Economic Development

Renewal Flows with Shenango River

There is a grassy dry channel about 20 feet wide that stretches along the Shenango River near Sharpsville, Pa., its ridges stocked with summer wildflowers and trees. Directly ahead, the shallow gulch bisects two perfectly preserved cut-stone walls that appear oddly out of step with the natural habitat in this segment of the river.

Both tell a story. One – the stone remnants of Lock #10 – is a physical reminder of the power and growing industrial might of a young nation. The other – an overgrown towpath that leads into the lock – demonstrates how time and nature have reclaimed this river corridor that was once a thriving industrial thoroughfare.

These markers are all that remain of the Erie Canal Extension, a 136-mile spur of the Erie Canal down the spine of the Shenango, which stretched from the Great Lakes to the Ohio River. The canal, completed in 1840, helped to propel western Pennsylvania as a global commercial and industrial powerhouse, as boats transported coal, grain and other commodities through the heart of the Shenango Valley. That ended in 1871 because railroads had won out as the preferred means of transporting goods across the country.

All of this commerce had depended on the Shenango River. Today, the river remains the defining landmark that knits together this part of western Pennsylvania. Boaters, kayakers, fishermen, businesses, picnickers and those who just love nature and the outdoors gravitate to the Shenango.

“I fish this river probably once a week,” says Scott Mascioli of Cortland, Ohio, as he packs up his kayak and gear after a day on the water, just a few hundred yards from the Erie Extension’s Lock #10. “Not many guys fish upstream, but once you get by the fast water, you get into some deep holes where the fishing is pretty good.”

On this August afternoon, Mascioli says he snagged about a dozen small-mouth bass and another five catfish, one of them eight pounds. “I kayak on the river a lot. I’ve fished all the way into downtown Sharon,” he says.

Meantime, Mascioli says he just takes in the scenery, wildlife and all that the river has to offer.

“I’ve seen tons of bald eagles, ospreys. The bird life on this river is second to none,” Mascioli marvels. “I fish in three states, and I’ve never seen birds like I’ve seen here.”

Blue herons, yellow warblers, cowbirds, snipes and kingfishers all call the river their home, Mascioli says. “Sometimes I just come to watch the birds,” he says as he points to an osprey flying overhead.

The Shenango River – Shenango is a derivation of an Iroquoian Indian term, shaningo, or “beautiful one” – is a 70-mile waterway that begins in the marshy wetlands in Crawford County, then flows south into the Pymatuning Reservoir. The river exits south of Pymatuning, moves into Mercer County, and runs through Greenville, forms Shenango Lake, and touches Sharpsville and flows through Sharon, Pa. before entering Lawrence County.

In Lawrence County, Pa., the Shenango joins the Mahoning River near New Castle to form the Beaver River, which then flows into the Ohio.

Renewed interest in the river as an important asset to the Shenango Valley began in full force 15 years ago with the establishment of Shenango River Watchers Inc. a not-for-profit organization dedicated to protecting the environmental, scenic and recreational integrity of the Shenango River watershed.

“We do educational programs, paddle events, cleanup projects, and support research work,” says Monica King, executive administrator to the group’s board of directors. “We’re celebrating our 15th anniversary.”

The initiative started when one of the founding members, Jen Barborak, attended a speech at Penn State-Shenango campus given by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Inspired by the Riverkeepers organization, Barborak thought it would be a good idea to form a grassroots organization to tackle the environmental, recreational and commercial issues the Shenango River faced.

“They took out some ads and held their first public meeting,” King says. “They thought maybe five people would show up, but more than 50 did.”

That signaled the depth of interest in the community to treat the river as an important asset for the entire region, King says. Among the most ambitious projects the group has spearheaded is a 23-mile river trail that runs along the Upper Shenango from Pymatuning State Park to Shenango Lake. The project enlisted the help of a patchwork of government and private organizations, including seed money from the Jamestown and Greenville Lions Clubs.

“We maintain the water trail, which has opened up opportunities,” King says, and boosted hiking and water recreational activity across the Shenango Valley. More recently, Shenango River Watchers helped complete the construction of a handicapped- accessible fishing pier in Sharon in the park near Budd Street.

