Could there be a 19th-century boatyard used to build ships for the War of 1812 hidden in a former Akron golf course-turned-park?
A crew of archaeologists is working to find out.
Rumors about a boatyard used to construct vessels for the conflict between the United States and Great Britain have persisted for decades, said Summit Metro Parks cultural resource coordinator Megan Shaeffer, who’s working at the site.
"The idea of the 1812 shipyard has been in local lore for a very long time,” she said.
The site, sandwiched between the Cuyahoga River on one side and the Ohio & Erie Towpath Trail, the Akron trunk sewer and a railroad line on the other side, is on the grounds of the former Valley View Golf Club, which closed in 2015. The Summit Metro Parks purchased the property for $4 million in October 2016.
By working with local historians and researching historical documents, the crew narrowed down the possible location to a 3-acre site located on a five-minute muddy, bumpy, Gator drive off Cuyahoga Street, between Sand Run Metro Park and Cascade Valley Metro Park.
According to local lore, Shaeffer said, there were two dry dock pits, each lined with wood to reinforce them against the “mucky” environment. They could be used to build eight to 10 boats at a time, with four to five boats in each.
When the ships were done, they were log-rolled the short distance to the Cuyahoga River and sent upriver to get their masts attached at another point. After that, they were sent wherever they were needed. Shaeffer said some may have been sent to the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie.
Shaeffer said the ships would have been Schenectady boats, 40- to 50-foot-long flat-bottomed supply boats used for cargo and provisions.
The boatyard started up around 1813 and would have only been active for a short time, which she said makes it archaeologically difficult to find.
Was there a boatyard at the site of Akron’s former Valley View Golf Club that was used to build ships for the War of 1812? I spent the afternoon getting cold, wet and muddy finding out. @ohiodotcom will have the story soon! pic.twitter.com/Jm1T3tm6Lv
— Emily Mills (@EmilyMills818) November 9, 2018//
Shaeffer was working at the site Friday with University of Akron archaeology professor Tim Matney, contract archaeologist Charlotte Gintert and geophysical surveyor Morgan Revels.
The crew is in the middle of a roughly two-week geophysical survey of the site, which is a wetland. Geophysical surveys allow archaeologists to gather information about what's under the ground without having to dig.
"We can't just go in and dig, so we're doing the geophysical survey to kind of narrow where we might want to do future work, if we should do future work here," Shaeffer said.
Dozens of white flags mark metal detector hits at the site. The crew is now working on a magnetic gradiometer survey.
Matney said a magnetic gradiometer is a machine that measures slight fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. The crew laid out a grid and is taking closely spaced measurements, which will be converted into a map showing the area’s underground features with magnetic properties.
Matney said they’ll look at the soil's magnetic properties to determine if the soil in depressed areas is different from the soil around it, which would indicate it was brought in separately and isn’t just a natural depression.
A depression on one part of the site appears promising — it could be a dry dock pit, Shaeffer said.
"Or it could just be a pit,” Matney said. “… So far, the results are ambiguous at best."
In the coming weeks and months, the crew will layer all the data they’ve gathered on top of each other — the metal detector hits, the magnetic gradiometer survey results, the area's topography and other information — to see if any patterns emerge.
They’re looking for anything that looks man-made, especially lines and squares. What they find will determine if they come back next field season, in summer or early fall, to dig at the site.
"This is the kind of area where you definitely don't want to just dig willy-nilly," Shaeffer said. "You want it to be very focused."
The park district is in the midst of a years-long process of converting the 194-acre Valley View property, which was a golf course for more than 50 years and a farm for at least a century before that, from a lush turf landscape back to its natural state. Restoration of the Cuyahoga River is the next phase. It will still be another couple of years before any part of the property is open to the public.
In the meantime, Shaeffer and the others will continue their research to determine if the boatyard really did exist there.
“If there is a cultural resource here, we're gonna take care of it, and we're going to do right by it,” Shaeffer said. “And if there's not a cultural resource here, we will know, and that's important, too.”
Beacon Journal reporter Emily Mills can be reached at 330-996-3334, firstname.lastname@example.org and @EmilyMills818.