Wild Wild West Branch
Modern-day West Branch State Park, which sprawls across central Portage County in the path of the West Branch of the Mahoning River, has its origins in the wilds of the historic Connecticut Western Reserve. The Western Reserve was a vast tract of wilderness on the northern border of the Ohio Territory that had been promised to the colony of Connecticut by England’s King Charles II prior to the Revolutionary War. Connecticut gave up its claim in 1795, and a survey party led by Moses Cleveland arrived in 1796 to begin the process of settlement. Portage County was not easily tamed, however, and the area remained largely unsettled for several years after Ohio achieved statehood in 1803.
In addition to harsh winters and hostile natives, early pioneers had to contend with dangerous wildlife, including wolves, bears and thousands of rattlesnakes that thrived in the area. Portage County’s first historian penned a chilling account of a savage, exotic creature that preyed on livestock, which he dubbed the “woolynig”-most likely a lynx or wolverine. The pioneers who staked their claims here were extraordinarily hardy, though, and even the dreaded woolynig was no match for the legendary “Mother” Ward, a robust frontierswoman who carved her own home out of the forest near Crystal Lake, and reputedly made annual treks back to her family in Pennsylvania, hiking barefoot.
The grit, perseverance and creativity required of the area’s first settlers were apparently passed along to later generations. A number of colorful characters, some eccentric and some accomplished, kept the pioneer spirit alive with extraordinary accomplishments.
In 1840, the P & O canal was established on the Mahoning River from Akron, Ohio to Beaver, Pennsylvania, with connections to Pittsburgh. Canal travel was convenient, but slow; a one-way trip to Pittsburgh took 26 hours. Algernon Pinney, a local inventor, brainstormed a way to speed up the trip. He envisioned a canal boat propelled by steam power. He built the boat of his dreams with a working steam engine, but when he took it to the canal for its inaugural launch, he found that the boat was too wide the fit inside the narrow canal channels.
Pinney abandoned the steamboat project, but not his fascination with faster transportation. He set his sights on flight, and fabricated two wings for his arms, and two for his legs, which he attempted to operate manually. Pinney boldly risked life and limb, literally, to get off the ground, but the project was a flop. Undettered, his next invention met with greater success. It was an umbrella parachute, which served its purpose, fortunately, so that Pinney survived to keep on with his imaginative innovations.
An infamous denizen of the P & O canal, Captain “Pod” Moore, tyrannized the canal boat crews with his intimidating six-foot-ten-inch frame and boisterous drinking binges. Pod was so strong that he could bend silver dollars with his massive fingers. He was so hot-tempered that he beat the crews of three canal boats senseless when one hapless crewman taunted Pod with the nickname “Fat Belly” while the canal boats were idling in the canal channel waiting to lock through. The tales of Pod’s exploits took an abrupt turn for the better when Pod experienced a sudden and amazing change of heart, abandoned his wicked ways, and eventually became a leading advocate for Prohibition.
One of Ravenna’s most accomplished residents, Frederick J. Loudin, persevered against hardship and discrimination to introduce America’s native music to the world. Frederick’s grandparents endured the horror of being seized from their native Africa and crammed into a slave ship. Fortunately, they were brought to Connecticut, where slaves were emancipated by the early 1800s, and their children were born free. Frederick’s parents settled on a small farm in Portage County and shortly after Frederick’s birth in 1836, moved the family to Ravenna to provide a better education for the children.
Frederick excelled at school, and later served as an apprentice to the printer of an abolitionist newspaper. Among his many talents, Frederick’s greatest gift was his beautiful baritone singing voice. Frederick appreciated the relative freedom he enjoyed as a young black man in the north during the Civil War, but he constantly felt the sting of racial discrimination-particularly when he was banned from singing in the local church choir.
After the Civil War, Frederick moved to Tennessee and joined the Jubilee Singers, a gospel choir associated with Fisk University. During the 1870s, the Jubilee Singers set out on an ambitious concert tour, introducing traditional spirituals to white audiences in churches across the northern U.S. Ironically, the baritone voice that was silenced in the Ravenna church a decade earlier was ringing out to rave reviews in churches across the country.
The original choir disbanded after the national tour, but Frederick stayed on and took over as director with a new troupe of Jubilee Singers. In 1884, he launched a six-year world tour. The choir traveled and sang throughout England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, China, Japan, and the American West. The poignant spirituals, which gave rise to jazz, were hailed as America’s truly original music. After the tour, Frederick returned to Ravenna, built his family a home, started two successful businesses, patented two inventions (one was the key ring), and became a tireless advocate for African American rights, all while continuing to sing and direct the choir. He died in Ravenna in 1904.
The advent of the railroads toward the end of the 19th century was a tremendous boon for Portage County commerce. The area had become well known for the high-quality cheese produced at creameries that dotted the countryside, and the railroads provided efficient transportation to deliver fresh cheese to southern markets. The wealth of railroad connections that were established here during the heyday of rail building became an asset for national security during World War II.
In 1940, the U.S. Army selected a 21,000-acre site east of Ravenna to prepare and store ammunition for the war effort. The Ravenna Arsenal was the largest arms producing facility in the U.S. during World War II, thanks to its strategic location in Portage County that provided a large tract of undeveloped land, ample supply of water, and a skilled workforce close to the rail lines needed to move tons of sensitive ammunition quickly and efficiently.
In 1965, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the West Branch of the Mahoning River in central Portage County to create the Michael J. Kirwan Reservoir for flood control and water supply, as well as recreation and fish and wildlife management. West Branch State Park was established in 1966 to provide additional outdoor recreation facilities for boating, swimming and fishing on the reservoir, as well as picnicking, camping, and hunting. More than 40 miles of trails have been developed for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.
Recent improvements to West Branch’s campground have transformed it from a rustic retreat for no-frills camping to one of the premier campgrounds in the Ohio State Park system. The 201-site campground features 29 sites with full-service hookups (including electricity, water and sewer), and 155 sites with 50-amp electrical service. Five of the electric sites are wheelchair accessible. Two new showerhouses feature wheelchair accessible family restrooms. Fourteen non-electric campsites, along with a rustic horseman’s camp and three group camp sites that can accommodate families or organized groups with tents, are available for those who prefer to rough it…in the spirit of the pioneers on the wild, wild Western Reserve.