by Arrye Rosser

Imagination. Hope. Perseverance. The collective effort to restore the Cuyahoga River has taught me that these are key ingredients for success in tackling big, complicated problems. If you have been feeling the weight of society’s problems lately, this month’s story is about not giving up.

The idea of a healthier, free-flowing Cuyahoga River takes imagination. No one has seen it in about 200 years. But this summer, Northeast Ohio hit a major milestone with the removal of two dams just downstream of Station Road Bridge in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I was honored to be one of the lucky few allowed inside the construction area to photograph the process. 

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As these things go, the demolition was the easy part. It was done within a month. The real challenge was the nearly 30 years of planning that led to this moment. This small patch of land has extraordinarily complex legal issues. A team of partners, led by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Friends of the Crooked River, worked tirelessly to iron out who owns and who has jurisdiction over what. 

As I watched the excavator work, I reflected on the hope and perseverance it took to keep going in the face of years of delays and setbacks. This was a labor of love—love for the communities of people and wildlife that make the river their home. Let me walk you through the highlights of the last act, May 21 to June 24.

Day 1:

An excavator starts to “notch” the 1952 Brecksville Diversion Dam. (Photo: NPS/Arrye Rosser)

An excavator reaches into the river to notch the concrete Brecksville Diversion Dam, completed in 1952. Slowly it begins jackhammering a hole large enough to lower the dam pool upstream. Like everything else with this project, the process takes longer than expected.

Day 32: 

Documenting the 1827 Pinery Dam. (Photo: NPS/Arrye Rosser)

With the Brecksville Diversion Dam almost gone, the older Pinery Feeder Dam is revealed just upstream. This wood-and-rock structure was built in 1827 as part of Ohio & Erie Canal construction. Historian Scott Heberling sketches the most historic section. This dam was much more intact than anyone expected. Some of the rock was replaced with concrete, probably during the 1906 rebuild.

Day 35: 

An excavator stacks the wooden sills from the Pinery Dam. (Photo: NPS/Kim Norley)

The Cuyahoga River flows freely here for the first time in almost 200 years. (NPS/Arrye Rosser)

Historians examine the wooden “sills” of Pinery Dam. To find out if the bottom ones date back to the 1827 construction, wood samples were taken for tree-ring dating. (NPS/Arrye Rosser)

Historians examine the wooden “sills” of Pinery Dam. To find out if the bottom ones date back to the 1827 construction, wood samples were taken for tree-ring dating. (NPS/Arrye Rosser)

Within a few hours, the excavator takes down the remains of Pinery Dam. I don’t arrive in time to say goodbye. If you look downstream in the first photo, you can see the concrete abutment where the Brecksville Diversion Dam once was. The second shot shows the Cuyahoga experiencing its first day of freedom here in Brecksville. It takes a few more weeks to get all of the demolition debris out of the river. In 2021 a large screw pump will be installed beside the Pinery Feeder Gate to replace the dam’s function of keeping water in the most historic section of the Ohio & Erie Canal.

To learn more about this project, visit https://www.nps.gov/cuva/learn/dam-removal.htm. The link includes a time-lapse video and a gallery of images.

Arrye Rosser is an interpretive and education specialist at Cuyahoga Valley National Park and co-curator of Crooked River Contrasts, a photo series on the past and present of the Cuyahoga River.

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