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Gealogical, Ecological, and Physical Characteristics

by Rudolph P. Fatula

Milestones Vol. 7 No. 3--Summer 1982


For almost one hundred years, Geneva College has occupied a prime site on the Beaver Vale, and the valley and river have been incorporated into the Alma Mater and associated in hundred ways with Geneva College history at Beaver Falls. Collective ecological concern about the health and survival of the Beaver Vale, did not come to our campus until the spring of 1970, and summer of 1970 brought directed ecological activity to our campus and the beginning of data collecting about the physiology of our river, as one of our August graduates spent hours with the river, recording temperatures, oxygen content, and pH, in preparation for more detailed observations yet to come. Fall of 1970 will continue the study of the river, and its bounty tributaties.

How is it then with the Beaver Vale, and the big Beaver River that flows below, in this period of ecological concern and how has it gone in the years past? This In Depth will record a bit of river history, the occupancy of the valley, river anatomy and physiology, and concern for its continued good health.

Our valley has long been the site of occupation by man, most of it not recorded except for the relics and evidences left at camp and settlement locations along the river. Wm. J. Mayer-Oakes, field archaeologist of Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, in his Prehistory of the Upper Ohio Valley, suggests that a fairly continuous human occupation was active here from Archaic times (100 B.C. - A.D. 900). Then local invasion by a southern people changed the simple culture of the Middle Woodland people to an intensively agricultural fortified-village complex of the Monongahela culture of Late Prehistoric (A.D. 900A.D. 1600). The Monongahela culture spread widely through our area during the last 700 years and was the first culture to receive the first impact of the coming European culture. The Monongahela culture disappeared from our area by the end of the 17th century, and the last resident Indians, recorded in the Historic period (A.D. 1600) were the Shawnee, the Delaware, the Seneca and others, some of whose descendants still live in the upper Allegheny River area today. Mr. Meyer-Oakes suggets that only 3% of the occupancy of our valley by man is contained in the written history of our area, and that the other 97% of almost 10,000 years of occupation is still hidden in the sites of the ancient homes occupied prior to the 1700's.

The early 1700's began for the first time then to record the anatomy and physiology of our river, as trader, missionary, land agent, and soldier moved into the Beaver Valley, noting dimensions and characteristics of river and terrain. One of the earliest visitors was Conrad Weisee, a representative of the Province of Pennsylvania to the Indians at Logstown, whose journal for August 30th, 1748, included a visit to the Beaver Creek. The records of General Bouquet's Expediton to the Beaver in the fall of 1764 gave dimensions of the river, indicating the width as twenty perches, and the ford as strong and pretty deep. From Indian captives Marie Le Rou and Barbara Leininger came records of clearing plantat ionsfor Indian nobles, and of planting corn along the Beaver Creek. Rev. David Zeisberger recorded problems of portage of canoes and baggage across the falls of the Beaver Creek, and Zadok Cramer's book The Navigator, published in 1814 gave not only directions for landing at the mouth of the river, but recorded the significance of the falls of Beaver. Hundreds of diaries and logs of visitors began to add data about the extent of our valley, as interested people moved into the Indian country.

Maps of our river began to appear in the 1700's, as French and English interests in the Ohio country vied for legal rights to the land. One of the earliest prepared by Rev. Pere Bonnecamps, mathematician and sailing master for the French De Celeron expedition, marked the position of the stream, as the expedition moved to the area of our valley in August of 1749. British maps, prepared for the Ohio Company in 1752, in conjunction with the survey of the Ohio Valley for the Ohio Company by Christopher Gist named the river, as the Big Beaver Creek. An early geographer, Lewis Evans, in 1755, not only prepared an excellent map of our area, but included in his remarks the prediction of a canal between the waters ' of the Ohio and Lake Erie, via the Big Beaver route. The maps of Daniel Leet made in 1792 show two channels at the mouth of the Beaver. The western or smaller channel, an ordinary high water outlet was separated from the main channel by a large island, containing an area of over twelve acres, and depth soundings taken at about this time, recorded depth of 8 to 12 to 15 feet near the mouth of the river.

