The Legend Of A Lake

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So great was the abundance of fish and fresh water that land and lake were not at first affected by the flood of settlers from the East. These eager, impatient pioneers carved fortunes from the primeval landscape. They felled an estimated twenty-five million acres of forest in fifty years. They built hundreds of dams, placing them across any river strong enough to provide water-wheel power. An 8-foot-high dam, built across the St. Marys River in 1821, backed up such a crush of migrating yellow walleyes, muskellunge, pike, bass, and suckers in the race waters flanking the dam that men dropped nets, hats, and bare hands into the race and scooped out tons of fish.

The dams destroyed the runs of the spawning fish. Some fish took to spawning in the mouths of rivers or in the lake itself. The big muskies and sturgeon, often killed with axes and hayforks when they were caught in streams too narrow for them to turn around in, found all migration to spawn blocked and remained in the lake. There, fouled in fishing gear, they were slaughtered by the thousands to protect valuable equipment. The beaches of Erie were strewn with their abandoned bodies. The sturgeon that were not fed to hogs were stacked in upright piles on the lake shores by the fishermen and set on fire. The sturgeon did not breed until they were about twenty years old, but their extremely long life—about one hundred years—enabled them to remain in the lake until recently, when all their river spawning-routes were blocked off. The muskellunge, suffering a somewhat similar fate, were apparently able to spawn in the mouths of some rivers and perpetuate some semblance of their former numbers. But in the early twentieth century, men found these great fish milling together in Maumee Bay in futile gathering for a spawning run that could never begin. Between 1902 and 1905 the men caught up to one hundred muskellunge a day until the big fish were all but wiped out.

 
 

The lake and the land around it could accept the build-up of the men and their works to a fixed point. This point was reached by the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1800 there were forty-five thousand Ohioans and an estimated thirty thousand New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, and Canadians clustered around the lake. By 1850 the number of Ohioans had swelled to nearly two million. A flood of silt began—farmers’ topsoil leached from hillsides or from under the tramping feet of hundreds of thousands of cattle. Clay was torn from stream banks and ripped from rivers made suddenly violent in their floods by the disappearance of the great spongy network of tree roots in the fallen forests.

Sewage from hundreds of towns and villages joined the silt flow, along with effluents from tanneries, breweries, chemical works, oil wells, and mines. They were joined by blizzards of sawdust from lumber mills. Flood waters ran yellow, gray, black. The fabled Ohio springs began to dry up.

By 1875 industrious Irishmen and then Germans had drained the Black Swamp and turned it into a huge vegetable garden. While they prospered, millions of tons of rich black earth began the journey into Lake Erie from the crumbling soft banks of the farmers’ drainage ditches and from the ceaseless activity of their plows.

It now scarcely mattered that many waterpowered machines lay idle in summer, when streams diminished to a trickle. Steam power now drove the machines. Steam power sent fishermen into Lake Erie, and by the late nineteenth century they were winching in more than twenty thousand tons of fish a year. Steam power demonstrated a new mastery of nature. New dams and reservoirs now stemmed the flood waters. Rivers were straightened and channels dredged. When the valuable Erie stocks of whitefish and ciscoes began declining, the men ingeniously perfected methods of artificially propagating whitefish, trout, ciscoes, pike, and smallmouth bass. Hundreds of millions of fingerlings were released into the lake, and another triumph of the new technology seemed comolete.

 
 

However, it soon became clear that brute power and ingenuity were not quite enough to bring this man-dominated world of lake and land to order. Unaccountably, the millions of artificially propagated fish never grew to fill the fishermen’s nets. The men theorized that perhaps there was something wrong with the propagation process, but the lake itself suggested another explanation.

 
 

In 1881, when the superintendent of the Ohio fish hatcheries was collecting whitefish eggs in the western basin reefs and rocks for propagation, he saw the spawning whitefish driven away by a vast blanket of silt flushed into the lake by a cloudburst on land. The silt settled, in places covering the spawning reefs and gravel completely.