Failed Project #4: The Big Darby Creek Reservoirs

The Big Darby Creek watershed is one of the best natural areas of Franklin County. Designated a national and state scenic river, Big Darby Creek is one of Ohio’s most pristine waterways, and is home to several endangered species. Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park has grown to become the crown jewel of the Metro Parks system, encompassing more than 7,000 acres of forests, waterways and prairie.

The river’s history, however, has not always been so tranquil.

All the way back in 1943, Ohio State University zoologist Milton Trautman discovered a tiny catfish in Big Darby, the Scioto Madtom. The fish only exists in the Big Darby, and was an early clue as to the biological diversity that can be found there, now known to be home to more than 100 species of fish and more than 40 species of mussels.

By 1950, a small park of 34 acres had formed, the beginning of what would become the Battelle Darby. Development pressures, however, were already threatening the system. I-70 cut through the middle of the system in the early 1960s, and the construction of I-270 allowed for the suburban explosion. Without significant intervention, the watershed would’ve been inevitably developed. Ironically, a plan to largely destroy the Big Darby ultimately helped saved it.

While most major rivers and streams in the state had been dammed or altered for flood control by the 1960s, Big Darby remained free-flowing. Two separate proposed projects would’ve changed that irrevocably. The first was a proposal by the Army Corps of Engineers to build what would’ve been called the Lower Darby Dam, in west-central Franklin County, near the heart of the current Battelle Darby park. The high dam proposal would’ve flooded at least 3,000 acres of land, and the Corps began to buy the land in preparation for the project. This was in the late 1960s, coinciding with the beginning of the development boom in western suburbs like Hilliard. Instead of prime real estate along the river being developed with single-family housing and strip malls, the dam plan had the opposite effect by making the land essentially unmarketable and off limits to developers. A coinciding proposal by the City of Columbus to build another dam, the Upper Darby Dam, had the same effect on areas at that proposed site in Brown Township further to the north. The 2-dam proposal had effectively removed the majority of Franklin County’s Big Darby Creek off the market.

As development pressure was removed, environmental groups rose up to stop the Lower Darby Dam project itself. This fight was waged until 1973, when the plan was finally abandoned by the Army Corps of Engineers. They still owned the land, however, and with uncertainty of the dam project resurfacing someday, development interests continued to stay away. Three years later, in 1976, Columbus Metro Parks received a $1 million grant from the Battelle Memorial Foundation, which was then matched with an additional $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior Land and Water Conservation Fund. Suddenly flush with cash, Metro Parks began a land-buying spree along the Big Darby, particularly targeting the land that the Corps had set aside for the reservoir, pushing the size of the park from roughly 400 acres in 1976 to about 3,000 acres by 1984.

That year, on June 22, 1984, 82 miles of the Big and Little Darby creeks were designated as state scenic rivers. The designation more or less ended any remaining plans for the Upper Darby Dam. It had been shelved since 1979 when the Department of Natural Resources and environmental groups managed to stop that dam project as well. Just 4 years after the scenic river designation, during the extremely dry, hot summer of 1988, the idea of the dam was revived. Former Columbus Service Director Walter “Hap” Cremean, whose name today is on some city facilities, considered the Big Darby key to Columbus’ future water needs. The city was searching for a source of water that could provide the city with an additional 30 million gallons of water a day by 2000, not a small task. Cremean himself had been the city’s service director at the time that Columbus was pushing for the dam project in the 1960s.
On July 12, 1988, Cremean was quoted saying, “In 1968, we instituted the acquisition of property along Big Darby. We were spending $1 million a year for what we considered the next major reservoir site for Franklin County,” Cremean said. “In my opinion, it is impossible to talk about full development of the West Side without (Big Darby).”

The search for new sources of water for Columbus continued into the early 1990s, but by 1990, the Big Darby reservoir option was losing favor due to its long history of opposition. The city had drafted a study called Water Beyond 2000, which was finished on September 26, 1991. At least 20 options for expanding water sources had been on the table, including the Big Darby reservoir, but the study had narrowed down the choices to just 7. Among the choices eliminated from consideration was the Big Darby plan, an option that the study concluded was going to be one of the most expensive, at $280 million. For all intents and purposes, the idea of a Big Darby reservoir was finally dead… or sort of. While a reservoir directly on the Darby was off the table, a reservoir in the watershed using the Darby’s water was still very much on.

Through the rest of 1991 and into the first half of 1992, residents waited for the list of 7 options to be narrowed down further. On July 6, 1992, that final list came out. The Big Darby option was eliminated completely. No reservoir would be built anywhere near it. In the end, the Columbus Upground Reservoir was built just to the southeast of Richwood, along with new wells drilled along the Pickaway-Franklin County line. Combined, they provided more than enough water to serve the city long into the future.

