Draining Ohio’s Great Black Swamp was a feat of human effort and engineering. Restoring it will be even harder.
By Ashley Stimpson
The next time someone cracks a joke about the monotony of Ohio topography, tell them about the Great Black Swamp.
A massive quagmire once seeped across the landscape of northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio, where towering oaks and sycamores loomed above murky pools of tannin-stained water—tangled, disorienting, dark. Fifteen hundred square miles of mud and mosquitos from Fort Wayne to Findlay to Toledo. “An absolute terrifying wilderness,” according to a local historian, one that swallowed horses and whole wagons.
Even the relentless pathology of westward migration was no match for the Great Black Swamp. Almost two hundred years ago, work on the first real road to traverse the swamp was completed. The Maumee and Western Reserve Road connected Lower Sandusky to Perrysburg, at least for a while. The stagecoach line soon became known as “Mud Pike,” and earned a reputation for being the “worst road on the continent,” where shrewd locals set up taverns every mile to take advantage of the endless stream of stranded travelers. A year after it opened, the road was impassible. Railroads and canals were built and abandoned, gulped up by the muck or too expensive to maintain.
It was the Toledo War of 1835—a quick and bloodless boundary dispute between Ohio and Michigan—that eventually led to the swamp’s demise. On their way to a battle that never happened, the Ohio militia was waylaid by the mire, and the governor took note. The state poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into fixing the Maumee and Western Reserve Road, proving that with enough money, manpower, and ditches, the swamp could be tamed. In 1859, the state passed its first “Ditch Law,” and the people of Northwest Ohio got to work on bleeding the Great Black Swamp dry.
Over many years, and with many hands, they ditched the water and downed the trees—trees so wide that sometimes the stumps were hollowed out and used as hog sties. Some of the timber was shipped to Europe; a lot of it was buried in trenches beneath recently denuded fields, creating rudimentary drainage systems. Landowners soon upgraded to clay tiles, perforated pipes that lay in parallel rows across the land and quickly transported rainwater to yet another ditch at the end of the field. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Great Black Swamp was gone.
It was a feat of engineering to be sure, but its legacy has created another colossal challenge for folks in the watershed today. Without the natural filter of the Great Black Swamp, nutrient-rich runoff from the area’s farm fields now dumps directly into Lake Erie, using the thousands of miles of ditches and drainage tiles laborers once painstakingly carved into the earth. The nutrients in that runoff are responsible for an annual algal bloom in western Lake Erie so large it can be seen from space. Every summer it threatens fisheries, hampers recreation, and imperils the drinking water of half a million people. In 2014, an enormous algal bloom left the City of Toledo without potable water for three days.
Now, more than a century after the Great Black Swamp was systematically dismantled, the State of Ohio is devoting millions of dollars to bring it back.
Once you know about the bygone swamp, the landscape of Northwest Ohio begins to look different. When I visited on an early spring day, it was no longer the continuity of the landscape or the orderly rows of seedlings that stood out to me. Instead it was the flooded front yards, the retainment ponds, the miles and miles of roadside ditches, some so deep I couldn’t see the bottom from the driver’s side seat. The ghost of the Great Black Swamp seems to reach up from the ground at every turn.
The project of swamp restoration really kicked off in 2019, when the Ohio General Assembly voted to fund H2Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine’s ambitious water quality initiative to address the myriad threats to clean and safe drinking water around the state. Under the program, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency would tackle aging septic systems and lead contamination; the Department of Agriculture would educate farmers about on-field practices that contribute to water pollution; and the Department of Natural Resources would create, restore, and enhance wetlands with an initial emphasis on the Western Lake Erie Basin in Northwest Ohio.
In short, the DNR will be restoring the Great Black Swamp—or portions of it, anyway. “Nobody wants it back to its full extent,” says Christina Kuchle, Wetland Habitat Program Administrator at the ODNR. “It was a rational decision to drain it. It made life very difficult.”
But the swamp also provided ecological benefits that humans only began to appreciate once it was gone. For one thing, the swamp held a staggering amount water on the landscape. Kuchle explains that a hundred years ago, the Maumee River carried about 24,500 gallons of water per second. Today, that number has doubled. With that water comes a deluge of harmful pollutants: pesticides, fertilizers, and sewage, all of which, eventually, end up in Lake Erie. Every summer, the nitrogen and phosphorous in that run-off trigger the proliferation of thick, green algae, creating dangerous conditions for wildlife, recreation, and human health.
Restoring wetlands that can hold on to that water and sequester some of those nutrients, keeping them out of the lake, would go a long way toward reducing algal blooms. But it will take a lot of wetlands to make a difference; H2Ohio doesn’t shy away from that. The program has pledged nearly ninety million dollars to wetland restoration, a shockingly high figure, according to everyone I talked to. “There is no other experiment going on like this in the country,” Kuchle says, “it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever been involved with in my career.”
