empire had control over the Ohio and Cuyahoga Valleys. This did not last, as Britain relinquished all of Ohio to the nascent United States after the American Revolutionary War ended in 17837.

After the American Revolutionary War, there was some confusion as to which state the Cuyahoga River Valley belonged. New York, Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut all had claims to the land, with overlapping grants from the British crown. Eventually, all four states gave up these claims. But Connecticut reserved a strip of land stretching 120 miles (193km) west from Pennsylvania. This 'Western Reserve of Connecticut' contained the entire Cuyahoga River Valley. Most of it was sold to the Connecticut Land Company in 1795. But there was still some reserved for Connecticut citizens in Erie and Huron counties8. The Connecticut Land Company surveyed east of the Cuyahoga River into townships, and its general agent, General Moses Cleaveland, founded Euclid and of course, Cleveland9, at the mouth of the river in 1796.

Settlement of the Western Reserve came slowly, primarily from New England states as pioneers poled their boats up the Cuyahoga River and into the Valley, or herded their cattle over range lines and Native American trails. The demographic of the area changed dramatically after the War of 181210. Most Native American tribes had been driven out of Ohio and more settlers from New England moved into the Valley following some bad winters in New England.

Shortly after Ohio achieved statehood in 1803, the first permanent American settlements in the Cuyahoga Valley appeared. In Cuyahoga County, Independence and Brecksville were founded along the river in the valley's north end in 1808 and 1811, respectively, while the town of Valley View was platted in 1806. Northfield, Boston and Wheatfield (later renamed Bath) townships formed in what later became Summit County.

The Canal Age

The two canals built along the Cuyahoga River were part of Ohio's famous canal system, the superhighway of the early 1800s. Everything from cotton and coal to coffee and window-glass travelled on these routes. The Ohio and Erie Canal stretches from Cleveland, through Akron and Columbus to the Ohio River at Portsmouth. It remained the main north-south highway for over 50 years, as the steep valleys and glacial ridges made railway construction difficult. The Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal runs from Akron, through Ravenna, Warren and Youngstown, to New Castle, Pennsylvania.

The canals were used extensively throughout the heyday of the Canal Age. As many as 75 boats would travel along both canals in a day. As a result, industries and services for the canal boatmen sprang up, the valley's population grew and living standards improved.

While canals were directly responsible for the first period of growth in the Cuyahoga River Valley, they outlived their usefulness as railways became increasingly important. Canals for shipping were abandoned in the 1880s, but they have undergone a renaissance of sorts. Akron and other cities along the Cuyahoga River showcase their canals as tourist attractions, complete with towpaths and canal boat rides for those keen to relive the past.


In 1873, the construction of the Valley Railroad, a route that connected the iron ore of Canton and the blast furnaces of Cleveland, sounded the death knell for the canals. It paralleled the Ohio and Erie Canal, with stations built at Independence, Boston, Peninsula, Everett, Ira and Botzum. Subsistence farming generally disappeared with the coming of the railway - as farmers took advantage of the rich flood plain soils and a market economy.

The Valley Railroad was incorporated into the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad system in 1890. This competed with the canal for four years, but quickly went bankrupt. However railways in the late 1800s were too good to pass up, and the system resumed operations in 1895, renamed 'Cleveland Terminal and Valley Railroad'. When the flood in 1913 irreparably damaged the canal, the railway became an important part of the Valley, carrying passengers from Akron to Cleveland until private automobiles made it uneconomical in 1963. They became strictly freight lines from that point until 1985. Nearly two decades later, railways, like the canals, have also been 'reborn' as tourist attractions; the Valley Railroad now carries passengers on a scenic railway tour, and shuttles them between attractions along the line.


The cities of Akron and Cleveland gained a reputation as trade centres thanks to the canals and the railway. With technological advances from the Industrial Revolution, these urban areas expanded rapidly. Cleveland, already a port on Lake Erie, became a centre for steel mills because of its proximity both to the high quality iron ore from the upper Great Lakes region and Ohio's bituminous coal. Shortly afterwards, John D Rockefeller brought the oil industry to Cleveland in the form of refineries. Akron became home to Ferdinand Schumacher's grain mill, which later became the Quaker Oats Company11. Akron's status as the 'Rubber Capital of the World' started in 1880, when Benjamin F Goodrich opened his factory to manufacture carriage and bicycle tires. The Miller, Seiberling, Goodyear and Firestone companies soon followed suit, and thrived as the popularity of the automobile grew.

