The first body of water I became personally acquainted with, aside from the contents of a bathtub, was Alum Creek, an unimposing, sluggish stream that wound its laze way little more than a hop, skip, and jump from my boyhood home on Sheridan Avenue in Bexley.
Even its name is unimpressive. How it came to be called Alum Creek, I never knew. Alum, of course, is a well-known chemical compound – potassium aluminum sulfate – an astringent salt that, among other uses, is the active ingredient of a styptic pencil. Perhaps somewhere along the course of the stream was once found a deposit of alunite – the mineral from which alum is derived. If so, nothing much came of the discovery, as far as I know.
The Midwest use of the generic term ‘creek’ is curious. In the heartland of America, a creek typically is a stream larger than a brook and smaller than a river. Along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. and in Britain, a ‘creek’ is a narrow inlet of a larger body of water, such as a bay or sea.
In central Ohio, ‘creek’ is pronounced ‘crick’ – so it was “Alum Crick” I came to know as a boy. I knew it flowed slowly from north to south; I was told it eventually emptied into the Scioto River, a more respectable waterway to the west, coursing through downtown Columbus. Only later did I find out that Alum Creek has its origin neat the town of Mt. Gilead, about 35 miles north of Columbus. It joins the Scioto at Canal Winchester, about 10 miles to the south.
As a youngster, I had no idea my backyard ‘crick’ had a course of 45 miles. My personal acquaintance was limited to the half-mile stretch between bridges at E Main Street south to Livingston Ave. In between was a trestle bridge bearing the tracks of electric interurban cars that once whisked passengers and light freight from Columbus to communities to the east.
No stream normally flows with anything approaching swiftness in central Ohio; the terrain is almost as flat as a tabletop, scoured at the time of the last Ice Age by the sharp edge of a glacier advancing from the north. In the segment that traversed my boyhood tramping ground, Alum Creek was barely 30 feet wide, narrower yet when shrunk by a summer drought. More often than not, it’s sluggish water exuded a malodorous miasma; ‘stink’ would come closer to the mark. Its banks were muddy, as was its content of water. I never knew its color to be anything but olive-brown, even in imagination it was never blue or clear. In some years, freshened by spring rains, the creek might rise for a few days to something approaching a khaki-colored torrent, but I never knew it to overflow its banks. In winter the surface might freeze over, but rarely, if ever, was the ice thick enough to support a skater.
It was along the east bank that I most often explored. There was no well-worn path; one had to make his way through overgrown grass and bramble. More than once, I ventured too close to the water’s edge, lost my footing on the the slippery verge, and fell into the creek. There was little risk of drowning; I could easily clamber back up on the bank. The only inconvenience was wet shoes and stockings. These could be removed and hung on a bush to dry before heading home with no evidence of the misadventure.
I doubt that Alum Creek harbored any fish worth hooking. I do not recall ever seeing a fisherman crouched on the bank. There may have been a few desultory schools of minnows. Nor was Alum Creek navigable. I have no recollection of ever seeing a canoe, a rowboat or even a rafter afloat on its surface.
Alum Creek was inhospitable except to curious little boys. Looking back over a distance of 70+ years, I confess to fond memories of traipsing along the banks of the one natural body of water I knew as a boy.
By William S. Haubrich, MD
Originally published in Historical Herald, November 2003
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Interview with April Connell by Ed Hamblin, April 13, 1999. Articles from local newspapers located in the Bexley Historical Society office.