Response to NEORSD Recommendations

The Shaker Historical Society supports the recommendations of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) regarding the future of the Shaker Lakes in concept. We trust and support the environmental stewardship and guidance offered by the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes and Doan Brook Watershed Partnership to restore the natural, free-flowing stream channels of the North and Middle Branches of Doan Brook and to restore native habitat. We recognize there is no feasible option to retain and repair the historic dam at Horseshoe Lake that would not place undue financial pressure on our communities and that restoring stream channels at Horseshoe Lake can lessen flooding and catastrophic events for our neighbors downstream.

Horseshoe Lake has been a beloved aesthetic feature of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights for over a century, and many of our staff, trustees, and members will grieve its loss. However, as historians, we would be remiss to ignore the thousands of years of Indigenous history and stewardship of the land before the Connecticut Western Reserve was occupied and before the North Union Shakers dammed Doan Brook. While it is true we will lose a lake, we will gain an opportunity to return Doan Brook to the pre-colonial path it followed for over 14,000 years and to contribute to greater ecological and environmental health of the watershed for future generations. Residents have the chance to make history with a redesigned park that continues to be a place of peace while benefiting communities along Doan Brook.

The Shaker Historical Society stands ready to provide input and to advocate for historical interpretation and integrity at both lakes that is inclusive of multiple communities and voices as NEORSD develops its conceptual plans. We urge NEORSD to engage the public and tribal partners, consider their input, and commit to preserving and promoting the accessibility, scenic beauty, and rich histories of these treasured local resources.

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For more information about NEORSD’s recommendations and answers to Frequently Asked Questions, please visit their website at https://www.neorsd.org/shaker-lakes-review-and-recommendations/. For additional questions, please contact Jeff Jowett, NEORSD Senior Watershed Team Leader, at JowettJ@neorsd.org.

The mission of the Shaker Historical Society is to inspire people to engage in and celebrate the Shaker Heights story and its impact on the region...past, present, and future. For additional questions about the Shaker Historical Society, please contact Brianna Treleven, Executive Director, at director@shakerhistory.org.

What is the history of Horseshoe Lake?

Horseshoe Lake was formed when the North Union Shakers dammed Doan Brook in 1852 with an earthen dam and stone spillway. The Center Family occupied the area around the Lee Road and South Park Boulevard intersection and used the lake to power their woolen mill. Once the North Union community disbanded in 1889, Horseshoe Lake served a purely aesthetic and recreational purpose. In 1895, the Shaker Heights Land Company donated both Lower and Horseshoe Lakes to the City of Cleveland to be used as parklands. Because the Shakers deforested much of their land, the Van Sweringen brothers contributed to beautifying the parklands as a selling point when they were developing Shaker Village.

There is no denying the love our communities have for the Shaker Lakes, but both dams were not built to last forever and have experienced issues in the 20th century. In 1901, heavy rainfall led to severe flooding in East Side suburbs, and residents expressed fear that the Shaker dams would fail due to their age. Thirty years later, a massive storm destroyed a portion of the Horseshoe Lake dam, which led to the lake being drained. Horseshoe Lake was again drained in September 1995 to remove silt and repair the dam, and Lower Lake went through a similar process in the summer of 1997.

We must remember the doctrine of manifest destiny, which stated colonizers were destined to spread across North America, was widely held in the 19th century. The North Union community deforested large areas in the present-day Heights to support their mills and, by extension, commerce and industry. Like many of the Shakers and settlers who moved westward from New England, there was little regarding for their impact on the land. It is a legacy of its time, and not one we would want to praise or uphold today.

It is also important to note that the common retelling of the history of Shaker Heights begins with settlers and the Shakers while ignoring the Indigenous people who lived on, hunted on, and stewarded this land and the Doan Brook Watershed long before white settlers colonized the Connecticut Western Reserve. This underrepresented history must be acknowledged in discussions about the future of Horseshoe Lake, which is situated on stolen lands, and Native voices must be included and listened to.

You're the historical society! How can you support the recommendation to get rid of the lake?

This was not an easy decision to come to as many of our board members, staff, and members have fond memories of Horseshoe Lake. However, after researching and consulting with community partners and experts, we believe this recommendation is the best option for the safety of our community and neighbors downstream and for the improved ecological health of the Doan Brook Watershed. As stated in our above statement, our reasoning is threefold:

  1. Because the historic dam at Horseshoe Lake is beyond repair, there is no scenario in which this dam remains. NEORSD has stated they cannot allocate money toward a project that goes against their recommendations, and as stated by Tori Mills, Executive Director of the Doan Brook Watershed Partnership, major grant funders "do not fund dam rebuilding or keeping manmade structures that impede stream flow and aquatic habitat that has existed for 14,000 years."* Therefore, replacing the dam to retain Horseshoe Lake would place undue financial pressure on Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights, and the only remaining historical aspect would be the lake itself, which has also changed over the years.

  2. While the dam is historic, the history of the area is much broader and older than the story of the Shakers who occupied the land for only 67 years. We must do better to acknowledge and embrace histories and stories beyond this time period, and we believe restoring the Doan Brook stream channels that existed for thousands of years before Horseshoe Lake is a great way to begin telling and highlighting these underrepresented stories.

