Exploring the ‘Urban Legend’ of Volney Rogers and Mill Creek Park

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As the prosperity of the early 20th century brought with it increased air, noise and water pollution, particularly in the Mahoning River Corridor, local industrialist Joseph G. Butler Jr. once referred to Mill Creek MetroParks as the city’s “great breathing spot.”

The park founded by Volney Rogers in 1891 was the subject of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s Bites and Bits of History lunch program Thursday afternoon. Rick Shale, local historian and author, led the discussion.

“One of the appeals of Mill Creek Park was that most of the park was sufficiently removed from this polluted area,” Shale said. “We often say, ‘One person can make a difference.’ [Volney Rogers] really made a difference.”

The more Shale studies about Rogers, the more he thinks Rogers was a man 50 to 100 years ahead of his time, he told those gathered for the event. As founder of the park, Rogers was a man of remarkable vision and imagination, Shale added.

“The scenery is extraordinary,” said Ray Novotny, a retired outdoor education manager at Mill Creek. “You’re in an urban area, but you’re not. It’s a slice of nature preserved and enhanced. It’ll improve your day.”

Born in 1846, Rogers was the third of 11 children. After graduating from New Lisbon High School, he got a job streaming telegraph wire on the Pittsburgh Baltimore Turnpike. Rogers’ career in law brought him to Youngstown and he opened his practice in 1872, making him Youngstown’s 14th attorney, Shale said.

How Rogers came to establish the park is something of an urban legend, according to Shale. As the story goes, in the summer of 1890, Rogers rode south on horseback from the confluence of Mill Creek and the Mahoning River to Lanterman’s Falls, Shale said. During the ride, he discovered the “scenic beauty” that would become Mill Creek Park, Shale said.

“I’ve heard this story told all over the place, at least locally,” he said. “I can be skeptical about urban legends. [Rogers] may have actually taken this ride, but I’m skeptical that this was the first time he had seen the scenic beauty. He was living an easy walk from the creek.”

Rick Shale, local historian and author, discusses the founding of Mill Creek MetroParks during a Bites and Bits lecture.

In 1890, the state of Ohio did not have any legal mechanism to create a park, he continued. There were no state or township parks and creating a city park was out of the question because Mill Creek was outside of the city limits, he said.

In 1891, Rogers proposed a law to state legislators that would create such a mechanism to establish the type of park he had in mind, Shale said. Rogers also brought a petition supporting the proposed law signed by a number of residents, including Chauncey Andrews – Youngstown’s first millionaire – and several members of the Stambaugh, Tod and Wick families, he said.

The Ohio General Assembly passed Rogers’ law Feb. 12 that year and to avoid any objection from other townships, Rogers stipulated in his law that it would apply only to Ohio townships with a population of 35,066 people, Shale said.

“There was only one such township in the state of Ohio and we’re living in it,” he said. “The people of Youngstown overwhelmingly – by a three-to-one margin – approved this park plan and agreed to finance it with a tax levy. Thus was born Ohio’s first township park.”

While some still believe what Rogers did helped preserve a beautiful piece of natural scenery, Shale contends that is more myth than fact, he said. Mill Creek Park is a designed environment, he added.

“Its lakes, roads, trails and scenic vistas were imagined, planned and constructed by Rogers with the help of some nationally prominent landscape architects,” Shale said. “He had the vision and it was up to him and people who went to work for him to create that vision out of what was there.”

Bites and Bits of History lunch programs are offered every third Thursday of the month at the Tyler Mahoning Valley History Center. The program is free and attendees may bring their own lunch. For more information, visit MahoningHistory.org.

Pictured: Volney Rogers. (Image used with permission of Mill Creek MetroParks).

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.