In North Bend, a tiny village has big plans for a riverfront park and historic site

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.

A few years ago, the tiny Hamilton County village of North Bend purchased a sliver of land along the Ohio River that floods regularly and was the site of a handful of ramshackle river camps and homemade boat docks. Situated squarely in the middle of the property is a small sewage treatment plant, part of the Metropolitan Sewer District's network. Immediately to the north, the ninth president of the United States, William Henry Harrison, is entombed, a state memorial marked by a 60-foot high obelisk.

It took some vision, but the village is moving ahead with a plan to transform the 14-acre languishing riverfront property into a destination that would include a park, a walking trail, a play area, an event and interpretive center, and a riverfront pavilion. As currently envisioned, the William Henry Harrison Riverfront Park would be an $11 million project that pays homage to the history of the site, the stories of Harrison and his family, as well as the indigenous people who populated the Ohio and Miami valleys, and the importance of the river to the region’s history and culture. 

The ambitious plan would be a heavy lift for any city, let alone for a 235-year-old village with fewer than a thousand people that gets by on a budget of only a half-million or so. But it’s an example of how older, small towns, many of which struggle with declining populations, can capitalize on their historic assets and natural resources.

“We see it as a regional attraction,” says North Bend Mayor Doug Sammons.

North Bend is 15 miles west of downtown Cincinnati along U.S. 50. Founded in 1789, it was named for its location where the Ohio River makes a pronounced northerly bend. From the site of the park, a visitor can view the entire sweep of the bend, a vista that also takes in the forested hills of Kentucky across the way, and then looking west, the river’s southward meandering again.

Managing the project is Skip Holmes, a retired P&G engineer and North Bend resident who's volunteering his time. He's put together a community advisory group, and the village has hired a landscape architect from KZF Design, and consulted with Brownstone Design, a Cincinnati-based firm that creates signs and wayfinding routes. There’s a feasibility study and detailed architectural designs that include a walking trail, a playscape, a canoe and kayak launch, a small pavilion, an interpretive center, and a pedestrian bridge.

A couple village maintenance workers have been gradually cleaning up the site, clearing brush, taking out tree stumps and other detritus. The rainiest January in memory meant the river encroached upon the site three times. Concrete pads that supported the river camps will have to go, as will the small docks, which are already giving way to the river's flow.

They have planned the project to be accomplished in increments over six phases, using grants from state and local governments, foundations, in-kind contributions, and volunteers.

"We're looking for every way we can to save money at the village level, and at the same time build a first-class park," Sammons says.

The village has secured funding from Hamilton County Public Health for a short walking trail that is expected to be completed this spring with help from village workers and possibly residents and students. The trail could lead to a river access point where visitors can take in the views.

The village has submitted a request for $500,000 from the state capital budget, which would go toward building a short road. A playscape and other amenities, such as seating, are included in the second phase.

A trail, a road, and river access would be enough to hold events there to bring in community members to learn about the plans and see the site for themselves, and, it is hoped, get engaged with the project. There could be a cleanup day, an Easter service working with one of the neighboring churches, or a storytelling day, with an experienced storyteller sharing the history of the region.

“What we want to do is build momentum,” Holmes says. As progress becomes visible, more community members become involved, and other doors could start to open, including funding. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” he says.

A rendering of the park master plan.He’s been in touch with like-minded outdoor organizations to see how they might be able to collaborate. Those include Great Parks, Hamilton County’s park system, and Ohio River Way, which is working on creating an Ohio River trail of the 40-some small towns and other features along a 274-mile stretch of the Ohio.

The plan has six phases. The first will include building a road, improving and landscaping some of the greenspace, and opening access to the river. Then a kayak and canoe launch is planned for the eastern corner of the property, followed by parking and a pavilion at the western end, where concerts and other events could be held.

Even the sewage plant and a rail line that crosses the property are included in the plans. They could be marked with educational signs, part of a trail that tells the environmental story of wastewater treatment and the importance of rail to the region's commerce.  