Part of Kuchle’s job is working with farmers to transform flood-prone portions of their property into wetlands in exchange for financial compensation. A farm bill program that’s been around since 2000, the Lake Erie Conservation Enhancement Program is newly popular, thanks to a $2,000-per-acre incentive offered by H2Ohio. Kuchle says that on average, between 2000 and 2018, CREP attracted about thirty landowners annually. When H2Ohio’s bonus became available in 2019, Kuchle signed up ninety-six landowners for the program that year alone. In just over two years, eleven thousand acres have been set aside for restoration. “That’s more in two years than what some of my colleagues get to work with in their entire career,” Kuchle told me. “It’s an unprecedented level of restoration.”
To get a sense of what a restored landscape could look like, I turned to Rob Krain, executive director of the Black Swamp Conservancy. BSC is a land trust, founded in 1993 by a group of locals concerned about the rate of development in rural Northwest Ohio. During its first two decades, GBSC focused mainly on preserving natural habitat and agricultural lands in twelve northwest Ohio counties. Around the time that the water went out in Toledo, the group pivoted from conservation to restoration. Today it is one of forty-three conservation partners H2Ohio is working with to oversee restoration projects, which typically involve dozens of acres and span a number of years. At these sites, GSBC removes drainage tiles, fills in ditches, and plants and maintains native trees and grasses.
I met Krain on a rainy Monday morning at the conservancy’s headquarters, an old farmhouse on a stick-straight road south of Perrysburg. Behind the property lies an eighty-acre patch of woods that Krain calls “true remnants of the historic swamp.” I followed him into the dense forest and through a carpet of white trillium, all nodding in a gentle rain. At times the ‘trail’ was just a thick rivulet of water that came dangerously close to the tops of my calf-high boots; other times it was simply sludge.
No one is suggesting transforming every acre of Northwest Ohio back to the kind Krain and I were standing on, but rather developing a more thoughtful relationship with the local ecology and investing in conservation strategies that take their cue from nature. For example, the wetland restoration arm of H2Ohio is funding the installation of riparian buffers, riverside vegetation that catches nutrients before they make it into the water. There’s also the Students Take Action Program, an initiative designed to introduce the next generation to environmental stewardship and civic engagement. Middle and high school students will practice invasive species removal and conduct water quality tests, stream monitoring, and wildlife surveys.
H2Ohio has also set aside dedicated funding—about four million dollars—to establish a wetland monitoring program called Lake Erie and Aquatic Research Network, which brings together researchers from a half-dozen Ohio universities to assess ongoing restoration and to refine future efforts. Instead of creating a wetland and hoping for the best, ODNR will work with the scientists from LEARN to understand how the restored landscape is functioning (for humans and nature alike) in the long-term.
Dr. Robert Midden, a chemistry professor at Bowling Green State University and LEARN scientist, argues the investment in the long-term is what makes H2Ohio much more than a knee-jerk reaction to a well-publicized water crisis or the loss of tourism dollars. LEARN is “unprecedented in terms of commitment of resources, breadth of scientific expertise, number of scientists, and number of projects,” he told me. “I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
Midden reports that LEARN began monitoring approximately thirty restoration sites in April 2021, and since then, about one site per week has been added to its docket. While the primary intent of wetland restoration is to reduce algal blooms, Midden says LEARN is also analyzing the ancillary benefits of restored habitat: the prevention of soil erosion, increased biodiversity, and recreation opportunities among them. “I’m excited about it scientifically, but also as a person.”
If this is beginning to sound like an advertisement for H2Ohio, I can’t help it; every scientist, state employee, and conservation professional I interviewed spoke excitedly about it, sometimes to the point of hyperbole. Each of them used the word “unprecedented.” As a science journalist and an Ohioan, it’s strange to report on such blatant, uncontroversial environmental progress. I’m sorry to have buried the lede, but here it is: you are reading good news.
Back on the day of my visit to GBSC, after about fifteen minutes of trudging through the shoe-sucking muck, Krain stopped in front of a humongous sycamore tree and pointed skyward to a busy great blue heron rookery. For a while we were quiet, watching as the gangly birds arrived with food for their recently hatched young. Standing in ankle-deep water, surveying the wet mess of vegetation around me, the only thing more unbelievable than the idea that this was what my home state once looked like, was the idea that human beings had ever managed to transform it so completely.
Later, Krain took me to Carter Farm, where a Depression-era working farm teaches field trips of kids about their agricultural heritage. Together, we walked past the old barn, past the sheep pen and the one-room schoolhouse, to see the twenty-acre wetland GBSC installed in 2019. When we got there, it was lousy with sparrows and red winged blackbirds, newly green in the spring rain.
It was an interesting juxtaposition, the land as it was versus the land as humans remade it, all contained on one ninety-acre plot of land, and it seemed to emblemize the entire project taking place across the region. In no small way, we are remaking the land again, but this time, hopefully, with room enough for both farms and floodplains, both human communities and wildlife habitat, both the Great Lakes and the Great Black Swamp alike. ■
Ashley Stimpson is freelance journalist based in Baltimore, Maryland. Read more of her work at www.ashleystimpson.com.
Cover image © David Ike Photography, courtesy Great Black Swamp Conservatory.
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