As records of explorations and the mapping of the Ohio country continued, an increasingly accurate picture of the anatomy of our river began to emerge. By 1833, Thomas Gordon's Gazetteer of the State of Pennysivania, included not only dimensions, but the drainage pattern of the Beaver River. The 1833 description has been altered only by dam and canal construction on the Beaver and Ohio, and readjustments of county boundary lines.

Descriptively, the Beaver River is formed from four principal tributaries; the Mahoning River, the Shenango River, the Neshannock Creek and the Conoquenessing Creek draining the northwestern portion of Pennsylvania and the northeastern portion of Ohio. The Mahoning River is the Main branch, rising in Columbiana, Stark, Trumbull and Portage counties in Ohio, winding first to the north, then southeast, finally meeting the Shenango river to form the Beaver River in Lawrence County near New Castle, at North Latitude 41 degrees. The river so formed comes into Beaver County from the north almost dividing the northeastern half of the county into two nearly equal parts, then continues a bit southeast for twenty miles to the mouth on the Ohio River. The area affected by Beaver River drainage is about 70 miles in diameter; and covers about 3,850 square miles, with areas within twelve miles of Lake Erie, draining southward rather than northward into the lake.

As the river approaches our county line, it picks up the waters of the Conoquenessing Creek at Rock Point and lesser streams within Beaver County proper. On the east side, within the county, Thompson Run empties just a bit upstream from the present Pennsylvania Turnpike bridge. Bennett Run enters the river at a position just across from West Mayfield, and Blockhouse Run, the principal eastern contributor below the falls, in lower New Brighton. On the west side, coming downstream, Stockman's Run enters just below Koppel, Clark's Run at Homewood, Wallace Run at Morado, Walnut Bottom run at Beaver Falls, and Brady's Run just below Fallston. The characteristic pattern of drainage of many of our listed steams into the river shows an increasing rapid movement of water, along flat narrow bottoms, with steep wal Is and cascades and rapids, approaching the river below. Conoquenessing Creek, shows this type of rapid flow after meeting Slippery Rock Creek at Wurtemburg, winding between steep walls, and within its last ten miles of flow falls more than 100 feel as it comes to the river through a succession of cascades and rapids. Our river has cut its bed more rapidly into the Homewood sandstone, than have the creeks feeding into it, this being reflected in the great drop of elevation marked from the confluence of streams forming the Beaver to the mouth at Bridgewater. The elevation starting at 776 feet above sea level at New Castle, drops to 732 feet at Eastvale, to 697 feet at Fallston, and finally to about 670 feet at Bridgewater. The steepest fall occurs in the last five miles of the river, where a drop in elevation of 60 feet is measured.

The last five mile stretch of river includes the area called the falls of the Beaver. The falls, although presenting a portage problem in early county history, were to provide the water power for the industrialization of our area. Permanent dam construction now almost hides the falls area, which was in reality a series of rapids and cascades, located and named initially simply by position as the Upper, the Middle, and the Lower Falls. The Upper Falls began near the present position of the Eastvale dam, and this area was settled by Dr. Samuel Adams, just priorto the 1800's, and some of its water sources were immediately harnessed for power. The Middle Falls, also called the Great Falls, was the most dangerous to traverse by early rivermen and was positioned just below the area of the 10th Street Bridge. Some of the rapids and rocks of the Middle Falls are still visible below the Beaver Falls dam. The Lower Falls, is marked by the site of the present Fallston dam, bringing water power for the early industrialization of the Fallston-New Brighton area. The breadth of the valley at the falls is about one half mile wide, and the original channel of the valley before dam construction was about 400 to 500 feet wide of continued solid rock, principally of Homewood sandstone. The depth of the river backed by the dams is about twenty feet behind the dams and varies to about 18 feet at the mouth at the Ohio.

