December 2008 Issue
What's underfoot? Really, think about it – as you walk Ohio’s city sidewalks, or drive its interstates and farm roads, do you give much thought to what lies beneath the surface of our state?
Turns out, there’s plenty of interesting stuff down there. Some of it, you already know about: Folks in southeast Ohio, for instance, know that there’s natural gas and oil beneath their gentle hills, and in Toledo it’s reasonably well known that the city and its paved environs sit atop a vast, boggy marsh that once was known as the Great Black Swamp.
In Oxford, Miami students are aware that the sidewalks of their red-brick campus cover a honeycomb of utility tunnels that a few freshmen over the years may have explored, at some disciplinary risk. On the other hand, at Wright State University in Fairborn, the tunnels linking the academic buildings are anything but off-limits — they’re the byways by which most kids get to class, and the thing that makes the campus so famously accessible to wheelchair-bound students.
More historically, everyone has heard of the Underground Railroad that ferried runaway slaves to safety in the turbulent years before the Civil War. And while it wasn’t really under the ground any more than it was really a railroad, the moniker resonates through the ages with suggestions of danger, drama and freedom.
More geologically, anyone who has shuddered through the occasional mild earthquake that rattles dishes in the Buckeye State from time to time knows that there are a few fault lines that run down below, waiting to slip and slide — most of them beneath western Ohio. The state’s biggest quake struck Shelby County in 1937; the most recent was a minor one that jiggled Lake County on Aug. 14 of this year.
But there’s more. Did you know about the city of salt that lies beneath Cleveland?
Have you ever heard of Cincinnati’s long-forgotten subway?
Or the great lake under Dayton? Or the never-ending fire in Perry County?
Or all those beautiful stalactites?
Salt of the Earth
Far below downtown Cleveland and Lake Erie, deeper than the Terminal Tower is high, lies a vast network of tunnels known as the Cargill Deicing Technology Cleveland Mine. From the crystallized remnants of a prehistoric sea that evaporated 300 million years ago, Cargill extracts some 1,000 tons of road salt a day.
Opened in the early 1960s by the International Salt Company, Cargill bought the mine in 1997. The complex is 1,700 feet below the surface and covers 9,000 acres. It’s entered at Whiskey Island, the peninsula where the Cuyahoga River spills into the lake. Elevators take the work crews down below, where 300,000 cubic feet of air is blown per minute by giant ventilation fans.
The salt is blasted from the walls overnight and scraped up by heavy machinery to be taken to a massive milling station that sorts the mineral by grade, bags it and sends it to the surface on conveyors that can carry 20 tons at a time.
Gives you something to think about next winter when you’re tossing the stuff onto your driveway.
City officials in Dayton have recently started touting the city’s abundant fresh-water resources as a big development plus. But water is water, right? What’s so special about Dayton’s?
Essentially, it’s the source: The city and its suburbs sit atop what is essentially a huge underground lake — the Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer. “It’s one of the biggest in the country, if not the world,” says Dusty Hall, program development manager for the Miami Conservancy District, the office that monitors flood control along the river system that runs through Dayton and also keeps an eye on the aquifer. “It’s 1.5 trillion gallons of fresh water, and about 90 percent of the region drinks it. And it stays a constant 55 degrees.”
The aquifer consists of sand and gravel deposits about 200 feet thick that were left behind when glaciers advanced and retreated across most of Ohio over the last 2 million years, gouging deep gullies that later filled and were covered over — allowing more than a million-and-a-half Ohioans to quench their thirst today.
The aquifer’s most visible above-ground sign? It provides the water that shoots daily from the five giant fountains in the Great Miami River at downtown Dayton.
At the turn of the 20th century, Cincinnati was booming, and city leaders were looking for a way to connect downtown and the Ohio River with the suburbs that were growing quickly in the hills beyond. As the old, now-stagnant Miami & Erie Canal started to get filled in, a newspaper editor recommended that it should be replaced with a subway — an exciting, modern idea that quickly took hold. In 1912, the city appointed a board of commissioners to figure out how to build a subway system, and by 1916 the city voted overwhelmingly to raise the money.
Using part of the old canal right-of-way, construction got started in 1920 on plans to build a 16-mile loop around the city at a cost of $6 million. Financial problems set in nearly from the start, and obtaining right-of-ways turned out to be harder than expected. Only 11 miles of tunnel were finished, and none ever saw a trolley car. By the mid-1930s, the whole plan had pretty much run aground on Depression-era money woes, and in 1948 the city gave up.
