No Longer A 'River Of Tumors,' Lorain's Black River Enjoying Steady Revival

Jun 28, 2019

The Black River is wide at its mouth, with parallel banks encased by metal bulkheads. It’s an industrial river, but there is wildlife, like a hissing pair of geese guarding the entrance to the yacht club marina.

They don’t deter Kathryn Golden, storm water manager for the City of Lorain, who is showing off a new addition to the harbor, half-moon structures bolted to the river bank. 

The structures are called fish shelves, slotted drums extending deep into the water, and provide hiding places for fish moving up and down the shipping channel. 

“Fish habitat is a problem in industrialized rivers because there’s no natural refuge for those fish,” Golden says.

She says last year’s $2.5 million renovation of the inner harbor, including the fish shelves, is part of the final phase of the plan to bring the Black River back to life.

“We’ve done what we can to improve water health," Golden says, "and now we need to put back the habitat so they can live here and they can come back.”

Healing The “River Of Tumors”

Ohio’s urban waterways were once seen as common sewers for industry and growing populations. But a fire in 1969 on the Cuyahoga River sparked new ideas of how a river can serve its region.

Decades of clean-up efforts now lure lake fish back into what was known in the 1970-80s as “the river of tumors.”  Not a good name for a river, especially if you own a bait shop.

Grumpy’s Bait is nestled next to a boat ramp a mile up river from the harbor. Robert Fowler is the “Grumpy” in question, but the nickname doesn’t seem to fit him anymore as he cheerfully relates highlights of the Black River’s recovery.

Robert Fowler, otherwise known as Grumpy, is owner of Grumpy's Bait Shop, just south of Lorain harbor. He's an advocate for branding the city as a camping and fishing destination.
Credit Jeff St. Clair / WKSU

He says fishing the Black River in the ‘70s was not for the faint hearted.

“I can remember pulling them out of the river here," Fowler says. "They'd have a tumor on them, or just so mushy, they felt like dough.”

A century of steel production had poisoned the water. But by the late 1990s, pollution control efforts at the U.S. Steel and Republic plants, along with massive dredging and habitat restoration projects, had helped turn the tide in the river’s recovery.

The “river of tumors” has since become the river of delicious walleye, and Grumpy says serving the flood of fishermen drawn to Lorain could be a new economic driver.

“A lot of us feel recreation could bring just as much to the city as industry,” he says.

Stephanee Koscho is co-founder of Loco Yaks, the Lorain County Kayaking club, with her husband Robb.

“If you have a healthy river, you have a healthy community, and if you have a healthy community you have a healthy economy,” Koscho says. “So it all comes together.”

A.J. Gutz is an environmental engineer with Coldwater Consultants which has designed a plan to cover the slag mountain behind him with soil and vegetation to prevent polluted runoff.
Credit Jeff St. Clair / WKSU

The Koscho's rent kayaks for river and lake excursions. But that’s not all they do: The couple has also been a catalyst for a new vision for the waterway.

It started when they organized the first ever Black River cleanup in 2013.

“We hoped we’d get 20 of our friends to come out, and 250 people showed up,” Koscho says. “We pulled 6.5 tons of trash off the river and off the banks.”

Now she says the rebounding river is breathing life into a struggling city.

“It kinda turned into a movement and now we’ve got everything changing, the revitalization of downtown, the rebuilding of the economy along the river,” Koscho says.

Slag Mountains

But the Black River is not in the clear yet. Just south of downtown sits U.S. Steel’s sprawling Lorain tube mill complex and the idled Republic plant.

Environmental engineer A.J. Gutz says his firm Coldwater Consultants has to come up with a fix to the largest remaining source of pollution, piles of legacy slag and steel mill byproducts.

Designers hope to see an increased population of fish along the inner harbor of the Black River.Credit Coldwater ConsultantsEdit | Remove

“There are many mountains,” says Gutz, who estimates that 10,000,000 cubic yards of black slag are piled here.

And every time it rains, he says, water seeps through those mountains and comes out the bottom laden with heavy metals, lye, and other pollutants. 

Gutz points to a milky stripe draining into the river.

“You can see some of coloration at the toe of that slag pile,” he says.

Gutz estimates it would cost $50 million or more to haul away the mountains. Instead, for a tenth of that, Coldwater Consultants plans to cover them with soil and vegetation.

“Our project will be working on about 30 acres of the material here to try to cap and cover it and prevent the infiltration of rainfall,” Gutz says.

He expects the green cap on the slag mountain to be finished by fall. It would mark the final step in the restoration and beginning of a brighter future for the Black River.

This story is part of the WKSU series Watershed, marking the 50th anniversary of the infamous Cuyahoga River fire.