Soapdish: Mill Creek meanders from toxic channel to genuine asset in just 20 years

As springtime transitions quickly into summer, one of the more popular escapes from the sweltering, stifling city climate is the always-favorite canoe trip down one of our region’s many scenic river byways. Whether a “cabrewing” bikini-and-bro-fest or a solitary kayaking ornithology expedition, there are plenty of opportunities within a short distance for those looking to ply the waters and get “one with nature.”

Often overlooked however, yet pretty much in our immediate backyard, is the urban stream known as Mill Creek (née “Maketewa”), a 28-mile watery spine meandering through much of Cincinnati’s industrial center. 

Beginning somewhere around Liberty Township and picking up speed and tributaries as it makes its way toward the Ohio River, Mill Creek travels through 34 communities, where more than 450,000 people live within its watershed boundaries. It has existed in some form or another for over 200 years, since the first settlers arrived looking for rich, fertile riparian farmland and water to power their mills.

Until the Civil War, the Mill Creek Valley’s farms supplied the city with vegetables. Before 1873, when the city purchased it, Spring Grove Avenue followed the creek
’s path as a toll road. One hundred feet wide with paved gutters, it was one of the area’s grand promenades, lined with magnificent trees and offering one of Cincinnati’s most scenic drives.

As the city’s pork-packing business began to take over, however, the area quickly became the inevitable belching backbone of industry. And as Mill Creek essentially carved the way for the canals’, railroads and I-75’s paths through Cincinnati, it quickly became the most popular location for 19th and 20th Century industry — which ironically led to the creek’s decline.

From Jergens Soap to the stockyards to Kahn’s American Beauty Hams to P&G’s Ivorydale, all the way to General Electric and everything else in between, the arrival of 19th and 20th Century manufacturing signaled the end of Mill Creek’s bucolic past thanks to the inevitable runoff, pollution and outright dumping into the creek.

For that reason, many residents view Mill Creek in a not-exactly-favorable light, reminiscent of the concrete Terminator-friendly confines of the L.A. River, a repository for combined sewer overloads and a seemingly toxic channel of the area’s liquid and solid pollutants.

In April 1993, the Hamilton County Environmental Action Commission declared Mill Creek the worst environmental problem in Greater Cincinnati. In 1996, American Rivers listed the creek as one of the 20 most threatened waterways in North America. They revisited the next year to declare it “the most endangered urban river in North America.”  

Way before the infamous Cuyahoga River incident in Cleveland, the Mill Creek caught fire with a gasoline spill in the great flood of 1937, burning countless buildings in the process.

While this Superfund-site reputation is understandable, it’s a bit outdated. I might not encourage you to go swimming and splashing about with the kids in Mill Creek, mouths agape, but it would come as a surprise to many to discover that there is a wealth of nature and woodsy beauty to be found in this historic urban stream.

For many people, Mill Creek is — dare I say it (cliche alert!) — an undiscovered gem.

In 1995, in response to what had been a century-plus period of abuse and neglect, 17 of the 37 political jurisdictions in the watershed signed the original intergovernmental agreement on the Mill Creek’s banks. The Mill Creek Watershed Council was formed in 1995 and incorporated as a multi-jurisdictional 501(c)3 nonprofit organization to serve as a consensus-building engine among stakeholders to make the watershed a better place to live, work and play.  Since then, the Council has rallied communities and the public to facilitate informed and thoughtful use of this precious natural resource.

I recently had the opportunity to venture on a three-hour cruise along the creek with canoe guides/volunteers Greg Bechtel and Jeff Agricola, accompanied by a kayaking Jenifer Eismeier, who joined the Mill Creek Watershed Council of Communities as Executive Director in August 2011.

Now mention to someone that you’re going to canoe on Mill Creek, and theyll likely fit you for a HazMat suit. Undaunted, however, I was intrigued by the opportunity to explore this oft-abused and misunderstood regional asset.

As such, photographer Scott Beseler and I made our way north of I-275 to the Twin Creeks Preserve, a wetlands and stream reclamation project in Sharonville that the Council and partners completed in 2012 with $2.1 million in state and federal grant funding.  

See Scott Beseler's video of their Mill Creek adventure here.

Twas a cold, grey early May day when we arrived, armed with little more than a notebook and a camera. Our guides, bedecked in impressive looking waders, mud boots and river-related gear, looked at us askance as we stood there in Top Siders and shorts, clearly not “getting the memo.”  

Nevertheless, we hopped in our respective canoes at a rocky bend in the preserve and, after taking on one of the more tricky riffles 150 yards down, were safely on our way into a lush, green landscape of majestic sycamore trees, dense thickets of honeysuckle and the occasional glimpse of the modern world just outside the banks. The grey morning warmed up into a tranquil river expedition.

For the most part, other than the odd Menards sighting or the smell of Chex cereal being made at the General Mills factory or the sound of a neighboring train, civilization melted away as we made our way downstream accompanied by the occasional carp, beaver, duck, goose, gosling or deer, all of whose presence we observed in silence.

In the meantime, a dense canopy of mammoth cottonwoods and sycamores, roots entangled and exposed in the river banks like the tentacles of a freshwater kraken, towered over and enveloped us in the setting. Once in a while we floated under across bridges — some old, some new and in one space three generations of railroad bridges and trestles. The first, with tree log supports still visible and clearly the oldest, followed by a reinforced concrete bridge from the 1920s, immediately followed by the most recent version replete with train cars idling atop.

All along the way, our guides informed on relevant areas of note — “pulled a lot of tires out there … battling beavers over here ... big logjam cleaned up there” — while Eismeier was a kayak paddling font of encyclopedic and policy wonk information about the creek’s past, present and, most importantly, future. 

Suffice to say that all involved view Mill Creek as being on the upswing, an asset to be improved and enhanced, not a disgrace to be ignored and hidden. It is no longer “out of sight out of mind” and, with continued awareness and improvements, can be turned into a genuine asset for our entire region. Businesses could locate on it, bars and restaurants with decks looking out as opposed to turning their back on it for centuries.

Our trip concluded with the traditional pitcher or two of PBR at the Pike Bar & Grill a stone’s throw from the West Fork Creek, where we met with other Watershed Council staffers and debriefed our trip. We also had the good fortune to participate in an enthusiastic induction into the Mill Creek Yacht Club by self-annointed “Commodore” Bruce Koehler, who showed up with a cache of old maps and other information for my detailed perusal.

For those looking to check out and/or get involved with Mill Creek, the Yacht Club hosts its first Public Urban Stream Adventure of the season this Saturday, May 28. The three-hour canoe trip departs from Twin Creeks Preserve, the same as we did, at 9:30 a.m. and ends with celebratory beverages at the Pike.

The Yacht Club
provides the canoes, paddles and personal flotation devices, while you’re responsible for dressing appropriately for the weather, wearing closed-toed shoes and bringing sunscreen, water and a snack. In order to cover costs, you have to join the Mill Creek Watershed Council of Communities to participate; dues are $35 for individuals and $50 for families. Register online here.

Additional Public Urban Stream Adventures are June 25, Aug. 27 and Oct. 22.

It’s easy to overlook the Mill Creek, to look past it, to drive over it. You could be on I-75 and see a grove of green and trees in a field off to the left and think nothing of it. Look down, however, and a different world opens up before your eyes.

The reclamation of the Mill Creek is an ongoing project. But while there remains a very long road to ultimate success, it’s
clearly heading in a better direction than what we saw just 20 years ago.
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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.