Centuries-old Brandywine Falls stands as Sagamore’s largest tourist attraction

by Laura Bednar

Natural science writer Loren Eiseley once said, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

For centuries people have been drawn to water, and Brandywine Falls, 8176 Brandywine Rd. in Sagamore Hills, has been host to industry, a village and now tourists, who appreciate the beauty of the 60-foot waterfall. The waterfall is the remainder of what used to be a completely submerged area.

Rebecca Jones Macko, interpretive park ranger for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, said the waterfall is the tallest in the park that can be seen year-round.

A layer of rock at the top of the falls covers softer layers of Bedford and Cleveland shale, which were formed from mud on the sea floor that covered the area 350 million to 400 million years ago, according to clevelandhistorical.org. Also found in the vicinity is Berea sandstone, which has individual grains of sand that accumulated 320 million years ago.

Macko explained the waterfall oxygenates the water as it falls, and the water quality and macroinvertebrates, or aquatic insects, almost classify it as a cold-water habitat.

The area is covered with ferns, hemlocks, and in the spring, wildflowers. Macko said the flowers mostly grow in the gorge around the falls, likely because it is cooler and less disturbed. Deciduous trees have leaves that change color in the fall and Macko noted that the color provides a striking contrast to the green hemlocks.

According to the National Parks Service, water from upstream paved surfaces runs to the falls in high volumes after storms. In the spring, puddles formed from melting snow can attract salamanders.

“It was water that started Brandywine Village and water that ended it,” said Macko.

Village history

A man named George Wallace built a sawmill at the top of the falls in 1814, thus spurring the development of Brandywine Village, an early community of a few hundred people in the Cuyahoga Valley. The power of the waterfall was harnessed to also build a grist mill and distillery. Macko said people from other communities were dependent on the village and would come from eight or nine miles away to use the mill.

The distillery produced spirits so enjoyable they could have been “brandy wine,” which is where the name of the village originated, according to Macko. In that economy, a jug of spirits of high caliber was as good as currency.

The emergence of the Ohio and Erie Canal led to the demise of the village. Once canal diggers appeared in 1825, they came with their own money and grist mills popped up in other communities. People used the mills and easily shipped the grain along the canal, eliminating the need for Brandywine’s resources.

The Champion Electric Company took the place of the mill and bought the village a little time, until closing after being struck by lightning, according to clevelandhistorical.org. Though the mill closed and the village no longer exists, the James Wallace House, built by George’s son, remains as a bed and breakfast, the Inn at Brandywine Falls.

Current falls

When the pandemic came in 2020 and cities locked down, parks flourished. Macko said people came en masse to the falls. Visitor numbers have been on the upswing ever since.

Macko’s advice to locals visiting the behemoth natural landscape is to come during off-hours, that is, early in the morning, late in the day or weekdays. The falls have not been designated as a national landmark, but they have received recognition for their history. The James Wallace House is on the National Register of Historical Places.

While walking along the boardwalk near the falls, passersby may see remains or outlines in the woods of former buildings like the Champion Electric Company or original grist mill. Walkers may also come across a stray brick or other fragment from the original village.

In addition to walking the Gorge Loop Trail to spot the waterfall, people can be seen creating plein air paintings, artwork done outside in nature. The original village was host to an artist colony headed by William Sommer, a recognized Cleveland artist in the 1930s.

“The falls also offer the power to inspire,” said Macko.

As time goes on, the waterfall will continue to eat away the stone and move backwards, though Macko said the disappearance of the falls will likely not be something people need to worry about for several generations. “By that time, there may even be other waterfalls,” she said. ∞

Photo: Cinder blocks (background) and other remains (foreground) from the former Champion Electric Company can be seen from the boardwalk around the falls. Photo by Laura Bednar.

On our cover (Photo): Brandywine Falls is a 60-foot waterfall located at 8176 Brandywine Rd. It has seen upticks in visitors since the beginning of the pandemic and provides ecological benefits as well as inspiration for artists. Photo by Laura Bednar.