The River’s the Doctor
WHEN THE staircase of locks had been built from Akron down to the world, boats began to walk back up loaded with wonders that were not of the Western forest: real glass for windows out of Pittsburgh via Portsmouth and the canal; plaster dust for cabin chinking out of Buffalo via Cleveland and the canal; whale oil lamps, china plates. And converging on Lock 1 from the Akron hinterland for transshipment to the world came bulk from the land, outbound via the mouth of the Cuyahoga.
The land beside the locks at Akron became stevedore, warehouse, terminal, and tavern to the canal, and Akron thought itself doing very well. But Dr. Eliakim Crosby didn’t.
He began telling Akron they were missing the chance of a lifetime. “A town has got to make something to ship out. Can’t just be a place people go through.”
But Akron had no outstanding farm land, no minerals. Timber, yes, but the whole Northwest Territory had timber.
What did they have?
Dr. Crosby finally found something. But it would require tremendous amounts of work, a ton of money, and, most of all, some long-sighted men. Crosby sent messages over to Trumbull County to General Simon Perkins and Judge Leicester King to meet him in Akron a week from Sabbath.
They arrived with the superiority of busy men being imposed upon. But Crosby being Crosby, you couldn’t afford at least not to hear him out.
The doctor took them out to Lock 1 on the canal just south of where the Little Cuyahoga joins the Cuyahoga. The men could look down on heavily cargoed canalboats crawling both north and south. It gave Judge King an idea, which irritated Dr. Crosby at the moment. King was overjowled and had never become a part of these woods. He was still Connecticut. He said, “Look at that traffic! If we only had another canal now from here to Pittsburgh, Akron would become-”
But Crosby interrupted. “I want you to look down there at the Little Cuyahoga.”
Crosby finally got their attention.
He took a map from his saddlebag, squared it with the land, and showed we don’t have any large river. But look what we could do here. The land rises so gradually between here and Middleburg that you don’t notice there’s a vertical difference of almost a hundred foot.
Now suppose we tapped the Little Cuyahoga right here -the doctor’s finger stabbed the map at a point of high ground (near Case Avenue) - and built a millrace to divert water over here, then run it down the face of this valley to Lock 5 on the canal. Between these two points, with a drop like that, the water would run twenty mills. Put twenty dams and a millwheel at each dam, twenty factories.
The doctor looked up at General Perkins and Judge King.
“By God,” Perkins breathed.
Studying the requirements, they found the sheer digging to cut a river down the steep sides of the valley was enormous. The job of acquiring the land from the owners along the route of the proposed new river would be in itself a major project. They would not have the governmental right of eminent domain. And if owners figured out the purpose, land prices would shoot up, particularly if it was suspected that King, Crosby, and Perkins were involved.
It would take a wagonload of borrowed money. But King and Perkins had a lot to gain in improved valuation.
Crosby would build the millrace, Perkins would lay out another town at the junction. Judge King drew the delicate job, buying a strip of land for the millrace without kiting the price.
Some very careful regional writers record that Judge King asked Crosby to “Mark the line for the millrace at night.”
Trees are too thick to work at night, but a full moon was due in a week. However, under cover of oak the moon would not light the work enough for running a straight line, Crosby feared.
“Then run it crooked, Doctor, and just straighten it daytimes.”
People will still see our survey blazes, King objected.
Don’t use blazes. Put out hunting traps with a stake to mark them but close the unbaited traps.
Judge King went over to Ravenna Courthouse to study the land deeds. And he went to the tavern beside Lock 1 to study the owners. With whom would he be dealing in buying the right-of-way? He hoped he wouldn’t find any absentee owners living back in Connecticut. It would be costly to acquire such titles. He found only three of those, but he found one name that alerted him - Charles Brown.
King went to Perkins, “You traded a lot on Little Cuyahoga to a Charles Brown to get him away from the canal right-of-way?”
He’s now standing right across the right-of-way of progress again.
Perkins shook his head as he remembered the deal he had made with Brown. “How could it happen?”
Men who have good land sense are always choosing the same pieces of ground.
If they asked Brown to move again, he’d know that again there was a good reason. Brown had now had a chance to see that Perkins had been overwhelmingly right about the canal. It had succeeded; it had raised land values.
King suggested Perkins might have a better chance of getting Brown to reverse the trade. Perkins agreed to try.
