From the AnthologyReflections of the Land
You can descend into the valley by an old stone staircase fringed in moss, past sandstone overhangs where the air is cool and clear water trickles from cracks in the cliff face. The river flows shallow over stone that glimmers gray and blue and yellow in the sunlight, and spills over terraces of shale into a deep brown pool.
It is a peaceful place.
If you follow the trail upstream along the riverbank you will come to a massive piece of stone jutting into the river, a rock that must have broken from the cliffs above some hundreds of years ago, and you will see a river goddess and a serpent swimming together. For a moment she looks like a mermaid, but she is supposed to be an Indian girl, and she swims alongside a tremendous aquatic serpent.
This Indian girl and her pet serpent are carved in relief on the side of a massive rock, hard to miss as you walk upstream. There is also a bird—an eagle? And a few other weathered, indistinct shapes: a baby in a basket? a quiver of arrows? And possibly a hunted hare, bound and hung by its feet.
A few years back the Cleveland Metroparks changed the name of this trail, and of the carved rockface on the riverbank. What once was called Squaw Rock is now named for Henry Church, the artist who in 1885 carved the Indian woman into sandstone.
The story is that Chagrin Falls blacksmith Henry Church turned artist late in life. After long days blacksmithing, he made his way out here at night and carved these figures. For months he made his way to this quiet place and tapped away by lamplight with hammer and chisel until he released life from stone.
Supposedly Church wanted the carving to be a mystery—a source of wonder. He hoped to hear people in town speculating about the Indian woman’s origin, and he would keep the truth secret as long as he could. But then one day a fisherman walking upriver at twilight heard the clank of metal on stone and spotted Church at work. Within a few days, his secret was all over town. Maybe that’s when he signed it with his initials and the year 1885.
Some claimed Church was a spiritualist who had some connection with indigenous ghosts, and that this image was a resurrected Indian spirit of the valley, but I know he didn’t talk to Native American spirits about that image because look at her—a shapely, faceless woman spread out in an uncomfortable position. If she is swimming, why are her legs crossed?
She is a fantasy, not a phantasm. Only slightly less offensive than Chief Wahoo.
In 1796 Moses Cleaveland met with Red Jacket and other Iroquois chiefs in Buffalo to settle claims to Northeast Ohio land east of the Cuyahoga. It is said that he paid them off with $500, two beef cattle, and 100 gallons of whiskey.
On their way to the Cuyahoga, Cleaveland’s party is supposed to have taken a wrong turn up this river. When they realized it wasn’t the Cuyahoga, it brought them so much sadness, they named it Chagrin.
It was the right call to change the name, since Squaw Rock is offensive, but changing the name doesn’t diminish the offense of the image itself, or the scale of our crime against the native people who once fished this river and lived on its banks.
* * *
350 million years ago this spot was in the middle of a stagnant, muddy sea. Invertebrates and prehistoric fish swam in the warm waters near the surface until death overtook them, and their carcasses sank in the anoxic mud where they were pressed into thin black layers of shale.
Millions of years passed. The sea was washed in new waters bringing sand: limestone, quartz, and iron oxide, forming a crust that pressed down on the shale and covered it with a new layer—sandstone.
Then the sea became swamp again, teeming with life and sediment, pressing down—the curled shells of cephalopods and discarded armor of trilobites, life crushed out, carbon frozen in time, pressed upon and always pressing down. Layer upon layer of sediment buried; layer upon layer pressed into stone, buried beyond the scope of life and death.
Tens of millions of years passed, and the waters receded into plains, the plains filled in with forests, and rains came, cutting rivers through the earth, digging this river through the shale and sandstone layers and forming this valley.
* * *
The Independent Stone Company had a quarry just upstream from here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Plain Dealer reported in 1905 that Congressman Jacob Biedler lobbied aggressively for the Cleveland Federal Building to be built of sandstone rather than granite. His interest was criticized by local officials, who pointed out that Biedler, a major stockholder in the Independent Stone Company, was in a position to benefit if the building was made of sandstone. The federal building was built of granite, but the Independent Stone Company was nevertheless highly profitable. The sandstone cliffs are dramatic now, but what did they look like 150 years ago? How many tons of rock were blown apart and hauled away?
