You might be surprised to know that much of Northwest Ohio was largely under water until the 1900s. Fourteen thousand years ago, this area was flattened under glacial ice, then covered by a glacial lake and filled up with rich clay sedimentation and beach moraines (you can still walk on what remains of those ancient lake beaches at the sandy prairies of Oak Openings!). It eventually became a watery landscape of densely forested swamp that stretched nearly 1 million acres from Ohio into Indiana, an area known as the Great Black Swamp.
Pioneers could only move one mile a day through the thick mud and darkness. While it was viewed as a terror and nuisance for humans trying to settle the region, the swamp was actually a diverse set of wet meadows, tall forests and dense bushes filled with now-rare flora and fauna such as boars, bobcats, bison, black bears, wolves and elk. The Lake Erie tributaries had also been rich spawning grounds for lake sturgeon, Great Lakes muskellunge and northern pike. Unfortunately, the natural habitat and its original wildlife were all deeply impacted by the industrializing forces of human settlement that flooded in through the late 1800s.
When the Ohio Legislature passed the 1859 Ditch law, counties began to install ditches to systematically drain the swamp for its rich soil. Early industrialists dug up the clay that lay beneath the waters and fell forest trees to fire up hundreds of drainage tile factories that sprung up nearly overnight throughout the area. These efforts effectively eliminated all traces of the swamp within a swift fifty years. By the 1900s, Northwest Ohio proudly took on its new identity as one of the richest, most fertile lands in the country. But as we’re still learning, there would be real consequences to the destruction of Northwest Ohio’s swampy past.
This series is brought to you in part by the First Solar Corporate Charitable Fund of the Great Toledo Community Foundation. As a recipient of their Civic Engagement and Environmental Impact Grant, Midstory engages in research and storytelling initiatives that deliver vital information, statistics and narratives on timely issues, such as the water crisis.