SHARON, Pa. – There is no better natural landmark that exemplifies the history and community spirit of Mercer County, Pa., than the Shenango River.
Shenango is a derivation of an Iroquois Indian term, “Shaningo,” or “beautiful one.” The 82-mile waterway begins in the marshy wetlands of southwestern Crawford County and flows south into the Pymatuning Reservoir. The river exits Pymatuning and enters Mercer County, where it meanders through Greenville, forms Shenango Lake, graces Sharpsville and bisects the city of Sharon before it flows into Lawrence County.
Just south of New Castle, the Shenango joins the Mahoning River to form the Beaver River. The Beaver then flows into the Ohio River.
One of the earliest references to Shenango can be found on a map produced in 1755 by Lewis Evans of Philadelphia. The map shows a Delaware Indian settlement, “Shaningo’s T,” or Shenango Town, along the banks of what it then described as Beaver Creek. A subsequent map published in 1766 identifies “Shaningo” on the western bank of the Shenango River, while another Native American settlement – Pymatuning – is pinned further north along the river.
Nearly 300 years later, communities along the banks of the Shenango still embrace its beauty and significance. Civic organizations, business leaders and public agencies have over the last several years stepped up efforts to promote the river as one of Mercer County’s most valuable assets.
“It’s important for the health of our community,” says Monica King, director of operations for Shenango River Watchers Inc., a not-for-profit organization that was formed in 2001 to protect the recreational, environmental and scenic attributes along the watershed. “It also provides a source for recreation and drinking water for more than 120,000 people” through its reservoirs.
Each year Shenango River Watchers funds surveys of the watershed’s fish and amphibian life and provides educational programs on the importance of keeping the river clean, she says. Among its most ambitious projects was spearheading the development of a 23-mile river trail that runs along the Upper Shenango from Pymatuning State Park to Shenango Lake. That project also involved a patchwork of government, private and civic organizations.
These efforts have helped to restore a wildlife population once hindered by contamination left from decades of heavy industrialization.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in bald eagle populations,” King says. The river is also home to a growing number of ospreys. “We’ve identified 28 species of freshwater mussels – eight of which are endangered,” she adds.
Still, there are portions of the river that suffer from the aftermath of big industry. Major industrial companies such as Westinghouse, for example, left behind chemical contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that leached into the soil and eventually the river.
The Westinghouse site, near downtown Sharon, was designated a superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the 1990s. The plant produced electrical transformers from 1922 to 1985. Although cleanup efforts began during the early 2000s, an evaluation released in 2016 identified elevated levels of PCBs in fish caught near the Clark Street outfall. That prompted the EPA to warn people against eating fish from the river caught downstream from the Shenango Dam.
However, work is underway to remedy the problem. The EPA is set to begin repairing storm sewers leading from the site, which it determined was the cause of ongoing contamination. The project will also entail soil removal. “They’ll start dredging this month,” King says.
Despite these challenges, in 2013 the Shenango was designated as an official water trail. In 2021, it was named River of the Year by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. These accolades opened more potential for opportunities along the river.
“Ten years ago, you’d be lucky to see a single kayak on the river,” says Casey Shilling, co-owner of Carried Away Outfitters, a kayak and canoe rental business with operations in Greenville and Pymatuning Reservoir.
All of that has changed over the last decade.
“We probably get 5,000 kayakers on the river during the season,” Shilling says. “Greenville has become a tourist town this summer.”
Indeed, Shilling says that 60% to 70% of Carried Away’s customers come from larger metropolitan areas such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland. “The river is clear and narrow. There are no low head dams to portage around,” he says. “You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.”
Paddle festivals hosted by Shenango River Watchers, for example, have attracted visitors from Pittsburgh, Columbus and Buffalo, King says. “We also started working with Visit Mercer County on the Lake to Lake Paddle Challenge,” she says.
Last year, 67 kayakers and canoers participated in the first Lake to Lake paddle challenge, a 30-mile race from the Pymatuning dam to the North Star Marina on Shenango Lake, says Peggy Mazyck, president and CEO of Visit Mercer County.
“We’ll be running it again this year on Aug. 26,” she says. The event also includes a 15-mile race that begins at the Kidd’s Mill covered bridge and finishes at the marina.
The river, Mazyck says, represents a broad spectrum of recreational opportunities – amenities that she says are important to attracting people to Mercer County, or retaining the existing population, especially younger residents.
“Biking trails, fishing, kayaking, tubing – all of this plays into the experience of keeping visitors,” she says. Plus, amenities such as breweries, wineries and restaurants have selected sites near the river because of its scenic beauty, she adds.
The Shenango as a central factor in spurring new business activity is perhaps no better exemplified than with the WaterFire festivals held each year in downtown Sharon, says Karen Anderson, river operations manager for the festival.
“The river is an asset to the whole area,” she says. “There’s a natural beauty to it.”
These events feature more than 50 braziers filled with cedar and pine that are anchored in the river. As dusk settles, the cauldrons are set ablaze, resulting in an artistic showcase of flames that reflects across the river.
In July, WaterFire drew 15,000 people to downtown Sharon, Anderson says. “People come in [for the festival] and then return to downtown [later]. That impacts restaurants, hotels – even campgrounds as well.” A second event is scheduled for Sept. 16.
At the center of it all is the Shenango, she says. “People don’t know how fortunate we are.”
Pictured at top: Kayaker Joe White was the winner of the 2022 30 Mile Competitive Challenge on the Shenango River. Photo: Marilyn Black.