Floyd Chapman was a Field Ecologist with the Ohio Division of Conservation and spent much of the later part of the 1930s researching his dissertation on the “Development and Utilization of Wildlife Resources,” here, in what is now Shawnee State Forest and Park. Chapman and other forest researchers worked out of the Forest Experiment Station in Snake Hollow on Forest Road 6. Among Chapman's more memorable experiences was his first encounter with a wild American Black Bear (ursus Americanus) in the summer of 1937. Chapman would later publish an account of that the day in "The Ohio Conservation Bulletin."
"On July 19th, at about 6:45 in the evening, while David Blyth, my assistant, and I were taking a roadside count of deer, I suddenly noticed a black object in a large ... field at the mouth of Scantling run, near State Route 125. At first glance it looked like a black horse or cow, but on stoping the car, we saw that it was a bear. The animal stopped at intervals to eat a few blackberries, then began to advance toward us until it was only about 100 feet from the car and its occupants! .... The bear stood still, sniffed the air for a few minutes, then rapidly turned and bowled along toward the woods."
Chapman's assistant, David Blyth grabbed the Forest Experiment Station's "new 16 mm. motion picture camera" and began filming, as illustrated in Herb Roe's painting of the encounter. Chapman and Blyth’s bear sighting at the Mouth of Scantling Run confirmed recent, but undocumented sightings of bears in the Shawnee State Forest. Unfortunately, film from their historic encounter was not preserved, or at least, has not yet been found.
According to Chapman’s review of known records, the last American black bear in the Scioto Valley had been spotted about the year 1831 on the eastern side of the Scioto river, in Jackson County - a good 30 miles from Scantling Run. Having lived and worked in the forest and having made friends with residents of western Scioto and eastern Adams County, Chapman, however, was privy to local stories that suggested “black bears never did quite disappear from the wilderness along the Ohio River.” Since the early 1930s, "blueberry, huckleberry and blackberry pickers who venture into the more isolated ‘hollers’ of Ohio’s ‘Little Smokies’ region had reported black bears; sometimes one or even two old bears are encountered, but more often an adult with one or two cubs."
Local lore, which still circulates among residents of Nile Township and the Forest, includes a claim that "the last wild bear was killed in the forest in the late 1920's" in what is known as Dry Run Hollow, near the old Ranger Station and Tree Plantation on US Route 52. The forest, however, seems to have never been without its American Black Bear. In the 1920s, Chapman noted that "several bears" were kept in captivity at the headquarters of the Roosevelt Game Preserve, which served as the original "nature center" of what is now Shawnee State Park. Some of these bears were "liberated" when the "zoo" was "disbanded in 1932. Whether the bear on Scantling Run in July of 1937 was one of these, we will never know.
The destruction of the region's Old Forest in the nineteenth-century shaped the fate of many species that once made their homes here -- the passenger pigeon, the carolina parakeet, the white-tailed deer, and the Wild Turkey, to name but just a few. For the American Black Bear, it was the combination blow of habitat destruction and overhunting that devastated her population.
Writing in 1917, historian Lyle S. Evans noted that “the American black bear was [once] found in abundance all over the [Scioto] valley.” And, appropriately enough, the Valley’s southernmost institution of higher education, Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, the host sponsor and developer of the Scioto Historical app, has taken for its mascot, the black bear, whom is affectionally called "Shawn," as in “Mr. Shawn,” middle initial “E.,” last name “Bear.” "Shawn E. Bear."
The hollows of what is now Shawnee State Forest and Park may very well have protected the American Black Bear from total extirpation in southern Ohio. Chapman and Blyths' confirmation of a American Black Bear population in the southern Ohio points to the significance of the Shawnee State Forest in understanding the impact of American settlement on the ecosystem of the Scioto Valley. The rugged hills and intermittent streams of this region have played the part of a natural Noah’s Ark, which the state of Ohio, thanks to its conservation efforts, helped save in the 1920s and 1930s, and, now has the responsibility, as stewards of these lands, to protect and maintain.
Floyd B. Chapman, "Ohio's Black Bears: Their Last Stronghold is the 'Little Smokies,' The Ohio Conservation Bulletin (Ohio Division of Wildlife, March 1946): 12-13.
Harry Knighton, "Shawnee Forest," undated typescript, Shawnee State University's Digital History Lab, Portsmouth, Ohio.