Sometimes, when I’m driving into Cincinnati from Dayton, I watch the horizon line to the south and feel that quickening of the senses that coming home can impart. The land stretches across the woods and fields (and behind the housing tracts and shopping malls) into a gentle upward slope until the sky claims it, and just when it looks like nothing could lie beyond, the hills come into view again. Gentle, rolling, densely wooded and, in their way, welcoming. When I see them, I know I’m back.
First it’s the hills bordering the Mill Creek Valley, far enough apart that their prominence is not immediately apparent. Then, as the city comes closer, the rear slopes of Clifton and Fairview Heights push in from the left; College Hill, Fairmount, and Price Hill loom to the right; and in time, the mounded skyline of Kentucky rises up. Downtown, steeper hills surround the basin. If I am crossing Ft. Washington Way, I glimpse the hill between Third and Fourth streets that local historian Dan Hurley tells me “is the most important of all, because it prevents the city from flooding.”
Many of our neighborhoods—Mt. Airy, Bond Hill, College Hill, Kennedy Heights, Mt. Lookout, Mt. Washington, Pleasant Ridge, and Winton Hills, to name a few—take their names from their elevations. Many of our parks—Ault, Alms, Eden, Jackson Hill, Mt. Echo, and Mt. Storm—get their character from their views. Our hills provide pedestals for some of our most familiar landmarks: Holy Cross-Immaculata Church on Mt. Adams, Hughes Center High School in Clifton Heights, St. Francis de Sales in Walnut Hills (the visibility of its steeple from long distances is remarkable), the Twin Towers retirement community in College Hill.
Our hills, the defining feature of our surroundings, are lovely. Naturalist John Tallmadge, in The Cincinnati Arch, his homage to the wildness that persists within the city’s borders, explains: “Thanks to the Ice Age, we enjoy a steep, complex topography that favors wildlife and confounds the builders…. Our urban forests come in all shapes and sizes, from large preserves like Mt. Airy Forest or Spring Grove Cemetery (733 acres, half of them wild) to neighborhood parks and backyard borders. Many of these are connected by corridors of varying width from a single hedgerow to hillsides a quarter mile across. Individually, they’re as crooked and edgy as jigsaw puzzle pieces. From the air, they make Cincinnati look like a Persian rug, with the colorful, miniaturized forms of buildings and roads woven into an intricate green background.”
One day last winter, I arranged to meet Tallmadge. Formerly a professor of literature, currently a freelance writer and editor with a focus on environmental issues, he was quick to elaborate on his prose. “The hills enable wild areas to exist all through the city,” he pointed out. “As a result, Cincinnati has animals and greenery that other cities don’t have. Moreover, they demarcate the neighborhoods. While it’s not entirely true that each is separated from the others by hills, many are. They divide the city geographically, and to some extent socially and economically. In a very real sense, the hills give Cincinnati its character.”
Not everyone has shared that reverence. Although early renderings show the hills around the basin as green and wooded, they did not remain so for long. In the public library, the famous Fontayne & Porter daguerreotype of the riverfront in 1848 shows those same hills starkly denuded. Between 1840 and 1870 Cincinnati’s population grew from 46,338 to 216,239, and the hillsides fell victim to the pressure. In his 2002 master’s thesis, “Land Use and Land Sliding in Price Hill,” local geologist and real estate broker Tim Agnello ticked off the mid-19th century abuses: homesteading, road-building, clear-cutting for lumber, livestock grazing, and extensive quarrying. “Look at the plat maps for the hillsides,” Agnello said to me recently. “There are paper streets”—streets now grown over and/or planned but not built—“everywhere, and foundations and ruins all over the city. We’ve got these hillsides for one reason. They’re hard to build on. If they weren’t, there’d be houses all over.”
John Cleves Symmes, the original landholder for this entire region, chose to ignore the hills as he set about selling his acreage. In 1788, he advertised the land between the two Miami rivers as “having excellent soil and climate, an absence of mountains, level country. . . .” Less than a century later, state geologist Edward Orton was more realistic. The colluvial slopes of Cincinnati, he said in an 1873 survey, would be a “disadvantage” for building. He predicted: “These shales have scarcely tenacity enough to hold their place in steep descents when acted on by water and ice; still less when they have been removed from their original beds can they be made to cohere; and they form treacherous foundations for buildings erected on them or for roadways constructed in them.”
Rarely, perhaps, was a state official more prescient. This year’s mudslides in Mt. Auburn, along Columbia Parkway, and in Price Hill are only the latest in a long and frustrating struggle between the forces of growth and the forces of gravity. When the debacle on Elberon Avenue burst forth in January, Richard Pohana, the geotechnical engineer for the city, arrived early one morning to see the earth move “probably 50 feet in two hours.” It was a remarkable sight, of course. But for Pohana, who has been keeping an eye on the city’s hillsides for 24 years, it was déjà vu.
