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Monday, September 7, 2009


     During the 19th Century, Ohio Valley residents had a common saying about the waterway that was so vital to their welfare and economy: "The Ohio River was dry half of the time; the other half it was frozen."
     The French called it La Belle Rievere and La Riviere Grande, the Native Americans, Kis-ke-ba-la-se-be and O-hee-yo.  The 981-mile southwestwardly flowing river was beautiful and majestic--in any language--to all who viewed it in its pristine state, but the Ohio was equally as shallow, providing a natural channel of only four feet at best and an average depth of only two feet, levels limiting the westward expansion of settlers to only bateaux and flatboats.
     Oared or hand-powered, the flatboat usually floated with the current while transporting settlers and their possessions to new territory.  The owners of these crude watercraft did not intend to return upstream and generally dismantled them at the end of river voyages, the lumber used in construction of new homesteads.
     A new era suddenly dawned in 1811 with the launching of the first steamboat, the New Orleans, on western waters near Pittsburgh.  By 1835, more than 650 steamboats existed in the west, their presence accelerating the westward and industrial expansion along Ohio River territory and beyond.
   Shifting sand and gravel bars, snags and rocks, and sunken trees called sawyers combined with low water levels during summer and ice during winter to make navigation along the big river difficult and often hazardous.  Boating companies pressured he federal government to improve navigation conditions, and, thus, in 1824, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove snags and other obstructions from the Ohio while constructing dikes and wing dams to concentrate flow into the main channel.
     The Corps constructed the first series of dams at Louisville, Kentucky, the second parallel to present-day Wellsmar, spanning from the Ohio shore to Brown's Island in 1836.   Its purpose was to back water up to another dam that stretched from the northern tip of Brown's Island diagonally to the Ohio shore approximately to the site where the old Follansbee Steel pump house stands today.  Later called the "dike" by local residents, its primary function was deflecting the higher water onto the then Virginia side where the channel bisected the river.
     Prior to the construction of these dams, the channel weaved along the right bank, or Ohio side.  The construction of the Brown's Island dams raised consternation amongst Jefferson County citizens about loss of shipping revenue, so much, in fact, they petitioned state congress during 1836 but to no avail.
     The Corps added a crescent-shaped wing dam less than a half-mile downstream on the Virginia shore to deflect flow back into the channel.  The Corps and local labor constructed the dams from sandstone quarried from Island Creek.
      "The dams at Brown's Island," wrote Reuben Gold Thwaites in Early Western Travels, "the shoalest point on the Ohio have been so eminently successful as fully to establish the efficiency of the plan.  Several other works of a similar nature are proposed...When all improvements are completed, it is believed the navigation of the beautiful Ohio will answer every purpose of commerce and the traveller."
       The "dike" still existed intact by the turn of the 20th Century and was featured in a chapter of Walter M. Kestner's The Era of Elegance: "The most productive and popular angling site was at the dike, a wing dam as some called it, that extended from the bar below the mouth of Sloane's Run to the head of Brown's Island.  On propitious occasions this dike would be lined with devotees of sport from the Ohio shore to the break in the wall which we called the 'riffle' near the island end of the dam."
     Up to this period, navigational problems still continued.  During dry months, the river was so shallow in places it could be forded by people and horse-drawn wagons.  River companies and shippers relied upon two rises or tides to navigate their goods, the fall rise occurring in late October through November, the spring rise running from February through April.
     Sometimes, even rises failed navigation at Brown's Island.  On March 15, 1888, three steam tows--the Eagle, Ed Roberts and Sam Clarke--collided while trying to cross the dike and spilled 40,000 bushels of coal into the Ohio River.
     In 1910, Congress enacted the Rivers and Harbors Act to canalize the entire river with wooden wicket dams, including Dams Nine and Ten, spanning across from Freeman's Landing to New Cumberland and Steubenville to present-day Weirton.  The Corps of Engineers eventually replaced these dams during the early 60s with the present series of high-lift locks and dams, including New Cumberland and Pike Island.
     First picture:  Remnants of the "dike" including square sandstone blocks still remain today.
     Second picture: The Ed Roberts involved in the cleanup operation of 40,000 bushels of coal spilled at the head of Brown's Island.
     Third picture: An old navigation map showing the locations of the three Brown's Island dams.
    Fourth Picture.  The right bank of the Upper Ohio's first dam, just south of Wellsmar.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Like the city itself, the woods situated along the Gem City's southwest border has a history, deep, rich and mysterious.
Foremost amongst the deep green forest was Camp Crumb. It stood upon a plateau where Sloane's Run forks west to Wallace Heights and northeast to Rock's Farm. A dirt road once twisted along Sloane's Run, but has long been covered with the natural erosion of the steep gully through which it passes.
Walter M. Kestner, in his book, The Era of Elegance, mentions Toronto's early park: "The log cabin and the rustic pavilion for dining up Sloane's Run hollow called Camp Crumb where clambakes and corn roasts were regularly held. My first picnic in Toronto was held in the second grade when Miss Nora Yingst, our teacher, escorted us out the Pike to Camp Crumb, and I ate my lunch on the way but dined elegantly on the bounty of the others who were not as voracious as I was.
The Boy Scouts of America began operation in 1910, and the local troops found Camp Crumb and its environ of beeches and oaks, huge boulders, rock shelters and cascades an ideal place for scouting activities. If the initials carved in the rocks and towering beeches are any indication of its usage, then the 1940s was the peak period for Camp Crumb.
Local lore reports that this bucolic getaway fell into disuse after a distraught Toronto man hanged himself from a beech tree overlooking a cliff. Legend also hints that he carved his initials into the tree prior to committing the act. Some old-timers say the grounds are haunted.
Another long forgotten piece of the Gem City's woodland past is Slaughter Hollow, which today is just west of the state's access gate along Route Seven near the south end ramp.
"One of the favorite Sabbath afternoon walks," Kestner wrote, "was out the Knoxville Pike to Sloane's Run then up the left fork to slaughter house hollow where the crumbling remnants of the old abattoir still sheltered the grisly implements of its former operations. Along the way at the base of the hollow huge limestone rocks produced a prolific harvest of sea animals which offered mute testimony that the waters of the distant seas had once laved these shores."
The Gem City author was certainly correct regarding water once encircling the Toronto we know today. In Roadside Geology of Ohio, Mark J. Camp wrote about Mount Nebo. "On the south edge of town the highway swings around a large hill that is separated from the Pennsylvanian (an era 320 to 286 million years ago) escarpment by an abandoned channel of the Ohio River. During Wisconsinan (90,000 to 10,000 years ago) time this was a bedrock island in the Ohio River. At some point sandbars cut it off and the river assumed its present course."
Modern man has also left signs of his presence in the surrounding forests. A couple of anomalies are rock piles appearing to be funeral cairns, one each on both sides of the hill upon which Fairview Heights stands.
In Greater Toronto 1899, author G.H. Stoll noted that before the inception of Union Cemetery, people sometimes buried their deceased in the hills above present-day Toronto.
Another mystery is an abandoned well, or cistern, concave and still open, which sits approximately 50 yards west of Route Seven above Daniels Street. An 1878 map indicates that the property once belonged to an R. Lee, an 1871 map to an H. Gaston.
Lesser oddities include rock carvings of a snake, an eagle and an oak leaf upon different boulders scattered throughout the woods and Indian Rock, named such for the collection of arrow heads near it.
PICTURES top to bottom: Indian Rock.  Open Well.  Winter Scene of Rock Shelter.  Oak Leaf Carving by JMW.