Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) sits in the middle of a well-worn traveling route. The geography of the Cuyahoga Valley creates a naturally level corridor that runs north and south through a hilly landscape. For centuries travelers have taken advantage of the valley’s pathway on foot, canoe, horse, canal boat, train, and interstate highway.
Today four kinds of transport can still be seen side-by-side in the park: river, canal, railroad, and road. Each step in transportation brought great change to the valley’s communities and people’s daily lives—just as it did across a young growing nation.
American Indians canoed through the valley on the Cuyahoga River. The river was used as part of a trade route and a way to reach hunting grounds. If American Indian travelers wanted to continue on south, they had to take their canoes out of the river where it passes through Akron’s Merriman Valley, carry them eight miles on the Portage Path, and put them back in on the Tuscarawas River.
European explorers also traveled by boat on the Cuyahoga River—or at least tried to. When New Englander David Hudson came to survey Western Reserve land in the valley in 1799, his party of men had to drag their boats up the shallow parts of the river. He knew then that the Cuyahoga River couldn’t bring supply-laden pioneers into the valley. They instead traveled by covered wagon. Nor could the river easily deliver goods loaded down on boats to the valley, or carry farmer’s cash crops to other markets. Lack of fast, dependable transportation isolated the frontier villages of the Cuyahoga Valley. With no way to easily sell what they’d grown, many pioneers struggled to get by.
The Ohio & Erie Canal transformed the Cuyahoga Valley when it opened in 1827 between Akron and Cleveland. Valley residents could finally send their products cheaply to the big cities back East on canal boats. Goods also arrived in the valley from other parts of the country, as well as dependable mail service, travelers, and new settlers. The canal turned isolated pioneers into citizens of a country that was expanding westward and becoming more industrialized. The canal changed the Cuyahoga Valley from clusters of frontier settlements to boomtowns of mills, factories, stone quarries, and profitable farms.
The Ohio & Erie Canal was the first inland waterway to connect the Great Lakes with the Gulf of Mexico. By 1832 a crate of saws coming to Cleveland via Lake Erie could be shipped by canal boat all the way to the Ohio River, then via the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. The canal helped build a national economy that no longer depended on imported goods from Europe. The East Coast could get the raw materials it needed from the frontier and find markets for its
products. And the state of Ohio was set on its path to grow into an industrial giant.
By the time the Valley Railway became the Cuyahoga Valley’s first railroad in 1880, trains had been steaming their way across much of America for thirty years. The Valley Railway ran between Cleveland and Canton. The railway was built to haul coal from central Ohio to cities like Akron and Cleveland. Passengers, mail, and other goods also traveled the Valley Railroad’s route north and south.
The railroad changed the Cuyahoga Valley and the lives of its residents—and strangled the canal business. Railroads were much faster than canals. The Canton to Cleveland trip took only two hours, so farmers could send fresh milk and butter to the cities without it spoiling. While floods or frozen water shut down the canal, these problems didn’t stop trains. Stone from Peninsula’s quarries was soon riding the rails, not the canal. The valley’s train depots in Independence, Brecksville, Boston, Peninsula, Everett, Ira, and Botzum quickly became centers of business in those towns. The Valley Railway also helped start the tourist business, enticing city dwellers to ride the train through the scenic Cuyahoga Valley.
Roads and Highways
In the 1920s the Cuyahoga Valley’s roads started improving as automobiles became more common. Soon it was trucks and cars that carried freight and people through the valley instead of trains or canals. In the 1950s the original Ohio Turnpike
(I-80) was built, including a bridge that carried traffic 175-feet above the Cuyahoga River.
The Turnpike and later highways gave citizens from Cleveland and Akron easy access to the valley’s sites and scenic landscapes. Growing highways also fueled the urban sprawl that by the 1960s threatened to destroy the valley. It also motivated citizens to save it. Those preservation efforts eventually created Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
In Their Own Words! Click the topics below to hear real stories about living in the Cuyahoga Valley!
WPA Road Improvements II (27 seconds) Model-T Fords (46 seconds)
Willis Meyers and his son Ronnie describe Works Progress Administration projects between Cleveland and Akron in the 1930s. Willis also talks about his experiences using old Model-T Fords to drive around Ohio.