Central Ohio – Rivers Run Through It

Listen to the Story

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The story of Columbus is the story of a city and its rivers. It has always been about the rivers.

People have been living in central Ohio for more than 10,000 years. And for most of those years, some of them have always lived close to the rivers. It was to the rivers that the animals came – to drink and to frolic as well. Scioto is a Native American word which has been loosely translated to mean “Deer River”. It was to the river that the deer came by the hundreds in molting season and left enough of their hair to cover the stream and give it the nickname “hairy river” as well.

The Olentangy River is a little trickier. Originally Native Americans called this river by a name which roughly meant “the river of sharpening stones.” Trappers, traders and frontiersmen coming into Ohio translated that and called the river Whetstone Creek. In fact, to the north of Columbus it is still called by that name. In the 1830′s the Ohio General Assembly had an apparent bit of remorse at having removed most Native Americans from the state. To better remember the people they had evicted, the Assembly decided to return many Ohio streams to their Indian names.

However, when Whetstone Creek was considered it was rapidly discovered that its original name was virtually unpronounceable by many people. The legislature solved the problem by giving Whetstone Creek the name of a stream to the south of town called the Olentangy. What once had been the Olentangy became Big Darby Creek. All of this is well and good except Olentangy does not mean “Whetstone.” It means “face paint/from there”. From the clay near the creek came some of the red face paint used to adorn the native people of the area. The apparent discrepancy did not bother the legislature then – and it does not seem to have bothered them since.

When colonial settlers came into Ohio and eventually made it their own, they valued the rivers as much as the Native Americans. In addition to the large numbers of animals who lived nearby and the rich farmland in the flood plains, early settlers were also attracted by the possibility of using the rivers for transportation and trade. Pioneer settler Lucas Sullivant established the frontier community of Franklinton at the “Forks of the Scioto” in the hope that it would become a major river town. It didn’t but most of the people who had moved here stayed anyway and made the area their own. In time their judgment was affirmed when the state capital was located across the river in the new town of Columbus.

In the years between 1820 and the turn of the twentieth century factories were built along the river and a feeder branch of the Ohio and Erie Canal emptied into the river as well. The river that had lured so many people to this place for so long became little more than an open sewer. But even in these years when the river smelled awful and looked worse, people still lived near it, fished in it and even swam in it from time to time – presumably at some risk to one’s health. Then, over the course of the last several decades, the city reclaimed the river that ran through its midst. The effort began in the wake of the devastating 1913 flood that ravaged the west side and killed more than 90 people. The river was widened, slums along its banks were removed and the Columbus Civic Center began to be built. In more recent years, the Battelle Riverfront Park, walkways along the western bank of the Scioto, and most recently – the Scioto Mile project – have enhanced the quality of the river and the lives of the people who come to visit it.

If you would better know this place called central Ohio – come to the rivers. There is an old rule among people who roam the woods. If you become lost, walk until you find a stream. Follow the stream. It will lead to a river and the river will lead you home.

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