* * *
Charles S. Prosser, Chair of the Geology Department at Ohio State University, oversaw the completion of a report on the Devonian and Mississippian Formations of Northeast Ohio, a report of over 550 pages that employed a half dozen research assistants. Prosser and his team began the project in 1901 but did not finish until 1912. The report follows each of the major river valleys in the region as well as outlying counties, describing their statigraphy and paleontology in great detail. One imagines a team of bearded scientists wandering up each river valley with sketch pads in hand, packing in with lunches and out with a collection of rock samples.
Prosser describes the Chagrin valley in some detail: Bedford shale on the river bottom, Berea sandstone in the low-lying cliffs, Sunbury shale—black and bituminous, Aurora sandstone on the high cliffs above, topped by a newer shale, all of it crumbling into this valley cut through time.
* * *
There is something in this valley that longs for revenge. That wants to suck children into its muddy throat, crunch their bones on jagged, shale-sharp teeth, drown them in the river current and press them under stone. It has happened over and over again.
In October 1957, a nun brought a group of Cleveland school kids on an outing here. A ten year old Black girl fell off the edge of the waterfall and into the deep water below. The nun jumped in after her. Others formed a human chain to try to rescue them, but both nun and girl were drowned.
Then there were the Boy Scouts. For many years there was a Scout camp just across the road, and the boys must have found these cliffs irresistible, even in the winter, must have challenged each other to walk out near the edge. And that’s how 17-year-old Charles Quintin and his 15-year-old brother Michael fell from a 50-foot cliff into the icy, swift-flowing river in February, 1965. Charles died from the fall; Michael ultimately recovered.
Then in April 1966, another Boy Scout, 13-year-old Dennis Whitehead was reportedly in fair condition after falling 50 feet from a cliff into the valley. It’s no wonder that they moved the camp.
* * *
On a Saturday in June, a hot afternoon brings people out of pandemic isolation and into the Metropark. The river cascades over its staircase of shale and into the deep swimming hole where a dozen people are splashing about. They stand in the water, dip their heads under the shower, and crawl up the crumbly ladder of rock.
A boy of eight or nine is jumping off the falls into the deep part of the swimming hole. His mother sits on the rocks above, bored, looking at her phone. This is surely the same pool that swallowed the nun and schoolgirl more than 60 years before.
In the shallows the river is bottomed with a block of bluish-gray sandstone, topped with darker layers of crumbly shale from the Bedford formation, then the Sunbury shale, followed by the Aurora sandstone, and on up the valley in subsequent layers of ancient sediment.
Teenage boys stand flexing at the top of the falls. Girls in bikinis stand below, laughing. A couple is walking downstream. Two girls have brought reclining lounge chairs, which they’ve placed in the shallow water above the falls to sunbathe like decadent mermaids.
Someone is shouting happily, and his voice echoes through the valley. Hikers descend the steep slopes. A boy picks at the shale on the riverbank, flaking off layers of time.
“Boy Survives 50ft. Fall.” Plain Dealer, GREATER CLEVELAND FINAL ed., 30 Apr. 1966, p.58. NewsBank: America's News –Historical and Current.
“50-FootFall Into River Kills Scout.” Plain Dealer, 28 Feb. 1965, p. 30. NewsBank: America's News – Historical and Current.
“Heroic Nun Drowns With Girl.” Plain Dealer, GREATER CLEVELAND FINAL ed., 17 Oct. 1957, p. 1. NewsBank: America's News – Historical and Current.
"Is Interested In Quarries Congressman Beidler a Large Stockholder in the Independent Stone Co. Criticised." Plain Dealer, 8 Jan. 1905, p.7. NewsBank: America's News – Historical and Current.
Pepper, James F., et al. Geology of the Bedford Shale and Berea Sandstone in the Appalachian Basin. Technical report no. 259, Washington D.C., U.S. Dept. of Interior, 1954. Geological Survey Professional Paper.
Prosser, Charles Smith. The Devonian and Mississippian Formations of Northeastern Ohio. United States, Geological Survey of Ohio, 1912.
"Smith-Sculptor Is Dead at 72, Henry Church, Whose Horny Hands Carved Out Squaw Rock." Plain Dealer, 18 Apr. 1908, p. 9. NewsBank: America's News – Historical and Current.
Josh Davis is a high school teacher and writer who lives with his wife and children in Solon, Ohio.