Field Notes: The Mahoning River as Urban Reinvention
Quilian Riano explores efforts to remove industrial dams in Northeast Ohio
With large deposits of iron and coal, the Mahoning Valley has been long known as a site for industrial production, first of iron, then steel, and then car manufacturing. One of the keys to the industrial success of the area is its reliance on the Mahoning River for both transportation and as a natural resource for manufacturing processes.
The Mahoning River begins in Northeast Ohio, flows south towards the Ohio River, and eventually merges with the Mississippi River on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. This set of local, regional, and national connections has made the river instrumental in the forming of the Mahoning Valley and communities along its banks, such as Warren, Youngstown, and Lowellville. It has also been a key part of industrialization in the area. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, the river was used to cool machinery for the iron and steel industry. This mostly happened through the building of low-head dams—small structures of low height that span the width of a river to pool water upstream for various uses—by factory owners. The industries would dam the river, divert the water to cool down their furnaces and other equipment, then dump scalding water, at temperatures well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and filled with industrial materials and chemicals, back into the river, killing off flora and fauna in the waterways and riverbanks and preventing any other uses by local communities.1Friends of the Mahoning River, “About the River,” accessed April 2, 2021
The Mahoning River was once a center of recreation and transportation, but after the industrial boom starting in the late nineteenth century, cities began to turn their backs on the river and its pollution. Today, the Mahoning Valley is characterized by the homonymous river at its center, yet when you stand just steps from its shores in downtown Warren or Youngstown it is easy to miss altogether.
Industry began to close down and leave the Mahoning Valley in the 1960s, devastating the local economy and leading to a loss of tens of thousands of residents. The subsequent examination of closed factories and mills also made clear the environmental damage done to the Mahoning River over the previous century. In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released studies showing that the river contained heavy metals, oils, ammonia, cyanide, and other toxins and pollutants at levels that exceeded water quality standards. It was neither a safe nor clean waterway.2United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Mahoning River Waste Load Allocation Study,” by Gary Amendola, Donald Schregardus, Willie Harris, and Mark Moloney, accessed April 2, 2021.
Yet the loss of industry and population meant that less pollution was being released into the river. As environmental conditions were improving, the US Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) released a study in 2013 identifying the low-head dams that industry had built along the river as a major reason why toxic sediment was not moving through the river’s natural flows and systems. The USACE identified removing low-head dams, alongside treatment and removal of toxic sediment, as key to the continued ecological restoration of the Mahoning River.3GPD Group and Enviroscience, “Mahoning River Corridor Evaluation Study,” accessed April 2, 2021.
Beginning in 2019, the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, an association for local governments in Northeast Ohio (Ashtabula, Mahoning, and Trumbull Counties), created the Mahoning River Restoration project to remove nine low-head dams along the Mahoning River. Eastgate’s goals, according to executive director Jim Kinnick, is to remove nine dams in nine years for 90 million dollars. Kinnick says that at this time they are beginning to think that the project will actually take three to four years and may cost as little as $28 million as the group works closely with the EPA and testing grows more sophisticated, thus lessening the costs of removing and hauling sediment.4Learn more about the Mahoning River Restoration and Dam project.
The dams Eastgate is targeting are located in the cities, townships, and villages of Warren (two dams), Niles, McDonald, Girard, Campbell, Youngstown, Struthers, and Lowellville. The goal of the project is to clean up the river but also to turn it into an environmental, recreational, and economic engine for the Mahoning Valley community. Eastgate and the communities along the river see opportunities to have the cities in the area face the river, dotting it with new buildings and areas with housing and recreation. Jim Kinnick says that the Mahoning River “dams were built to trap water to cool the steel that built the country—now we need some help to remove them and clean our river.” Eastgate’s director of planning, Joann Esenwein, emphasizes that “the dams were built for the mills. They are not there for the benefit of the river.”
