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For nearly 100 years, the Mahoning River was the dumping ground for the steel mills. But in the decades since the mills closed, the river has been recovering. Now people want to connect the river to the communities through which it flows. Can the river now help them remake the Mahoning Valley into a great place to live? The five stories in our series give you an idea of what's possible. Got an idea for further reporting? Please email us.

Trailblazers show what's possible when it comes to restoring the Mahoning River

Chuck Miller stands for a photo by the Mahoning River near Downtown Youngstown.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Chuck Miller stands for a photo near the Mahoning River in Youngstown. When Miller first started kayaking the river in 2008, it was full of obstructions. He and a few friends have helped clear passages for fellow paddlers and hung signs to let them know when they were approaching a dam.

Like many Northeast Ohio rivers, the Mahoning has an industrial legacy. It was once deemed too polluted for human contact. But when the steel mills began closingin the 1970’s, the river started restoring itself. Now some trailblazers are working to reconnect the people of the Mahoning Valley with their river.

When it comes to having fun on the Mahoning River, I’m late to the party.

Despite the river’s reputation for having been one of the country’s most polluted, people have been fishing and paddling it for years. Members of Facebook groups share pictures and videos. Fishermen try to catch sport fish like bass and muskie near the fast-moving water near dams and rapids. There’s even a riverfest every summer.

I wonder how the river went from toxic to trendy.

People tell me it started with Chuck Miller.

Chuck Miller ... with dog ...
Jacqueline Marino
For Ideastream Public Media
Chuck Miller relaxes while paddling with his dog Indy on the Mahoning River.

“I started kayaking the Mahoning River in 2008,” Miller tells me. “I bought a kayak off of a lady sight unseen. And then a buddy of mine got into it as well. We come to find out kayaking is inexpensive, requires very little maintenance and presents an opportunity for a lot of fun. And then having the river in your backyard is even better.”

Miller’s actual backyard – and his front yard – in Boardman are decorated with things he found in and around the river. Among the shrubs out front, there’s an ornate wheel and a thick metal gear. Out back, he’s turned an industrial-looking bucket into a planter. A huge tree is growing out of it.

The best thing he found? Horseshoes.

“Going into Struthers, the dam on the left, [I found] two horseshoes where they must have used draft horses when they built the mill way back when,” he said.

Miller is almost 56. He’s run 10 marathons and still tracks about 5 miles a day at the gym. He makes a 45-pound kayak look as light as balsa wood.

Miller works in maintenance at the post office, and he sees what needs fixed on the river. On the stretches I paddle with him from Girard to Lowellville near the Pennsylvania border, there isn’t much to deter a determined paddler. Not anymore.

But when Miller first started kayaking the river in 2008, it was full of obstructions. There were several dangerous dams and difficult portages, as well as many logjams along the old railroad trestles. With a chainsaw, a few friends and a piece of equipment used to haul heavy things that he calls a “lean-to,” Miller helped clear passages for fellow paddlers and hung signs to let them know when they were approaching a dam.

Miller also makes the portage areas more accessible. For one trip, we meet at the West Avenue dock in Youngstown. He tells me he cuts the grass here sometimes. He also made a step below the dock, so it’s easier to lift kayaks out of the water.

His friend made the sign noting how far Lowellville, Girard and Struthers are from this dock (9 miles, 5.5 miles and 4.9 miles on the water, respectively). That’s above another sign warning, “Law enforcement gun range in the area. Gunshots may be heard. Thank you.” The lower part of the sign is covered in red graffiti.

Jacqueline Marino
For Ideastream Public Media
Water flows over the Crescent Street dam in Youngstown.

Low-head dams, the kind the mills used to use, are the biggest danger on the river. They’re only a few feet high, so it’s hard to see them. And you may not hear them until it’s too late. One woman was seriously injured when she accidentally went over the Summit Street dam in Warren in 2020. Warren’s City Council has since voted to remove the dam as part of a regional river-restoration effort.

Paddlers should portage around dams on land and then stay far away from them on the other side. Or they could get trapped. This happened to a woman who was in a group Miller was taking down the river.

“I told her to go play until we get everybody else down the hill, because it was a pretty aggressive portage,” he said. “And then she got up to it too close to and got sucked in from below, like a hand reached out and grabbed her. … She had two life jackets, she kept going down there. Luckily, there was an air-filled tire that was stuck in a corner. She was able to get a hold of that to keep her up until I was able to paddle up to her.”