  3. While historians often look to the past, we also remember that the present and future will become history. We have to acknowledge that the future of our neighbors in surrounding communities will involve increased flooding if Horseshoe Lake and its minimal drainage area are retained as climate change worsens. We believe taking action at Horseshoe Lake is not only the equitable choice to support neighboring communities but also an opportunity for Heights residents to come together to design a new park that benefits all.

*Special Meeting of City Council, August 17, 2021, 00:59:30, https://www.shakeronline.com/780/Shaker-Lakes


Edited 9/20/2021: We want to acknowledge the pain that some members of our community are feeling after we released our statement. There are memories, stories, and emotions tied to Horseshoe Lake, and we respect the deep love, passion, and grief associated with losing this beautiful lake.

We based our statement on a holistic understanding of the information presented or researched that we felt would benefit our community and future generations. While we support the recommendations, we do believe the Shaker story is a crucial part of local history that deserves to be shared. In our initial discussion with NEORSD, we were told there would be funds allocated for historical interpretation, and we insisted on being a part of these plans to make sure the story is not forgotten. Regardless of the outcome with Horseshoe Lake, the Shaker Historical Society is committed to continue working with community partners to develop historical interpretation that celebrates our shared history around the Shaker Parklands.

Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights residents fought to stop the Clark-Lee Freeway in the 1960s. How is this any different?

Various local garden clubs, including the Shaker Heights Garden Club and The Village Garden Club, undertook plantings around the lakes in the early 20th century, and the Civil Works Administration (CWA)/Works Progress Administration (WPA) completed additional beautification projects in the 1930s. From the early 1900s to the 1970s, Lower Lake was also the home of the Shaker Lakes Canoe Club. The Clark-Lee Freeway threatened all of these with the potential destruction of the Shaker Parklands. In addition, hundreds of homes in both cities would have been destroyed and families displaced.

Under the proposed NEORSD plan, the major change is the removal of the Horseshoe Lake dam and the restoration of Doan Brook stream channels. No homes will be destroyed, the Shaker Parklands will be preserved, and NEORSD has explicitly stated that the area around Horseshoe Lake, including walking paths and The Village Garden Club's cherry tree grove, will be retained. Another significant difference is the cost: the fight against the freeway was relatively inexpensive, while fighting to retain or replace the dam could cost Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights over $20 million plus the expense of ongoing maintenance.

I heard SHS is being influenced by money and politics. Is this true?

We have been made aware of concerns in the community that the Shaker Historical Society's decision to support the NEORSD recommendations is politically or monetarily driven. This is completely untrue. The Shaker Historical Society is a small local non-profit that is supported entirely by our generous community and cultural/humanities-focused grants, and we have not received donations, in-kind contributions, or grants from NEORSD. Likewise, we have not received any incentives from political entities, and the extent of conversations with the City of Shaker Heights has been only to share our research and resources.

SHS staff and Board of Trustees based our support on our understanding of the facts presented to us by NEORSD, other community stakeholders, and independent experts. If the recommendations are approved by Shaker and Cleveland Heights, we have asked to be a consulting party on the Horseshoe Lake project, as we were during the Green Lake project, to ensure the Shaker story is shared through historical interpretation at the site.

Won't this negatively affect our listing on the National Register of Historic Places? Is altering the site even allowed?

Removing Horseshoe Lake and restoring Doan Brook stream channels per NEORSD's recommendations has no impact on the National Register of Historic Places listing and is allowed by the National Park Service. According to National Register FAQs, "Under Federal Law, the listing of a property in the National Register places no restrictions on what a non-federal owner may do with their property up to and including destruction, unless the property is involved in a project that receives Federal assistance, usually funding or licensing/permitting."

What about the birds and wildlife that will be negatively affected by the removal of Horseshoe Lake?

Because we are not experts in ecology or environmentalism, we defer to local partners with expertise in these field. Both the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes and the Doan Brook Watershed Partnership support NEORSD recommendations that will improve the ecological health of the Doan Brook watershed, provide natural flood control, and restore valuable native habitat. We encourage you to reach out directly to NCSL and DBWP with questions regarding the potential impact on wildlife around the lake.

You can read NCSL's statement of support here: https://shakerlakes.org/statement-of-support-for-the-neorsds-shaker-lakes-recommendations and DBWP's statement of support here: https://doanbrookpartnership.org/horseshoe-lake-2021.

Lastly, we share this information received from the Director of Conservation at Audubon Great Lakes:

"While large bodies of water can support certain groups birds...the blockage of streams and wetlands to artificially create bodies of water is detrimental to many species of birds. Marsh birds, waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds depend on a dynamic hydrological system that allows for periods of low water, germinating aquatic and emergent plants and supporting a rich ecosystem of insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals along with birds. Floodplain forest breeding birds and migratory Midwest land birds utilize trees and shrubs adjacent to streams and rivers that benefit from occasional, but not permanent, inundation. Stagnated water in forest systems results in long-term declines in canopy cover and less habitat for birds."

Where can I find more information about the project?