ELYRIA — The east and west branches of the Black River cut through Elyria like an unclasped, upside-down necklace, converging in a serpentine pendant in the heart of Cascade Park.
The river, called Canesadooharie (kah-NESS-ah-DOO-hah-REE) by the area’s indigenous people, then flows northward toward Lake Erie.
According to “Cascade Park: Elyria’s Beautiful Natureland,” a 1936 book by Frank Wilford, this translates as “stream of freshwater pearls.” The urban oasis known as Cascade Park — called a “miniature Yellowstone” and Elyria’s “Central Park” — is, without question, a pearl of great price.
The park recently received an expansive polishing — the Lorain County Metro Parks remade it after assuming control of it from the city, which struggled to maintain it. It looks different than the park most recalled growing up — many of the old trees were removed due to disease and decay and the familiar playground apparatus are gone — but the park’s long history in the city will continue under new stewardship.
Wilford said his book was “a detailed record of the gorges of the Canesadooharie as gleaned from available historical data, from the rocks and caves, and from the memory of man, together with touches of Indian tradition and mystic lore.”
By 1655, a faction of warring tribes in the region had annihilated the powerful Eries. By 1755, the Wyandots were “the last owners of Cascade Park, prior to the coming of the immigrants from across the Atlantic.”
The park’s inhabitants found much to sustain them. The area was considered one of the greatest game countries on the continent, with elk, deer, bear, buffalo, wolves, wildcats and turkeys roaming in abundance.
Later, the nucleus of Cascade Park was created in 1894 when, just before his death, Heman Ely II, the oldest son of Elyria’s founder, with his own son, George Henry, and his nephew, William A. Ely, deeded a 15-acre tract to the city that included land on both branches of the Black River and their junction.
In 1900, the Ely cousins donated a second parcel of land — the rocks and caves of the Black River’s west bank on the west branch. That included the Old Stone Quarry, Shelter Cave, the Ancient Waterfall and Oyster Shell Rock.
And the Bear’s Den.
Mink and more
At one time there existed something called “Mink Run”— a small cavern directly west of what was known as the Big Cave, an impressive rock opening adjunct to the West Falls. This cavern, wrote Wilford, led from the rear of the waterfall back into the rocks for some distance and could be reached only when the water was low.
“Standing back of the fall,” Wilford wrote, “it is plainly seen as an ideal animal retreat, for, as its name indicates, it was long the abode of the elusive mink. The last pair of mink was spotted during the summer of 1925.”
Fur of a different sort looms large in Cascade Park lore.
Blinky Morgan and his gang, famous desperados who terrorized the area in the late 19th century, purportedly stashed furs they had stolen from a downtown Cleveland department store in a Cascade Park cavern. Known as the “Robbers’ Den,” so-called because a counterfeiting operation had once used it as a rendezvous, it was the perfect hideout for Blinky and company.
On the night of Jan. 26, 1887, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (https://case.edu/ech/) and a Chronicle account by Connie Davis, the gang robbed the Benedict and Ruedy store of a large number of valuable furs. On the run following the heist, and with police alerted in two states, they boarded an eastbound train in Bedford, stashing the furs in two trunks. On Feb. 10, 1887, trying to rescue a gang member who had been taken prisoner, the outlaws shot and mortally wounded a Cleveland detective on a train returning from Allegheny, Pa. It is a breathless story of cops and robbers worthy of a film treatment.
Whether or not the furs remained on the train or ended up in the Robbers’ Den is a mystery. In 1913, Wilford wrote, a flood destroyed “every vestige” of the main entrance to the den. By 1936, what remained of the cave could only be reached by a small and dangerous side crevice.
Once upon a time, there were four black bears. They lived in a wood called Cascade Park, in a cage tucked into a grotto once used as a Native American campfire site.
If you grew up in Elyria in midcentury, you already know the names of these real-life fairy-tale characters: Grandma, the Mama Bear; Pete, the Papa Bear; Sophie, given to the park by a man in New London; and Gracie.
Like Sophie, Gracie was born in the mid-1950s. Unlike Sophie, Gracie was one of three cubs born to Grandma and Pete. Cubs born in captivity are, at times, at risk of being killed by a parent, and that’s what happened — Pete killed two cubs. Park Warden John Machock took the survivor into his home to protect her, naming her Gracie.
