Historical Hikes in Northeast Ohio

Historical Hikes in Northeast Ohio by Diane Stresing
Author of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Cleveland

Cleveland Hiking: 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Cleveland
Take a Walk on the Historical Side  in Northeast Ohio

I know, announcing that you’re going to visit an Ohio historical site is an almost sure way to elicit groans from your traveling companions. I say, ignore the groans and skip the announcement. The cool thing about history is that it’s everywhere. And when they’re walking through it, your fellow travelers will have much more fun than they did in history class.

Here are some spots in Northeast Ohio where you can discover remarkable stories from our state’s past.

Underground Railroad Sites in Ashtabula County

Ashtabula, in the northeastern corner of our state, is small and easy to overlook. Perhaps that’s why it appealed to so many runaway slaves.  A very busy stop on the Underground Railroad, Ashtabula had least 30 known stations, several of which still stand proudly in town. Austinburg was an equally busy place in the 1830s. Sycamore Hall, built in 1810, was a safe haven for dozens of fleeing slaves, many of whom spent some uneasy time in a secret compartment there eluding bounty hunters and angry owners. More recently, the expansive home on College Street has nurtured other living things, having been transformed into a garden and nursery center.

You can drive around and get a good look at things, but it’s better to get out and investigate the sites on foot. Imagine yourself running, literally, for your life, under cover of darkness, probably hungry and certainly terrified. Countless folks who darted through this corner of the state didn’t know how far they’d get, or how long they’d have to go to reach Canada and Freedom. To get there, they had to trust strangers who were also risking their lives to help them. Betsy Cowles was one such resident who stood up and still stands out as one of those not-so well behaved women who made history, in Ohio.

After graduating from Oberlin College, Mrs. Cowles returned to Austinburg, where she served as the first female dean at Grand River Institute. Later she became one of Ohio’s first public school superintendents. She was nationally known for her public presentations against slavery and discriminatory laws, at a time when women were supposed to shy away from public speaking. The anything but shy and retiring woman is interred – along with several other members of the family – at Austinburg Center Cemetery. Many other abolitionists are buried at nearby Austin Ellsworth Ryder Cemetery.

You can stroll through town and gain an appreciation for the risks undertaken by so many for the sake of freedom, or bring your bike or hiking shoes, and walk or roll along the 40+-maile long Western Reserve Greenway Trail, to enjoy what runaway slaves could not: a chance to stop, relax, and enjoy the view.

From Canals and Rails to Sears & Roebucks

Prefer to take a structural approach to history? Visit Peninsula in Summit County, where you can marvel at Locks 28 and 29 along the old Ohio & Erie Canal. Packed with antique and art shops today, Peninsula was settled during the short-lived canal era. It’s a picturesque place for a stroll, but stepping off the sidewalk and venturing down Riverview Road a few blocks takes you much deeper into the past.  The remains of the quarry where much of the sandstone that built the canal – and a fair portion of the town – was dug, Deep Lock Quarry is now one of the Metroparks Serving Summit County. As you stand on the rock relics, consider how much you’d charge to haul them and hew them into a transportation corridor. More than 30 cents and a jigger of whiskey a day? That’s what canal workers earned for their efforts in 1825.

When trains outpaced canal boats, most visitors and goods arrived by rail – and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad still chugs through today. Imagine if you’d stepped off the train in the early 1900s, when a handful of Sears & Roebuck kit homes were being erected. The Vellonia model, like the one located at 1749 Main Street, cost $2,076 in 1926. A good investment, to be sure, but a steep price based on wages at the time.

Early Settlers Held Captive

Southeast of Peninsula, visitors can get a glimpse into Ohio life during the French and Indian War. When a tribe of Delaware Indians took two women captive in 1758 and forced them to walk from Pennsylvania to the banks of the Cuyahoga River, they settled for a time near what is now Cuyahoga Falls. Mary Campbell, just 10 when she was captured, lived with the tribe until the end of the war in 1763. Trod along Gorge Trail in any season and consider the shelter she and the tribe called home for five years: a shallow cave, now marked with a plaque bearing her name. Ohio author Lynda Durrant added vivid detail to Campbell’s tale, bringing the story to life in the book Beaded Moccasins.

Lake View Cemetery & Little Italy

All cemeteries are full of stories, but few are spun as skillfully as those you’ll find at “Cleveland’s Outdoor Museum and Arboretum.” In addition to being the resting place of many famous northeast Ohio residents (including President James A. Garfield) the grounds at Lake View are a work of art and a living testament to countless immigrants. Situated between University Circle and Little Italy, the cemetery was modeled after the great garden cemeteries of Victorian England and France.  In the late 1800s, many emigrating stonecutters and gardeners found employment at the new cemetery. After a walking tour in the cemetery, stroll through Little Italy to see the neighborhood they built and stop into one of the area’s many quaint eateries.

Wherever you travel, I encourage you to wander down almost any road, path, rail trail or canalway with the expectation that you will discover a fascinating piece of history. In Ohio, I can assure you of two things: you won’t be disappointed, and it’ll be way better than history class.

About the author:

Diane Stresing is the author of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Cleveland. She lives in Kent with her husband and children, who have grown weary of her dropping Ohio history tidbits and nature trivia into darned near every dinner conversation.

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