Moreover, King says, the water quality of the Shenango is very good, and is entirely navigable until you reach the dam near Sharpsville and Aqua Pennsylvania’s treatment plant near Sharon. “There is a whole lot of fish species, salamanders, turtles – and it’s home to three endangered species of fresh water mussels – club shell, rayed beam and snuffbox mussels,” she says.

Environmental improvements along the river have allowed other species to thrive, King notes. “We’ve seen an increase in the population of bald eagles, osprey, some beavers in the watershed,” she notes. There is evidence of otters swimming in parts of the Shenango. “We’ve never seen them, but we’re finding piles of shells that indicate they’re here.”

Otters, King explains, have a penchant to float on their backs and break open mussel shells. Then, once finished, the fastidious swimmers tend to stack the empty shells neatly on rocks. To encourage interest, the group sponsors paddle fests in the spring and fall months. The next is scheduled Oct. 8. “In the spring, 412 paddlers showed up, some come as far away as Buffalo,” she says.

Others have seen the river as a golden opportunity to enhance and support new businesses.

“Ever since Shenango River Watchers started to do their cleanup, ecotourism has exploded,” says Casey Shilling, co-owner of Carried Away Outfitters in Greenville. The business rents kayaks, canoes, inner tubes, and bikes for river recreation. This summer, Carried Away opened a second store in Jamestown to capture the Pymatuning market.

“Last year, we served people from 33 different states,” Shilling says, and in 2014, leased recreational equipment to more than 5,000 customers. “We blew that out of the water this year,” he says. The industry has also caught the attention of big-box retailers such as the local Walmart, which is now advertising kayaks more aggressively.

Shilling’s mother – a nurse by profession – started the business and found that it could encourage activity and good health in the community. “Our family is a big outdoor family,” he says. “I came home and then took it over.”

The river is dammed near Sharpsville, which forms the Shenango Lake, which is today a prime spot for boaters and water recreation. Bill Sarrett and his wife, Pat, who had never visited the lake before, decided to rent a boat at M.C. Marina to explore the Shenango with another couple, Brian and Susan Dennerline.

“We just came into camp with them, and it was wonderful,” Pat Sarrett says. “We had two hours out there and it was very nice.”

The western edge of the lake juts into Ohio at Orangeville, and small businesses here feel the benefits of the water. “We do a lot of great business during the summer,” says Amy Palumbo, a clerk at The General Store in Orangeville. “There are a lot of fisherman that come through here – for snacks, drinks, hot dogs – we do exceptionally well in the summertime.”

Over the past decade, Mercer County has placed an emphasis on the Shenango River as a major tourist draw, enhanced by productions such as downtown Sharon’s annual WaterFire festivals.

“Not a lot of downtowns have this benefit,” says Laura Ackley, chairwoman of the Greater Sharon Associates – a local merchant organization – and a member of the Visit Mercer County board. “It’s an incredible asset to have a river run through downtown.”

Each year, WaterFire draws thousands of people from all over the region into downtown Sharon, Ackley says. The festival centers on art pieces on the Shenango that are illuminated throughout the evening as spectators enjoy music, food and refreshments. Nearly 70,000 people flooded downtown for three events during its inaugural season in 2013.

Two WaterFire events were held this summer and the third is scheduled for Sept. 24, Ackley says. “We’ve seen a huge boost in the tourism economy. When you are bringing in dollars from the outside, that’s new money into our economy.”

River attractions means more business for hotels, restaurants and merchants, says Ackley, who is also the general manager at of the Buhl Mansion and Donna’s Diner in Sharon. At Buhl, now a boutique hotel and spa, Ackley says that she booked three dozen WaterFire packages in just three days after sending out an email to advertise the event.

“These packages range from $450 to $550 per night. And people are buying them,” she says. “Mercer County has found a way to work in conjunction with the water to generate tourism. What worked 30 years ago doesn’t work today. This is what people want.”

Pictured: Scott Mascilo of Cortland fishes the section of the Shenango River between Sharpsville and Sharon, Pa., about once a week.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.