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Pinery Dam in Cuyahoga River Reveals History of Canal Use

photo of Pinery Dam
The Pinery Dam (left) was built in 1827 but has been underwater since the construction in the 1950s of the Brecksville Dam in what is now Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

For decades, supporters of cleaner water have been working to rid the Cuyahoga River of its dams, which impede the flow of water.

Restoring that flow is improving water quality and providing new opportunities for wildlife and recreation on the river.

The latest project -- removing the Brecksville Dam -- has revealed a bit of history that dates back almost 200 years.

Crews have been working for almost a month to drill out the Brecksville Dam in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP). The dam was built in the 1950s below the Rt. 82 bridge, at one of the narrowest points of the Cuyahoga. And it was for a specific purpose according to CVNP Spokeswoman Pamela Barnes.

“There’s the concrete dam that was built for the American Steel & Wire Company, to cool the steel, in the 1950s.”

photo of Brecksville Dam
Viewed from the Route 82 bridge, the outline of the wooden Pinery Dam is clearly visible to the south of what remains of the concrete Brecksville Dam. The final portion of the concrete dam should be gone by this week.

There’s only a few feet of concrete and rebar left to be removed. Last week, the water receded enough to provide a glimpse of a wedge-shaped structure behind and beneath the Brecksville Dam.

The Pinery Dam was a wooden dam built in 1827. That was to divert water from the river into this new thing called the Ohio & Erie Canal," Barnes said.

The Pinery Feeder
Scott Heberling is a Pennsylvania-based historical and archaeological researcher who specializes in public works projects. He’s part of the team taking photographs and measurements of the Pinery Dam. And he says it was crucial for feeding the canal at a time when it was an economic driver.

“This was part of a wave of canal building that swept the eastern United States after the completion of the Erie Canal. Every state wanted its own canals to improve trade and economic development," Heberling said.

"The Ohio & Erie was conceived as part of a network of canals connecting New York City and New Orleans. This would give New York merchants access to the interior portion of the country, which was still largely a wilderness at that time. The Ohio & Erie connected Lake Erie at Cleveland with the Ohio River at Portsmouth, and it was a key link in the system. Because of its importance to New York, it was conceived, financed, designed, and built mainly by New Yorkers," Heberling said. 

"The northern portion of the canal between Akron and Cleveland was competed in 1827. It was built through the Cuyahoga Valley and it used water from the Cuyahoga River, which was taken into the canal at various points – including at the Pinery Narrows in what’s now Cuyahoga Valley National Park. And this complex was called the Pinery Feeder. That’s what we’re studying and documenting now. The feeder included the 180-foot crib dam across the river [plus] a set of intake gates and a short feeder channel that diverted water from the river into the canal."

Building a ‘crib dam’
“This is what’s called a crib dam. The way they built it was to bolt timbers to the bed of the river. And on top of those timbers, they built a wooden superstructure about eight feet tall. They created a series of wooden boxes, which were filled with gravel and stone. Over top of that, they laid several courses of planking. And on top of that, they put this creosote-tar mixture, to waterproof it.”

Heberling adds that it’s unlikely that much of the material in the water now is actually from 1827, since the dam was repaired or rebuilt several times over its lifespan as nature took its toll. And Dianne Sumego with Friends of the Crooked River points out that parts of the dam are missing.

“It’s supposed to be a trapezoid in shape. There’s a section here that looks like it’s there, but there’s a section below it. There’s a 20 foot section in the middle, and then a fish passageway.”

Keeping it clean
Her colleague, Elaine Marsh, notes the original purpose of both dams – and the reason they’re coming out – have to do with keeping the Cuyahoga clean.

“Dams are a very big impairment to water quality. And we think the water quality in this portion of the river is going to be exceptional.”

Nature may have removed some pieces of the Pinery Dam, but it’s taken several years of planning to get to this point. CVNP spokeswoman Pamela Barnes says removing these dams has been a long-held goal for advocates of a cleaner river.

“This is a monumental change for the Cuyahoga River. It’s kind of been bound behind this dam for 190 years. Paddlers have been itching to get through this area. Once this is gone, you can paddle the Cuyahoga through the park and all the way to Cleveland. It’s hugely important for the story of Cuyahoga Valley.”

And after officials from the CVNP finish studying the Pinery, “then both dams [come out], and then a restoration on the river. And also there’s a pump that’s partially designed to keep the water in the historic section of the canal. That’s how we keep the water in the canal in order to run the working lock at Canal Exploration Center. So that’s been part of the whole saga of this process: how are we going to get water into the canal? That pump – they can’t finish the design and decide where it’s going to go until they see what the bank looks like [and] what the conditions are underneath. And that will take most of the summer to do all of that work.”

Construction on the pump station is likely to begin next year and will require a survey of how and where the river actually flows. Right now, the area around the dam removal projects is closed to spectators. By next year, the historical photographs and information being collected about both dams will be submitted to the National Park Service and the Library of Congress -- which will make it available to the public online.

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