I have always loved our hills. I can remember, as a reporter for The Cincinnati Post in the early 1970s, driving north on Hamilton Avenue and feeling slightly sickened at the sight of the new Ashtree Shopping Center freshly carved from the slope on the west side of the road (today, the complex has been taken over by the Greater New Bethlehem Temple Apostolic Church). The raw cut behind the low-slung buildings spoke volumes: The shopping center didn’t belong there. Heavy equipment was able to put it there. No regulations existed to stop it.
Things are better now. We have the nonprofit Hillside Trust, dedicated to the preservation of our hills and views. There are some regulations. There is awareness of the importance of the natural environment and the domino-like consequences of playing fast and loose with it. Still, it never hurts to be reminded.
Drive around the city and look—really look—at the hillsides. Ask yourself: Whose sensibility is at work here? John Tallmadge’s or John Cleves Symmes’s? When nature is good to us, and blesses us with plenty, our default behavior is to take it for granted. Too often, we abuse it. Here’s a cautionary thought that’s not entirely irrelevant: The last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
In the Geier Collections and Research Center on West Fifth Street—the building with sculptures of wooly mammoths in front—Brenda Hunda has her office. Hunda is young, with dark hair, bright eyes, and small features. She is intense. The curator of invertebrate paleontology at Cincinnati Museum Center, she lectures frequently, talks rapidly, and on the day I met with her, dropped her professional facade long enough to remark: “I love landslides because they’re part of the earth doing what it’s supposed to do. The earth’s job is to take areas that are high and bring them low. We take risks in accessing some of those areas, but when things happen, it’s part of the natural process. Geology is not something that just happened in the past. It happens all the time.”
I asked Hunda how our hills were created. The answer was complex, involving an ancient sea that covered Southwest Ohio 450 million years ago; a “super-continent” called Pangea, which, when formed, thrust to the surface the Ordovician rock left under the great sea (we see this rock around us today); an ancient river, the Teays, which flowed north through today’s Mill Creek Valley about two million years ago; and three periods of “glaciations,” the last of them reaching back only 18,000 years.
In laymen’s terms, the great sea receded after several hundred million years, most likely related to the forces of plate tectonics and glaciation. Pangea, the super-continent, uplifted and broke apart; for the next 240 million years, this region was a terrestrial environment, exposed to the actions of erosion. This resulted in the Lexington peneplain that now surrounds us—that vast, almost flat land mass to which the horizon lines of all our hills conform. The Teays River, a gigantic stream, cut into the peneplain and gave birth to the two Miami Rivers and the Mill Creek. In doing so, it also began carving our hills.
The three glaciers that followed—and this is the critical part—each bulldozed the earth, pushing before it a pile of ice, rocks, and debris. At its southernmost point, the glacier formed a “moraine”—in effect, a dam pushing the water of the Teays and subsequently forming river valleys (like the modern Mill Creek Valley) into lakes. As the ice melted and the lakes overflowed their banks, the hills that had begun to take shape with the Teays deepened. They grew from roughly 150 feet deep to their current 350 to 400 feet above the Ohio (which is at an elevation of 500 feet).
The soil left on the surface was the clay that became the inspiration for Rookwood Pottery and the scourge of local gardeners. It is no friend to builders, either.
“The clays of the Ordovician ocean are weak,” Hunda explains. “The glaciers carved steep slopes through melting and glacial outwash. When you take an inherently weak material and place it on a high slope, it is destabilizing. Then you expose it to water, and the combination makes a beautiful recipe for landslides. Add to that human activity: loading up the hillside with weight it’s not able to bear and creating drainage patterns where they shouldn’t be . . . it isn’t going to work out well.”
And indeed, it hasn’t. Cincinnati’s history of mudslides is long and messy. Twentieth century records include both gargantuan individual slides and miserable periods of multiple slides prompted by unusually wet weather. Thus we had 87 acres near the Riverside Harrison School, on the west side, displaced in 1926; the first major documented slide on Columbia Parkway in 1933; memorable problems associated with reconstruction of the Waldvogel (Sixth Street) Viaduct in 1950; and due to construction of I-75, displacements near Cincinnati State that cost more than $400,000 to remedy in 1956 and 1957. Sixteen years later, construction of I-471 triggered a collapse of lower Mt. Adams from below Oregon Street to the base of the hill.
If slide activity is severe enough, as it was in 1973, 1996, and this year, the area affected can qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance, which means the federal government will handle 75 percent of the clean-up cost. Ohio Emergency Management handles another 12.5 percent, and the city picks up the remainder. Between 1973 and 1978, Hamilton County devoted a total of $31 million to mudslide remediation—excluding the $30 million, give or take, required to shore up Mt. Adams. In 1996, damages from landslides in Hamilton County exceeded $10 million.
Near Richard Pohana’s City Hall office is a fascinating city map. The areas prone to serious slides are inked in red—so many of them, they look like flames on the brink of a conflagration. But Pohana doesn’t see it like that. “We have come a long way since the 1970s; other cities are just catching up to where we are now,” he says. “Most of the roads that should be reinforced on the downside against erosion are.” The city now has 1,837 retaining walls holding back the earth. Joined together, they’d make a bulwark 59 miles long.
