As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Scenic Rivers Act, The Little Miami stands out today as an example of the enduring beauty and complexity of our natural world and the continuing need to preserve it.
It was indeed the first of the now 209 American rivers designated by the U.S. Congress or the Secretary of the Interior as a National Wild and Scenic River. Near the headwaters of the river, the unique geological features along its corridor are part of The Clifton Gorge Nature Preserve, one of the most visited preserves in Ohio. There is a rich history surrounding this area, shaped by nature and adapted by people who were drawn to it.
The Clifton Gorge was carved out of bedrock by a prehistoric river of glacial melt-water. The layered rock, resulting from compressed sediment of ancient oceans, consists of hard Silurian dolomite that withstood the glacial waters only to cave in as the softer limestone and shale beneath were worn away. This process of erosion, sometimes referred to as “canyon cutting,” sculpted the cliffs for which the Village of Clifton and The Gorge are named.
Great civilizations such as the Hopewell Culture flourished throughout Ohio and the Little Miami River valley thousands of years ago. Artifacts of pottery, jewelry, tools, and artwork, and masterfully built burial mounds, offer a glimpse into a way of life rich with vibrant artistry and culture.
Other cultures emerged later to settle in the Clifton area. The dominant Shawnee tribe had many villages along the river. One popular story of Clifton folklore tells of a man named Cornelius Darnell who, as a member of Daniel Boone’s party of 28 men who had been captured by the Shawnee, made an escape. The ensuing chase ended at a narrow stretch of the gorge where Darnell leapt across the chasm, 22 feet wide, and scramble to safety. A marker is there at the site along the footpath to remember the occasion.
The narrows of the upper portion of the gorge produce an abundance of water power which was harnessed by the water wheels and turbines of the mills built by early industrialists who settled near the gGorge some 20 years after Darnell’s leap. The first mills were built by Owen Davis, the founder of Clifton, and his son-in-law Gen. Benjamin Whiteman. Col. Robert Patterson famously had a woolen mill that produced textiles for uniforms for Gen. Harrison’s army during the War of 1812. Patterson, a founder of Lexington and Cincinnati, was the grandfather of John H. Patterson, who started National Cash Register Company in Dayton, ushering in an era of ingenuity and technological advancements.
By the mid-19 century there were no less than five grist mills grinding wheat into flour, a paper mill, a saw mill, a woolen mill, and three distilleries along the gorge. The town of Clifton was at the time, bustling with stage coach travelers that frequented the general stores, the blacksmith shops, taverns, and the inn. Goods were run by wagon to and from the mills and hauled by mule teams to the rail station in neighboring Yellow Springs.
By the latter part of the century, having lost its bid for the Springfield-Xenia railroad to traverse the town, Clifton’s growth waned. And as water power gave way to the use of coal and petroleum energy, the river industries retreated into the mists of memory. The Clifton Mill, of the original Davis Mills, is the only mill still standing today and is a popular restaurant and is best known for the millions of Christmas lights on display during the holiday season, drawing visitors from far and near.
Shortly after the Little Miami’s designation under the Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, the Clifton Gorge was dedicated as a state nature preserve in 1970, in memory of the late John L. Rich, a noted geologist who helped establish the preserve comprised of 269 acres of riparian forest.
Despite the twists and turns of history, there is a stillness that permeates the gorge and seems to slow down time, a reminder as we look on with wonder as did those who came before us that a durable future requires an appreciation of that which gave rise to it.
J. Alex Bieri is mayor of the Village of Clifton.