The steeper portions of the Cuyahoga Valley did not see industry immediately, but felt a direct impact. Trees were cut down to fuel the rapidly growing canal trade and then railways, or to clear the land for housing or farming on the fertile floodplain. So many were felled that a 1946 survey conducted by the Early Settlers Association of the Western Reserve found no more than 14 trees in the valley of more than 150 years old.

A 'Rainbow of Many Colours'

In the days before the turn of the 19th Century when industry was king, a dirty river was considered a sign of prosperity. Due in no small part to this attitude, the Cuyahoga River became a 'flowing dump'. The Clean Water Act was decades away, so no laws prevented all sorts of waste from being dumped into the river. This included but is not limited to gasoline, oil (including PCB12 oil used in electric transformers), paint, heavy metals of all kinds and raw sewage. The Lower Cuyahoga's healthy muddy colour was soon replaced by chemical glop of all hues.

Not all changes were brought on by pollution, and not all of it was detrimental to the environment. The Cuyahoga River used to empty into Lake Erie at West 54th Street in Cleveland. This made the river difficult to navigate, so a new channel was dredged in 1827 to the present day mouth of the Cuyahoga. This alteration to the river created a centre for industrial activity, a manmade mass called Whiskey Island13. Further dredging projects along the river have continued to this day.

The Burning River

Thanks to the industrial waste, the Cuyahoga River used to be one of the worst rivers in Ohio's history; it's been so polluted it caught on fire many times in the past. The first recorded fire was in 1868. However, three major fires have since been noted. The first occasion was in 1936, when a spark from a blowtorch ignited floating debris and oil on the river's surface. On 3 November, 1952, the second and most damaging fire occurred, causing $1.5 million in damage.

The third and final fire, what was to become known as 'The Fire' in the national consciousness, started at 11.56am on 22 June, 1969. Started by a spark from a passing train, an oil slick was ignited. The fire roared to the height of five storeys and took three fire brigades and the fireboat14 Anthony J Celebrezze to extinguish it, but not before it had caused approximately $50,000 in damage. 'The Fire' only lasted 20 minutes, but caught the imagination of a newly environmentally-conscious nation. The 1 August, 1969, issue of Time Magazine described the Cuyahoga as:

Some river! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. 'Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,' Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. 'He decays.' The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: 'The lower Cuyahoga has no visible life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.' It is also, literally, a fire hazard. A few weeks ago, the oil-slicked river burst into flames and burned with such intensity that two railway bridges spanning it were nearly destroyed. 'What a terrible reflection on our city,' said Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes sadly.

As tragic as 'The Fire' was, it was instrumental in bringing the deplorable state of the Lower Cuyahoga River to an end. Federal officials were embarrassed into providing funding to improve the water quality. During the first Earth Day in 1970, the Cuyahoga Fires were part of the impetus to 'clean up our act.' Finally, the fire was to be the instrumental rallying point in the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.


After the 1972 Clean Water Act, waste that went into the river was greatly reduced, and the Cuyahoga slowly began to heal. In 1998, such a great degree of improvement had occurred since the fires that the Cuyahoga was designated as one of 14 American Heritage Rivers by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The water chemistry of the Lower Cuyahoga River has finally become suitable for aquatic life, and the fires are a thing of the past.

Even though the state of the Cuyahoga River has made great strides, it is far from back to full health. The EPA has identified environmental problems caused by toxic substances (PCBs and heavy metals) from hazardous waste disposal sites, bacterial contamination from combined sewer overflows15, habitat modification, nutrient pollution from fertiliser and livestock and sediment runoff from commercial and residential development. The EPA has classified portions of the Cuyahoga River Watershed as one of 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern. Remediation of the Cuyahoga River continues, with work as labour-intensive as fish studies to determine the health of the ecosystem, to community service projects as simple as stencilling storm drains to discourage illegal dumping.

The Middle Cuyahoga River has seen its fair share of problems as well. In the early 1960s, heavy development threatened to take over that part of the valley. It spurred citizens and lawmakers to act to save the forests, floodplains and historical features located there. Fortunately, due to the increased environmental awareness, the National Park Service was establishing urban recreation areas for both recreation and conservation. These efforts led to the creation of the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area as an urban park in the National Park System, preserving jt for the enjoyment of future generations.

