Text By: Jack Geick
Design By: Gregory Wilson, University of Akron
Akron’s Cascade Locks are a unique artifact left over from Ohio’s canal era—an era that began in 1825, and ended in 1913 in a catastrophic flood. They are the remains of a steep staircase of seven locks on the Ohio & Erie Canal that permitted canal boats to ascend 70 feet in less than half a mile to reach the Akron Summit—the highest point in on a canal more than three hundred miles long. The Cascade Locks were part of the canal system that transformed Ohio from a primitive wilderness into the third most populous state in the union.
Ohio’s canals were born at a time when the population was less than 300,000 in the entire state—about the population of Akron today. Most of these settlers lived in the southern part of the state along the river systems. To get their crops to market, some farmers built rafts and floated their wheat, corn, flour, oats, and salt pork down the Sciota, the Miami, and the Muskingum Rivers into the Ohio River, then down the Ohio into the Mississippi—sometimes all the way to New Orleans. But here in northeastern Ohio, the land was virtually uninhabited. It was still a forested wilderness.
Since Ohio’s few roads were little more than muddy trails, and since railroads wouldn’t get to this part of the country for almost half a century, the Ohio General Assembly proposed a system of canals—originally to encourage development of the northern part of the state. The goal was to connect Lake Erie with the Ohio River—not as a shortcut, but as an inland transportation system. Farmers settling in our part of the state would then be able to ship their crops to New York and other eastern markets by way of Lake Erie schooners and New York’s new, highly successful Erie Canal.
Construction of the Ohio & Erie Canal (called the “Ohio Canal” for short), began in 1825, and was completed from Lake Erie at Cleveland to Portsmouth on the Ohio River by 1832. The Ohio & Erie was the first, the longest (309 miles), and the busiest of a network of waterways that would become 813 miles of canals in Ohio. They became the Interstates of the day—albeit with a speed limit of four miles an hour to prevent the boats’ wake from washing out the clay banks.
Because northern Ohio is hilly country, a system of locks would be needed to permit canal boats to crawl up out of one river valley and down into the next one. Locks would operate like hydraulic elevators, lifting a boat six to ten feet at a time as they were filled with upstream water—or lowering the boat to the downstream level by draining the lock. To operate a lock, the gates were closed by means of long, heavy handles called “sweeps.” A “wicket” or “butterfly valve” was opened in an upper gate to fill the lock, lifting the boat to the upper level—or, if the boat was going the other way, the wicket in a lower gate would be opened to drain the lock to the downstream level of the canal.
Canal locks were 90 feet long and 15 feet wide, closed at each end by wooden “whaler gates.” “Wickets” or “butterfly valves” permitted water to be let into the lock through the upper gate, or drained out through the lower gates. The gates were opened and closed by means of long handles called “sweeps.”
But because each of the Cascade Locks has the unusually large lift of ten feet, opening a butterfly valve in the upper gate high above a boat that was just beginning its ascent would shower down on any passengers or crew members who happened to be on deck. So each of the Cascade Locks had a covered two-foot-square opening below the waterline on the upstream side of the upper gate. When this “sluice gate” was opened, water entered an internal “sluiceway” within the lock wall, coming back out below the water line beside the boat—resulting in happier passengers and a dryer crew.
Akron is actually situated on the Continental Divide: The Cuyahoga River flows north from here into Lake Erie, out the St. Lawrence River and into the North Atlantic. The Tuscarawas River, south of the city, drains into the Ohio River, with the water eventually flowing down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. Akron sits at the top—at the summit. To climb up the 395 feet from the level of Lake Erie to the Akron Summit between the Cuyahoga and the Tuscarawas River valleys, 44 locks would be built between Cleveland and Akron.
To ascend the last hundred feet from Lake Erie to the Akron Summit would require 15 locks in a single mile, 21 in a two-mile stretch—a cascade of locks. Realizing this would delay canal boat passengers and their crews half a day, Akron’s founder, Simon Perkins, successfully lobbied the Canal Commissioners to have this steep ascent occur on his (and Paul Williams’) property, knowing it would create a major town. He registered his town plat in Warren in 1825, calling it “Akron” (a Greek name for “high place”), gratuitously giving the state a canal right-of-way down the middle of his town map. He planned Akron’s town center at Main and Exchange next to Lock One, which is still the highest point on the Ohio & Erie Canal.