Columbus Upground Reservoir

The following year, in 1993, the Big and Little Darby were given National Scenic River status, the highest designation a US river can receive. Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park has continued to expand beyond 7,000 acres and will continue to grow even larger in the future, with the ultimate goal of having the entire 75 miles of Big Darby as part of a continuous park. Development pressures remain in the area, and in recent years, there have been the occasional fish and mussel die-offs, suggesting that the Big Darby is still under threat. What we do with this beautiful natural resource is up to us. Though dams are no longer in the picture, other dangers lurk.
In the early 1990s during the height of the water search, the Big Darby was not the only waterway under threat. A similar dam project was under proposal for the Scioto River in Delaware County. My family was moving at the time and we looked at a house near the small town of Prospect, not far from where the proposed dam would’ve gone. On the trip there, a series of roadside signs caught our attention, and I still remember the rhyme:
A flooded valley,
We don’t deserve,
Because Columbus,
Can’t conserve.
The rhyme was referring strictly to water conservation, but it seems to me that saving water- and indeed all natural resources- does not just mean using less. The Big Darby, along with all our waterways and natural areas, deserve our lasting protection. Had better heads not prevailed, Battelle Darby would’ve been under 50 feet of water today, and Columbus- and Ohio- would be without one of its best natural areas.

The Great Thanksgiving Blizzard of 1950

Springfield, Ohio after the snowstorm.

Exactly 67 years ago today, the Great Thanksgiving Blizzard of 1950 began. It was the biggest snowstorm for Columbus, and indeed most of Ohio, during the 40-year period of 1920-1960. That period, especially from the mid-1920s through the mid-1950s, had the lowest rates of cold and snowy winters of any comparable period. The average seasonal snowfall during that period was just 19.1″, a full 9″ below the average the 1980s-2010s have had to date. Still, the period was not without its memorable winters, including 1935-36, 1939-40 and 1947-48. None of those winters, however, had a snow event nearly as big as November 1950.

October 1950 had generally been very warm, ranking historically as the 19th warmest October in Columbus. Highs reached 65 or higher on 21 days of the month. This warmth lasted through early November, and the 80 degrees recorded on November 1st, 1950 remains tied for the warmest November temperature ever recorded. After that, the month seesawed up and down until a strong cold front and rainstorm on the 19th-20th dropped temperatures 25-30 degrees across the state, from the upper 50s-low 60s on the 20th to the low-mid 30s on the 21st. This front would be one of the catalysts for one of Ohio’s greatest winter weather events in its history.

Snow began in Columbus and other parts of Ohio on Thanksgiving, Thursday, November 23rd as a low moved through the Great Lakes and weakened. Behind that system, another cold high pressure was diving south out of Canada.

Thursday, November 23rd 1950 National Map
*Requires a DejaVu plug-in to view.

On Friday the 24th, a low formed on the stalled cold front that had moved through Ohio a few days earlier. Initially forming in southeastern North Carolina, this low would’ve normally gone out to see or moved up the East Coast as a Nor’easter. Instead, the strong, cold high pressure was moving into the Ohio Valley at the same time, and the little low exploded and as it began to move north. The strong push of cold was very evident in Ohio, as temperatures plunged from the upper-30s to upper 40s on Thanksgiving afternoon to single digits and low teens by early Friday morning.

Friday, November 24th, 1950 National Map

The low moved into southern Pennsylvania by the morning of the 25th, and then began to do something few other storms ever do- it began to retrograde toward the west and Ohio, continuing to strengthen as it went. The unusual west movement was caused by a blocking high pressure system parked over Maine.

Saturday, November 25th, 1950 National Map

Light snow that had been ongoing in Ohio on the 24th quickly intensified from east to west across the state as the low moved westward from Central Pennsylvania to Northern Ohio by the end of the day on the 25th. With it arrived winds of 40-60 miles per hour, causing blinding white-outs and drifting.
Saturday the 25th was the height of the storm as the low pressure bottomed out at 978mb, a pressure normally associated with hurricanes. This day was, coincidentally, the famed Ohio State-Michigan rivalry football game, now famously known as the “Snow Bowl” for its terrible weather conditions.

With temperatures on Saturday morning in the single digits, wind chills well below zero and with heavy snow, there was debate about cancelling the game altogether, which was the Big Ten Championship. Ironically, despite the fact that Ohio State would’ve gone on to the Rose Bowl had the game been cancelled (Michigan did not want to reschedule), it was Ohio State’s athletic director who ultimately refused to cancel the game, much to the rest of the staff’s disappointment. Perhaps after the fact, considering Ohio State lost 9-3, that decision was regretted, especially in front of the more than 50,000 die-hard fans that managed to show up for the game.


Columbus would receive 7.5″ at the airport, with eastern suburbs getting up to 10″, just on that Saturday alone.

Due to the blocking high pressure, the storm didn’t budge for days, and it continued through the 26th and 27th before slowly dying out. The last accumulating snowflakes from this system fell on the 29th, 6 days after the snow began.

