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River memories frozen in time

Robert Stanger

I have spent a rather long life mostly in the communities of Erie, Youngstown and Warren which if joined by straight lines would create a rough triangle. I have traveled between the points of this triangle countless times.

And I have witnessed marked environmental changes at all three of these points, most of which … but by no means not all … have been beneficial.

Starting with Warren, the farthest-east point of the “triangle,” the biggest change came of course with the completion of the Kinzua Dam in 1965. The dam received strong backing from powerful Pittsburgh interests following the disastrous 1936 Great St. Patrick’s Day flood that killed 47 and caused $50 million in damage.

A flood in March of 1956 that also caused severe damage added impetus toward construction of the dam. Names associated with the drive to build the dam include Richard Mellon, H.J Heinz, Edgar Kaufman, and Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence. The Westinghouse Co. also supported the effort.

Although the Kinzua Dam was authorized by Congress in the Flood Control Acts of 1936 and 1938 and its present site above Warren selected as well, construction didn’t start until 1960 after President John F. Kennedy gave the final approval. The dam has made Warren much less prone to flooding.

The 1956 flood saw the river rise eight feet, isolating the community from the surrounding area and covering the city’s downtown with 4 feet of water. The city’s hospital had to be evacuated, the high school and a junior high school closed. The river’s crest Warren of 18.4 feet that year was second only to the 19.4-foot crest it reached in 1964.

The present risk to Warren posed by the dam is said to be two out of five, with five being a new dam. Factors that figure into the assessment are dam failure, danger from more than one hurricane, and severe damage to the area.

Residents of Warren are said to have 45 minutes to flee in event of dam failure. This increases to 40 hours for Pittsburgh.

The dam cost $120 million to construct but is said to have prevented $247 million in downstream damages alone when Hurricane Agnes hit the area in June of 1972. However 600 members of the Seneca Nation of Indians tribe were displaced when 10,000 acres of their fertile farmland was flooded when the Allegheny Reservoir rose behind the dam. The reservoir was called “Lake Perfidy” by the Seneca as they believe that the Treaty of Canandaigua of 1794, which was signed by President George Washington, guaranteed their rights to the Allegheny Valley land on which they had lived for so long.

In 1957 an alternative plan by the Seneca to control Allegheny River flooding by diverting water to Lake Erie (the Conewango-Cattaraugus Plan) was rejected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers following a study..

Johnny Cash immortalized the Seneca’s plight with his ballad “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” which in past years was occasionally played on radio station WRRN. Unfortunately, I never came to know what the Allegheny River was like before construction of the Kinzua Dam.

But it is said that the average temperature of the river is now colder leading to a change in its aquatic life. There are apparently more colder water fish species in the river now, such as trout, and fewer species which favor warmer water, such as bass.

I have heard that prior to the dam, in warmer weather there would be a nightly chorus of bullfrogs along the river. One never hears these amphibians now, although the mating calls of toads do mark late spring now along the river.

Shifting to the northernmost point of my “triangle” there have certainly been marked environmental changes in the Erie area. When I was young, there could always be seen on summer evenings from our cottage on the beach west of Erie a long string of headlights to the east from cars leaving Presque Isle State Park.

This was really an ominous sign, however, as the visibility of these lights meant that there was no barrier of sand dunes or cottonwood trees between the cars and the lake. This meant that when the lake was rough waves would crash up to the road, occasionally closing it, and threaten to turn the peninsular park into an Island.

I well recall the failed attempts to combat this erosion. Huge rectangular pieces of stone, which offered interesting sites from which to swim, were placed along the threatened shoreline. But the power of the lake proved too much for this type of barrier.

Next, groins that consisted of huge sheets of steel that were pounded into the lake’s sandy bottom were placed at strategic points along the shore. These barriers, which quickly rusted, offered only a partial solution and built up on one side of the piers but receded on the other.

The final, and now apparently very effective solution to the erosion of the park’s beaches was the installation of 55 “rubblemound” islands all along the park’s threatened beaches. This has made swimming at Presque Isle a rather unusual experience.

But Lake Erie is much cleaner today than in years now well past when swimmers would emerge from the lake with their bodies spotted with the algae that proliferated in a lake that was fed too much nutrient. The green algae would form inches-thick bands along the shore.

When I was young, there was a dirt bridle path all around the state park, and horses could be rented at Algeria Stables located a short distance off the park … where I recall my jodhpur-wearing sister took riding lessons.

This bridle path is now an asphalt bicycle trail, which receives a lot more use than the bridle path ever did.

The annual mile-long public swim across Presque Isle Bay held to emphasize the bay’s improvement has now been discontinued, but the well-patronized event did indeed illustrate how much cleaner the bay is today than years ago when no one would ever think of swimming in the bay’s polluted water.

But what is probably the most pronounced change in the Erie environment is the result of climate change.

In years now well past, there would be times when it would be possible to ice skate over much of the western end of Presque Isle Bay following weeks of sub-freezing winter weather. I recall how the very clear ice would crack loudly as it expanded.

Ice fishing on the bay was a very popular activity years ago, but few anglers venture out onto the bay’s thin ice (if it does form at all) during today’s winters. The lake itself receives scant ice cover during our present milder winters.

When we would visit the site of our cottage on the beach at Erie during the winter to cut firewood there would be ice out on the lake as far as one could see by Christmas. My father, my sister and I even skated on the lake off our cottage one winter.

I’m sure this could never be done today, just as the lake now receives scant ice cover during the coldest months.

In Youngtown, the third point on my “triangle,” the sad environmental effects of its era as one of the nation’s foremost steelmaking centers linger in the Mahoning River.

It’s been 43 years since the demise of the Mahoning Valley’s steel industry started on Sept. 19, 1977, (“Black Monday”) when Youngstown Sheet & Tube abruptly closed its Valley mills, idling 5,000 workers. Subsequent mill closings in the Valley idled thousands more, leading to a total idling of some 40,000 workers, a drastic blow to the area’s economy. Youngstown’s population was cut in half to its present level of some 65,000.

The Valley’s nine major steel plants used the Mahoning River as an industrial sewer, discharging into its waters suspended solids, oil and grease, and ammonia, nitrogen, cyanide and zinc.

This probably dismayed communities downstream. After entering Pennsylvania near Lowellville, the Mahoning joins the Shenango and they become the Beaver River which empties into the Ohio River. Much of this pollution remains on the bottom of the river today, although it is covered with sediment deposited in the years subsequent to the closure of the mills.

In years past, there were serious proposals to dredge the river of its contaminants (the cost for doing that was estimated at $100 million) but there is little talk today of doing any dredging. In addition to the sediment, the dams constructed by the steel mills to pool cooling water pose a problem for use of the Mahoning as a source of recreation.

Lowellville, the last town down the river where steel was made, has removed the dam there with an eye on the community becoming a site for canoeing and kayaking. Struthers, the town next upriver from Lowellville, would also like to remove its dam, which is composed of five concrete barriers. The cost for doing this has been put at $2.3 million.

Although an east wind hasn’t brought the smell of hydrogen sulfide from the mills in Struthers and Campbell to our home in Boardman for many years now, the effects the steel industry has had on the Mahoning Valley do linger. The problems the Mahoning River poses as a recreational river are more than compensated by Youngstown’s 2,600-acre Mill Creek Park, established by Volney Rogers in 1891.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.

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