When you think of rowing, you don’t normally think of Cleveland. The Rust Belt city’s Cuyahoga River curves and bends (the native tribes named it “Ka-ih-ogh-ha” meaning “crooked” river), and most rowers like a straight-line shot. Cleveland’s also an oceangoing port, and 700-foot freighters with 45,000 tons of cargo make their way up the Cuyahoga River to the mills daily. Rowing in a 44–foot quadruple skull alongside a boat more than two football fields in length is a daunting task.
Yet, Clevelanders are rethinking the waterway — and rowers deserve some of the credit. The attention they’ve helped to shift toward the river has helped spawn the creation of a riverfront park, spurred economic development in an empty industrial area of Cleveland, and helped change the regional consciousness that the waterways — Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River, among others — in Northeast Ohio are fundamental assets and not just where chemical and toilet waste get flushed into.
“The rowing community in Cleveland has helped to blaze the trail for public access for the Cuyahoga River, and the city and region is now seeing that area as an anchor point for all sort of projects,” says Brian Zimmerman, CEO for Cleveland Metroparks, which manages more than 22,000 acres in the region. “What they have done is to show the community that the more people have exposure to the waterways in a direct way, they tend to care more about their drinking water and open space and a positive future for their area.”
For decades, the river was an industrial waste dumping ground, and even caught fire dozens of times during the 20th century. The five-story-high fire on the Cuyahoga River that burned down bridges in 1969 was the impetus behind the Clean Water Act of 1972 and what many believe was the watershed moment in the current environmental movement in the United States. Thanks to funds from that Act, the water is much cleaner and healthier. Jane Goodman, of the Cuyahoga River Restoration, a nonprofit that has also worked for years toward cleanup, said earlier this year that now “you can eat the fish in the Cuyahoga River.”
Much of the physical improvements — park land acquisition, a new restaurant and skateboard park, and new docks — have been done in the last two years. Cleveland Metroparks is currently constructing bike trail paths along the river, and Rivergate Park will be the hub for many of these trails that link areas south of Cleveland to Lake Erie. Numerous businesses have relocated to once-empty warehouse space.
The Cleveland Rowing Foundation, which helps oversee the popular adult league and college and high school teams that come to the river daily for workouts, operates two boat storage facilities with more than 25,000 square feet of space. In all, about eight acres are devoted to parks and rowing in a downtown area known as “The Flats.” The Head of the Cuyahoga Regatta, which started in 1996 as a very small local rowing event, is now held every September and is the largest rowing event in the Midwest. This year, there were 400 entries from 50 different clubs and schools, with more than 2,000 participants.
Kirk Lang, a 29-year-old Pittsburgh native who is executive director of the Cleveland Rowing Foundation, says the growth “has been amazing given that there were only a dozen or so rowers in the Cuyahoga River in the early ‘90s. But that had led to taking an industrial wasteland and turning it into a park and a place where people come to see big ore carriers and rowers sharing this river.”
The foundation recently launched programs that give Cleveland kids the chance to skull in the water, and people with physical disabilities an opportunity to cruise through downtown on the water. Rowers actively participate in volunteer cleanup events along the riverbank.
“When you are rowing, you are part of the river. And you get tough like the river is,” says Kathy Whitford, one of the original recreational rowers on the Cuyahoga River 25 years ago. “We see what’s floating in there, and though it’s not as bad as it used to be, it certainly isn’t pristine. And maybe that’s why it’s taken off here in Cleveland. We row on a crooked river that used to catch fire. There’s something very blue-collar and being a scrapper about doing that.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Daniel J. McGraw is an author and writer living in Lakewood, Ohio.