Northeast Ohio has great parks. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the State of Ohio has let them stay open with the view that walking, hiking, running, and biking in parks and greenspace are essential. The importance of parks isn’t a new idea. It is baked into the history of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

The story of recreation in the Cuyahoga Valley is linked to the relationship between the valley and nearby cities. When Congress established CVNP as a recreation area in 1974, it noted that the park provides, "needed recreational open space necessary for the urban environment." Interest in the valley for recreation grew during the century leading up to 1974.

After the Civil War, Cleveland and Akron became major industrial cities, changing working and living conditions.

People began to seek places in the countryside, including the Cuyahoga Valley, to enjoy natural beauty and outdoor recreation. This article shares stories of recreation in the valley across time, connecting places frequented in the past with locations that you can visit today.

Ohio & Erie Canal. The canal opened through the Cuyahoga Valley in 1827. Canal boats carried freight and passengers, and later offered leisure opportunities.

Reverend George Parkin Atwater described an 1890s July 4th canal boat ride: "We would gather at lock fourteen [in Akron]…. We would usually start north, up the Cuyahoga Valley. It was a delightful journey. The boat was spacious and deliberate. If one tired of the deck he could step ashore at one of the many locks and walk the tow path."

Canal boats no longer float through the valley, but the Towpath Trail provides a long-distance path for bicyclists, walkers, runners, and people with strollers and wheelchairs.

Akron, Bedford & Cleveland Railroad. In 1895, this interurban rail line opened along the eastern edge of the valley. It brought visitors to Brandywine Falls and Boston Ledges.

The Great Arch at Boston Ledges became a popular picnic area and site of revival shows. It was destroyed by later railroad construction. Today, remnants of the Boston Ledges are found along the Summit Metro Park’s Bike & Hike Trail north of State Route 303.

Local farms. The 1800s valley economy revolved around farming, and some farmers took on boarders from the cities. Farmer Eugene Cranz journaled about his experiences. In 1885, he wrote, "A lot of us valley folks and boarders went over to the Boston Ledges and [had] a kind of picnic. Stopped in Peninsula about an hour while it rained. Got some plants to press." Today, valley farmers grow local foods and offer on-farm opportunities for visitors.

Marshall Estate. Some farmers sold their property to wealthy businessmen seeking valley retreats. Wentworth Marshall, who owned a chain of drug stores, purchased 1,000 acres in Sagamore Hills. He developed carriage trails, now used by the Old Carriage Trail. This trail loops from the Towpath Trail between Red Lock and Station Road Bridge trailheads.

Brecksville and Bedford reservations. In 1911, the Ohio General Assembly passed the County Park Commission Act, a first-of-its-kind act in the United States. It allowed for the creation of park agencies between the level of city and state government. In 1917, Cleveland Metroparks became Ohio’s first park district. Its Brecksville and Bedford reservations are within the boundaries of CVNP.

Virginia Kendall Park. Hayward Kendall, a coal industrialist from Cleveland, purchased the Ritchie farm as country estate. He donated the property to the state in 1927. As Virginia Kendall State Park, it was managed by Summit Metro Parks before becoming part of CVNP. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps developed the park. Members of Camp 576 planted trees, constructed buildings and trails, created play fields, and built a lake for summer and winter recreation.

Happy Days Camp. In the first half of the 1900s, people built many youth camps in the valley, recognizing time in the countryside as an idyllic part of childhood. Happy Days Camp, which had been established in 1931 to serve low-income children from Akron, moved into a Civilian Conservation Corps-constructed building in 1939. This building is now known as Happy Days Lodge and is used by the park’s friends group, the Conservancy for CVNP, as an events space.

Oak Hill Day Use Area. After CVNP opened, the National Park Service added recreational amenities to the valley. Some former farms became day-use areas with trail systems that wander past farm ponds and through fields that have grown into forest. Oak Hill Day Use Area is one example.

The parks that we enjoy today are the legacy of community leaders who saw outdoor recreation as a vital component of community life. Let’s tip our hats to them. Let’s also take a moment to appreciate the people who work for park agencies and supporting non-profit partners today. The ones mentioned in this article — the National Park Service, Cleveland Metroparks, Summit Metro Parks, and Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park — are among many organizations that make park experiences possible during a time when parks are needed more than ever.

Even though visitation is high, revenue is down and our work is more challenging than ever. This article is my thank you to my colleagues.

Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.