Arguably, the most significant year in the history of Cincinnati landslides was 1973. In addition to a section of Mt. Adams giving way, major slides occurred along Columbia Parkway, the bend in Clifton Avenue, and on Hillside Avenue in Delhi Township. The combined disasters led to the passage of a 1974 cut-and-fill ordinance mandating that anyone wishing to build on the hillsides submit the plan to the city’s zoning department—a measure that environmental activists had lobbied for for years.
Pohana cites one of the most notorious pre-ordinance problems: The Fay Apartments, built in the early 1960s atop one of the southernmost hills lining the Mill Creek Valley, a public housing project commandeered by HUD at a time when no one was thinking about ecology. Builders flattened the top of the hill, poured the sediment over the sides, and slapped down the cheap units that remain an eyesore to this day. “There were no regulations,” Pohana said recently. “They overloaded the top, they created draining problems that still persist, and we’ve been cleaning up ever since.”
The second significant milestone in the effort to remediate landslides was an agreement in 1989—the year Pohana came to City Hall—to earmark funds for landslide repair and the kind of capital improvements that would handle slides before they happened, such as reinforcing retaining walls and inspecting them regularly. Approximately $1 million annually was set aside; recently, with the city’s budgetary problems, the sum has dropped to more like $650,000 annually.
Even in its diminished distribution, Pohana notes that the money has made all the difference.
On a warm day in January, I walk through the streambeds and ravines of LaBoiteaux Woods in College Hill with John Tallmadge. Trees surround us as far as the eye can see, brown and leafless in the winter light. Tallmadge wants to show me first-hand the wildness within the city that is the gift of our hills. A surprising amount of it, he says, is not in neighborhood parks but in nature preserves and natural areas such as the north end of Spring Grove Cemetery, where we are headed now.
“Over there,” he says, pointing, “that beech is old, and old beech trees indicate an older forest. You can tell by its girth.” A self-taught naturalist, Tallmadge is curious about everything he sees. Spotting a small, fossilized rock, he runs his finger across its furrowed surface, utters the scientific name—“bryozoan”—and pockets it. Standing on a long, steep embankment in the middle of the woods, he hypothesizes that it is manmade, perhaps the foundation of an early streetcar line. “We can look it up,” he says. “The history is usually available.”
That much I know. In Tim Agnello’s master thesis is a pre-1930 photograph of Bald Knob, a rock formation at the north end of Price Hill. You can’t take a photo of it today: It was used for fill to create the foundation for Union Terminal. At the time of the picture, Bald Knob had something of the presence of Mont Saint-Michel—a rock of castle-like proportions towering in the middle distance behind (and slightly to the right of) the site of the proposed train station. Today, it is a low plateau at best. To create the base that supports the Union Terminal foundation, limestone was removed from Bald Knob. To infill portions of the land surrounding the terminal, its shale was used. In all, approximately 4 million cubic yards of limestone and shale were stripped from the huge rock (with another 2 million taken from other locations to infill the valley in the vicinity of Union Terminal). Depending on your sensibility, it was either a wise use of natural resources or blatant environmental degradation.
I tell the story to Tallmadge with a bit of a too-bad-it-had-to-happen spin, but he is sanguine. “People are going to change landscapes,” he says. “It’s inevitable. People have been here for 200 years. There are more of us than ever, and that isn’t going to change.” We are hiking now beneath a power line that runs the length of the county; the ground beneath us is grassy, the space open. We crest a hill above Gray Road, look southeast across the Mill Creek Valley, and there, in the distance, are the high-rises of East Walnut Hills and Hyde Park, the towers of UC and, sure enough, the St. Francis de Sales steeple. Behind us, for a considerable trek, it’s all woods and steep descents.
“Sometime,” says Tallmadge, “I’d like to hike the whole length of this power line. There’s so much to see.” He grows excited; his enthusiasm is expressed in decibels. “Think of it! We have four places in Cincinnati where you can see old growth trees. Very few cities can say that. It’s amazing!”*
What is more amazing, I think, is that despite all the people and the urban pressures, and all the damage we have done to them, our hillsides remain magnificent. I recall the previous week, when I stood on the observation deck of Carew Tower with Dan Hurley and looked at the panorama to the north. The thickets of bare-limbed trees and the endless brick buildings rippled across the ridges like a topographical map come to life.
While we were there, Hurley cited the locations of the five inclines, built in the late 1800s and dismantled before the mid-1900s. He pinpointed the pathetic remains of Bald Knob. He nodded toward the Mill Creek Valley, reminding me that it was the only natural way to access the city from the north until I-71 was cut into the shale some 50 years ago.
I listened, and I learned, but mostly I looked. In this city where we can be so preoccupied with river views, I wasn’t seeing a drop of water. I was fixated on the hills.
*California Woods, Winton Woods, Caldwell Preserve, and Ault Park all contain stands of old-growth forest.
Photograph by Nathan Kirkman.
Originally published in the May 2012 issue.