IF YOU should ever find yourself driving over Portage Road, City of Akron, County of Summit, State of Ohio, pull over out of the rush of today. Get out, put your feet right on that road, and walk into the 16th century. It is worth a half hour of your life, and it will jar you a little.
Over the rumble of fast traffic on brick you’ll see the trees still meet over the street, nodding smugly of old events. The road you will be walking over is almost surely the oldest main artery in America.
It appeared on the earliest European maps of North America. It’s still the same length, and it still bears the same name that it has carried in every language from Erie to Iroquois to Delaware to French, Spanish and only recently, English - Portage Path.
For centuries when the continent lay sleeping as far as white men knew, there was a steady flow of traffic over the Portage Path. Who knows what maps and compasses primitive men used? But they had found, perhaps by centuries of trial and error, the gateway for the water route between the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.
When the continent was solid trees, you could hardly travel from the lakes to the gulf by land. But Indian tribes found they could come by water up the Mississippi to the Ohio River, then up the Tuscarawas which gave them an easy route up to the formidable slope of the Continental Divide that splits the continent laterally, water off one slope flowing to the Gulf, off the other to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence.
Now if upon reaching the head of the Tuscarawas, an Indian walked overland to the north only eight miles, he came to the Little Cuyahoga which flows north. If he put his canoe back in and followed the current, he plunged down 300 feet in 30 miles to Lake Erie, which would take him down to the St. Lawrence.
The main key to this 2,000-mile trip was this short eight-mile portage; and the white man found that generations of Indians had beaten a groove about nine inches deep, one man wide, and eight miles long.
This Portage Path became, in 1785, the Western Boundary of the United States. Forty years later, the white man took it over and for the same reason the Indians had used it. He wanted to move his boats from the Great Lakes to the great Gulf by water. But these were big boats 80 feet long and 30 tons heavy, and there were hundreds of them.
Where he needed to lift his canalboats 300 feet, practically straight up from Lake Erie to the Portage, they had to build 42 locks. To service the canal mules and horses, feed the passengers and unload the boats during the six hours of locking up the escarpment, a city grew at the high place, what was known as the Summit.
The Summit would have been nothing but a lock tender and tavern keep to the canal if it hadn’t been for the Cuyahoga tributary, the Little Cuyahoga, mightiest creek in America.
Lost in a gigantic gorge 40 sizes too big for it, like the uncomfortable kid whose mother buys coats with “growing room,” the Little Cuyahoga is undignified.
In some places it chatters down over stairsteps of shale. In other places it is a turgid swale of stained bubbles, carry-off from a chemical city. In many places, it bubbles literally under Akron today, fighting for a look at the sun between factories, only visible now and then blinking under a street bridge just before hurtling down into a culvert, emerging later in a gush only to duck under another plant. Kids mistake it in places for a big storm sewer.
Yet, without any qualification whatsoever, this little creek literally built Akron. The land, before it was Akron, had not the first thing a city needs, and its growth defied the laws of economic gravity. Akron was started by four men who wanted both navigation and hydraulic water so badly that they hand-made it.
Not traditional frontiersmen, these four were the last of the great colonial leader breed, giant patriots of the all-’round type who did some farming, law, science, politics, and a lot of nation building. They were Dr. Eliakim Crosby, Judge Leicester King, Senator Alfred Kelley, and General Simon Perkins.
Now when a man is put to a lot of extra trouble over a low-paying project it sticks in his memory - and even in his affection.
Perkins as a young surveyor back before the War of 1812 had a lot of grief surveying for a client a thousand torn-up acres between the head of the Tuscarawas and the loop of the Little Cuyahoga. Therefore, years later, when Perkins saw a notice that this tough thousand acres was going for taxes, he paid $4.03 and was certified to the land; and then he forgot it for 18 years. It was to become one of the all-time bargains of history.
By 1825, Simon Perkins, a handsome, rugged 46, was living in Warren. He heard that land surveyors were driving stakes through his thousand acres over by the Little Cuyahoga. He mounted and rode 52 miles west of Warren. It had to be the canal fellows surveying, so he tried to figure how high a price he could charge the canal, for Perkins was above all a financial man. He was in on the founding of several businesses, including the famous Western Reserve Bank.
Upon arrival, though, at the Little Cuyahoga, he made a surprising move. Two men had cabins near the big bend in the Little Cuyahoga, Paul Williams and Major Miner Spicer. They’d come together in 1810. Perkins found them both and traded reports of what had become of the men of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry; then Perkins suggested that instead of charging the State of Ohio for their land, they all three donate it for the canal.
Williams and Spicer understood the move, and instantly donated a wide strip. But to complete the strip, a parcel was needed from a Charles Brown, a carpenter from Connecticut. He answered, “I’m not a moneyed man, General. I need to sell, and sell dear.”
“Then The Canal will never buy it.” Like a few other ambitious men, Perkins was beginning to speak of The Canal in capital letters.
“They’ve got to come through here, so they’ve got to buy it.”
Perkins explained to Brown the state did not need to buy his land. “They can go to the west, come upstream alongside the Maumee and down the Miami. Miss us completely. If you’d give up a strip, The Canal will turn your remaining land into gold.”
Brown warned that could be a long time off.
Perkins said - not long after the canal reaches the top.
Brown countered - if Perkins believed that, why not buy Brown’s land and give a strip of it to the canal?
Perkins said the delay would be enough that he could not tie up cash that long. However, he offered a trade - 45 acres in the Little Cuyahoga Valley or a hundred farther out.
Brown chose the close-in 45.
Perkins figured that the spot where the Pittsburgh-Columbus stage crossed the right of way of The Canal, which climbed up the other side of the escarpment from the Cuyahoga and down would become a kind of center of things. Being a surveyor, he measured out a township, with an area in the center for a business district surrounded by 300 cabin lots.
He did the work alone, because looking at that heavily timbered, fully gouged ridge, few others got the picture of tomorrow.
When he took the plat to Ravenna, county seat of Portage County, the clerk said, “To file townsite papers, General, you have to have a name for the place.”
Perkins took off his great fur mitts and studied the ceiling. Educated in the tradition of the great colonials, Perkins had studied Greek. As he stood envisioning the highest place on the escarpment in his thousand acres, a place known to Indians and settlers as “the summit,” a place for which he now had high plans, a lofty Greek word came to him meaning high place. He reached for the quill, and he wrote ... Akron.
However in 1825, Akron was only a name on a plat in the Portage County clerk’s office. Yet word drifted out that on the Portage Path, at The Summit, land had been measured off for sale for a village. Those who wanted work on the rumored canal inquired how to get there.
The general took it that far. And it might have stayed that way if it hadn’t been for the doctor and the judge. But before they could do much good, a 33-year-old man had to come along, named Kelley, Alfred Kelley.
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