Most people, when they think of Cleveland’s history, imagine bustling factories, dense immigrant communities, department stores, and pollution. All of these have undoubtedly shaped our region, but there is more to our story than industry. For over 100 years, our region has fought to preserve and restore natural landscapes, provide environmental education, and clean up our waterways. Explore this timeline and click through the links to learn more about some of Greater Cleveland’s conservation heroes of the past and present.
1917: William Stinchcomb
Let’s begin with the founding of Cleveland Metroparks in 1917. Our founder, William Stinchcomb, had a dream for the future of Cuyahoga County. Born in 1878 in Cleveland, he began a long career in public service in 1895 as a surveyor for the city engineer.
In 1902, Stinchcomb became chief engineer of the parks department. City parks at the time were beautiful but manicured spaces, more like public gardens than forests. Rugged trails and wild growth were not valued in the same ways they are today.
Because he was a key figure in the development of Cleveland, Stinchcomb understood that, without legislation, factories and the infrastructure that fueled them would continue to grow outward, gobbling up the land further. He recognized a real need for those still rural and natural spaces to be conserved.
In 1917, he led the way for the formation of the Cleveland Metropolitan Park District, the first county park system in Ohio, and even one of the first in the country. Stinchcomb served as the first Executive Director of the Cleveland Metropolitan Park District, originally a volunteer position without pay. He retired in 1957.
Rocky River Reservation was the first park, and eight more were to follow in the first decade – totaling almost 10,000 acres of land. The original intent of the park system still rings true today:
“To provide rural parks and open spaces for the people of the great city of Clevleand and its surrounding communities, as well as to conserve and preserve the valleys in the district, already beautified by nature…”
“The future Greater Cleveland shall not say that we of this generation failed in our duty if we preserve these lands now in their primitive grandeur, before the demands of industry invade them and destroy them for all time.”
1930s: A.B. Williams
Arthur Baldwin Williams was born in 1874 moved to Cleveland in 1905. Throughout his early career as a lawyer, Williams was drawn to the woods. He decided to follow his passions, and returned to college to study ecology at Case Western Reserve University. He earned his masters in 1932, and completed his Ph.D. in 1935.
During the course of his studies, Williams was hired by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to fill the role of naturalist. He was the first to hold the position, which also worked directly with the Cleveland Metropolitan Park District. Williams was a gifted teacher and passionate about the forests of the Greater Cleveland region, especially the beech-maple forests of North Chagrin Reservation.
In 1931, A.B. Williams oversaw the establishment of a Trailside Museum in North Chagrin Reservation, one of the first of its kind in the entire country. Similar museums were soon established in Rocky River and Brecksville Reservations as well. The goal was to “teach nature painlessly,” and inspire the people of northeast Ohio to appreciate their forests. He believed education could give natural spaces renewed meaning and help his fellow citizens see the beauty all around them.
What began as a one-man education operation has since grown into the current Outdoor Experiences Department at Cleveland Metroparks. Annually, this department reaches over 500,000 people in the community through programs at the nature centers and through outreach programs.
Other nature projects Williams undertook in Cleveland included: writing a weekly column for the Cleveland Press, hosting a radio show, publishing several natural history books (geology, trees, wildflowers), and directing the Sesquicentennial Moses Cleaveland Tree Project.