Cuyahoga Sound Track

EIGHTY MILES WEST of Pennsylvania along the shore-line with which Ohio cups Lake Erie, there is a wide gash where the Cuyahoga River cuts its way out through the shore escarpment and enters the lake. In view of its empire-building career the Cuyahoga is a surprisingly small stream.

Smallness, in fact, is the constant surprise about this river. Though it is nearly 100 miles long, its unique course allows its whole watershed to drain less than 750 square miles. It travels in such an extreme U-shape that its fork-tongued triple source is only 30 crow-flown miles east of its mouth.

The U-shaped Cuyahoga meanders through only the four counties of Geauga, Portage, Summit, and Cuyahoga; and, though fed by hundreds of brooks, its major tributaries are sometimes so small they run through culverts. The Little Cuyahoga River at Akron is the largest. Downstream from that flow the waters of Yellow Creek at Botzum, Furnace Run and Dickerson Run at Everett, beautiful Tinker’s Creek at Independence, and Morgan and Kingsbury Runs near the mouth.

Yet the Cuyahoga is one of the pivotal North American rivers. No larger than many a fishing stream of less renown, placid in its uplands, turbulent downstream and impossibly crooked, it has influenced major events in the nation’s history.

When the Cuyahoga was the Republic’s northwest boundary, settlement was working its way too slowly north from the Ohio River, leaving America’s northwest corner nervously unpeopled and unpossessed. This corner of the land wore a defense of roadless forests and so the Cuyahoga became the only means of opening this region which General Washington called “the invaluable backland.”

The opening of this territory, called the Western Reserve, was carried out under a unique land settlement plan, an intricate lottery system conducted by the stockholders of the Connecticut Land Company. To determine the acreage they had drawn, each shareholder drew three times from three different boxes containing three different land qualities.

In order to break their way into the backlands they each depended upon the Cuyahoga as a water highway.

Once settled, the Western Reserve, in fact all of the then western frontier, faced economic strangulation. It was the Cuyahoga that furnished quick and dramatic escape. At her mouth she had access to New York markets via Lake Erie to New York State’s great Erie Canal. At the U-bend, she swirled against the hog-backed divide that cut the south from the north at present-day Akron. Just eight miles from the bend, on the south slope of that hogback, the Tuscarawas River began its flow southward. With a tremendous effort in man-made works, these waters were made to link the Ohio country to the Ohio River and thus to the Gulf of Mexico and southern and eastern markets.

A traffic in people, goods, and money thus opened from New York City, across New York State, across Lake Erie to the Cuyahoga mouth, up the Cuyahoga, across the divide and south to the Ohio River and the Mississippi to New Orleans. And the link to these watersheds is the famous eight-mile Portage Path.

Moreover, though limited in size, the Cuyahoga mouth became a harbor which launched ships to open the iron country, first the Michigan Upper Peninsula, later the Mesabi, and in this century the vast iron ore fields in Quebec and Labrador.

Today the Cuyahoga is a port of call for ships from every registry in the world.

Sometimes the old river seemed to be a combination of one-third mud from the still rural headwaters, one-third sludge, and one-third pickle liquor from the great mills, but it continued making history.

Mile for mile and drop for drop, it is doubtful it can be matched by any other river.

East Bank, West Bank

Following the entire Cuyahoga on the map is only the work of minutes. The wandering blue line outlines its flow from the source in Geauga County, south to Akron, and then sharply north to Cleveland.

But following the stream on land is another matter. Much of the river is out of sight of roads. In some places, it becomes so narrow that it runs through a lane of trees whose branches meet over it, whispering history. In others, it flows through beautiful farmland widened by the strength of a thousand brooks; or through sleepy college towns and suburban rural villages where manicured lawns slant down to water’s edge.

This river was the key to the area’s settlement - particularly towns from the bend to its mouth. This stretch of the Cuyahoga - with the Portage Path and the Tuscarawas River - formed the earliest known inland road on the continent. It appeared on European maps over 400 years ago, even before cartographers could correctly draw the Great Lakes or the Gulf or the eastern seaboard. Being the only well-established interior route from the Gulf to the Great Lakes, it suggested military planning to Europeans.

Boundary River

Since it was the only interior line accurately definable it became a boundary river. European kings, needing to state where claims began and ended, made use of the Cuyahoga in their geographic calculations. For many years, too, it was the western boundary of the Republic of America; and it was alternately the eastern boundary of the Wyandots, French, British, and again the Wyandots.

To come in for close-ups of the Cuyahoga, it is best to start at the mouth, where the river’s story starts as far as men are concerned. And it is important not only to look but to listen, because this river talks all day and squawks all night. And in the winter, it’s talked about.

“Yes, but have you ever sailed the Ka-hawga?”

This is a way of presenting credentials. Most ten-year Great Lakes’ seamen have a story that begins, “We were in the Kahawga when the fog set in.” Such a preamble stills the chatter along 20 feet of brass rail in most dockside taverns from Cleveland to Duluth.

In the six miles from the mouth under the lower Cuyahoga’s 21 bridges and around seven bends, the nation’s greatest navigation tall tales were born. But mixed in with them were fabulous true stories of seamanship, where 650-foot vessels snaked horse-shoe turns in the narrows to clear cofferdams by a rivet head. During the war when the full iron-ore fleet was in commission, breath-stopping skill in the pilothouses was a daily requirement.

