Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The New Cuyahoga: A Proposal to Straighten the "Crooked River"

The name Cuyahoga is said to mean "Crooked River". Yet in the 1910s, there was a proposal to straighten the river, The New Cuyahoga: River Straightening Recommendations. This document was brought to my attention by Kevin Leeson, of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission. The book is reproduced here from a copy in their collections, with the exception of the map below, which is used courtesy of Special Collections, Cleveland State University.

Image used courtesy of the Cleveland Memory Project, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University

The publication includes this folded map. (Note: a higher resolution version, as well as other maps of the river, are available as part of the Cuyahoga River Online Exhibition.) The blue represents the current course of the river, while the red represents the proposed realignment. Why would the Committee on River and Harbor Improvement of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, the author, suggest this? Why would they suggest the drastic change to something that was for a long time, one of the more graphically recognizable elements of our city?

In short, commerce. The report suggests that the difficulty of navigating the river made shipping to and from Cleveland more expensive, putting the port at a commercial disadvantage. Further, it was said that the project would provide relief from the flooding of the Flats, as had happened in 1904 and 1913. It suggests that the money saved by preventing floods would cover the cost of the river realignment. The authors add that it would open part of the upper Cuyahoga to industrial development.

A 1919 report, Conservancy and the Cuyahoga continues on the same train of thought.

It's unclear why these proposals remained mere proposals. The shape of the river remains an important part of Cleveland's history - from its founding to industrial growth to now, when we're using it for recreation - it's even a part of the Cleveland Area History logo.

There's no mention as to whether they planned to change the name of the river, once it was no longer "crooked".


  1. Two things that this realignment would done:

    1) Speed the flow of pollutents into the shoreline of Lake Erie. And can you imagine the erosion that speeding water would have caused?

    2) Lead to the restoration back to the original path. One thing we humans do too frequently is come up with these logical, and expensive solutions to Mother Nature's inventions, only later to see the error of our ways and spend even more money to fix our original "fix" to something not broken.

  2. A few years ago when a time-capsule was opened, a note was inside that asked "Did you ever find a way to straighten the river?". Wish I could remember more details about the time capsule but it shows their feelings of the importance of the issue at the time.