Recreation on the Crooked River

Because of the pollution in parts of the Cuyahoga River, care must be taken when participating in water-related activities, including swimming, fishing, canoeing and kayaking. Normally such activities are safe, provided common sense prevails and all rules, laws, and recommendations put forth by the state are followed. Aquatic activities are not recommended in highly-polluted areas and after floods, when pollution levels are the highest. No aquatic activities are permitted in canals, as these often contain some very dangerous contaminants, such as PCBs and heavy metals. However, for those determined to cool off during the summer months, there are several parks set up for this purpose, including the Akron Water Works in Munroe Falls, and the Dover Lake Water Park.

There are many parks along the Cuyahoga River which offer excellent hiking opportunities, including but not limited to the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, MetroParks serving Summit County and Cleveland MetroParks. There is also the Towpath trail running the length of the canal, and the Bike and Hike trail. Several hiking clubs have sprung up around these trails, offering their own events, like the Fall Hiking Spree, where MetroParks offers a hiking stick and a plaque to those dedicated enough to walk eight of the 13 designated trails during six weeks in the autumn.

Many golf courses have sprung up along the floodplain as well. During the winter, Brandywine and Boston Mills ski resorts are open to the public, as well as miles of cross country ski trails, snowshoeing areas and sledding hills in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area.

Cultural Activities

The Cuyahoga River boasts many cultural experiences. The Blossom Music Center, home of the Cleveland Orchestra and venue for classical, popular rock, jazz and country music is adjacent to the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. Smaller venues, which feature mainly local artists include The Boston Store, Happy Days Visitors Center and the Peninsula Depot. Because of the photogenic nature of the Upper and Middle Cuyahoga, photography is another art form that is often enjoyed along the river. The Cuyahoga Valley Photographic Society awards prizes to the best picture taken in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area.

All kinds of artists have immortalised the river. It was the subject of REM's 'Cuyahoga', off their 1980 album Life's Rich Pageant. More recently, the surrounding area was the setting of The Pretenders' 2004 lament of urban sprawl 'My City Was Gone', from their Learning to Crawl album.

Children can enjoy an educational, yet fun experience at the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center. River Run, a music camp, is an example of the programmes offered by this organisation, allowing children to improve musical skills while developing a sense of environmental responsibility. Hale Farm and Village, meanwhile, offer a summer camp for children to participate in farming activities and domestic crafts.

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is available to everyone in order to fully enjoy nature and history of the Ohio and Erie Canal. The train travels through the entire 33,000 acre (134km2) land of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Cleveland and Akron offer museums, bars, restaurants, and night life. The town of Peninsula is also a favourite destination.

For more information about the Cuyahoga River and the surrounding environments, visit these websites:
The Friends of the Crooked River
Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area

1The most populous of Ohio's 88 counties, thanks to the city of Cleveland.2Knolls of sand and gravel formed by glacial meltwater.3Ridges of sand and gravel deposited by streams flowing under glacial ice.4Invertebrate creatures that can be seen with the naked eye.5 This is the most popular translation, but it could also mean 'Place of the Jawbone' or 'Place of the Wing'.6Part of the Iroquois nation.7. However, British activity did not cease until after the War of 1812.8 These were called the Firelands, and they were to be given to Connecticut citizens who lost property in the American Revolutionary War.9The city was originally spelled 'Cleaveland', after its founder, but the 'a' was dropped in 1831 so that the name would fit on a newspaper masthead.10Some of the military posts in the Cuyahoga Valley may have had a role in the War of 1812. Local legends tell of the Trippe, the Tigress and the Portage (renamed Porcupine), three gunboats built at a Portage military post that played key roles in the 10 September, 1813, American victory over Oliver Hazard Perry's Lake Erie fleet. 11The old silos from the Quaker Oats Company have also been converted into a tourist attraction. It is quite a treat to stay in the silos of Crowne Plaza Hotel in Quaker Square.12Polychlorinated Biphenyls.13For a distillery which once did business upon it.14Because of the river's history of combustion, fireboats were often assigned to patrol the river for oil slicks and disperse them before they could burn.15Combined sewers combine and treat water from storm drains and sewage in the same facility. Combined sewer overflows occur during heavy rains when the mixture of waste water and storm water runoff overflows the collection system before receiving treatment.

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