The really steep ascent began a mile south of Lock One between today’s Market Street and Memorial Parkway. The foot of this staircase of locks that is Cascade Locks Park begins at Lock 16, half a mile north of Mustill’s Store, ascending to Lock 10 at the top of the staircase. Here, the canal ducks under the innerbelt, traveling through a concrete tunnel that encloses several locks and coming out behind the Civic Theater in downtown Akron.
The trail in Cascade Locks Park is a link in a chain of towpath trails that will ultimately begin in Cleveland, winding south through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park for 21 miles before arriving at the Cascade Locks. The trail will continue through downtown Akron, Barberton, Clinton, Canal Fulton, and will ultimately be extended all the way to New Philadelphia within the Ohio & Erie National Heritage Canalway. Currently, the trail ends at the historic Mustill Store and House at Lock 15. June 2004 will mark the beginning of construction of the towpath trail section through the Cascade Locks. The ADA accessible trail will end temporarily at the innerbelt, but will be accessible from downtown Akron via a pedestrian link along Beech Street to Main Street, ending at the Lock 3 Live Amphitheatre.
The Cascade Locks became the site of the city’s first industrial valley. The same topography that presented an obstacle for the canal builders provided waterpower for a string of industries that soon lined the canal. This new village, founded by Dr. Eliakim Crosby (with help from Simon Perkins), was called “Cascade” (later “North Akron”).
Unlike the “lock mills” that had already begun grinding flour north of Akron using the relatively modest drop of six to ten feet of canal water to turn their millstones, the industries in the Cascade valley had a more powerful source of waterpower. Parallel to the canal, as we walk along the towpath trail, we can see remains of the shallow ditch that was the Cascade Race. It was this separate mill race which turned the water wheels of several flour mills, a woolen mill, a furniture factory, five iron furnaces, a distillery, and other early Akron industries. Basins, those wide pools we see in the canal between the locks, provided “parking lots” for canal boats that lined up to haul away the products of these enterprises.
The source of canal water was (and still is) the Portage Lakes. Water from these reservoirs enters the canal opposite Young’s Tavern on Manchester Road. Here the water can sometimes be seen dividing and actually flowing both ways. But the source of water for Akron’s industrial valley parallel to the canal was a dam on the Little Cuyahoga River in the village of Middlebury, near today’s Goodyear’s headquarters. Dr. Crosby built this dam to create a mill race to power his Old Stone Mill at Lock 5 at the end of Mill Street. The mill was on the site of the hotel in today’s Cascade Plaza. Completed in 1832 with four French burrstones to grind wheat into flour, it was finest grist mill in Ohio.
Water backed up by the Middlebury dam ran as a mill race down “Crosby’s Ditch,” for nearly two miles along the Little Cuyahoga Valley, turning south at Main Street, then west on Mill Street to enter Crosby’s mill. A decade later, the mill race down the middle of Main Street would be enlarged to become part of the Pennsylvania & Ohio Canal. The expanded ditch would be extended south on Main Street to merge with the Ohio & Erie in a basin at Lock One. But Crosby still got to use some of the water to run his mill, diverting it from the P & O down Mill Street.
After turning the machinery in Crosby’s mill, the effluent water exiting his mill flowed in a race along the east side of the canal in Akron, then plunged down the steep slope as the continuing Cascade Race, sequentially powering all the industries in the valley as the same water flowed through one factory, then into the next one, and on into the next—all by gravity. Opposite Lock 14, the race can be seen entering a 558-foot brick tunnel under North Street, emerging just north of the building owned by Abtec (originally the site of Schumacher’s German Mill, later that of Swinehart Rubber), flowing back into the same Little Cuyahoga River from which the water had been diverted upstream.
South of this confluence, just below Lock 15 (where today the canal also enters the river) was a basin. Canal boats from Cleveland often tied up here overnight, and their personnel frequently shopped at the Mustill Store, which fronts on the west side of Lock 15. The Mustill Store and House, buildings that date from the late 1840s (or early 1950s), are the showpieces of Cascade Locks Park. These buildings have been rehabilitated to their original form by a unique partnership comprised of the City of Akron, the Cascade Locks Park Association, Metro Parks, Serving Summit County, and the National Park Service. The interior of the store has become a museum featuring photos and artifacts of Cascade Locks during the height of the canal era.
