The high ground of my homestead in old Northfield Township overlooked a valley that cradled a national treasure. No, not the large tract of land that is now home to Ohio’s only national park — that was only a distant dream, if that, in the 1950s. In fact, the treasure of which I speak was there in plain sight for thousands of years before the world knew anything about nationhood — or parks. Yet, all of the magnificent parks in Cleveland’s Emerald Necklace, like all of the living creatures in this valley, owe an immense debt of gratitude to this ancient, unassuming treasure that quietly bestows its gifts while seldom rising to a height above the level of common dirt.
Rivers are complicated, and none more so than the Cuyahoga. Rivers that, at first sight, seem a straight stream of water tend, upon reflection, to run deeper than the laws of physics. The river is here, now…yet, it isn’t. It is always, and never. It gives and takes with the same motion. The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, famously said that a man cannot step into the same river twice. More than 7,000 years later, the old philosopher’s truth remains unassailable. The Cuyahoga is ever with us and ever having left us — all in the same instant.
The Cuyahoga River obeys all of those odd river laws, but it also adds a few of its own as it loops its crooked scarf around what is arguably one of America’s most curious pieces of geography. The Cuyahoga’s last geological trim, cut by the sweating Wisconsin Glacier as it retreated north 10 to 20,000 years ago, left a confused river that headed south on a 100-mile journey vainly looking for the huge freshwater lake that was, to begin with, only 15 miles north of its headwaters.
By the time the Cuyahoga reaches its wide and busy mouth in Cleveland, it has also modestly collected a treasure of historical honors worthy of a river five times its size. The 8-mile high ground at the river’s reverse loop northward at Akron was the only dry link in an otherwise unbroken waterway with the potential to make the U.S. an economic whole, linking the nation’s vast Atlantic frontage to the rich underbelly of the Gulf of Mexico. That prospect, which had not escaped the land-lured eyes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, came to full bloom with the near miraculous construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal that began with the completion of its first leg in the valley (1825 to 1827). That early canal segment rode on the soft shoulders of the Cuyahoga as it dropped through 42 locks (and past an endless supply of passenger-friendly taverns) during the 400-foot descent from Akron to Cleveland.
Thirty years previously, the Greenville Treaty of 1795 marked the Cuyahoga as part of the new western border of the U.S. Meanwhile, the ghostly traces of the well-traveled Indian trails crisscrossing our neighborhood had known the tread of Pontiac and, very probably, the wanderings of Tecumseh in the days when the Native Americans still had a real chance to radically change the young nation’s frontier history.
But there is a second, less-often quoted part of Heraclitus’s adage which says that the river is not the only creation that is never the same twice: the same truth holds for the twice-stepping man. In that thin moment he has already moved on to another moment, another life, and one never quite the same.
I was to reach midlife before I began to wonder how those river rinsings and residues had permanently marked my life. Now, at 70, I can sense those marks with more understanding. As kids, my brother, cousin and I tramped the land that would one day see the Cuyahoga Valley National Park hosting more than 2 million visitors a year. We knew the forested land simply as the Marshall Estate, some 2,000 acres of woods and creek valleys that brushed up against our property line in Sagamore Hills. We did not fully appreciate our great good fortune contained in that proximity, and just vaguely assumed that most kids had some other kind of play area of equal value.
That required an enormous amount of oblivion on our part, but the oversight also lasted for many years after I left the valley — even surviving a graduate
degree in history. Today, I recognize that leaving the valley does not mean that that the valley left me. It has become a permanent part of my inner voice, whispering to me in the sighs of a friend that is both gone from me — yet ever with me.
The valley never tires of giving gifts to its children, whether they appreciate them or not.
Jeff Knowles is a Columbus writer whose most recent book is Cuyahoga’s Child: Growing Up in the Valley of the Crooked River.
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Editor’s Note: While the Cuyahoga River is considered to be 84 miles long, it is over 100 miles long when including its headwaters.