Machock, his wife, Bernadine, and his five children lived in a red house on West River Road, near the park entrance and the sledding hill. They cared for Gracie, feeding her from a bottle like a baby, and playing with her the way they played with their cocker spaniels. Machock’s only surviving child, Patty Machock McBain of Cleveland Heights, recalled in an August phone interview that life with Gracie in the house “was wonderful.”
When Gracie was nearly full-grown, however, John Machock knew she had to return to life in the den.
Please feed the bears
Retired city employee Gary Siwierka of Elyria worked at Cascade Park for 30 years, beginning in 1972. Feeding the bears was one of his duties. Speaking by phone, he recounted the legendary story that has been passed on since Machock’s death in 1965: “Johnny Machock saved Gracie’s life.” Siwierka said that Gracie, after experiencing life among humans, was as gentle as a dog.
“She would bump you with her head until you petted her in the back of the neck,” he said.
While Gracie was still a liberated cub living with the Machock family, she reportedly made the rounds of Elyria’s taverns.
According to an archival Chronicle article by Connie Davis, Gracie “was sometimes taken bar-hopping in Elyria and developed a taste for beer.” Richard “Gibby” Gibbons of Elyria, who began working at the park when he was 18 and remained there for more than 45 years, also helped care for the bears. He told Davis (and reiterated during a May interview at his home) that he couldn’t say who was in the driver’s seat during Gracie’s pub crawls.
Having graduated from the bottle, Gracie eventually shared the bears’ typical diet. This consisted of a mixture of skim milk, sardines and stale bread from Link’s Bakery. Park officials ultimately obtained a diet recommendation from the Cleveland Zoo: Dad’s Dog Food. Three tons, annually, were required to satisfy their appetites.
Papa Bear Pete was euthanized in the mid-1960s, Mama Bear Grandma sometime after 1969. That left Sophie and Gracie to charm Elyrians. In 1979, at nearly 25 years of age, Gracie had to be put down. Sophie, nicknamed “Mona” because of her grousing, lived for another six to eight months.
Grandma, Sophie and Gracie, however, would have a great adventure before shuffling off their mortal coil.
Water, water everywhere
The Black River, a defining characteristic of Cascade Park, has historically been a boon to Elyria. Chronicle reporter Davis wrote in 1978:
“Just downstream from the Washington Avenue bridge is the crescent of a dam which once impounded water for mills, later for a power plant that supplied electricity to the city. A short distance beyond the dam the river plunges in a 40-foot cascade over the East Falls into a gorge carved by glaciers during the Ice Age.
“Soon thereafter, (the river) junctions with the waters of the … West Branch, which tumble over another 40-foot falls beside the Lake Avenue bridge.
“Did you know,” Davis asked, that “these two falls are the highest natural falls in northern Ohio?”
At intervals throughout Elyria’s history, however, the water has not always been so kind.
The first major flood in recorded annals occurred in 1832, destroying dams and mills along the river. According to the book “Elyria 175: 1817-1992,” the river’s highest recorded level occurred during a flood in February of 1883. But it was the flood of 1832 that was a benchmark, used as a point of comparison for what came to be called “The Great Flood” of March 1913 — the one that destroyed the Robbers’ Den.
In 1959, Ron Nagy of Elyria had not yet begun working for the city’s Parks Department, which managed Cascade Park until 2014, but he remembers the devastating flood in January of that year.
His parents lived on Louisiana Avenue near the sledding hill. That’s the vantage point from which his father, Steve Nagy, took photographs depicting a submerged concession stand, bathhouse and restroom following torrential rains.
A paper published by the U. S. Department of the Interior, “Floods of 1959 in the United States,” noted: “The Black River flooded the center of Elyria. Small streams in the area swept cars from roads and caused a night of terror.” According to a Chronicle article Sept. 16, 1959, “the flood of … January reportedly caused damages in the Black River basin in excess of $500,000.”
Ten years later, on the Fourth of July, it happened again.
