The Humble Beginnings of the Stillwater River
A Father & Son Search for the Source of the Stillwater River and Discover Its Ancient Past
Story & Photos by Matt Bayman
The Stillwater River – a Designated State Scenic River that creates so much beauty in western Ohio – starts as a small trickle coming from a pipe beneath an old bridge in rural Darke County. Before last fall, I didn’t know this, but as a way to teach my 9-year-old son about local geology, we decided to look for the "beginning" of the river, that is, where the water starts flowing.
The Stillwater River has played a big role in my family’s lives. We canoe it, collect rocks and fossils along its banks, and hike its edges. In the summer, both of my children love to play in the river, occasionally even swimming in it. And I love to photograph it. To me, the beauty of the river is hard to beat, especially its mirror-like stillness. Therefore, learning more about its origins seemed like a fun thing to do.
Using Google Maps, my son and I charted the course of the stream from our location in Covington and began driving west.
On the map, the river appears to come from nowhere near the Indiana border in Darke County, and this isn't far from the truth.
Before the Stillwater becomes the wide and beautiful river we know in Miami County, it cuts through miles of flat farmland in Darke County. In most places, the river is no wider than five or six feet, and it looks more like a canal than a natural stream. While there are numerous bridges over the water, most are less than a few car-lengths long, including the bridge that shelters the "start" of the Stillwater River.
As it meanders southeast toward Miami County, the river is built upon by numerous tributaries, including Woodington Run, Boyd Creek and Swamp Creek. However, it is not until the Stillwater River reaches the border of Miami County, and Greenville Creek, that it begins to widen out. The reasons for this change in size, and scope, are older than dirt… literally. (The story continues below...)
If you were to travel back in time 2.5 million years ago and visit western Ohio, things would look very different. For starters, the landscape would be dominated by the ancient Teays River Valley. This massive river flowed northwest through Ohio, entering the state near Huntington, West Virginia and exiting near Grand Lake St. Mary’s. It then traveled through Indiana and Illinois before emptying into an ancient ocean, an area which is now the Mississippi River. The modern Ohio River is descended from the Teays River.
Locally, the ancient river valley carved through Champaign, Shelby, Auglaize and Mercer counties, and it’s estimated to have been as wide as two miles at some points and deeper than two football fields in others. In fact, in a 2018 study, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources found that the Village of Anna sits directly on top of the deepest part of the valley, estimated to be 651 feet below Main Street. This answers why, in 1937, Anna experienced a significant amount of damage during an earthquake, while its neighbors in Shelby County and elsewhere did not. This is because Sidney and other nearby towns sit atop solid rock, while Anna sits on gravel and dirt, making the ground less stable and the buildings and structures on top more vulnerable to shockwaves. This loose gravel and dirt is called glacial till, and it plays a big role in our story, but we’ll get back to that in a moment.
THE CINCINNATI RIVER
The Teays River (sounds like Taze) had a number of tributaries. This included the Cincinnati River, which is believed to have flowed northeast from the corner of the state near Cincinnati toward Dayton before joining the Teays River in Shelby County. Long ago, this river carved through the pre-glacial landscape; all the way down to the layers of limestone, shale and dolomite that had formed over the hundreds of millions of years that Ohio was a shallow ocean. The Stillwater River, and the Great Miami River, both flow along the old paths of the Cincinnati River and its tributaries. Thus, long before the Stillwater River existed, its future path was already carved out and waiting in a place we now call the Miami Valley. Only, back then, the rivers flowed in the opposite direction as today.
However, this only partially explains why the Stillwater River changes so dramatically upon entering Miami County, or why Brukner Nature Center’s deep ravines are so different from the completely flat farmland that surrounds them. (The story continues below...)
THE ICE AGE
From this vantage point in the past, if you could now watch the next 2.5 million years unfold, you’d see western Ohio become buried in thousands of feet of ice, followed by hundreds of feet of dirt and gravel (glacial till) one layer at a time. This happened during the Pleistocene Epoch (known as the Ice Age), which lasted all the way up to 11,700 years ago.
During this Epoch, multiple glaciers advanced and retreated in North America, like waves cresting on a beach. As glaciers flow, they grind up the underlying rock and carry the dirt and debris along. (This is how the Great Lakes were dug out. In fact, much of the soil in western Ohio probably originated from the bottom of Lake Erie, so to speak). As glaciers melt, they leave behind the collected debris. After several advances and melts, this process completely buried the Teays River Valley, including the Cincinnati River and its unnamed tributary, which would one day become the Stillwater River.
This new, buried landscape would have been made up of barren till plains and hilly/hummocky moraines. There would have been no trees or grass on the ground, just seemingly endless miles of rolling wasteland covered in black, red, brown and gray gravel, dirt and rocks and occasionally intersected by a pool of melted glacial water. These pools would become the natural lakes and state parks that dot western Ohio, including Lake Loramie, Kiser Lake and Indian Lake, as well as many small ponds and lakes found throughout the region.
In case you need a little geology lesson: Till plains (or ground moraines) are large flat areas that form when a sheet of ice retreats/melts back and deposits its sediments evenly across the land. Till plains are most recognizable today as the vast, flat farmlands that surround our communities, and support our economies. Ridge moraines, on the other hand, are more rugged. They form when the till melts out of the glacier in irregular heaps, which forms rolling hills. This second process is what appears to have helped shape the modern Stillwater River Valley.
