As it begins a distinct hairpin turn, the East Branch of the Chagrin River flows near the Newel K. Whitney store in Kirtland, Ohio.
Kirtland was named for Turhand Kirtland, who, along with Moses Cleaveland, helped survey the region of northeastern Ohio in the late 1790s. Newel K. Whitney built his store on the Kirtland Flats in 1823 just a few yards from the river.
The Chagrin River was important for practical, economic and spiritual purposes. A walnut dam backed the water up to drive a mill that became a needed revenue source. The backed-up water served as a place to perform baptisms. Kirtland scholar Karl Anderson notes in "Joseph Smith's Kirtland: Eyewitness Accounts" that most of the baptisms in Kirtland were performed in the Chagrin River. This includes John Murdock, Willard Richards and Lorenzo Snow.
Pearl Wilcox, in The Saints’ Herald on Sept. 8, 1958, provides a reflective historical summary of the river there in Kirtland: “Standing on the east fork of the Chagrin River, I was reminded that this rippling little stream could be a witness in the great day of eternity of the many baptisms that were performed here by the Kirtland Saints below the old mill dam. Today there is no evidence of the early mill which remained here with its silent wheel for several years before it was dismantled and cleared away. Then about 1930 the driver dam was dynamited to destroy the influence of all-night swimming parties which were becoming a nuisance to the community.”
The Chagrin River is still an integral feature of the Historic Kirtland Village, visited by thousands annually.
Kenneth R. Mays is a board member of the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation and has also been an instructor in the LDS Church’s Department of Seminaries and Institutes for more than 35 years.