The cut of the valley in the falls area, expecially the high and in many places prependicular walls, exposes some of the features of the geological history of our valley and river. The surface of Beaver County is carved from the rocks of lower middle Carboniferous strata, dating back to about 420 million years ago. The lowest strata of rock exposed, called the Conoquesnessing Sandstone is found in the gorge of Conoquenessing Creek at an elevation of about 800 feet above sea level. This strata has an exposed thickness of about 150 feet. Overlying the Conoquenessing Sandstone is the homewood Sandstone, averaging about 75 feet in thickness. The Homewood forms the bed of the Beaver River, extending from the Lawrence Conty line, down the valley to the Ohio River. Above the Homewood is the Allegheny or Lower Productive strata with a thickness of about 325 feet, then the Conemaugh or Lower Barren about 600 feet thick, and in the Hanover Township area of the county about 126 feet of what is left of the Monongahela or Upper Productive Series. Elevation levels in our county mark our lowest point at about 670 feet on the Ohio River at the state line, and the highest point at Big Knob in North Sewickley Township at 1,383 feet, giving extremes of surface elevation within 700 feet. There seems to be no evidence to suggest that any great thickness of strata was ever deposited over the present surface, except that subject to erosion since the post Paleozoic uplift some 200 million years ago. Perhaps a few hundred feet or less above the tops of the present high knobs would be all of the Carboniferous strata exposed.

The drainage patterns that eroded the Carboniferous strata were established very early after the Paleozoic, as a general upheaval of North America lifted the whole Ohio area, and the plateau formed by the elevation was subsequently channeled by about the same valleys as the present ones. Most of the streams in the earliest drainage flowed at elevations 200 to 300 feet higher than at present. The regional drainage was northward into valley areas draining the Lake Erie region before the Great Lakes were formed. The master stream of the region called the old Monongahela received a smaller stream flowing through the northern part of the Allegheny River's present valley, and flowed along the present upper Ohio's course to the present Beaver Valley. A northward flowing stream from the New Martinsville, West Virginia area joined this combined stream, and flowed northward by way of the present Beaver Valley to the Erie basin. Subsequent elevations and glaciation effectively stopped the northward course of the preglacial drainage and diverted it to the west. The old Monongahela was turned into an Ohio drainage and the direction of flow was altered to the south instead of north. The gorges of this period of drainage were quite narrow, and generally straighter than the present stream. Throughout the county all of the streams within reach of the last ice advance were filled with gravel, sand, clay, and stones that were carried by the ice from the bottom of buried channels up to about 125 feet above present stream levels in some areas of the valley.

The final melting of the last glacier left the modified surface of the upper valley practically as it is seen today, and different in some respects from the lower unglaciated region. Drainage lines were partially blocked or destroyed by the ice, and the new system of drainage is still being perfected with marshes and incompletely drained hollows still present in the county. Todays final product is estimated to be about 50,000 years old, with minor man made alterations added only in the last 200 years.

The most dramatic man-made alterations began with the building of dams across the Beaver, changing the falls area particularly into a series of pools. The present remaining dams, rebuilt and repaired mark the
approximate positions of the falls of our river. The Fallston dam, on the lower Falls, is the rebuilt remnant of the first permanent one completed in 1828. The lower dam in Beaver Falls, occupying the position of the Middle Falls, is sometimes called the Patterson dam, and the upper dam at Eastvale is named the Adamsville or State Dam. A fourth dam at Bridgewater, built and used during the canal days has been removed
from the river. I

Bridges too have spanned the river and valley since 1815. Today in the Beaver County area alone eleven bridges span the width of the river. Three are railway bridges, one the high Pennsylvania Turnpike Bridge, and the others serve passenger traffic between valley towns. The earliest, a wooden span, was built between New Brighton and Beaver Falls and opened on November 11, 1815. High water, ice, and wind contributed to the need for replacement of early structures but one open to traffic in 1890 called the Tenth Street Bridge between lower Beaver Falls and New Brighton is still in service. (in 1978 the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic. Ed.)

