CUYAHOGA FALLS -- The city hosted a meeting at the Natatorium on June 27 to provide an update on and seek support of an effort to remove the Gorge Dam.

Speakers included an official from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency who said the process to get started on the project "takes a long time."

The meeting, which drew approximately 200 people, was hosted by Summit Metro Parks, which has established a project called Free the Falls to support the removal of the dam. Stakeholders in the project are the City of Akron, City of Cuyahoga Falls, County of Summit, First Energy, Ohio EPA, State of Ohio, Summit County Council and Summit County Metro Parks.

Built in 1911, the Gorge Dam is located on the Akron side of the Cuyahoga River near Cuyahoga Falls' South Front Street and the city limits. According to Metro Parks, the 58-foot high Gorge Dam is one of the largest unresolved water quality problems for the Cuyahoga River.

"Removing the dam and its contaminated sediment will restore the original grandeur of the gorge, creating the region's bridge to a vibrant future for the river, its watershed and its people," said Lisa King, executive director of Summit Metro Parks, who moderated the meeting.

Bill Zawiski, water quality manager for the Ohio EPA, NEO District, gave an update on efforts to remove the dam. Zawiski said there are four phases to the project: Cost estimate, engineering, sediment removal and demolition/restoration. Thus far, the first phase has been completed.

In 2015, Ohio EPA determined an estimated $70 million would be required to complete the project. The city of Akron found out last month that a local share of the project was approved through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in the amount of $750,000.

"That is our local match if we are able and successful to gain funds from the federal level," Zawiski said. Phase two, the engineering piece, can't begin until federal funding is secured. "That's where we're at," he said. "We really want to see a restored Cuyahoga River, and it's just a process that takes a long time."

Zawiski said Ohio legislators support the project. He didn't say how he believed the project was perceived at the federal level. The physical work to remove sediment, demolish the dam and restore the river would take one to two years depending on weather, he said.

History of Gorge Dam shared

Megan Shaeffer and Linda Whitman of Summit Metro Parks, talked about the history of the Gorge. Shaeffer shared the story of the Chuckery Race, which was a manmade stream intended to power a hydro generator for a proposed town called Summit City. The Chuckery Race failed, she said, because the soil was too sandy and absorbent, causing the water to flow too slowly to power anything.

On the race's name, Shaeffer said it came from John Nash's description of the Gorge in 1892: "Population 10,000; one man and 9,999 woodchucks."

Whitman told the audience about Big Falls Hotel and the tendency of people to walk down into the Gorge attired in their Sunday best in the 1900s. The Big Falls Hotel was owned and operated by a couple named Fosdick who were known for the chicken dinners. "At that time, most hotels were used as restaurants," Whitman said.

At that time, Mary Campbell's Cave was called Old Maid's Kitchen and it is believed visitors could have Mrs. Fosdick's chicken dinners delivered to the cave, Whitman said, later noting in her presentation a survey of the area did not turn up any chicken bones.

Big Falls Hotel burned down in 1913 and was not rebuilt, she said. The Gorge Dam, however, lasted longer. In 1929, Gorge land was leased to what is now Summit Metro Parks, according to a fact sheet provided by Metro Parks. Rights to operate the dam were retained by Northern Traction and Light (a predecessor of First Energy). The dam was used to produce both hydroelectric power and coal-fired steam power.

Hydro operations ceased in 1958, according to the fact sheet, and the coal-fired plant closed in 1991. The plant was razed in 2009.

Zawiski urged people in favor of the project to write letters of support. Any business, organization or individual interested in writing such a letter may contact Elaine Marsh, watershed specialist for Summit Metro Parks, at 330-328-3909 or emarsh@summitmetroparks.org. Marsh has a support letter template she can share.

Email: swiandt@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9420

Twitter: @SteveWiandt_RPC