Horseshoe Lake: taking the long view

The future of Horseshoe Lake is very much in doubt. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) recommends permanent removal of the failing dam that has held back the waters of two branches of Doan Brook since the North Union Shaker community constructed it, about 170 years ago.

The Shakers were not thinking of recreation or beauty when, in the 1850s, they built the dams that created the lakes later named for them. They were thinking of industry, of powering grist, lumber and woolen mills to serve and support their community. It took real estate developers, 50 years later, to preserve the area as parkland, and build upscale residential subdivisions adjacent to it.

Seventy years after that, the garden clubs of Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights banded together to save the Shaker Parklands from obliteration by county engineer Albert Porter’s freeway scheme. The “housewives” Porter derided established the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes on the site of a proposed interchange.

The future of the parklands themselves is secure, but it is time to rethink the particular configuration of earth, stone and water known as Horseshoe Lake.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources classifies dams based on size, storage volume, and potential effects should they fail. The Horseshoe Lake dam is designated Class I, meaning that a breach would likely cause not only serious damage to structures, roads and utilities, but also the loss of human life.

According to Frank Greenland of NEORSD, the dam is in “an active state of failure,” so the lake has been drained since 2018. This summer Shaker Heights city staff observed cracks in the walkway along the top of the dam, a six-to-eight-inch gap in the spillway, and “significant voids, as deep as 14 feet,” in the earthen material under the walkway. The walkway is now fenced off for safety.

Since 2007, NEORSD’s Regional Stormwater Management Program has been charged with identifying and solving problems related to stormwater runoff, specifically “flooding, erosion, and water-quality issues.” This work is funded by the stormwater fees we pay as part of our regional sewer bills.

Having determined that there would be no downstream benefit to building a new dam, NEORSD staff have indicated that the only solution they will fund is restoring to a more natural condition the streams that have fed the lake. They are seeking community input on how to redesign this section of the parklands.

Understandably, some people are upset at the idea of losing Horseshoe Lake, a source of daily pleasure and lifelong memories for many. But even at its most beautiful, it is not a living body of water. Originally about 25 feet deep, decades of sludge have accumulated to reduce it to six feet. It is inhabited mainly by non-native carp.

The restored streams and banks could draw birds, fish, amphibians, aquatic mammals, and—with the introduction of native plants—insects and other pollinators. A winding stream rippling over rocks has its own kind of beauty.

Horseshoe Lake and its history should be commemorated by historical displays and structures incorporating the locally quarried stone used by its creators. Also documented should be the indigenous peoples who may have used this area for hunting.

Our bioregion owes its character to the glaciers which retreated around 14 thousand years ago. One hundred seventy years is just the blink of an eye. By all means let us mourn Horseshoe Lake; but let us also look ahead and envision the gift we can give to the natural world and future generations.

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at

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Volume 14, Issue 9, Posted 10:10 AM, 09.02.2021