COLUMNS

As It Were: Scioto River flows toward former glory

ED LENTZ
The confluence of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers in downtown Columbus is seen looking southeast in a 1908 photo.

The Scioto River has been getting some attention in the past few years.

The river, as it passes through downtown Columbus, has been returned to its earlier width and has been attractively furnished to become the Scioto Mile.

In addition, work to renovate or remove check dams along the Scioto and Olentangy rivers has improved the flow of both rivers.

The Scioto River looks much better. Work on the river is not done, but a lot of positive accomplishments have taken place.

It took a while, but the result was worth the wait.

A person standing on the Broad Street bridge about 100 years ago would have seen a far different river.

The bridge itself was handsome because it was new. Every bridge in downtown Columbus, with one exception, had been washed away in the Great Flood of 1913. Only the cast-iron railroad bridge near the forks of the Scioto -- intentionally weighted down with loaded railroad cars -- had survived. And in an extended form, it still does.

With the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the devastation of the flood was addressed. The river was widened, a large levee was built on the west bank and a high retaining wall on the east bank soon would be home to a civic center for Columbus.

The river itself looked a little better, but it still was dirty, and one needed a resilient nose to survive the smell of what a lot of factories upriver had added to the mix.

But it was a decided improvement from the nightmare the river had become in the industrial surge of the city after the Civil War.

A pioneer or Native American resident able to see what their river had become in the first century of the city's history would not have been amused. This was not the river they once had known.

But before we tell the story, an etymology lesson:

A local often can deduce if someone is a newcomer to central Ohio by the way he or she butchers the pronunciation of the rivers passing through town. The major river is not the "sKEET-o." It is the "sigh-O-toe," a name that can be translated loosely as "river of deer," from the Shawnee people who lived along its length.

The other major river is not "tangy," like a lemon. It's said "ol-en-TAN-jee" and means "river of red paint," as it was renamed in the 1830s. The original name of the river was translated to mean "whetstone," and that is a name that survives today, elsewhere in Columbus.

When settlers from the east came to Ohio after the American Revolution, many of them could not believe what they found. Unlike New England, whose main crop often seemed to be rocks of all sizes, the Ohio Country had topsoil up to 5 feet deep. Unlike the middle Atlantic states, whose forests and fields had been leveled for years, Ohio was a place of pristine prairies and seemingly endless old-growth forests of massive trees teeming with game.

Through the center of what is now Ohio flowed the Scioto River.

In the 1890s, S.P. McElvain remembered what it was like to be a child in frontier Franklinton. The river, he said, was deeper than it is now.

Another early resident noted that the water in it was never less than 3 or 4 feet deep. Yet another elder recalled those days: "I have seen the keelboats which navigated it moored near the Broad Street Bridge."

Then there were the broadhorns -- gigantic rafts 50 feet wide by 100 feet long and steered by an oar at the rear of the boat. Many of the broadhorns built here were floated to New Orleans with cargoes of produce, then taken apart and sold for the value of the lumber.

As the 1800s were ending, a local writer tried to describe what that original river was like:

"Fed as it was by the primitive springs and from the marsh-reservoirs of the forests, we may well believe that the current of the Scioto was at that time copious and clear.

"No dams obstructed it; no sewage or factory offal polluted its waters. Through the great silent wilderness, it meandered; overhung and shadowed by the giant buttonwood; smooth here, rippled there, fretted at intervals by sportive waterfowl, and mottled by the reflected blue and green of sky, tree and meadow.

"Such was the Scioto when, nourished and screened as a child of the forest, civilization had not yet chopped away the trees which protected it sources, made a ditch of its channel, or exposed its shrinking current to the blaze of the unpitying sun."

The Scioto -- in all its forms -- was, is and always will be a great river.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.