Some tunnels were filled in, but many remain — closed to the public save for occasional tours. “It’s like an old basement,” says Bill Shefcik, a supervising engineer for the City Engineer’s office. “It’s got that odor — kinda musty, but not real dirty. We get lots of calls from students, and people wanting to know about it.”
The main entrance is near Walnut Street downtown, and then the tunnels run north. “They follow Central Parkway to Draper Street,” Shefcik says. “The subway basically supports Central Parkway.”
The city took until nearly 1970, by the way, to pay off what it borrowed in 1916 to build something it never used — although it would’ve had to do something, one presumes, to hold up Central Parkway.
Stalactites and Stalagmites
Underground Ohio isn’t all old and musty, or salty and dark. There are also numerous gorgeous caverns here that show off the dramatic beauty that rests beneath the soil.
From the popular Perry’s Cave and Crystal Cave at Put-in-Bay to the historic Olentangy Indian Caverns at Delaware, the state has some 170 caves, large and small, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
The finest of these may well be Ohio Caverns in West Liberty, between Urbana and Bellefontaine in central Ohio. It’s certainly the largest — a three-mile system of passages, in which visitors can walk a mile’s worth and see a breathtaking selection of jewel-like crystal formations and amazing chambers of stalactites and stalagmites, most of which are still active. Look closely, though: the crystals grow at the rate of 1 cubic inch every 500 to 1,000 years.
Tops among all these is the Crystal King, a 400-pound white stalactite that’s nearly five feet long and is believed to be the largest in the state.
Ohio Caverns were discovered in 1897 when a farmhand for William Reams stumbled upon a sinkhole on his boss’s property that exhaled cool air — the caverns remain at 54 degrees — and which revealed a large chamber that had apparently never been seen by humans before. The caverns were known until 1917 as the Reams Caves. “Folks took lantern tours, and some of the caverns were defaced,” says Eric Evans, general manager for Ohio Caverns since 1990. “People broke off crystals and did a lot of damage.”
A consortium of Dayton businessmen bought the cave in 1920, improved the access and cleaned things up. The place has been open as “Ohio Caverns” since 1925. “They really developed it and opened it up to be the tour you see today,” Evans says.
It’s billed as the longest-running underground fire in the world, and as the oldest continuous blaze set by human hands — either way, it’s still smoldering in tiny New Straitsville, in the hilly coal country of Perry County in southeast Ohio.
It’s the famous New Straitsville Mine Fire, and it has been burning without letup beneath this town and the forests around it since it was lit during a labor dispute in September 1884. “All the local people grew up with it,” says Cheryl Blosser, president of the New Straitsville History Group.
The above-ground part of the story dates back to 1870, when the New Straitsville Mining Company founded the town to work its coal mines there. There were about 4,000 residents within a decade. By 1884, Blosser says, the economy was in decline, coal demand was down, and the corporate picture had changed — two new companies, the Columbus-Hocking Coal and Iron Company and the Ohio Coal Exchange were consolidating and decided it was the right time to squeeze the miners for a few concessions.
The miners, in the early stages of organizing, had none of it. A nasty 10-month strike got started, one that involved scabs, gunfire, fights on Main Street, Pinkerton goons — and that fire.
The miners burned a tipple and a rail tunnel, rolled in burning coal cars and lit six entrances to the mine. “It circled the town,” Blosser says.
The strike was settled, but the fire went on.
“They made several attempts to put it out,” she says. “They bricked up the entrances” to choke it, “and they pumped an entire reservoir down there, but it burst like an overheated teakettle and blew out windows in town.” A final, huge push in the 1930s also failed, and so everybody gave up. Interestingly, Blosser says, mining continued for some years — “they just mined ahead of the fire.”
Nowadays, New Straitsville has about 800 residents who do their best to keep their old coal town tidy and welcoming. At one time, the fire caused foundations to sag and collapse in town, but now it can be followed best during the winter, when it melts snow on the ground. Sinkholes are pretty frequent, and Blosser says smoke is visible from time to time in the Wayne National Forest nearby.
“It goes on for acres and acres,” she says. “It’s just one of the facts of life.”