The storms spawned tornadoes, inspiring this Chronicle headline the following day: “Even for the unharmed … a night of fear.” Although Elyria suffered no deaths or serious injuries, a retrospective article in the Plain Dealer reported that dozens throughout Northeast Ohio were killed. The July Fourth fireworks at Cascade Park had started at 7:30 p.m. They abruptly stopped 40 minutes later, with the Chronicle reporting that an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 people were evacuated from the park.
By 1969, Ron Nagy was working full time for the city. A member of the park’s crew that July, he played a supporting role in saving the bears, who nearly drowned in the rising waters.
The Great Bear Rescue of 1969
The Fourth of July deluge flooded the golf courses at Spring Valley Country Club and the Cherry Ridge Golf Club, the wastewater treatment plant on Gulf Road, and devastated the entirety of Cascade Park. Everything was underwater: the tennis courts destroyed, the pool and its mechanicals ruined, most of the playground equipment mangled and trees throughout the area uprooted.
“The pavement,” said Gibby Gibbons, “rolled up like a rug.”
The black bears, Grandma, Sophie and Gracie, were in danger. Water had risen to a dangerous level in their den; the park crew’s first priority was to save them. In a July interview at his home near the entrance to Elywood Park, Gibbons recounted the saga:
“On the day of the flood, we couldn’t drive to the bear cage.… Ronnie Nagy, who couldn’t swim, stayed (above the bear cage) … while Greg Lesher and I come down through a big opening in the two big rocks, like a narrow walkway to the front of the cage.…The water was that high (he gestures with his hand) … they were standing in water shoulder-deep…the bears only had about a foot-and-a-half space before the whole cage would have been covered with water.
“Me and Lesher took 120 feet of blue strand manila rope and from the top of the cliff overhanging the bear cage proceeded to put planking in the cage and wire it up to the fencing, so the bears would at least have a place to hang on, and enough air room to breathe.
“After the crew positioned the boards, Gracie and Sophie climbed up on the planking.”
Old Grandma, Nagy recalled, had remained in her den, seated on a wooden pallet that had floated on the rising water. “It floated her right up and she had enough of an air pocket to survive, so she was safe,” he said. Gracie and Sophie hung onto the planking for dear life.
The tennis courts never reopened. Some members of the Facebook group “You Know You’re From Elyria If ….” remembered that a vintage fire truck, long a favorite attraction for children playing in the park, was ruined by the flood. At some point, it was removed.
The iconic round pool, built in 1926 through inventive and vigorous fundraising efforts of the Elyria Kiwanis Club, was repaired and restored. But the city’s four neighborhood recreational parks, each with their own pool, had rendered superfluous the pool at Cascade. Vulnerable as it was to flooding, and a strain on the city’s coffers, the pool that once was lauded by Chronicle sports writer Jerry Rombach, a Friends of Cascade Park founder, as “more impressive than anything Lorain or any community our size in northern Ohio had,” had reached the end of its usefulness. It closed in 1985. For several years after, deserted and surrounded by overgrown weeds, it looked, wrote Rombach, “like a ruin of Ancient Rome.”
On March 29, 1989, the Chronicle reported, the city finally filled in the pool, and an era ended.
‘Mr. Elyria Parks’
Today, Cascade Park is experiencing a rebirth, thanks to the 2014 partnership between the city of Elyria and Lorain County Metro Parks. If you go, you’ll see a plaque affixed to a rock, slightly south of the playground, that honors a man once called “Mr. Elyria Parks” and “the Patron Saint of Cascade Park.”
Bob Choate wrote in the Chronicle in 1983: “If any one man could claim responsibility for the beauty of (Elyria’s parks), it was John. He loved and knew nature as do few men.”
From his hilltop home, Machock watched over Cascade Park like a hawk. One news account reported that after a heavy rain, with the river swollen, he walked the banks and pulled children to safety. Machock died of pneumonia in 1965. His wife and four of his five children also are gone. Left to preserve his legacy is his daughter Patty Machock McBain, who graduated from Elyria High School in 1955.
Cascade Park “was our whole playground,” she said. “Every summer, swimming in the pool … and every winter, sliding and skating.”
One of her favorite memories? “Every year (the city) put all the Christmas trees collected from residents down in the baseball diamond on the 12th day of Christmas, and lit a big bonfire.”
