Upriver on the Mahoning, Trumbull County residents say hands off our dam
The Mahoning River looks different in rural Trumbull County. In Mahoning County, people built mills on the riverbank. Here, they built houses.
On a 3.7-mile stretch between county metroparks, the river still flows north before turning south toward Youngstown. Some homeowners appear to be co-existing peacefully with the river, but it has waged war on others, even commandeering docks and boats. Some of the houses look dangerously close to the bank.
The river can rise quickly here, and “it likes to rearrange the trees,” said Zachary Svette, Trumbull County MetroParks executive director.
“In the spring and the fall and during heavy rain events, we go from 3 feet to 10 feet,” he said. “I’ve been here when it’s been almost 17.”
Navigating the fallen trees is a fun challenge the first time I kayak this stretch in September 2021. The water is calm and almost black. Tangles of seaweed wrap themselves around my paddles.
I’m only on the water for a few minutes before I see a handwritten sign nailed to a tree.
“Friends of the Mahoning, You are no longer welcome here. You want the dam GONE. We want YOU GONE. DON’T COMEBACK.”
For the first time, I feel unwelcome on the river.
Unlike where I grew up in Mahoning County, Leavittsburg residents feel a deep connection to the river. They’ve lived near it or played on it for generations.
In the early 1900s, across from what’s now Canoe City MetroPark, Mahoning Park was one of the biggest businesses in the city. It had rides, a penny arcade, and food stands selling hot waffles, candy and peanuts. There were regattas and swim meets. Visitors spending the summer there could rent cottages near the park — it followed the river for about three-quarters of a mile.
To get around, visitors could take a water taxi or rent row boats or canoes. Swimmers could visit the bathhouse to clean up before heading to the dance hall.
A dam built in the early 1900s creates the deep pool of calm water here. Mahoning Park may be gone, but it’s still great for fishing. And it’s the only place along the river where people can enjoy pontoon boats.
Now, those trying to restore the river say the dam in Leavittsburg should go — and the dam’s owner, the Trumbull County MetroParks, agrees. But residents want it to stay, and they’re angry with those who want to demolish it.
“Yeah, we noticed the signs when we first moved here, and we’ve been here for five years,” said Julia Shutt, a Leavittsburg resident who lives at the edge of where the rust-colored waters of Chocolate Run Creek flow into the Mahoning River.
“And basically there’s a tension between the people that want the dam to stay and the people that don’t,” she continued. “The people that don’t are the river paddling groups, the kayaking clubs, etc. … They’re expressing their opinion about what’s happening. I think it’s a way to vent. But it’s also a helpless feeling because clearly, I do believe it’s going to happen, and it’s out of our control.”
Shutt, a landscape designer, and her husband, Byron, an architect, grow organic vegetables on their nearly 5-acre property. There’s something interesting everywhere you look: a natural pool next to a patio with an outside bathtub, benches crafted from stone, rocking chairs overlooking the river. While we’re walking the property, I nearly step on a frog.
“We’ve decided it’s almost like living in a Disney film,” she said. “There’s so much wildlife. We have red-shouldered hawks. We have like six different types of woodpeckers, five or six different types of ducks that migrate through or hang out. We have bald eagles, river otters, beavers, mink, gophers, fox...”
There are really two dams in Leavittsburg, but only one is visible. It was once used to create hydroelectric power, but it doesn’t serve any purpose now. It just impedes water flow and poses a danger to paddlers. That’s why it’s one of the dams the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments would like removed as part of its river restoration project.
While demolishing a dam could mean more economic development in places like Warren and Youngstown, Warren Township Trustee Edward Anthony said Leavittsburg doesn’t have anywhere to develop along its flat, residential floodplain.
“So, the big question from all of us is, so why are you doing it if our waters never been cleaner?” Anthony said. “The wildlife has never been stronger. The fishing has never been better. And we're not going to get any development on this. … How is this going to benefit us at all, and our residents? ... No one, nobody, whether it's Eastgate, whether it's Trumbull Metro, whether it's anyone has given me an answer to that, and I’ve attended like 16-18 meetings.”
After months of public discussion, in April of last year, the MetroParks board voted to take the steps necessary to remove the dam.
“My board is ultimately responsible just for the dam and the safety of the folks using the park,” Svette said. “While there’s a lot of stuff on the periphery that we’re aware of but, ultimately, my board has to focus on what their responsibilities are, and they made that decision on removing the dam and going after the grant funds.”
The dam is the biggest liability to the MetroParks, costing about $1,000 in insurance out of its $120,000 budget. In January, the board learned they’d been awarded $3.2 million to remove the dam from a fund administered by the Ohio EPA, the same fund that helped pay for dam removal in Struthers and Lowellville.
When the dam comes out, the water level will drop. Anthony says it might be only six or eight inches deep in some spots. That means what’s been underwater all these years will become visible from the backyards of the 400 homes along the river.
“We know from a cleanup they did years and years ago that they had appliances down there,” he said. “We know they're down there. There's probably the same thing that they incurred years ago, which was washers, dryers. They found a car. So, there is a lot of debris that is down there.”
Who’s going to clean up the mess? Svette said it will be the responsibility of the property owners — many of whom don’t want the dam to come down in the first place. And to them, something else stinks about this plan.
There are pipes draining raw sewage directly into the river. Right now, the water level is too high to see them. The county is under a consent decree to provide sanitary sewer service to the area. But it’s a big job, and the dam could come down first. The person in charge of bringing sanitary sewer to the area is Trumbull County Sanitary Engineer Gary Newbrough.
“I've been in touch with Trumbull County MetroParks, and I let them know my schedule, and it is my intent to get the sewer project in as soon as possible, so that we won't have a problem with the dam coming out before sanitary sewer service is available,” he said. “But I can't guarantee I'm going to have all that sewer in by this exact date. There are just too many variables out there right now. All I can do is give them my best estimate.”
Newbrough said his office could put extensions on the pipes, so they won’t be seen. But many residents aren’t satisfied with that. Executive director Svette said there’s still a lot of negativity out there.
“I think the acceptance and you know, moving forward will come after the dam is removed, and after they see that there's still going to be water flowing through the river,” he says. “It's very hard, especially around here for folks, is the change.”
Homeowner Julia Shutt doesn’t seem to fear change. She said she can imagine the dam removal being a good thing ultimately, opening up the area to more recreation and business associated with that. She works with the river on the Disney film-like flood plain where she lives, and she can work with those taking the dam too, as long as certain conditions are met.
“I want to make sure that what's exposed is taken care of properly and responsibly,” she said. “And I don't want to have to do it all myself. I want the people that are involved in this removal, to take responsibility for what they exposed to us, the happy homeowners of Leavittsburg and Warren Township.”
There’s still time to figure out what happens after the dam comes down. Svette said the district is still looking for a sponsor for the project, and the design work hasn’t yet begun.
Dam removal will not start before early 2024.
This summer I go back to Leavittsburg to kayak the stretch between metroparks. The signs are still there, but they’ve faded, like many residents’ will to fight the dam removal. As a paddler, I am glad the river will run freer and faster when the dam comes down. But I’m also from the Mahoning Valley, so I know what some call progress others call loss.
I’m OK with not feeling welcome here.
This project was possible because support from The Research Council of Kent State University.