December 2009 Issue
A Bridge, a Rock and a Heron
An arresting image on the Maumee River shows the intersection of history and geography.
On foggy mornings, the disintegrating Ohio Electric Bridge hovers over the Maumee River near Toledo like the spirits of Ottawa natives haunting their legendary rock outcropping below.
The once very prominent geologic formation, Roche de Boeuf (also known as Buffalo Rock), served as a rendezvous point for Ottawa traders, but a third of the rock was blasted away in 1907 to make way for the construction of the trolley bridge’s massive Roman arches. Now, both the vaulted bridge and the vener-ated rock have fallen into reposeful disuse.
The white men who built the bridge and the red men who burned council fires on the rock have passed into history. At one time, the concrete bridge and the limestone rock symbolized clashing cultures and the opposing forces of progress against preservation. But now, ironically, these two icons of Ohio history collapse and crumble gracefully together.
The bridge has decayed beautifully, like ancient ruins, because its designers paid homage to the spirit and forms of classical architecture. Today, this historic and lovely bend in the Maumee River has become a magnet to artists and photographers, a picturesque attraction to tourists, a mecca for anglers and a place for meditation and renewal for locals. Herons, cranes, geese, ducks and gulls forage in the glistening low-water rapids. Often a lone blue heron wades in the shallows surrounding the eroding Roche de Boeuf. Contemporary Native American poet Louise Erdrich recalls the meaning of the heron in native lore:
Above us drifted herons, alone, hoarse-voiced, broken, settling their beaks among the hollows. Grandpa said, These are the ghosts of the tree people, moving above us, unable to take their rest.
(From “I Was Sleeping Where the Black Oaks Move”)
But the tranquility of watching a heron step in slow motion across the ageless riverbed belies the fact that a geological fault passes just a little north of the parkland and can be seen in an overhanging dolomite cliff. It rumbles periodically like an absentee landlord, reminding us that our lease on the landscape is destined to expire. Perhaps the Native American idea of human tenancy will someday be vindicated.
Ironies abound at Roche de Boeuf. Called the Peace Grounds by the original inhabitants, the site became a place to plot war. Looking out from the observation bluff on the left bank, the imagination envisions scenes from 1763 when Ottawa Chief Pontiac camped on the left bank above Roche de Boeuf to plan a rebellion against the British. In 1790, Little Turtle, a Miami war leader, met with Blue Jacket and Tarhe (The Crane) on the Peace Grounds to plan the defeat of frontier militia under Gen. Josiah Harmar and, in 1791, defeated Gen. Arthur St. Clair with the same strategy. Three years later, Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s retaliatory expedition advanced to Roche de Boeuf and built Fort Deposit nearby to store supplies and artillery for the battle at Fallen Timbers. Wayne and his officers waded out to the rock to eat dinner.
Peering into the past from this vantage point, the ruin of the interurban bridge juxtaposed with the natural scenery becomes a poignant reminder of the transience of civilization, of the spirit of the eternal in nature and of the built environment bound by larger forces.
The bridge was built in 1907 after great uproar among local residents, who were outraged that the survey planned to route it directly over the Indian rock, which was considered a historic and prehistoric landmark. The engineers claimed that by dynamiting much of the Roche de Boeuf rock and anchoring a pier into it, the structure would be stronger. But in 1977, the spirits of Roche de Boeuf avenged themselves when the parapet over that section of the bridge, and no other, collapsed.
Designated a national historic landmark in 1972, the bridge and the Indian rock, along with the neighboring Missionary, Butler and Indian Islands, are now under the auspices of the Bowling Green District of the Ohio Department of Transportation. The nearby northern bank of the Maumee River is part of the Toledo Metroparks Farnsworth cluster. Nevertheless, the Indian rock and the old railway bridge passing directly over it are seldom seen by anyone other than locals who go to the park to picnic or to walk the Metroparks’ Towpath Trail.
Of all the countless portrayals of the Interurban Bridge at Roche de Boeuf, none has greater power to plumb the depths of cultural memory than a recent photograph by Mark Hamann of Perrysburg. By distilling all the symbolic elements in the view — the bridge, the rock, the river and the heron — Hamann’s image probes the mystery of memory and thought.
A native Ohioan and an American history teacher, he returns often to the scene at dawn and dusk, and during different seasons. He first discovered the site while living in Waterville.
“I remember that I was struck by the fact that I had driven up and down [St. Rte. 24] my entire life but had never seen the Interurban,” Hamann recalled. “When you take the bend out of Waterville, you certainly cannot see it from the highway. So, for decades I’d passed by without ever knowing it was there. At first I was captivated, but before that I was struck dumb. I couldn’t believe that anything with that much architectural impact was in my backyard and I didn’t even realize it was there.”
He had been photographing the regional landscape for many years and was especially intrigued by the topographical and architectural incongruity of the vista that lay before him: “The bridge looks so European … so Romanesque. In our part of Ohio, it didn’t seem to fit. I was just amazed at its lines, its beauty and its simplicity. That bridge is a very unusual and arresting piece of engineering, and the fact that it has been cut off gives it a sense of discontinuity. I’ve gone back there again and again.”
Hamann described the time he took the picture with the heron in the foreground. “It was a magical moment in early morning on that fall day. The light was very bright, but the long lens I used compressed the objects in view. The most ordinary scene can become extraordinary depending upon the light.”
The photographer may have been preoccupied with the transcendent effects of light, but what he brought into sharp relief instead was the universal symbolism latent in the landscape. The heron stands for the human spirit and the flowing river is the voyage of life, while the rock mass means eternal rest. But the tumbling bridge, truncated and trackless, epitomizes futility or the frustrated aspirations of mankind.
Many now fear for the future existence of the bridge because its breakup has been accelerating in recent years. Although treasured today in its bone-bare ruination as an object of serene beauty, it’s surprising to learn that it was maligned in its heyday as a blot on the landscape. But this is just another ironic twist in the tale of the bridge and the rock.
Beyond question, history and geography intersect profoundly at Roche de Boeuf. Here, nature still manifests its forms in startling clarity, but here a historic tragedy played out as well. History, nature and drama are all part of the contemporary experience of Roche de Boeuf.
Sadly, no trace remains of the Ottawa villages in the Maumee watershed. They were burned by the withdrawing troops of General Wayne’s army. And the trolley car has raced into oblivion, too.
Only the hoarse-voiced heron still settles its beak among the hollows.
Carroll McCune is a freelance writer based in Haskins, and is retired from The Wall Street Journal. She has owned a fine art gallery and has written art criticism for the Bowling Green Sentinel Tribune.