Of her father, McBain said: “The park was his life.”
She continues to share her father with Elyria to this day. She wrote the dedication inscribed on John Machock’s plaque:
The story of his 42 years with Elyria’s Park System is written in the trees, the flowers and the birds around you. We who have reaped the harvest of his labors, and those to come after us dedicate this hillside to his memory.”
TIMELINE: Cascade Park in Three Centuries
1817 Elyria is founded by Heman Ely; within eight years, the Old Red Mill is built at the East Falls.
1818 First bridges built over the Black River at East Bridge Street and Lodi Street.
1822 Ely Park, “the Square,” is dedicated to the township.
1832 A flood destroys dams and mills along the river.
1833 Elyria is incorporated and no longer a township.
1840 The “old mill” is built at the East Falls; the foundation still remains.
1844 The last wolf is reported in the park.
1847 A smaller mill is built below East Falls to recycle water flow and bring total
capacity to five millstones.
1850-51 A fountain is built in Ely Square with water supplied from the mill.
1853 The first bridge to Evergreen Point (Washington Avenue) is built.
1872 A 6,500-ton rock slide occurs near the East Falls, dramatically altering the topography.
1876 (approx.) The Baldwin Collection of Indian relics is unearthed at an ancient campfire in the amphitheater (near the Bear’s Den). The artifacts become part of the Western Reserve Historical Society of Cleveland.
1880s Blinky Morgan’s gang uses the Robbers’ Den near the West Falls as their hideout.
1894 The Ely family donates the first 15-acre nucleus of Cascade Park. This section is
known as the Two-Falls Trail today.
1900 The Ely family donates the second parcel of land to the park—the rocks and caves of
the west bank of the west branch.
1900-1925 Concerned citizens gather and donate the Mendelson Lot (playground area) and the
Todd Tract (from the old pool area downstream along the west bank). The Kiwanis
Club spearheads the fundraising for the construction of the new pool.
1913 The great flood, compared in severity to the flood of 1832, creates more rock slides,
destroys most of the Robbers’ Den and unearths animal and human bones below the
Natural Bridge near the old auto ford. The Washington Avenue bridge was also destroyed,
according to Jim Smith, park historian.
1916 Excavation of the Bears’ Den unearths more Indian relics.
1925 The last pair of mink are observed in the park. The “Mink Run” cave under the
West Falls is named in their honor.
1936 Publication of “Cascade Park: Elyria’s Beautiful Natureland” by Frank Wilford.
1969 The July 4th flood completes destruction of the auto ford from downtown, damages
the pool and filter house, destroys tennis courts and nearly drowns the bears.
1982 State Rep. John Barra forms the Friends of Cascade Park.
1991 The East Falls observation deck is built.
1994 Cascade Park celebrates its 100th birthday.
1995 The West Falls observation deck is built with the support of the Elyria Rotary Club and a grant from the Nord Foundation. The leadership of Rotarian John Bobel (1950-2008) was instrumental in this and other Cascade Park projects.
1996 The Friends of Cascade Park reprints Wilford’s book in a 60th-anniversary edition.
1997 New playground equipment is installed.
1999 An observation deck overlooking the confluence of the Black River is built with the support of the Elyria Rotary Club.
2000 Another observation deck, this one overlooking the “Ancient Waterfall” above the old Bears’Den and part of the West Falls Loop Trail, is built with the support of the Elyria Rotary Club and grants.
2006 What was once the bathhouse is now the Cascade Park Nature Center following $225,000 in renovations. An array of local organizations, foundations and individuals provided funding, including the Elyria Rotary Club, the Nord Family Foundation, the Friends of Cascade Park and the Stocker Foundation, among others.
2014 Lorain County Metro Parks assumes operations of Cascade Park through a partnership with the City of Elyria.
2018 Cascade Park renovations, which include a new, all-inclusive playground funded by the Elyria Rotary Club, are celebrated with a dedication ceremony in July. Work continues in the areas known as 19-Acres and in Elywood Park, with completion expected by January 2019.
SOURCES: Jim Smith, Friends of Cascade Park historian; Mark King, Elyria Rotary Club historian; and archival editions of the Chronicle-Telegram.