Schoolchildren visiting the restored Mustill Store listen to “Fred and Emma Mustill,” played by Rosemary Reymann and Bill Van Nostran, volunteers of Cascade Locks Park Association. The store interior is now a museum created by the National Park Service and operated by the Cascade Locks Park Association.
Typical of all of the locks in Cascade Locks Park, Lock 15 has deteriorated substantially since its construction in 1826-7. It has also undergone intended “improvements.” In the 1907 photo of Mustill’s store we see new gates in place, and the fresh results of an effort at waterproofing. Most locks leaked, and the leakage got worse with time as the mortar disintegrated between the lock stones.
By the end of the 19th century, the only common freight traffic on the Ohio & Erie was coal for the boilers of Lake Erie steamboats. Nevertheless, there arose a movement to restore the canal for excursion trade; and in 1906 and 07 a contract was let to the Daley Brothers to accomplish the project. To preserve the 15-foot width of the channel, the Daley workers chipped back the sandstone blocks about a foot deep and then cast a heavy waterproofing barrier of concrete into this wall cavity. They also built many new gates—only to have their work destroyed half a dozen years later by the notorious flood of 1913. The concrete liner is mostly what we see today, but on some locks we can still see the original sandstone blocks.
Walking south on the path from Mustill Store and crossing North Street to the sidewalk on the south side of the street, from the middle of bridge over the canal we can see why these are called the “Cascade Locks.”
A few feet farther east are the overgrown ruins of Lock 14’s “wasteway” or “bypass channel.” Every lock had one of these “detours” for the water around the lock, so that during times of less than peak traffic, the water level wouldn’t get so high that it flowed over top of the gates—or, worse, be washed out during a storm.
Looking southwest from the North Street bridge, the grassy plain in the foreground (with a high-voltage tower in the middle of it) was the site of a large basin in front of Ferdinand Schumacher’s Cascade Mill—which was located where the grove of trees now stands.
Schumacher was a German immigrant who introduced rolled oats to the Ohio community in the 1850s in a small oatmeal plant on North Howard Street . But in 1961, his first major customer became the Union Army—a stroke of luck that launched his career as a nationally-known cereal entrepreneur. He built his Empire Barley Mill and two German Mills (the first one destroyed by fire), before he purchased and refurbished the Cascade Mills at the intersection of Howard and North Streets, a flour mill utilizing state-of-the-art water power. When completed in 1876, the mill was turned by an iron water wheel 36 feet in diameter, having a ten-foot face and weighing 37 tons. The metal wheel stuck up above the ground about 18 feet, inside a semicircular housing—one that appears next to the 1876 photo of the newly refurbished mill.
This ornate brick tower in the picture was a “standpipe” in which water rose like a siphon to fill the 48 iron buckets of the wheel. For this was an overshot wheel, meaning it was not pushed at the bottom by the force of the water in the Cascade Race, which ran through a tunnel more than thirty feet below (which tunnel Schumacher used as a supplementary outlet for the water wheel’s tail race). It was the apex of the giant water wheel that had to be fed through a large closed pipe from a much higher altitude. The source of this water was a dam in the Cascade Race like the one near the top of the hill that is climbed by the Cascade Locks—a concrete dam with two spillways that have a kind of “hydraulic box” between them.
A concrete dam between Locks 10 and 11. The 48-inch opening, fitting bell and spigot clay pipe may have been the source of the water that after flowing underground for nearly half a mile, rose up in the standpipe of Schumacher’s Cascade Mills to power a 36-foot diameter overshot water wheel.
This dam backs up a millpond that is contained by a low concrete wall that runs alongside the foot path. The hydraulic box has a 48-inch outlet on the downhill side that would fit large-diameter, bell-and-spigot clay pipe—a product developed in Akron the 1860s (which for a time made the city the “sewer pipe capital of the world”). Inside the concrete box is a diagonal line of long steel bolts that probably held a screen or grill to keep debris out of the pipe. Although some believe this dam may have belonged to another industry, it was probably just such a hydraulic structure that fed Schumacher’s giant water wheel.