The first of the dams removed in late 2020 is in Lowellville, a village with a population of roughly 1,000 inhabitants on the edge of Mahoning County. The village rose on the northern shore of the river around the large Sharon Steel Works’ Mary Furnace site, one of the first in the world to use raw coal as fuel. The Mary Furnace site was located just south of Lowellville’s downtown, across the river and along railroad tracks. In its heyday, the plant employed over 1,000 people; it closed in 1960.5Agis Salpukas, “2 Steel Shutdowns in 17 Years Hurt Town,” New York Times, October 22, 1977. Lowellville currently faces dual challenges as it tries to both retain its young people—the median age in Lowellville is 45.1 years, about seven years older than the national median age of 38 years—and attract the industry and retail needed to provide those young people and the village with amenities and economic stability.
Lowellville’s mayor, James Iudiciani, sees the dam removal as a major opportunity for the village. Born in Lowellville around the same time as the Sharon Steel Works plant closed, Mayor Iudiciani remembers the stern warnings against going into the river as a child. He says that he “know[s] that the jobs that were lost from the steel companies are not coming back. It is about creating new opportunities for our young people.” That is just what he has set out to do by hiring Columbus, Ohio-based architect Jeff Glavan to make a comprehensive plan that identifies sites on the banks of the river and the former Sharon Steel Works site as potential sites for economic growth: the river to be used for recreation and tourism, and the Sharon Steel site to attract industrial and logistics jobs.
In Lowellville’s vision, new landscape and architecture projects complement the river restoration project. Together, these efforts will lead to a town actually turning towards its waterfront. Furthermore, the plans to reconfigure the city’s riverfront revolve around Lowellville’s geographic location and potential for recreational uses. Lowellville is located about 70 miles away from Cleveland and Pittsburgh and has the potential to attract adventure-seekers from across the region. For example, the Stavich bike trail, which connects New Castle, Pennsylvania, to Struther, Ohio, passes through the heart of Lowellville. The bike trail currently sees a ridership of around 8,000 bikers per season. Poised to take advantage of what that could mean, Lowellville engineering consultant Christopher M. Kogelnik says that he envisions a future in which “we will have paddling in the river and pedaling on its banks, attracting more people into the village and its businesses.”
The plans for the Lowellville riverfront include building a boat launch as well as a community center with civic and retail spaces. A new local venture called Mahoning Whitewater Adventure has been created to both offer tours of the area as well as rent kayaks and bicycles to visitors. Mayor Iudiciani and his government have also slowly bought undeveloped land on the riverfront, which is a federally designated Opportunity Zone—a federal program that incentivizes development through preferential tax treatment in economically distressed communities—that they hope to see turned into local businesses, coffeeshops, restaurants, and hotels.
The idea of using the riverfront as an economic and civic engine is not new to Lowellville. Both Mayor Iudiciani and Chris Kogelnik point to an 1987 mural drawing by then-teenager Jan Hudak that envisioned a village that would celebrate the Mahoning River by creating safe ways to interact with the river through kayaking and canoeing as well as with civic and public architecture leading to the river. This vision struck a chord with the community, but it has taken over 30 years of coalition-building and fundraising to turn its ideas into a reality. During that time, some of the buildings and other infrastructure depicted in the mural have been lost, a fact that Mayor Iudiciani laments, making it all the more urgent to implement the village’s comprehensive plan before more is lost.
Back in the river, the work of removing the dam is well on its way, led by the Marucci and Gaffney Company, a construction and engineering firm. Its work is being seen as a pilot for how the rest of the dams on the Mahoning will be removed. James Murray from Maruddi and Gaffney shares that after some initial setting up and dredging of the river, they plan to build a bridge-like structure with a jackhammer on it that will remove the dam little by little while minimally touching the river itself. As they remove the dam, they are setting up docks and creating sites for future buildings and parks that will bring Lowellville’s residents and visitors closer to the river.
Nearby communities with dams along the Mahoning River are looking at Lowellville’s process to see what may be possible for their urban waterfronts. About four miles away from Lowellville, the dam removal project in Struthers is next. The hope is that lessons learned about environmental and urban renovation in Lowellville will translate to that project and beyond. Through restoring and cleaning the river, the entire region once again looks toward the Mahoning as part of its civic, urban, and economic future.