Damming the Cuyahoga in Brecksville

A black-and-white photo of trees along the riverbank; water flowing over a portion of a dam is visible to the right.
A postcard, circa 1925, of the Cuyahoga River in Brecksville shows the Pinery Feeder Dam on right.

Jon Sherba Collection

To improve the health of the Cuyahoga, partners along this national heritage river have been working together since the 1990s to remove a series of dams along the 100-mile waterway. With the demolition of the Brecksville Diversion Dam in 2020, the lower Cuyahoga will flow freely for the first time in nearly 200 years. The only remaining barrier below Lake Rockwell becomes the massive Gorge Dam between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

The Brecksville Diversion Dam site is located just north of Station Road Bridge Trailhead in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. An older canal-era dam stood slightly upstream, immediately below the Pinery Feeder Gate. Its remains are also being documented and removed in 2020.

A black-and-white photo of men in coats and hats fishing from the shore above the dam; women sit and stand in long dresses.
Picnickers fish at the Pinery Feeder Dam, circa 1895. The Cuyahoga is on the right and the gate to the feeder is on the left.

NPS Collection

Pinery Feeder Dam

The original dam in Brecksville was built during the construction of the Ohio & Erie Canal. It was part of the Pinery Feeder Dam, a connector that “feeds” water from the Cuyahoga River into the canal at Lock 36. This feeder system consisted of a wooden crib dam, a channel, and a gate. Crib dams were made with crossed timbers, then filled with earth or stones. In the fall of 1827, the Pinery Feeder complex was operational. The State of Ohio completed construction in 1833. The Pinery Feeder Dam provided water to the canal from Brecksville to Cuyahoga Heights.

From the 1830s to the 1870s, engineers rebuilt parts of the dam whenever there was flood damage. A major rehabilitation in 1900s was followed by a major setback: The Great Flood of 1913. This multi-state disaster destroyed much of Ohio’s canal system. Luckily, the northern section of the Ohio & Erie Canal from Brecksville to Cleveland was salvageable. Amazingly, according to an eyewitness account by Dillow Robinson, the Pinery Feeder Dam “came to no harm".

Pinery Feeder Dam was part of a lease between the State of Ohio and the American Steel and Wire Company for the company’s operation in Cuyahoga Heights, a suburb of Cleveland.

Two people fish from the near, rocky shore of the river; upstream of them water flows over the dam.
The concrete dam, shown in 2015, was a popular fishing spot.

NPS/D.J. Reiser.

Brecksville Diversion Dam

The American Steel and Wire Company used Pinery Dam before building Brecksville Diversion Dam in 1951-52. About 120 feet north, the new dam created a dam pool that hid the old wooden structure underwater. The company diverted river water for about 10 miles via the canal to assist with its industrial needs in Cleveland. This dam consisted of a low wall of concrete across the Cuyahoga River with a stepped abutment wall at each end.

American Steel and Wire continued to use the dam until the late 1980s. In 1988, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources transferred Ohio & Erie Canal properties within Cuyahoga Valley National Park boundaries to the park.

Removing the Dams

During the planning process to remove both dams, the partners had to grapple with complex legal issues over who owned and who regulated what within the project area. But they persisted—for three decades. Success was finally realized in 2020. Both dams were demolished. In 2021 a screw pump will be installed to maintain the water level in the canal section that includes a National Historic Landmark.

Public interest in the project has been high. There have been lots of questions. How will the Cuyahoga look as it adjusts to a more natural flow? What does the natural waterfall look like below the concrete? How will habitat be restored along the banks? How will fishing change? Paddling on the water trail?

Consider your own life. Is there something that you have been working toward for decades? What challenges have you overcome? What makes you most proud? Who helped you succeed?

Last updated: July 31, 2020