In 1796, John Young arrived on the banks of the Mahoning River to survey the land he planned to purchase from the Connecticut Western Reserve.1Learn more about the Connecticut Western Reserve. It was the river that convinced Young to buy the land and create a settlement on its banks: the future Youngstown. For almost two centuries, the Mahoning functioned as the backbone of its communities, providing transportation, recreation, food, and eventually industrial resources.
River access was one of the main reasons why so much industry developed in the Mahoning Valley. The river was used as coolant, and as a transport corridor. Eventually, its waters became polluted and overheated, in parts completely devoid of life and in places too scalding for human activity. This environmental degradation led the Mahoning Valley to turn away from the river. Not only was it despoiled, it became fully associated in people’s minds with the area’s industry and its ills.
In a way, the exploitation and subsequent degeneration of the river and its natural systems mirror the effects of industry on its surrounding communities. The Mahoning River remains a central feature that defines the local landscape, but its industrial past relegates it to an often forgotten and ignored natural resource. What are the possible futures for a river whose identity has been so closely tied to industrial loss and pollution?
Today, after much of the region’s industry has receded, many brownfield sites remain along the river. The Copperweld Steel site on the north side of Warren, for example, now lies vacant: remaining structures sit empty and slowly rusting; fields closer to the river are unused. It’s a legal and bureaucratic headache in physical form. On the southern border of Warren, the former BDM steel factory site has gone through initial remediation but currently lacks meaningful new use. These massive sites could represent new development opportunities for the region if their industrial legacies can be reenvisioned.
There are signs that the Mahoning’s identity as the region’s physical and spiritual backbone may be returning, principally due to a massive undamming effort. The Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, located in Youngstown, is organizing an effort to remove a series of nine small dams that were originally constructed to divert water for now-defunct industry. The plan includes remediating the natural systems of the river to attract recreational uses, leveraging this engineering process as a larger economic development tool. The council has also contracted a planning consultant to help reimagine the future of the river and its adjacent communities, all with the aim of repositioning the Mahoning as the region’s spine.
This re-embrace of the river is already occurring in the village of Lowellville, southeast of Youngstown. The site of the first dam removal, the village is using the opportunity to reorient itself back to the river, create new riparian community, retail, and residential spaces. The village also hopes to connect to larger, region-wide recreation networks as a way to bring further economic activity.
The following field notes explore this dam removal initiative. This essay was developed, in part, from a June 2020 visit to Lowellville, Ohio, the site of the first dam removal, by the editorial team and local stakeholders. —Quilian Riano, In the Mahoning Valley chief editor
Explore the forces that have shaped the Mahoning river and, in turn, the region, in a photographic essay by landscape architect Charles Frederick.