Merwin's Wharf at Cleveland Metroparks Rivergate
Quick, what do you think of when I say “the Flats?” Many of you may picture the flats of the 80s and 90s, when a rowdy, frat house atmosphere prevailed. If you are of the generation that grew up during the 30s and 40s, you might remember the busy harbor, Jim’s Steakhouse, and the sulfuric smell and orange glow of the steel mills.
If we could talk to those who lived in the 19th century they would tell a story of progression from mosquito infested “swampland” (as they deemed it) to a commercial area that supported a canal basin, a railroad hub and the rise of manufacturing.
Since Cleveland Metroparks has been tasked with the stewardship of public land in the flats, I have been digging into the past in a new way. Historically our reservations were created to preserve green space for public recreation and conservation of natural resources. Forward thinking men like William Stinchcomb were concerned about the encroachment of industry on the countryside, the damage from pollution and the need for rest and recreation for stressed out workers.
The riverfront area near the mouth of the Cuyahoga simply known as “the Flats” was the cradle of the industrial and commercial city of Cleveland. The original terminus of the Ohio and Erie Canal was located here, followed very quickly by the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, and the B&O Railroads. Here was where shipping, commerce and manufacturing created wealth for Cleveland’s elite businessmen, and jobs for thousands of immigrants and native born workers. On a less positive note these industries fouled the air and the water with waste products, soot and smog. Concerns about these issues led to the creation of the Cleveland Metropolitan Park Board.
You can see where I am going with this, right? While there are still businesses and industries in the flats, they have diminished and changed in nature and practice. Much of the land has been vacated and awaits new purpose. Cleveland Metroparks is working to create recreational opportunities along the river, and also to interpret the historical heritage found in the flats. So in a rather ironic way, we have come full circle. We now have a presence in the very spot that created the need for the park system.
As a Park Historian I have now had the opportunity to take a fresh look at the flats. Where I once only saw a jumble of rather uninteresting buildings I now see the story of human use and abuse of the land. While I am sad that our ancestors didn’t find value in the wetlands along the river, I understand their motives and have admiration for their visions and dreams of a prosperous city. I will delve into some of those stories in future posts. For now, come out and see some of this fascinating part of the city. Historical interpreter, Doug Kusack, offers several tours in the flats during the year, while the new Merwin’s Wharf Restaurant is a great place to have a bite to eat and watch the traffic on the river. And for those who want to join that river traffic, there are kayak tours available.
For a virtual tour through time check out these map images below. They are a great way to track the evolution of transportation in one small area. The canal basin (on the northeast end of the peninsula) shown in the 1835 and 1858 maps by 1881 had been filled in for the Valley Railway (later the B&O Railroad.) In current Google map images the canal and the train tracks are now occupied by parking lots.
Ahaz Merchant Map 1835
Notice by 1858 (G.M. Hopkins Map) the railroads were beginning to eclipse the canal.
*These map images were found at http://peoplemaps.esri.com/cleveland/ and http://www.railsandtrails.com/Maps/default.htm and https://www.google.com/maps/