Native Americans knew that the land where Akron now sits lay between two waterways – the Cuyahoga and the Tuscarawas rivers. The Indians had established a portage path through the area to carry their canoes from one water route to the next. What they probably did not know is that they were crossing a continental divide.
"Everything North of Akron the rivers flow towards Lake Erie and ultimately out toward the Atlantic ocean. Everything South of Akron flows South to the Ohio River, Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico," says Jennie Vasarhelyi of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
There’s a spot in southern Akron near the Portage Lakes today where you may see water from the Ohio canal split in those two directions.
The Ohio Canal brought prosperity to the city because area farmers had a way to ship their produce to markets back east to New York. But the canal brought another benefit. Akron’s land has the steepest grade between Cleveland and Zoar, and so the many boat locks were clustered in the city.
So the Ohio and Erie Canal actually had to get over that portage that we described and that’s what the cascade of locks in Akron is, a staircase of locks that carries the canal up to the summit and then over," says Vasarhelyi.
And that meant passengers would stop and eat, sleep, or shop in the city. The canal also brought water streams that local millers like Ferdinand Schumacher could use for power. Schumacher’s operation became The Quaker Oats Company.
The head of the Ohio and Erie Canal Coalition Dan Rice notes that another industrialist was brought to Akron. The board of trade convinced Benjamin Franklin Goodrich to come from New York.
"What he did was he basically established his operation right on the banks of the Ohio and Erie canal in downtown Akron," says Rice. "That then grew up to be the BF Goodridge Rubber and Tire Company. And that then also attracted other rubber and tire companies to come here to Akron, including the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., General Tire, Mohawk, Seiberling Tire, And Firestone, obviously as well. So many other industries were lured because of Dr Benjamin Goodrich originally coming here.
Goodrich came before the automobile so his company mostly made rubber boots and fire hose. But author David Giffels says he soon had company
"This was in the mid 1870’s before the automobile industry had begun and so by virtue of maybe foresight or maybe luck the first cornerstone of the tire industry landed here. And then at the turn of the century Goodyear and Firestone followed and then auto industry took off. And there went Akron," says Giffels.
In the 1920’s Akron’s population doubled, making it the fastest growing city in the country.
"It very, very much mimicked the dot com thing where this was like a version of the Silicon Valley where all the other companies would start up and try to catch on to this suddenly booming industry that was the future," says Giffels.
Today most tire manufacturing occurs in southern states but rubber and polymer research and development still goes on in Akron. And the Ohio canal, which started it all, has been completely restored as a bike and hike trail through the city
Download an audio tour “Industrial Ohio – Steel and Rubber” at See OhioFirst.org.