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Starting this summer, after a nearly 200-year absence, the Cuyahoga River is expected to run “dam free” again in Cuyahoga Falls when the Sheraton Suites Dam is removed. After the great flood of 1913 extensively damaged the original dam, built in 1825 and 1826 by Cuyahoga Falls’ first mayor, Henry Newberry, the current dam was built on top of the original. The next step in the project is the removal of the LeFever Dam, also built after the 1913 flood, to provide power to the Falls Lumber Company.
With the removal of these dams, Northeast Ohioans will be one step closer to being able to enjoy the Cuyahoga River as James Monroe and others did at the turn of the 19th century. The only thing standing in the way is the Gorge Metropolitan Dam, a 68-foot-tall 429-foot-wide behemoth that’s also known as the FirstEnergy Dam.
Environmental and recreational groups want all the dams removed in an attempt to complete the Cuyahoga River restoration. The Ohio EPA estimated removal of the FirstEnergy Dam would cost $5 million to $10 million, and the removal of the contaminated sediments at $60 million. The EPA and engineers expect the dam to be removed in 2015.
However, Shannon Carneal, co-owner of River Reach Excavating, doesn’t foresee the FirstEnergy Dam being removed anytime soon.
“There still are studies that need to be done prior to the project even being put up for bidding,” he says. “Then they need to procure funding from the EPA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. With all of that, I just don’t anticipate that project happening for quite some time, maybe in 10 years.”
The high cost of the potential removal project isn’t the only thing opponents cite as a reason to leave the dam as is. Further complicating matters, in the early 1990s after the hydroelectric operation ceased, the dam no longer had any use, and as a result, the hollowed-out portions were filled with concrete.
Why all the fuss?
Environmentalists say dams are just not natural. A river wants to flow as nature intended. When the river hits a dam, water backs up against it, pools form and water becomes stagnant and deposits pollutants at the bottom of the river. This pool of stagnant water creates low dissolved oxygen levels and, as a result, algae blooms occur, which ultimately create health problems for the fish and the river.
As sediments back up against the dam, they’re buried at the bottom of the river, alongside whatever was there when the river was originally paused during construction of the dam. The only way to restore the river to its original state is to remove the dams.
If the deep waters of the Cuyahoga hide a lot of things from eyesight, 28-1/2 feet of sediment below the waterline might as well be considered a cold, murky tomb. Imagine all the objects that have been entombed beneath the sediment or between the boulders of the river.
What in the world could be down there? The possibilities are limitless — from a Native American’s canoe to the keys to my grandmother’s 1997 Toyota Corolla.
“That is the great unknown,” says Carneal. “We will have an archaeologist on site during the dam removals.”
Even Dick Horn, president of the Cuyahoga Falls Historical Society, is curious about what could lie beneath the sediment, adding that “anything could be down there, and there are all kinds of rumors about it.”
If you think the graveyard potential of the Cuyahoga is limited to items like arrowheads, logs, muskets or trinkets, you’re wrong. The actual Cuyahoga Falls that the city was named after, are buried deep beneath the water and sediment created by the FirstEnergy Dam pool.
Going with the flow
Unless you were born before the FirstEnergy Dam’s construction, you’ve never been able to see the actual Cuyahoga Falls, a fact that humorist Garrison Keillor poked fun at recently. In a 2010 performance at Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Keillor remarked that falls resembled a rapids and not a falls.
“Cuyahoga Falls … so called here in Ohio, is proud of the fact that it falls 250 feet whereas Niagara Falls falls 170 feet, so it advertises itself as being bigger than Niagara Falls,” he said. “And yet, Cuyahoga Falls is not the tourist destination that Niagara Falls is, because Americans prefer a sudden fall to a gradual fall.”
Keillor, of course, was talking about the 250 feet the Cuyahoga River would naturally drop over the three miles it traverses through Cuyahoga Falls.
As the dams begin to fall, and the water begins to return to its natural levels, there’s no telling what kind of history will be unearthed. Citizens are expected to flock to the banks of the Cuyahoga hoping to find a piece of history that has been swallowed up by the river.
According to Horn, there’s not even a definite answer on who the river’s artifacts will belong to. “Rumor has it we may get some of things that are found,” he says. “But I don’t know how that will work.”
The Cuyahoga River is about to awaken from a nearly 200-year coma. Thirty-nine U.S. presidents have come and gone, horses gave way to horsepower, we’ve fought two World Wars, Martin Luther King had a dream — and yet the river has remained dormant.
Get ready Northeast Ohio: We’ve figured out how to travel back in time on the Cuyahoga River, and who knows what we’ll find when we get there. But if anyone finds my grandma’s car keys, pick up the phone and give
me a call.
Eric Warsinskey is a freelance writer and
graduate of the University of Akron living in
the Berea area.