The most expensive piece is an interpretive center, which could double as an event center where meetings and receptions could be held, and a cafe could serve visitors. It would be connected to the main park by a pedestrian bridge that would span the rail line.

The center would tell the story of William Henry Harrison, who had a long career in the army and in government, and made his home on a farm in North Bend. As presidents go, Harrison is remembered mainly for having the shortest term of any in U.S. history – one month. It is believed his two-hour inaugural address, delivered on a cold, wet day in early March without an overcoat or hat, may have gotten the better of him. Others have reported that his death was due to typhoid fever that resulted from the unsanitary conditions of the water supply in 1841 Washington, D.C. 

The William Henry Harrison Memorial, North Bend, OhioWhatever the case, Harrison’s time in office was so short there is little to remember his presidency by. But his career before being elected is a window into U.S. history and the history of this region. He spent much of his life in what was then the nation’s frontier, the Northwest Territory, mainly Ohio and Indiana. He was secretary of the Northwest Territory, then governor of the Indiana Territory.

He was responsible for securing land for the westward expansion of white settlers, and seized millions of acres from American Indians in the name of the U.S. government. As a military general, he became famous for the Battle of Tippecanoe, in what is present-day Indiana. The battle was a serious blow to the American Indians’ goal of creating a united force to resist the settlers. The next year, during the War of 1812, Harrison’s forces killed the charismatic leader Tecumseh, which virtually ended the Indian resistance in the Northwest Territory.

His exploits aren’t necessarily viewed in a favorable light in 21st century America, but Harrison is an important figure in the nation’s story. His father-in-law was John Cleves Symmes, whose purchase of hundreds of thousands of acres of Ohio land after the Revolutionary War led to the settlement of Greater Cincinnati. Symmes is buried in Congress Green Cemetery in North Bend.

Harrison’s grandson, Benjamin Harrison, was the 23rd president. He was born in North Bend and is buried in Indianapolis. William Henry Harrison’s father, Benjamin Harrison V, is considered a founding father, a delegate to the Continental Congress from Virginia, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.    

All of this rich history could be portrayed in the interpretive center, through a visit to the tomb, and in field trips and other events at the site. Some road trippers make a pastime of visiting presidential graves, while other amateur historians enjoy traveling to historic locations around the region and the country. The Harrison-Symmes Memorial Foundation cares for the tomb and maintains a small museum in North Bend that is open by appointment only. 

Sammons points out that only one other town in the U.S. can lay claim to two presidents – Quincy, Mass., the birthplace of John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams. He also points out that the federal government has made a considerable investment there in Adams National Historical Park, which is run by the National Park Service. "We feel the federal government should make an investment in this area," he says.

History aside, the park could attract bicyclists, kayakers, hikers, a farmer’s market, family movie nights, as well as the merely curious, all of which could improve the economy in Hamilton County’s smallest village.

“The tomb is an asset to bring people to the park,” Sammons says. They could spend more time and money in North Bend with the development of an attractive park right next door.

“Things like parks and historic aspects can really draw people to a community,” says Steve Johns, assistant director of Hamilton County Planning and Development. “Almost every small town is trying to set itself apart, find out what makes it special, and what’s unique about it so folks want to visit and check it out.”

He cites the towns of Mt. Healthy and Sharonville, both of which are trying to revive their Main Street-style business districts in efforts to attract viable businesses and visitors. The village of Greenhills is developing new condominiums whose designs link back to that town’s heritage as a New Deal experiment of the 1930s. Glendale’s village square is located in a national historic district that includes shopping, restaurants and a history museum housed in an old train depot. To the east, the Clermont County town of New Richmond attracts visitors to the nearby birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president and the general who won the Civil War, as well as to historic Underground Railroad sites. 

Many of Hamilton County's 49 municipalities, as well as many around Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky, hold stories of history. In North Bend, population 850, they've identified them, made plans to celebrate them, and are moving forward with help from engaged residents and office holders.    

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including the Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; 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.