The final anatomical variation of significance was the building of the Beaver and Erie branch of the Pennsylvania Canal. Ground was broken for the canal on July 28, 1831. The canal on the east side of the Beaver began at the Gerard Locks in Rochester, left the river at 14th Street in New Brighton, and passed briefly through the town meeting the main stream at a lock opposite Fourth Street in Beaver Falls. A short stretch of canal with two locks was necessary to pass the Upper Falls into the seven mile pool above the Eastvale dam. One of the locks was opposite 20th Street, Beaver Falls, and the other near the Eastvale dam. On May 28, 1834 freight and passenger boats were placed in operation to New Castle. Navigation on the entire canal from Beaver to Erie became a reality in the Spring of 1845. The completion of the Erie and Pittsburgh Railroad to New Castle and to Girard, however, provided service that the canal could not meet, the canal ultimately ceased operation in the early 1870's. Boat traffic of pleasure craft returned to the river in abundance just about a hundred years later, and the 1970 boat population on our rivers far outnumbers the canal boat population of the 1800's.

Physiological variations, of our river, although not as obvious as the anatomical variations, are the most dramatic in terms of the fate of our living river, and are directly the products of the last 200 years of industrialization and urbanization of the drainage area of the Beaver River. J. Ross Corbin, writing about potential sources of potable water in The New Castle Quadrangle Atlas of Pennsylvania, 1928, describes the river as being deserving of being called the worst river in Pennsylvania as a source of potable water. In the 1929 report the pH values vary from 51/2 to 7. The iron content from 2 to 20 parts per million, the hardness varied from 80 to 180. Contamination enters the Mahoning River in the Youngstown area and beyond, and the 1929 records have not been markedly changed in 1970 readings. Readings of raw water taken in mid August 1970, gave pH readings of 7.4, Iron content 0.8 parts per million, Flourine 0.80 parts per million and hardness 186. These readings may change and frequently do in any twenty-four hour period, depending in part on season, quantity of rain, temperature, and waste disposition along the river. The physiological conditions of raw water have not been dramatically improved, and greater quantities are needed for domestic and industrial use. Our river provides a raw water source averaging over 8 million gallons per day to the Beaver Falls Municipal Authority for treatment and use by Beaver Valley citizens. The new Sahli Water Plant in New Brighton was pumping about 3.2 million gallons per day in August of 1970 and the Beaver Falls plant at Eastvale, was pumping 41/2 million gallons of raw water per day. Records of the municipal authority related to the quality of raw water over the years of its use as a source of potable water reflect the periodic physiological change.

Returning treated water to our river from the sewage treatment plants of our county reflects a positive degree of concern about the health of our river. Primary treated water from the Beaver Falls sewage plant amounts to about 1 1/2million gallons per day, and from the New Brighton plant about 600,000 gallons of primary treated water per day. The Chippewa sewage plant adds bout 200,000 gallons of secondary treatment water to our river. Ultimate upgrading to secondary treatment of all effluent is of primary importance for improving the physiological load of our river. The additions and subtractions of volume of flow to the river do not include much of the industrial water and sewage that is handled by industry in its own plants along our valley, and the as yet unmeasured quantities of untreated water still entering the river.

It is the physiology of the river, and its ability to support a plant and animal population, in reality to keep it alive, taht is of principal concern to those of us along the Beaver Vale. Our river physically supports a greater boat population than ever before in its history. The flotilla of small craft from the June Bug to the Nancy B. dot the river from Bridgewater to New Castle, yet the principal burden of today is not this visible fleet, but rather the internal portage of industrial and domestic wastes. It is upon this solvable burden, that the future of the Beaver Vale depends.