It’s the end of a long day one (10+ hours on the wheel), and I’m about 50 miles from the edge — which for this section of the trip starts on the southern shore of Lake Erie at Cleveland. I’m holed up in a hotel in the middle of a ferocious lightening storm around the southern end of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. You can’t camp in the park, and with this storm I wouldn’t have anyway, but I do want to see it in the daylight. So the plan is to get up and have breakfast and then follow the Cuyahoga River and its accompanying Ohio and Erie Canal all the way to the edge in the morning. Then I’ll just follow the Lake Erie shoreline to Niagara Falls.
When I was 4 years old, the Cayuhoga River caught fire. The river. Caught fire. I don’t remember it, but Time magazine covered it. Songwriters wrote songs about it. A beer company named a beer after it. And here’s the interesting part — in 1969 when it burned, it was the 13th time it had done so. That we know of. It first caught fire in 1868. So I’m going to a National Park to see a river that, as far back as 1868, was so polluted that it burned 13 times, and as recently as 1968, a study found not one single living fish for 1,000 feet of linear reach from its mouth at Lake Erie. Visibility in the same study was six inches. Now all this was a while ago, but I mean I was alive, so it can’t be considered ancient history. The park was formed officially in 2000 after what I can only hope was a massive clean up. I do note that a famous superfund site is part of the National Park, though not accessible for obvious reasons, to visitors. Apparently it is a nice marshland now, and some fines may or may not have been extended to our friends in the auto industry.
Anyway, the sheer incongruity of it all notwithstanding, the Cuyahoga (which means “Crooked” if you speak Native American) was once a really nice river. With beautiful falls and a strange winding course that finally ends as it empties into Lake Erie. It’s a hundred or so miles long and drains over 800 square miles of Ohio. Problem is that it is generally shallow, and the source of its name makes navigation difficult anyway. So here were a bunch of Ohio folks watching their friends on the lake to the north and on the great Ohio River to the south and east having all the fun — by which I mean making all the money — in the early 1800s. They could grow plenty of crops but they could not get them anywhere without a lot of expense and probably a death or two. So the asked the Great Uncle for help. After some politicking and, I’m sure, grafting, the Ohio legislature struck a deal and paid for a canal system. Interestingly a canal system for which the likes of no less than the great Thomas Jefferson had long advocated. Begun in 1825 and finished in 1832, with freight flowing from 1827 to 1861, the canal system consisted of various branches and hundreds of locks that basically connected the heartland to the Ohio River and Lake Erie via canal. Including through the Cuyahoga River valley, where one of the canals runs alongside the river. Between the commerce on the canals, the mules pulling the barges, the slipshod approach to water quality management and eventually a shit ton of industrial waste around Cleveland, the river got the worst of it. In a sense. The canals got gone.
Railroads came along and rendered them useless and far inferior in speed to the iron horse. Privatization polluted them like the poor Cuyahoga. Railroad barons filled them in for easy right of way for more track. And neglect left them to silt and disappear among the toxic swamp. But there is a small run left — through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park! I will be able to stroll the canal tow path where industrial titans took carriage rides with their families, or snuck off to the deepest glens with their mistresses, whichever your preferred imagining, all while lauding the progress of industry as the fish melted. It should be fun.
I know I’m being a tad dramatic, but its the night before my first real event on this trip around the edge and source material is terrific. Anyway, pictures tomorrow of all the above, I hope, as well at the great falls at Niagara and some sense of the territory we’ll be exploring on the northeastern edge of our great country. Until then.