Sunday, November 26th, 1950 National Map
Monday, November 27th, 1950 National Map
Tuesday, November 28th, 1950 National Map
Wednesday, November 29th, 1950 National Map

All in all, the storm was a record-breaker. Snow totals reached 10″ or more across most of the state except the far northwest and far southwest. In Central Ohio, snow had piled up between 10″-20″, with Columbus officially reporting 15.2″ for the duration of the event. This was the second-heaviest snowstorm in Columbus on record to that time, falling just shy of the 15.3″ that occurred February 17-18, 1910. Both of these storms would be surpassed by the February 14-17, 2003 snowstorm of 15.5″, which itself was surpassed by March 7-8th, 2008’s 20.5″.

Other totals in the state included up to 22″ in Cleveland, 27″ in Marietta, and reports of 44″ in Steubenville in far eastern Ohio. Totals of 25″-30″ were common throughout the eastern 1/3rd of the state. These totals are some of the highest the state has ever seen, coming close to those seen in the eastern Ohio snowstorm of April 1901.

In addition to the snow, record cold temperatures in Columbus of 5 degrees on the 25th (along with a record low maximum of 20) made this one of the greatest early winter events of all time.


Cleveland after the storm.

Before and After April 2017

I haven’t done a Before and After installment for a while. This time around, I chose to not focus on any single neighborhood.

First up is a photo of the construction of the Columbus Interurban Terminal, looking northwest from 3rd. The photo was taken on October 5, 1911, about 3 months before the building opened. The interurban system was relatively short-lived in the city, and the terminal closed after only 26 years in 1938. The building survived as a grocery store through the mid-1960s before the building was demolished in 1967 as part of the construction of the Greyhound Bus Terminal across the street. The actual location of the building was not on the Greyhound site, but was used as an overflow parking lot. It remained a parking lot until the mid-1980s, when it became part of the City Centre Mall site. Today, plans are for the site to become the location for the 12-story, Two25 mixed-use project.

Here is the same place in September 2016.

And the near future.

The second historic photo is of the #57 streetcar on Kelton Avenue just south of the Oak Street intersection. The photo, which looks north, was taken on June 30, 1915 and includes 3 separate visible buildings as well. The house on the left actually survived until 1977, when it and the rest of the east half of the block was demolished. The building visible on the right is the surviving streetcar barn. Today, it is in bad shape, and while many would like to see it renovated and saved, time seems to be running out. The other surviving building, barely visible in the 1915 photo, is the tenement building on the northwest corner of Oak and Kelton.

And in November 2015.

Third in this list is a photo of the demolition of the old Franklin County Jail, once located at 36 E. Fulton Street in Downtown. Built in 1889, the structure survived until the fall of 1971, when the building, which by then had become outdated for its intended purpose, was torn down to make way for- what else- a parking garage. The parking garage remains to the present day. Columbus leaders at the time should’ve been flogged for such short-sighted thinking, something that was repeated over and over and over again during that era. Today, such a very cool, gothic building would’ve made an excellent candidate for mixed-use conversion.

And in August 2016.

Finally, this next photo isn’t really historic. It was taken a mere 15 years ago in February, 2002, looking northwest from the corner of N. High Street and 10th Avenue. At the time, this area had been made up of low-rise historic buildings that had long held bars for OSU students. All these buildings in the photo, and many more, were demolished not long after the photo was taken in order to make room for the South Campus Gateway, now more or less just called the Gateway. Similar large-scale demolitions are taking place to the north and south as the entirety of the High Street corridor around Campus is transformed. Whether that is good or bad depends on who you ask. What can be agreed upon, however, is that the corridor will be almost unrecognizable in the end.

And in October, 2016.

Random Columbus Photos #4

Date Photo Taken: 1989
Photo Location: Looking west on Broad Street from LeVeque Tower.

This photo is interesting for a few reasons. First, it shows the beginning of construction to replace the Broad Street Bridge over the Scioto River. After the Great Flood of 1913 destroyed an earlier Broad Street Bridge, the one in the photo was finished in 1921. By the early 1980s, the bridge was rapidly deteriorating and the decision was made to replace it. It’s reconstruction start, however, was delayed until 1988 due to a contract to keep the Columbus 500 auto race going, which used the bridge. The nearly identical new bridge was completed in 1992 at a cost of $13.2 million.
Across the bridge is the Scioto Peninsula. On the right is Vets Memorial, built in the 1950s and recently demolished to make way for a new memorial and museum as part of the redevelopment of the peninsula. On the left is the old Central High School, years before it was converted into COSI’s new location. Also of note are warehouse and other buildings that still existed on the peninsula, remnants of when this area was largely manufacturing. These were mostly demolished in the 1990s and early 2000s and were left as vacant lots for well over a decade, some of them becoming parking lots for COSI. These lots will soon become part of a large mixed-use development and park.

Update- Historic Residential Pages

I added a few dozen more houses to the Historic Residential pages, mostly to the Other Residential page. These are some of the site’s most popular pages, so if anyone out there has old photos of homes or neighborhoods around Columbus, I would love to add them! In the meantime, enjoy the more than 325 featured historic homes.