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A Brief History Of Shaker Lakes

by Chris Roy

One of the great things about Cleveland Heights is that well over half its residents can walk to a park in 15 minutes or less. Three of those parks (Cain, Cumberland and Forest Hill) are all part of the same watershed: Dugway Brook. A fourth—the Shaker Lakes system that straddles Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights—is part of the Doan Creek watershed. Following is a brief historical overview of this local treasure which, as many of us recall, almost became the infamous Clark Freeway in the mid-1960s.

In 1799, three years after the first permanent white settlers arrived in Cleveland, Nathaniel Doan and his family built a home and tavern beside Doan Brook at what is now in Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street. Then known as the Buffalo Road, Euclid Avenue was a primary artery connecting Cleveland and Buffalo NY.

Thirteen years later, in 1812, Jacob Russell relocated his extended, 20-member family several miles upstream to a 1000-acre site near what is currently the intersection of South Park Boulevard and Lee Road (Figure 1). In 1822, at Russell’s urging, this group became the “Center Family”—the first members of the North Union Shaker Community.

Figure 1: Map of the Center Family at what is now South Park Boulevard and Lee Roads,
c. 1880.

In addition to numerous buildings, orchards, cemeteries, a tannery, a blacksmith shop and an oil mill for making baked goods, the Shakers successfully dammed Doan Brook in 1826. These efforts made it possible to construct a gristmill and a sawmill near the intersection of what is now Coventry Road and North Park Boulevard (Figure 2). These facilities (the remnants of which are still visible) were operated by the Shakers’ second community: the “Mill Family.” Soon after, another family unit, the Gathering Family, was organized. Whole families often lived in one house, the men sleeping on one side and the women on the opposite side, with separate stairways for each.

Figure 2: Mill Family main house along what is now Coventry Road. 1

As the Shaker community grew, additional water power was needed; so, in 1854, a second dam was created further east. By that time, however, the community’s celibate lifestyle and an inability to attract new recruits were beginning to take their toll. In 1889, with membership down to only 27 members, the community disbanded and 1366 acres were sold to O. P. and M. J. Van Sweringen for $316,000. In 1892, 280 of those acres were donated to the City of Cleveland, which owns them to this day.

Around the same time, Jephtha Wade, William Gordon, Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Nathan Ambler and others donated downstream Doan Brook land to make a continuous line of parks along the stream from Lake Erie all the way to Horseshoe Lake in Shaker Heights. The Cleveland Parks Commission then built roadways to connect the parks and commissioned architect Charles Schweinfurth to design beautiful bridges to carry streetcar lines across the lower park areas. By 1930, nearly all of the Doan Brook watershed in Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, and Cleveland was fully developed. 2

Figure 3: Old stone grist mill, near what is now Fairhill Boulevard, west of Coventry Road

Today, public access to the archeological site of the North Union Shaker community is restricted to ensure its preservation and to allow further archeological investigation. However, most of the parklands and Shaker Lakes are accessible via walking trails both in Cleveland Heights on the north shore of Doan Brook and Shaker Heights on the south shore of Doan Brook. Located on land that was once the North Union apple orchard, the Shaker Historical Museum interprets the history of the Shakers who once lived here, and referred to the area spiritually as "The Valley of God's Pleasure."3

Figure 4: Early boaters on the Lower Shaker Lake.

1Source: "Shaker Heights Then and Now" © 1938, Shaker Heights Board of Education.

2The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, "History of the Doan Brook,"

3“North Union Shaker Site – Shaker Historic Trail – National Register of Historic Places,”  <accessed 1/1/06>

Images are Courtesy of the Shaker Historical Society.

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