March 2007 Issue
Walking Through History
Trace our state's roots with three invigorating hikes.
It's hard to hike Ohio's trails without encountering evidence of the Buckeye state's extensive human history. As you trek into a deep forest, you may think you've found a place untouched by human hands. But look carefully, and you'll pick up the telltale signs.
In many places, the relics are obvious - old barbed-wire fences, rusting farm machinery and overgrown logging roads are common features in local parks and state forests. At one Columbus-area park, a prehistoric burial mound and a pioneer cemetery can be found along the same heavily wooded trail, reminders of the impermanence of human endeavor against the backdrop of a resilient natural landscape.
In some locations, however, the connection between natural history and the human past is so strong that it presents a perfect package for the curious traveler. These are the places where a hiker can literally walk back in time, bearing witness to human industry and imagination while soaking up the beauty of the natural landscape. The demand for this sort of attraction is growing. Experts say Americans spend more than half of their domestic travel dollars on "heritage tourism," which includes travel to parks with historical features.
Ohio is filled with such places, and March - the 204th anniversary of Ohio's statehood - is a good time to start planning a visit to one of them. Here are three to get you started.
Standing on Ceremony
Even during the months between the summer and winter solstices, it's easy to see why Ohio's most ambitious prehistoric culture chose Fort Ancient as a sacred center of religious observance. It's also easy to see why 17th-century archaeologists mistook this place for a fortress.
The ruins of this 2,000-year-old ceremonial site are dramatically situated on a wooded hilltop that rises 235 feet above the Little Miami National Scenic River in Warren County. Surrounded by the river and deep ravines, it's a majestic and isolated location, perfect for the sort of communion with the heavens that seems to have been central to the religion of the Hopewell people. They covered the hilltop with mounds, stone circles and crescent-shaped gateways to welcome worshippers or celebrants during special events - the details of which we don't know.
You'll have to wait to visit until April 1, when the gates open at this Ohio Historical Society site, but planning an early trip is worthwhile, as the Fort Ancient earthworks are best observed before summer's vegetation is in full leaf.
Earthworks stretch 3.5 miles across the 768-acre site, many of them arranged in geometric patterns that mark the summer and winter solstices and certain movements of the moon. There's also a museum with exhibits dedicated to 15,000 years of Native American heritage in the Ohio Valley.
Jack Blosser, who has been the site manager at Fort Ancient for nearly two decades, says natural and human history can't be separated when considering Fort Ancient and other prehistoric cultural sites.
To begin with, he explains, the Hopewell clearly chose this site based on its forbidding location, surrounded as it is by the river and deep ravines.
"In addition, many of the trees and plants that grow here today had herbal or medicinal value to the Native Americans," Blosser says. "The landscape was as much a part of the Native Americans' life as were the walls they built."
Five nature trails, all one mile or shorter in length, help put the earthworks in the proper context. The Stone Circle Trail is a short walk, about one- quarter mile, behind the museum. The mile-long Earthworks Trail provides clear views and two scenic overlooks, including a three-mile view of the Little Miami River Valley. This trail is mostly flat, and it can be hiked in shorter lengths by taking advantage of the parking areas.
From the North Overlook, hikers have two choices: a short, but very steep, connector to the Little Miami Scenic Bike Trail, or the Eagle Trail. The Eagle Trail is a half-mile walk along a level trail through a beautiful hardwood forest that is awash with wildflowers in the spring, but there is a short and somewhat steep section at either end.
Fort Ancient State Memorial is located at 6123 St. Rte. 350, about 7 miles southeast of Lebanon. From April 1 to Oct. 31 the site is open Wed.â€“Sat. 10 a.m.â€“5 p.m., Sun. noonâ€“5 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults and $3 for children. For more information about Fort Ancient and other prehistoric Indian sites, call 800/283-8904 or 513/932-4421. Visit the Ohio Historical Society online at www.ohiohistory.org.
Blast from the Past
Two natural resources - iron ore and forests - led to major changes in southern Ohio's landscape. The discovery, in the early 1800s, of thick deposits of iron ore near the surface of the Appalachian foothills prompted the construction of nearly 70 iron furnaces in what became known as the Hanging Rock Iron Region.
Those furnaces needed charcoal to fuel the process that turned ore into pig iron. To make charcoal, the "colliers" (workmen who made charcoal) needed firewood. And so began the first wholesale clear-cutting of Ohio's once majestic hardwood forests.
"Each furnace might need 8,000 to 12,000 acres of timber to make its charcoal. And there were 11 furnaces in Jackson County alone. So you can imagine what it did to the hills around here," explains Steve Henthorne, deputy director of facilities management for the Ohio Historical Society and the former live-in caretaker of Buckeye Furnace.
