One thing I’ve noticed in conversations about Youngstown is that, at least in my experience, we rarely talk about the Mahoning River. And yet the Mahoning is a defining feature of the city and surrounding area. The city literally grew up along the River and extended outward from it. The steel industry would not have existed without it. And it lent its name to the region around Youngstown, referred to as the Mahoning Valley, and indeed to the county of which Youngstown is county seat, Mahoning County.
According to this website, the name is an Indian name meaning “salt licks’. The river arises near the Stark and Columbiana County border close to the town of Winona and follows a northeasterly course up to Warren, Ohio, and then flows southeast from Warren through the heart of Youngstown and then on into Pennsylvania where it joins the Shenango River to form the Beaver River which flows into the Ohio River northwest of Pittsburgh. It is approximately 113 miles in length, the first half of it in rural areas, the latter part flowing through industrial areas.
After floods in 1913 that inundated the parts of Youngstown along the river including the mills, a series of dams were built upstream creating Berlin Lake and Lake Milton, recreational lakes west of the city. Additional lowhead dams were built along the river as well to help control the flow of the river.
Much of the story of the Mahoning River we grew up with was connected with industry providing both water supply and waste disposal for the steel industry. My wife recounts going over the Mahoning on her bus to elementary school and watching greenish wastes pour directly into the river and watching the river bubbling. We used to joke that you wouldn’t dare wade in the river because you would dissolve. It was considered one of the hottest and most polluted rivers in the country and alternately ridiculed and held up as an example of industrial pollution as the environmental movement gained steam. The only thing it didn’t do was catch fire, as did the Cuyahoga in nearby Cleveland. We had a lot of sympathy for our Cleveland neighbors!
Youngstowners resented much of this national attention and, until 1977, people in the city by and large stood with the steel companies in resisting EPA efforts to control wastes flowing into the river and to clean up the river. Such efforts meant increased costs and threatened jobs. That’s how the river had been used for generations and it was as if we collectively agreed to write off the lower half of the Mahoning River to industry. Anyone who thought otherwise was labelled an “environmental crazy” or worse.
My sense is that the thinking is changing. There is now a Mahoning River Fest to call attention to the beauty of the river, taking people for boat rides on the river. The river has begun to come to life, although still polluted with toxic wastes in the form of heavy metals in the riverbed, particularly concentrated behind the lowhead dams. Discussions have been under way with the Army Corp of Engineers about the best ways to remediate the pollution through some combination of removing the lowhead dams and dredging, both which will also aid the river flow and help it cleanse itself. Regional planners have argued that the benefits of cleaning up the river far outweigh the costs but neither the funding nor a plan have been settled upon. And so it is the case that the Ohio Department of Health continues to advise no wading (maybe our jokes weren’t completely off base) and no eating of fish from the river. And no one would think of using it for drinking water (except that it does flow into rivers that do provide drinking water for people downstream).
The need for continued vigilance remains. In March of this year, the owner of a fracking company plead guilty to dumping toxic wastes into a tributary of the Mahoning River. The fracking industry has moved into eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania in a big way and without a clear determination to clean up and preserve a river healthy for wildlife and people, the Mahoning’s story could be repeated. My hope is that we will learn from our working class history and not let another big industry pollute this precious resource and leave another mess that yet a future generation will need to clean up.