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A Trip Through Time in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park

photo of Harold Miller

The National Park Service officially turns 100 years old today. It includes Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which is much younger: was established as a national recreation area in 1974 and elevated to  park status in 2000.

WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia recently took a time trip with one of the park’s roving historians to examine the valley’s past.

Harold Miller likes to dress in character when he talks to visitors, wearing period clothing and giving a first-person account of what life may have been like before the Erie Canal came in, during its operation and afterwards. 

He says settlers would have considered how to open up water transportation from New York heading west by following the Cuyahoga Valley’s gorges, creating dams and digging trenches. Settlers would have had to bring everything they needed, since supplies were limited.  That is, until the canal was built.  Then, supplies could be delivered in a matter of weeks, not months, allowing farmers to live near the canal and raise food for themselves and visitors.

The Industrial Revolution
That would have been from 1830-1870. After that, during the Industrial Revolution, Miller says the concern would have been getting coal from southern Ohio to the steel mills of Cleveland by train -- much faster than the canal.

The railroad could also transport passengers with freight, but traffic would dwindle by the 1940s and the advent of the automobile.

From freight to the Scenic Railroad
By the early 1970s, the Cuyahoga Valley Recreation Area partnered with the National Park Service to create the scenic railroad.  Miller says it allowed visitors to see the park in a new way, and to observe areas that used to be grist mills, farms and industrial areas which are being reclaimed by nature.

One example is the Beaver Marsh near Indigo Lake, which used to be a junkyard. As the park cleaned up the area, it flooded.  Now, it's a marsh filled with blue heron, turtles and beavers.  Miller says the CVNP continues to let nature take over, but not the wrong type of nature (such as garlic mustard and invasive species).

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.