Geological maps indicate that the last glacial ridge moraines to be deposited in Miami County (during the Wisconsinan period some 24,000-14,000 years ago) came to rest above and below Bradford and Covington. This happens to be the exact place where the Stillwater River makes its abrupt turn south and changes from a small stream to a majestic, scenic river. The same map indicates that glacialmeltwater deposited outwash (in yellow) along the southern edge of the southernmost ridge moraine, which, just like the Stillwater River, flows east toward Covington before abruptly turning south. On the map, the outwash follows the current path of Greenville Creek and then meets up with outwash near modern-day Covington, before moving south. (The story continues below...)
So, the answer to why the river widens in Miami County is because an ancient river, most likely a tributary of the Cincinnati River, cut a path of least resistance through the landscape long before the Ice Age occurred. However, this path was eventually buried by loose glacial till. During the melting of the last glacier in Ohio, a set of ridge moraines formed in Miami and Darke Counties. As the ice melted, high volumes of meltwater formed a river along the front of the newly formed ridge moraine, depositing sand and gravel, which is mapped as outwash (in yellow). The outwash path from Greenville Creek met up with the “Stillwater River” outwash path and, voila!, the river widens and gains the strength to cut out the valley all the way down to Dayton. The result is that you can drive south along State Route 48 between Covington and Englewood and watch the Stillwater River Valley become wider and deeper, with some notable spots being Brukner Nature Center, the famous sledding hill in West Milton, and the view from Englewood Dam on U.S. Route 40 in Montgomery County. Much of State Route 48 follows the western edge of the Stillwater River Valley.
After the last glacier retreated from Ohio, and the climate stabilized, the Stillwater River settled into its current path, and flora and fauna returned to the landscape. What this all means is that the landscape we often take for granted is only about 12,000 years old. This was a time when Paleo-Indians lived in Ohio and woolly mammoths and giant sloths walked the land. A blink in geological time.
(The story continues below this pictured of the limestone steps at Stillwater Prairie Reserve...)
Regardless of the awesome forces that carved out the Stillwater Valley, every river must have a source to keep it flowing, and carving. The Stillwater River Watershed, which covers almost all of Darke County, makes this possible. Like veins in a leaf, the watershed is made up of dozens of small streams and creeks that flow toward, and into the main vein of the Stillwater River. Therefore, the amount of rain and precipitation determines the volume of the river.
In Darke County, the Stillwater River starts as three prongs of a fork in this watershed, which all join together above Ansonia and then travel southeast toward Dayton, where it drains into the Great Miami River at Triangle Park. The North Fork can be traced almost all the way to Eldora Speedway near the Wabash River, while the Southern Fork begins just east of Union City. For the purpose of our expedition, my son and I were looking for the source of the main fork of the river, that is, the one located furthest west. This took us through the picturesque Village of Webster, past the Stillwater Valley Golf Course, and into the heart of Ohio's agricultural community. The further west we drove, the vaster and flatter the fields and farms became. By the time we turned onto Zumbrum Road, where the river appeared to begin on our map, we could see for many miles in all directions, and there were no other cars, or people, in sight.
This brings us to the humble beginning of the Stillwater River.
On Zumbrum Road, just east of Staudt Road, is an unassuming bridge. On the south side of this bridge there is no water, just a small grass-covered crevasse located between two corn fields. On the north side of the bridge is a waterway that stretches into the distance, but that is no wider than 2 or 3 feet in any one place. This is the Stillwater River.
Parking on the grass next to the small bridge, my son and I walked beneath the structure to investigate. We soon discovered that the "source" of the water, and the start of the Stillwater River, is a pipe that appears to travel deep beneath the cornfield. The pipe is fed by the Stillwater Watershed.
My son and I both took turns whooping into the mouth of the pipe to see how deep it might go. It appears, or rather sounds, that the answer is quite deep. (The story continues below the video...)
TREASURES OF THE VALLEY
To bring some conclusion to our journey, as we drove back toward Miami County, we decided to stop at various locations along the river, including about a half-dozen bridges in Darke County. At each stop, we watched the small stream grow a little larger, and the riparian corridor a little thicker.
As we got closer to Miami County, the river went out of view for a while, but after driving onto Klinger Road (which sits in the heart of a ridge moraine in a hilly area), we came to our first view of the Stillwater River in Miami County. Sure enough, it had become the wide, beautiful river my son and I know and love.
We then visited several of the Stillwater Valley’s most notable natural features, including Greenville Falls (and its natural rock arch), the limestone steps at Stillwater Prairie Reserve and, finally, the cascading waterfalls of West Milton and Ludlow Falls. My son and I wondered how many other buried treasures might exist below the surface, hidden beneath the layers of glacial till, or how many millions of dead sea creatures it took to form these natural features. We noted that the creeks and streams that feed these waterfalls are themselves tributaries of the ancient Stillwater River Valley, still flowing and carving toward the bottom of the valley, all these millions of years later.
After this journey, I suppose I'll never look at the Stillwater River, or western Ohio, the same. But, in the end, it was a great day to be with my son in a part of Ohio that's always fascinating to explore, and that never ceases to amaze.
NOTE: I would like to thank Geologist Melinda C. Higley, PhD of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for checking the facts presented in this article and the ODNR for use of their maps and images.