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Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation History

Natural History, Natural Resources, and the Ohio & Erie Canal History of the Emerald Necklace

By 1910, Cuyahoga County was already becoming very urban and industrialized. There were steel mills, brick yards, and more. Cleveland was the sixth largest city in the county. Land was being purchased very quickly, particularly in the river valleys such as the Rocky River and Cuyahoga River valleys.

At that time, Bill Stinchcomb, the founder of the Cleveland Metroparks, was working with the City of Cleveland. Mr. Stinchcomb was an engineer and surveyor. He was working to on urban development. While Mr. Stinchcomb wasn't an environmentalist, he noticed the changes happening around the rivers, as well as the pollution there. He decided to do something about it. He put out a plea to the county Commissioners at that time, asked them to do something to protect the river valleys. While, as a west sider, he was particularly concerned with the Rocky River Valley, he was also concerned with the Chagrin, Euclid, Big Creek, and Cuyahoga Valleys.

In 1914-1915, the county commissions created a county park system. About 315 acres of land were donated and acquired. There wasn't much support for spending money to acquire park lands because most people didn't see their value. Nonetheless, Mr. Stinchcomb pressed forward. He hired the Olmsteds, prominent landscape architects, to plan the park system. Throughout 1915 and 1916, Mr. Stinchcomb and the Olmsteds developed a plan that would serve as a compelling reason for Clevelanders to acquire land along the river valleys and to link them together with parkways, bridle trails, and walking trails. At that time, the idea of creating a 100 mile parkway was astonishing!

One year later, the Ohio State legislature created the Cleveland Metropolitan Park District. Mr. Stinchcomb became the first Park Director and Executive Director. He worked for the Metroparks for 40 years, and acquired almost 14,000 of park land. Approximately 85% of his original vision had been achieved by 2003.

History of the Ohio & Erie Canal

The Ohio and Erie Canal was built for many reasons, although the most important purpose was to create a route for local agricultural products to reach eastern markets. But the canal also had a huge effect on natural features and natural resources on the surrounding area. The location of the canal was taken into great consideration and Ohio and Erie were chosen mostly because of the favorable natural setting, series of bottom lands along the valleys of Cuyahoga, Tuscarawas, Licking, and Scioto RIvers. The abundant supply of quarry and stone and the many well-know lakes surrounding the proposed site helped the canal to be built along the rivers.

Canal Way Center

History of the Canal By the late 1980s, the Cleveland Metroparks was beginning to realize that of the 54 municipalities or townships in Cuyahoga County were all paying taxes to support the park systems, but that the, while residents of Cleveland and the suburbs that border it were paying those taxes, they didn't have much Metroparks land within their borders. By the early 1990s, the Metroparks began to develop a master plan that would take it into the 20th century. It was called Metroparks 2000 and it was designed to expand the Metroparks and especially to improve the Cuyahoga River Valley. Part of the plan involved an innovative idea -- managing outside the park acreage, having a relationship with the municipal service directors, the soil and water conservation district, the regional sewer district, the trust for public land, the land conservatories, and other natural resource agencies.

At that time, the Federal government declared the 110 mile Ohio and Erie Canal corridor America's seventh national corridor. This allowed the Cleveland Metroparks to begin to work on collecting land along the canal... to be continued....

Also one other significant event happened in 1995. The American Steel and Wire Company had an executive director by the name of Tom Terrell. Tom Terrell bought American Steel & Wire from a business that was going down hill. Tom promised he would make money for himself and the business and he would return American Steel & Wire back to profit. Even though Tom was a busy man, he was also a runner, and every day on his lunch break he would run on the tow path trail and down to Rockside Road. He soon got to know the valley very well. Moreover, Tom Terrell was an environmentalist. He invited Mr. Vern Hartenburg and Mr. Rzepka, from the Cleveland Metroparks, to a meeting. Mr. Terrell pointed out what a hidden jewel there was along the canal path and said there ought to be a way to open it up to the public and bring back the tow path. He offered to donate all the American Steel and Wire land, approximately 40-45 acres, if the Cleveland Metroparks would get involved with the project.

The Metroparks generally works with much larger parcels of land. After meeting with landscape architects, they came up with a dream of the Ohio and Erie Canal Reservation. They developed a map identifying other companies, such as BP, Alcoa, CEI, and First Energy, as well as the State of Ohio that they would approach to donate land to the Metroparks along the tow path and up to East 49th Street. So Tom Terrell and the Cleveland Metroparks approached the other major landowners and they all agreed to donate their land. The land costs to assemble the land for the Ohio and Erie Reservation were minimal because of all the donations. All of this would come together one-half mile from where the Cuyahoga River burned in 1969!

The Metroparks and the companies were all getting very excited, but they still faced a $10-$15 million cost to build the nature center, put in the trails, build a parking lot and entry road, and a picnic area. This was more than the Metroparks wanted to pay, so they looked for more donations from foundations, private donors, and other partners. To publicize the project, they brought plain dealer reporters to the site on a Metroparks mini-bus. The Plain Dealer reporters were not excited about visiting the steel yards along the Cuyahoga River and thought it was a waste of time. The first thing they saw was a "settling pond" at American Steel and Wire that was black and covered with oil scum. They couldn't believe the Metroparks was thinking of making a park there. But, Mr. Hartenburg explained that the reason all that oil was on the pond was that it was being diverted from the Cuyahoga River. Back in the 1970s when the river burned, the companies would have pumped that used water and waste right back into the canal/river. This is what caused the fire. But, by the 1980s they had learned to divert the waster, and skim the oil off the surface of the pond to reuse it.

After the reporters actually got to the towpath and saw the dry canal and the river, they got more excited. Mr. Hartenburg explained plans to refill the canal and stock it for fishing. The next morning, the Plain Dealer featured an article called, "Cleveland Metroparks to Create an Industrial Strength Metroparks." It described the hidden valley and the land that would be donated by the companies to create the Ohio and Erie Canal Reservation. The article was so inspiring that groups like the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Sierra Club, The Gund Foundation, the Cleveland Foundation, the Audubon Club, and more wanted to see the land and to get involved.

The Grand Opening of the park took place in August, 1999. Betty Weldon, the elderly and ill daughter of Bill Stinchcomb, the park's original founder, was able to attend part of the ceremony. You can still visit the canal and walk the trail Tom Ferrell ran on when he envisioned opening this to the public. Plans are underway to expand the trail northward to Lake Erie.

Source for history of the Metroparks and Canal Way Center: Transcript of Vern Hartenburg's oral history of Canal Way Center

to be continued....