Regional scholar Hugh D. Allen records the Perkins-Brown exchange:
Perkins said, “You made a good trade with me before, Mr. Brown; I think you were satisfied, but now I would like to have it back.”
Brown clearly remembered the last time Perkins had asked Brown to move ... the big canal came through. So this request reassured Brown that something else big was coming. It seemed even more certain when Perkins offered 56 acres in exchange for Brown’s 45.
But Brown was intrigued enough to ride out and look at the proferred land. He was pleasantly surprised at what he saw in the 56. He agreed to the exchange.
However, Judge King discovered a title mix-up. Perkins did not own it. The 56 acres, although technically owned by Mehitabel Barston, were legally owned by her husband. And Mehitabel Barston’s husband was a tough burr.
When Judge King approached him about the purchase of 56 acres, Barston was suspicious that anyone would want such a small part of the Barston land. A verbal skirmish ensued ending in a proposal: King could buy the entire tract including the stony hillside - all for $14,000.
The Judge hesitated. Raising that much money would take some time.
Barston wrote up a five day option at $14,000 ending at midnight on the fifth day.
It took Judge King four and a half days to raise the money, and a half day to get papers to prove it, and the evening to ride back to Barston’s and lay the papers on the table. But when midnight chimed on Barston’s Connecticut clock, Barston did not appear.
Judge King pulled out his pocket clock. Barston’s clock was accurate. He rose and paced the kitchen. Suddenly a door opened from the shed and Barston walked in proclaiming that since midnight had passed, King’s option had expired. Barston wanted to raise the price.
But King stood firm in his claim - because the money was placed on the table five minutes before midnight, the option was fulfilled and the land now belonged to King.
Barston consulted his lawyer who confirmed the land had legally passed to Judge King.
Leicester King worked quickly. Curiosity rose about his purchases, so he did not buy in a straight line, but bought first on one end of the line, then the other, avoiding the middle. As speculation became more acute, he even bought a few parcels far away from the river so that they destroyed any pattern or shape which might be becoming apparent.
He did his work so well that not until he had finished did the sellers of the land get together and discover the pieces they had sold fitted together in a strip that paralleled the Little Cuyahoga and obviously were part of a major plan.
When that plan became known, it started the biggest drinking laugh that had been available at the Summit. “Crosby’s going to build a river!”
When the digging of “Crosby Creek” began, the men sweating up on the ridge behind shovels looked down at the canal. They could see themselves being pointed out by the canal captains as local curiosities. On hot quiet days, laughter would float up to them. They knew the laugh was spreading south to every lockside tavern between there and Portsmouth and north Cleveland.
Cutting the millrace along the ridge, sometimes through solid rock, chewed up men and money faster than channel. Crosby, Perkins, and King had to find new loans.
It took two years. But when they were finished, Little Cuyahoga waters plunged downhill laden with kinetic power enough to turn 20 large wheels. The millrace flowed down along Main Street to Mill Street, then turned into the canal. Immediately the building of what came to be known as Old Stone Mill began. It turned its wheel in 1832. That date could be called the real birth date of Akron.
The mills which now grew up along “Crosby’s Cascade” forced people to take a new look at Eliakim Crosby. People who used to call him “Doc” when he was a doctor, called him “Doctor Crosby” now that he had stopped practicing medicine. He was the surgeon who amputated a slice of river, grafted it to a town, and brought into the world a city.
It remained for General Perkins to complete the town plat around the split-off waters of the Little Cuyahoga. He platted Howard Street, paralleling the canal as the main street, named it Howard for Dr. Crosby’s son-in-law who started the first store at the corner of Market. The store was built by Seth Iredell, the Quaker, and first mayor.
The new town became North Akron, a mile from the “old” Akron. They were divided by a gore-shaped tract - and a thousand acres of jealousy which would in its own way later rock mid-America. But we must stick to the river.
The water power from the Little Cuy’s left hand, grabbed later by a stubborn Dutchman, made Akron the flour and cereal capital of the world, starting with Old Stone Mill.
But Crosby, Perkins, Kelley, King, and the Cuyahoga had ahead even greater destiny for Akron, and a bigger fight.
Judge King started it. He began a campaign in the legislatures of both Ohio and Pennsylvania for another canal to link Akron and Pittsburgh. Then he went out to raise the money.
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