Indeed, in describing Schumacher’s Cascade Mill, William Perrin’s History of Summit County (1881), states that “The water supply flows through a 6-foot [sic] subterranean tube, to an iron standpipe [inside the brick tower], rising about 18 feet to the level of the basin and flowing from an iron tank 26 feet long, 8 feet wide and 4 1/2 feet high, to the iron gate, which gauges and delivers it to the buckets at the apex of the wheel.” It was the weight of this water filling 48 buckets each revolution that turned the wheel, delivering all the power necessary to run Schumacher’s mill through a heavy leather belt 40 inches wide and 120 feet long.
But despite his dedication to state-of-the-art waterpower, Schumacher’s prescience is apparent in the tall smokestack that appears in photographs a decade later at the north end of the mill. Recognizing the advancing age of steam, Schumacher supplemented—indeed dwarfed—the output of his giant waterwheel with a modern steam-generating powerhouse. There is a very practical reason his decision, dictated by the laws of physics: The energy liberated by one ton of water falling one mile is about the same as that released by burning one pound of coal. The Cascade Mills burned in 1904, exposing the giant water wheel, which stood silently in the ruins for two decades before it was finally dismantled.
Just north of the Cascade Mills site is a railroad trestle—the older and lower of the two railroad bridges in the valley. About 300 feet long, this one spans the canal and the towpath at Lock 13, and is about 40 feet above the top of the lock. It is the second trestle built on the site. The first was the crude-looking wooden structure seen in 19th-century photographs of the valley. According to Ohio railroad icon, author, and history professor Dr. Roger Grant, the wooden trestle was constructed by the Valley Line Railroad in 1879-80. This line went bankrupt in 1895, but was reorganized as the Cleveland Terminal & Valley Company, the same year. The Baltimore & Ohio took control of the line in 1909. It is this trestle that is crossed by today’s Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, from which riders can get an aerial view of the Cascade Locks.
A second, much higher trestle soars 70 feet above Lock 11. Erected in 1926 by the American Bridge Company, the lofty steel structure soars 70 feet above Lock 11 and is nearly 900 feet long. It is a thrill to watch a massive, thousand-ton freight train serenely gliding eight stories in the air over the fragile-looking steel structure—a marvel of then-relatively-new structural engineering design; i.e., the ability to daringly calculate the strength of materials (as first demonstrated by such 19th century pioneers as James B. Eads and John Roebling, who left St. Louis’s Eads Bridge, New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, and Cincinnati’s Great Suspension Bridge in their wake). Beneath this light steel webbing , still standing like ancient monuments, are the massive stone piers that supported the first trestle on this sight, erected in 1890-91 by the Pittsburgh, Akron & Western Railroad.
Between the two trestles is the Ace Rubber Company, which stands on a historic piece of land that was the site of several industries. The first was Aetna Furnace, one of five cupola furnaces built along the Cascade Race during the first decade the canal was opened. The iron foundry burned down twice and was rebuilt the second time as a flour mill known as Aetna Mills—another of the grist mill in the industrial valley that operated on waterpower (until it, too, converted to steam in 1881).
At the summit of the Cascade Locks, a coal-fired power house was built in 1888 to furnish direct-current electric power for the new electric streetcars that had begun replacing the city’s horse cars Not long thereafter, the traction company began selling electric power to the city. But during the 1913 flood, after a winter of record snowfall, the dam at the outlet of the Portage Lakes gave way (or was deliberately breached by local residents to prevent flooding of their property) and thousands of cubic feet of water headed down the canal toward Akron. To prevent flooding of the Goodrich boilers and adjacent buildings, the lock gates at Lock One were dynamited, releasing a wall of water that roared on down the canal, washing out all the subsequent gates in the locks below.
When the torrent reached the Cascade Locks, the traction company’s powerhouse boilers were inundated and downtown Akron was plunged into darkness. The Akron Beacon Journal had taken sensational pictures of flood damage throughout the city and had one of the greatest stories in its history, but could not go to press because it had no power. Resourcefully, one staff member brought in a motorcycle, attached a drive belt from the rear wheel to a small dynamo, and got one Linotype machine running. An undersize edition was composed, and the cast plates were taken to Saalfield Printing in East Akron. The book publisher had its own power plant, permitting the paper to publish the story, with spectacular pictures of the flood that ended the life of the Cascade Locks—and of the Ohio & Erie Canal—forever.