The red of the water was created by iron, mud, sulphur, crude oil, and pickle liquor from the mills. And for 100 years, those who have known which side Midwest bread was buttered on have thanked God ... also Sam Mather, John D. Rockefeller, Ben Fairless, Cyrus Eaton, and many early iron men who sailed out of the Cuyahoga basin up to the Michigan, Menominee, and Mesabi ranges to find the red dirt that fed the Cuyahoga’s iron furnaces and colored its waters.

The vessels which trafficked the lower Cuyahoga were enormous blunt-bowed, powerful hulls which at first seem boxy, then turn beautiful before your eyes. And they were so long it might take take a quarter hour to pass as you stood on the bank.

While the river has changed drastically, as we saw in Chapter 1, this book also covers history.

A Brace of Lions

River entrances have traditionally been guarded by a pair of forts and shore batteries astride the mouth. But the mouth of the Cuyahoga was watched by two powerful old bull lions.

On the east bank, Admiral Khoury used to look down at the mouth from the Rockefeller Building. There his boats, largest fleet on the Great Lakes, were hauling millions of tons of Mesabi range red dirt to the Cuyahoga’s blast furnaces.

Those furnaces fed iron to conversion furnaces which fed steel to the valley’s strip and bar and rod and wire mills. This activity tore up the valley somewhat. It left a certain kind of wreckage alongshore, and the kind of riverside slums that haunt industrial valleys. Famous and gamey resorts grew here as colorful as coal-acid flowers, and so did diseases and orphans.

Across on the west bank of the Cuyahoga the irascible Ernie Bohn was repairing the damage, building public housing which was the nation’s pilot model.

To do it, he changed the laws of the state (and nation) to allow him to use public money to tear out slums and build fit dwellings. He sometimes went across the river to get the iron and steel men to help.

Scrappy River

While the upper river is wandering and charming, the lower river was busy and snarling. It was always in a half dozen fights, battling with railroads twenty times its size, or shipping companies whose boats were nearly half as beamy as the river is wide. It was scrapping with the railroads because they charged more demurrage on the Cuyahoga than they did on the Mississippi at New Orleans.

It was in the middle of the pilotage war. Ever since the opening of the Seaway, there have been efforts to bring the International Rules of the Road to the Cuyahoga. But the river has her own rules.

The Cuyahoga was always in heavy combat with bridge builders, smoke and silt and pollution and riparian lawyers. The Cuyahoga is in court every month.

Many a man is made by a river. But the Cuyahoga was made by men. It does not flow through oil fields, rubber plantations, nor iron-ore regions, but men made it the capital of oil, coal, rubber, and iron. Men who built refineries along its banks pulled the crude oil in from Pennsylvania, and the Cuyahoga became petroleum headquarters.

Alfred Kelley, to get legislative approval of his Cleveland-to-Portsmouth route, had to fight off three other strong proposals. He made it the link between New Orleans and New York City by burrowing a canal from the Cuyahoga to the Ohio. Over that canal, men from around Massillon hauled coal up into Cleveland.

Other Cuyahoga men sailed vessels out of that narrow channel to cross Lakes Erie, Huron, Superior to bring down iron ore. The iron met the coal on the Cuyahoga banks, and Cuyahoga ironmasters made this river mid-America’s steel headquarters.

Upstream at Akron, a group of men with secret recipes in their pockets used Cuyahoga water to give power to so many rubber factories that this town without a single rubber tree became the rubber capital of the world.

Valley Music

I wish this book had a sound track so that as we fade in on the Cuyahoga you could hear the various sounds that used to sing here. This river is pronounced differently depending on the speaker. Those who live off it, professionally, call it the Ka-hawga, and pronounce it with respect.

You farm it, it’s Kyawga, spoken like a 1928 side-mounted autohorn.

The Cuyahoga has no songs or ballads. Yet it did have a cacophonous symphony.

It opened with a tarantella of tugboat whistles scolding at a 600-foot ore bulker, segued to contrapuntal tug bell signals from pilothouse to engine room as the tug squared the monster up in the channel, and then the heavy music rolled.

The vessel blew for the bridge - one long blast you heard through your chest bones. The bridge piped a long and a short. The ship answered with a short blast so percussive that, when it cut out, the world was empty for seconds.

The Number One bridge rose like a stage curtain and the bulker moved upstream amid tug whistles, railroad brakes, coal dumping, and engine surges as twenty thousand tons of ore moved against the current, the bridges, and the clock.

The Number Three drawbridge opened up a stretch of tawny water about as busy as any in America.

To make the boat ready for the first bite of the unloaders when it finally reached the dock, hatch covers screeched open and hit their stops with cymbal crashes as the vessel rounded Collision Bend at Jim’s Steak House.

At the head of navigation at one of the steel mill ore docks, there would be a hush as the captain whispered his twenty thousand tons up broadside to the dock with just enough touch to crack a walnut.

“Make fast!”

The unloader buckets lowered into the holds to the drum roll of cable paying out.

That was music - on the mightiest little river in the nation.

Today that music is no more. The self-unloaders and recreational boaters have taken over along with the Nautica area on the left bank and the night clubs on the right bank.