With two fewer dams, the river has become safer. Miller has been there for many of its big events, from rescues to a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a new dock. He’s taken several journalists down the Mahoning River, and he manages a 1,400-member Facebook group devoted to it.

Miller shows me the Mahoning with the same familiarity he showed me around his yard. He points out old water intakes for the mills that used to line the banks, letting me know which rail lines above our heads are abandoned and which are still in use. He knows how things look in the winter – he kayaks all year round. Sometimes he waits until winter to do his maintenance when it’s quieter and there’s no poison ivy.

Miller speaks fast, covering a variety of topics in quick, opinionated bursts, but he looks relaxed on the river. When he’s not paddling, he often crosses his ankles and makes the side of his boat into a footrest, while his basset hound Indy lies on a cushion in front of him, her grey head and ears facing forward.

During our second trip, Miller wants to show me what’s become of the area where the Struthers dam used to be. He, I and Indy get out of the kayaks and climb the hill near a retaining wall. The five huge concrete piers that once supported a coal trestle have been demolished, and thousands of feet of contaminated sediment dredged. Miller directs my attention to the rocks that have been scattered along the river to cause rapids, making this stretch more fun for paddlers and more habitable for fish.

Miller looks happy, like he’s discovering the Mahoning River all over again.

A chute Chuck Miller helped create for paddlers to bypass a dam in the Mahoning River is seen from Marshall Street in Downtown Youngstown.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
A chute Chuck Miller and friends created for paddlers to bypass what remains of the Marshall Street dam on the Mahoning River in Downtown Youngstown.

The dams in Struthers and Lowellville have been the first of nine slated for removal as part of Eastgate’s river restoration effort. And that has attracted a new river pioneer, the entrepreneur.

Vickie Davanzo is the owner and director of Mahoning Paddle and Pedal, a bike-canoe-and-kayak rental business that opened in 2020. She moved to the area in 2017 to help her aging parents and found a local kayaking group on Facebook. The first time she went out, she was amazed at how beautiful the valley looked from the river.

“A lot of folks just don't understand the Mahoning River,” she said. “They're still thinking of the mindset when the steel mills used it. And they used to tell outrageous stories about how the fish in it had three eyes. If you put your hand in it, it would take the skin off, and things glowed green. And stay away from the river, stay away from the water – and for good reason because it was being used for another purpose. So, it was very well hidden, which is also what makes it a gem.”

Vickie Davanzo is the owner and director of Mahoning Paddle and Pedal, a bike-canoe-and-kayak rental business.
Jacqueline Marino
For Ideastream Public Media
Vickie Davanzo is the owner and director of Mahoning Paddle and Pedal, a bike-canoe-and-kayak rental business.

Davanzo was working for the city of Youngstown at the time, in economic development. She tried to get people interested in turning one of the city’s old industrial buildings near the river into a kayak-and-bike service.

“I kept pitching it and pitching it and nobody was picking up on it,” she said. “And I'm like, wait a minute, I can make some money off of this.”

My kayak trip with Davanzo is more leisurely than the ones I took with Miller – we slow down to look for eagles and sometimes stop paddling to just enjoy the scenery. But, like Miller, she’s always looking for ways to do a little maintenance. On this trip, she frees a fishing line from a tree. To encourage her clients to help clean up the river, too, she and her business partner, Dave Kuzma, who serves as Paddle & Pedal’s president, provide an incentive in the form of a little drawstring sack.

“If you fill it up with trash, we'll give you $5 off of your next float,” she said.

Although business has picked up for Paddle & Pedal, there isn’t a ton of money to be made on recreation on the river just yet – or maybe ever. Like Chuck Miller, Davanzo’s connection to the river is personal. She came to it after being treated for leukemia. Even though she was still so weak from the chemo that she couldn’t lift her kayak, friends helped her get in and out of the water.

“When I got on the water, it was like yoga,” she said. “It took away so much stress. It was so beautiful. It was so picturesque. And I said I need more and more of this.”

Helping people enjoy the river is a mission as much as it’s a business for her.

“The river has just done so much for me,” she said. “I am paddling my way to strength, and I can carry my own kayak. … It [the river] is giving a lot of more life back to me. It really is.”

This project was possible because of support from The Research Council of Kent State University.

Jacqueline Marino is a journalist, editor and professor of journalism at Kent State University. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Cleveland Magazine, and the literary journal River Teeth, among other publications.