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In this series you’ll hear stories about the health of the river, its place in our local culture and history and the wildlife and the humans who’ve made the river their home. The interviews were gathered by volunteers from the Little Miami River Watershed Network – and they were made into our radio series by WYSO producer Jason Reynolds.

The River Speaks: 'Muggins the Bear'

Muggins the Bear in a cage surrounded by onlookers.
Clifton Gorge Nature Preserve
Muggins the Bear was a popular attraction at Clifton Gorge for many years when the property was privately owned.

(Editor's Note: This story may be difficult for some read and or hear.)

One of the Little Miami River’s most striking features is Clifton Gorge, where steep cliffs drop down to the water below. These deep, narrow channels were formed by glaciers, long ago. Today, it’s a nature preserve, but back in the 1960s it was mostly private property that housed a coal business and a tourist attraction with boat rides and a famous black bear named Muggins. Tim Snyder, who managed the nature preserve for over 20 years, shares a story of Clifton Gorge in the 1960s.

"This was all privately owned up until the 60s by a man named George Grindle, and he knew what he had here in the gorge," Snyder said. "So he made it into a kind of a tourist attraction. He had an ice cream stand under the ledge there and steps so you could go down. He would take people on boat rides up in the narrows, and he had signs on the rock wall: 'Cavemen’s Head!' and different things.

"He also had probably the most famous thing associated with Clifton Gorge. He had a bear, Muggins the Bear, a female bear. Either he got it or he was given it by some hunters that went up into Canada. I don't know if they found it or shot the mother or what, but anyway, they brought it back. He ended up with it. He built a cage for it and had it here. People would come out as much to see Muggins the Bear as to see the gorge.

"And he had a little stand or a little entry gate, and he would sell pop and ice cream. And of course, kids would come in and see the pop, and they would say, 'Daddy! Daddy! I want some pop!' And dad would have to shell out and buy them all pop, and they'd run over and feed it to the bear right away.

"Well, then of course, the kids say, 'Oh! I want some pop!' So the dad had to shell out again and buy pop. So, George knew what he had going here.

"It was not unusual when George knew that everybody was gone out of the gorge that he would let Muggins out of her cage and she would go down and do what bears do, then she would come back to her cage. That's where she was fed I guess.

"So, one night he's in bed and he hears noise and he goes running out. Muggins is out of her cage. Some boys from town, from Clifton, had come in and let her out of her cage. Evidently, they had done something to Muggins because when George came out, she attacked him, and she had never done that before.

"He and another friend were trying to get her back into the cage. She attacked George. He got away. I mean, she'd been fed a diet of pop and candy bars for all those decades. You know, she couldn't move real fast. Well, she attacked the other guy, and he got out of the way, but Muggins couldn't stop and went right over the edge.

"So, we've got newspaper articles for the next week or two with Sheriff's deputies with big shotguns roaming the gorge looking for this 'Mad Bear that Threatens to Eat Greene County.'

"Well, a couple of weeks later, some hikers found her body lodged up against Steamboat Rock. They came back up and told George. George was heartbroken because Muggins was more than just a tourist attraction. She had become part of his family. We've got a picture out of the newspaper of him sitting on the porch of his house, Muggins right beside him with her head in his lap, just like a big old dog.

"Well, George went down. The body was way too waterlogged to carry up to the top for a decent burial, so they piled driftwood over it. And then they put out the word for anybody that loved Muggins that they were going to have a Viking farewell in the morning.

"The next morning, a couple of guys at the Dayton Museum of Natural History heard about that. They realized that even though Muggins was dead, she was still valuable for science because she was one of the very few Black Bears that they actually knew how old she was because they knew when George got her.

"So, they went out and jumped in their car and zoomed out here and ran down to Steamboat Rock... and got there too late. The pyre had already been lit.

"But being men of science, they dashed up and began frantically hacking at Muggins’ head."

"Fire drove one of them off, but the other persevered," Snyder said. "And up until the recent changes at the Dayton Museum of Natural History, you could still see Muggins’ skull on display, and it's still there. It's still part of history there."

Muggins’ skull is still part of the collection at what is now called the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery.

The River Speaks: An Oral History of the Little Miami River is a collaboration between WYSO and the Little Miami Watershed Network. It is funded by Ohio Humanities and The Nick and Edna Weller Charities.