I frequently mention just how lucky we are to have such amazing park systems in NEOhio, as well as throughout the U.S- and I’m still probably not mentioning it enough! Today we were riding the mountain bike trails that whip through the Cleveland Metropark Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation. Designed and built with assistance from the Cleveland Area Mountain Bike Assocociation (CAMBA), this is interesting set of trails in the way they disappear into the woods, then climb to the ridge line to look out over woods- and directly into industrial Cleveland. While the woods lend to a feeling of nature and seclusion, it’s difficult to escape the smell of industry that occasionally wafts into the woods. Talk about incongruity for the senses! The dirt trails are just a small part of the reservation, so I wandered over to the canal center while waiting for my riding buddy to show- and I’m glad I did!
The Ohio and Erie Canal was built in the 1820’s to connect Akron to Cleveland and carry goods to be shipped on Lake Erie at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. It was later expanded to connect to the Ohio River at Portsmouth, as well as connecting to canals in PA. By the 1860s the railroads had become the choice for freight transportation, and the canals fell to just providing freshwater to local communities, and eventually being abandoned all together. Eventually federal and state park services saw the historical and recreational benefits of the remaining canal, with restoration of many segments of the canal, several locks and, eventually, large portions of the former mule towpaths as well. In the example of the original canal from Akron to Cleveland, one can now bike or hike nearly the entire distance on a rough approximation of the original towpath!
The Cleveland Metropark Canal center is a major stop on the reconfigured multipurpose towpath trail, and is filled with facts and examples of the history of the canal, the local plant and wildlife, and a bit of the history early Cleveland. There’s plenty of hands-on activities for kids, and even a life-sized mockup of a canal boat to climb aboard and imagine life on the water. There are Living displays featuring a few turtles, snakes and plants that can be found in your trek along the canal, and naturalists host several programs throughout the year. Stepping outside to the patio, you’ll find beautifully painted metal sculptures, benches, and the paved paths leading down to the canal and towpath.
Down the hill to the towpath, be sure to stop at the two points near the impressive CSX railroad bridge to watch frequent freight trains passing high overhead. The high trail stops near a bridge trestle, overlooking pipelines that serve the Cuyahoga Valley, while the lower trail has a series of signs beneath the pipelines to tell the story of what the pipes carry and their importance to the area. Probably not of great interest to everyone, but I found them fascinating. Once on the towpath, maybe relax and do a bit of fishing or bird-watching. Maybe covering miles is more your style, and you’d rather walk, run or ride the path from woods and wetlands to towns and industry, and enjoy a re-purposed part of our history. When you return to the Canal Center parking lot and look out again over the steel heart of Cleveland, try to wrap your head around the beauty of the path you experienced just down the hill. Or better yet, just enjoy the Ohio and Erie Canal Reservation for the urban wonder it is!
A bit of historical trivia before signing off: It’s said that NEOhio’s own U.S. President James A. Garfield worked as a “hoggee” as a teenager (The hoggees drove the mules that pulled the barges down the canal). Story has it that falling in the canal several times was enough motivation to for young Mr. Garfield to give up his canal dreams and attend college, instead- eventually becoming the 20th President of these United States.
Keep Riding Local, Dreaming Global, and we’ll see you on the road- Enjoy!