While the stone "stacks" of many of the abandoned iron furnaces can be seen in many places around Ohio, the Buckeye Furnace, located in Jackson County near Wellston, is the only place in Ohio where visitors can see the stack, as well as a re-creation of the wooden buildings that comprised an "iron plantation."
Thanks to two nature trails on the 270-acre site owned and managed by the historical society, visitors can witness the regeneration of the forest, while getting a peek at some of the remnants of this short-lived but remarkable industry.
The site has two nature trails, totaling 1.6 miles in length. Interpretive signs on the trails bring attention to natural features as well as industrial remnants of the furnace that was built in 1851 and operated until 1894.
Visitors can imagine what it was like when the furnace was surrounded by a small village, made up of 125 to 200 company employees and their families. These furnace villagers were responsible for creating the iron for the pots and skillets that served pioneer families across the frontier, as well as cannon balls for the Union Army.
A short distance down Co. Rd. 58 is the parking lot for the nature trails, where visitors can walk through the native hardwood forest that has grown back over the century since the furnace went cold.
As soon as you park the car on one of these pull-offs, you'll step out into history - the site's caretakers paved parts of the lot using heaps of old slag left over from the iron-making process. Along the Pit Trail, shallow depressions are visible, which may be filled with water in the spring. These were created when miners removed the ferriferous iron ore from the ground.
But Henthorne, an avid bird-watcher who returns to the site regularly, recommends looking for more than history. The site features a relatively mature forest (by Ohio standards) and those forests are filled with birds. He regularly sees pileated woodpeckers, red-shouldered hawks and Carolina wrens, and migratory songbirds are thick during late April and early May.
Beavers have returned to Little Raccoon Creek, and in the areas where they have impounded water, wood ducks and mallards like to visit. Bobcats, though rare, have been spotted in the region.
The discovery around 1845 of larger, more pure supplies of iron ore in the upper Great Lakes spelled the beginning of the end to the Hanging Rock iron furnaces.
Buckeye Furnace is located 10 miles east of Jackson, two miles south of St. Rte. 124 on Buckeye Furnace Road in Jackson County. To learn more about the iron furnace era, visit the historical society online at http://www.ohiohistory.org/places/buckeye/ or call 614/297-2457 or 800/686-1534. If this visit whets your appetite for furnace lore, the second annual Vesuvius Iron Furnace Festival is scheduled for June 23 in the Ironton Ranger District of the Wayne National Forest in Lawrence County. Call 740/534-6500 for information.
Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail:
Road to Progress
While the iron furnaces were transforming the economy of Ohio's Appalachian forest region, canals were bringing prosperity to the Cuyahoga River Valley. During the early 1800s, a generation of laborers, mostly recent immigrants from Ireland, was hard at work digging the Ohio & Erie Canal, which would eventually stretch from Cleveland to Portsmouth.
It wouldn't be long before railroads made those canals obsolete, but thousands of visitors to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park continue to appreciate the hard work of those early Ohioans.
Visitors to Ohio's only national park, located 30 minutes from downtown Cleveland, can walk with ease along the towpaths that once were used by the teams of mules that pulled canal boats laden with cargo and passengers. The mule teams needed a flat surface for proper footing, and while the mules are long gone, the towpaths provide comfortable, accessible trails for people of all ages.
In the park, the Towpath Trail runs nearly 20 miles along the Cuyahoga River Valley, through forests, farm fields and wetlands. As they hike, visitors can see remnants of what the "canalers" would have experienced during their trip through what was then a very isolated region. Former canal locks, an aqueduct, and retail establishments that once catered to the canal are among the historical features along the way.
The towpath makes a great trail, even for those who don't care much about history. It would be worth the visit if only for the view of the river, the wooded bluffs rising above the valley, the wetlands that have returned to the floodplain, and the birds and other wildlife that inhabit the area. And, in fact, that's what most visitors are looking for, says Jennie Vasarhelyi, chief of interpretation, education and visitor services for the park service.
"We know that 95 percent of our visitors come with recreation as their primary purpose," Vasarhelyi says, "but what makes the towpath different from any other flat trail is the opportunity to experience great nature, in an interesting setting surrounded by beautiful scenery."
This is a multi-purpose trail, so be alert for bicycles and horses, but it's generally wide and comfortable enough for all. The 4.3-mile stretch of the towpath that runs north from the Boston Store to the Station Road Bridge recently was named one of America's Best Family-Friendly Trails by the American Hiking Society. In this stretch of trail, visitors can see four canal locks and start their hike with a visit to the Boston Store, which now houses a canal boat exhibit.
The Towpath Trail runs through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park from Rockside Road south about 20 miles. The Boston Store is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on weekends in March and April, with extended hours in the summer. For maps and information about the hours of operation for visitor centers, contact the Cuyahoga Valley National Park at 216/524-1497 or 800/445-9667 or visit www.nps.gov/cuva.
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