Mill Creek: Far from dead, the urban waterway has potential for recreation throughout its course

Cincinnati’s first-ring suburbs face unique challenges. Changing demographics, economic stability, and issues regarding resources and security are common threads among these jurisdictions. 

The ways the 49 Hamilton County cities, villages, townships, and municipal corporations not only adjust but thrive is the focus of this series, First Suburbs—Beyond Borders. The series explores the diversity and ingenuity of these longstanding suburban communities, highlighting issues that demand collective thought and action to galvanize their revitalization. 

The intersection of Mosteller and Crescentville roads in Sharonville is a cacophonous hub of commerce. Trucking depots command two corners. Semi-tractor trailers bearing loads of products traverse the crossroads thousands of times a day. At another corner, shipping containers are stacked 20 feet high waiting to be loaded onto trucks or trains. A gas station outfitted with enormous bays to handle fueling the semis is under construction. It’s a noisy, dusty, frenetic corner of the economy in the northern suburb of 14,000.

But not far from this hectic intersection lies an oasis. Twin Creek Preserve is 28 acres of greenery situated at a confluence of one of the most maligned waterways in the country, Mill Creek. The preserve is a haven created where the East Fork of the Mill Creek meets the waterway’s main branch at a site that, like the acreage surrounding it, was zoned for industry. Perhaps because the location, at the convergence of two streams, was prone to flooding, it was never developed for commercial use.

About 10 years ago, a group that works to restore and protect the Mill Creek, working with the city of Sharonville, Hamilton County, and other government agencies and businesses, won $2 million in state and federal dollars to restore wetlands there, stabilize the stream banks, and build a walking path. Twin Creek Preserve was created.

It's a small but significant success story for a waterway that was once declared the most endangered urban stream in North America. That was 30 years ago. Today, with the water quality vastly improved, Mill Creek has bounced back as a habitat for fish and wildlife, as well as for recreation. Thanks to the efforts of citizens groups like the Mill Creek Alliance and others, this waterway, once considered an industrial sewer, is increasingly considered a natural resource to be protected and improved, as well as an asset for green development.

“This stream has made an amazing recovery,” says Dave Schmitt, executive director of the Mill Creek Alliance. “The water quality is just dramatically better. The wildlife has returned. It's safe for paddling, for fishing, for wading, and for doing all kinds of fun stuff.”

Since the national headlines three decades ago drew attention to Mill Creek’s deterioration, state and federal agencies began enforcing clean water laws regulating discharges into waterways, Schmitt explains. The Metropolitan Sewer District began its long-term plan to reduce sewer overflows into the region’s streams, an effort that has yielded results. Citizens got engaged with the effort.

“A bunch of people got together and said, ‘We know it's going to take a long time, but we think we can do something about this,” Schmitt says.

Today, the Mill Creek Alliance conducts independent water monitoring at 60 sites along the Creek, tests that show dramatic improvement in the water quality. With that has come renewed attention to protecting the stream and returning to it for fishing, paddling, hiking and other active recreation.

At Sharonville’s Twin Creek Preserve, the two branches of the stream have been reconnected to their wetlands, a project that not only restored the wetlands but reduces the potential for flooding downstream. Canoeists and kayakers have a couple launch points there to begin explorations of the urban stream. There are signs of beavers, great heron, and other wildlife. A crushed stone path around the park invites hikers to explore.

All of this in the midst of the hurly burly of today’s hustling economy. An active rail line runs just to the west of the preserve. To the west of that,120,000 cars and trucks a day fly by on Interstate 75. Immediately to the south, Interstate 275 carries another 120,000 vehicles daily.  Trucking and logistics companies, drawn by the interstate access, have set up depots and warehouses all over the area.

From that convergence of the East Fork and the main branch at Twin Creek Preserve, Mill Creek runs through numerous communities, including Evendale, Reading, Lockland, Arlington Heights, Elmwood Place, and Saint Bernard. Increasingly, some of the 37 jurisdictions the stream flows through now see it as a natural asset, an urban waterway that can attract active recreation and improve quality of life in their communities. 

The stream is often associated with the section that runs through the city of Cincinnati, portions of which were “channelized,” lined with concrete, years ago. But in the northern reaches of Mill Creek and its branches flow some of the more pastoral stretches that travel through Hamilton County’s well-developed inner-ring communities.       

New England Aster in bloom on a bank of the Mill Creek.“It's a beautiful part of the stream,” Schmitt says. “Even though you're going through areas that have industry and residential development, if you're on the creek, you don't see that. It's surrounded by big mature trees. It's nice and cool and shaded. And it really is a beautiful place to paddle.”

One example is a project now under way that has gained the support of many of the Mill Creek communities: the Triangle Trail. The trail is still in the proposal stage, but has backing from several groups, including Mill Creek Alliance, Tri-State Trails, and Great Parks of Hamilton County.

As currently contemplated, a 43-mile multi-use trail would follow the main stem of the Mill Creek from Cincinnati to Saint Bernard, Elmwood Pace, Reading, Lockland, and Arlington Heights and Evendale. Another leg would follow the West Fork of the Mill Creek through Lockland, Lincoln Heights and Woodlawn. Those two legs of the trail would be connected with a link that would run east-west from Sharonville to Glendale, completing the triangle. Further extensions are envisioned that would extend west to Greenhills and Winton Woods and east to Sharon Woods.

A concept map of the proposed Triangle Trail.The trail would connect with existing trails, such as the Mill Creek Greenway Trail in Cincinnati. An engineering firm has been hired to study the feasibility of the proposed route. The Mill Creek Alliance and other groups have been working to shore up stream banks along the route so they can support a trail surface and bike and foot traffic. If the engineering study is positive, the group plans to seek federal funding through the Infrastructure Act to begin construction, Schmitt says.

“It's already in motion,” he says. “There's a lot of momentum.”

In the village of Woodlawn, the west fork of the Creek runs parallel to Springfield Pike, the community’s main thoroughfare. A trail that follows the stream could be the impetus for further development of needed retail and residential space in the village, says Mike Donohue, a member of the Woodlawn Community Improvement Corporation. There’s been discussions of building a public deck along the stream to encourage outdoor activity and community connections, he says.

It could be a better way to think about economic development, he says. “Rather than paving it all, let’s begin to think of Woodlawn as primarily for people, for pedestrians,” he says.

In Evendale, at least one business has begun to encourage its customers to explore the Mill Creek. Around 2020, Todd Gailar bought Etter’s Golf Center, a longtime family business. He had been searching to buy an operation that could combine his interests in golf, the outdoors, hiking, and birdwatching, and it fit the bill. Along with a driving range, two miniature golf courses, and a restaurant came 15 acres along the Mill Creek.

The Acres, Evendale.What Gailar saw was “a blank canvas that could be landscaped to bring the natural resource of the Mill Creek into the property.” He changed the name to The Acres, cleared out honeysuckle along the stream banks and encouraged customers to hang out at the waterway and hunt for a bald eagle the frequents the area.  

“The part of Mill Creek where our property is located is really pretty, and it’s basically untouched,” he says. “You’re in a whole ‘nother world, and you just forget that you’re surrounded by these industrial companies. To go down there to what was once a dead creek and see turtles and fish and other wildlife is just energizing,” he says.

Long-term plans include the possibility of inviting a canoe and kayak concession to locate on the property.

Flowing 28 miles from its headwaters in Butler County through central Hamilton County, Mill Creek has been essential to the region’s industrial development for hundreds of years. Now, it could be part of a greener future for the region.

As Woodlawn’s Donohue says, “It’s part of who we are and who we’ll become.”

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Healtha Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentuckythe Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.