If Akron is the heart of local history, Portage Path is the aorta. It’s the main artery connecting the past to the present.
From time immemorial to about 1805, Indians carried canoes on the ancient trail while trudging seven miles between the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas rivers. The well-worn route served as the western boundary between the United States and Indian nations in the late 18th century.
With such a grand reputation, its place in history should have been secure.
That’s why Summit County scholars howled in outrage when local authorities wiped Portage Path off the map and renamed it Cobb Avenue in the late 19th century. The battle over the street’s name lasted more than five years, pitting neighbor against neighbor and leaving a trail of hard feelings.
Akron officials were powerless to intervene because Portage Path, which had only a half-dozen residents, was in Portage Township on the outskirts of the city.
In 1896, Summit County historian Samuel A. Lane, a former mayor, sheriff and journalist, decried the renaming as “the most flagrant monstrosity in the way of street nomenclature.” And he was friends with the namesake!
Charles Bassett Cobb was the 1830s proprietor of Pavilion House, a hotel at the northwest corner of Howard and Market streets — then the main crossroads of the village of Cascade.
When Lane arrived in town in 1835, he stayed at the inn and earned his board by tending bar, waiting on guests and doing odd jobs. Cobb later owned the Ohio Exchange, an inn at Market and Main streets.
The businessman was regarded as one of Akron’s oldest and best-known residents when he died in 1892 at age 82. He left behind a son and daughter, J. Marshall Cobb and Fannie Cobb Bloomfield, and an 18.6-acre estate with a “substantial brick house” that fronted the west side of Portage Path a few hundred feet south of West Market Street.
“He ever retained what one may say are the angels which stand about the throne of life — honor, unselfishness and sympathy; they are not the smiling angels which youth loves best, but they had a comfort in them by his dying bed,” the Akron Beacon and Republican newspaper eulogized. “The rest of the heavenly troop will very likely come behind them uncalled.”
Neighbors proposed renaming Portage Path in Cobb’s memory. They argued that the street, also known as Trail Road and Indian Trail, was of limited historical significance because it strayed from the actual path. In fact, the ancient trail zigzagged back and forth across the road, overlapping it for short distances.
Despite popular belief, the trail did not cross at the present-day intersection of Portage Path and West Market Street. It originally crossed about 300 feet west of Portage Path — just east of Marvin Avenue.
With the blessing of trustees, Cobb Avenue signs replaced Portage Path signs.
“With all due respect to the memory of my early and always good friend, the late Charles B. Cobb, I submit that the representatives of his estate, in allotting his farm, a small portion of which abuts on the path, have no right to arbitrarily destroy its identity by giving it the name of Cobb Avenue,” Lane fumed in a letter to the editor. “That name would be exceedingly appropriate for the principal street in the Cobb allotment, but is entirely out of place on the thoroughfare in question.”
Cobb’s daughter took Lane’s protest as a personal attack and noted that it wasn’t her family’s idea to change the name.
“A number of the gentlemen living upon ‘Portage Path’ came to me and asked me if I would have any objection to having the path called Cobb Avenue after my father, as he was one of the oldest citizens of Akron and had been identified with the interests of Akron and surrounding country for over 60 years, originally owning so much land upon ‘Portage Path,’ they feeling it a compliment to my father’s memory,” Fannie Cobb Bloomfield responded.
“While I think ‘Portage Path’ a suitable name, and I should never have thought of changing it, I cannot see why Mr. Lane should have made such a severe attack upon the name of a street not in the city limits, nor likely to be for some time.”
Cobb Avenue resident Harvey M. Hollinger, one of the proponents of the change, cited confusion over similar-sounding streets in the neighborhood: Portage Path, Portage Road and Portage Street.
He sarcastically thanked Lane for his high-profile objection, which Hollinger claimed assisted “in having Cobb Avenue so generally known, for it would have taken years in the ordinary way to have informed the people that there was such an avenue in or near Akron.”
An anonymous letter writer, who identified himself as “one of the representatives of the estate,” argued that all Indian names should be cast aside in “the onward march of progress” and “civilized society.”
“We consider it of some importance that the men who cleared the farms, built substantial homes on them, and were important factors in the early development of the county should be remembered than that the lazy Indian who merely wandered across the country with his canoe on his back should claim a place in our memory,” he wrote.
The debate simmered until Akron expanded west in 1900 by annexing the township land.
Justice of the Peace Aaron Teeple, who lived on Cobb Avenue, circulated a petition to restore Portage Path’s name. He collected thousands of signatures, including “nearly every prominent man in town,” and delivered the petition to the City Council in August.
The city adopted a strangely worded resolution in October: “Be it resolved by the council of the city of Akron, Ohio, that the name of the road or street now known as Portage Path, be and is hereby named as Portage Path.” And so it still remains.
In 1901, Akron developer Gus Kasch arranged for an 8-foot arrow to be placed on a post at “the exact point” where the original trail crossed West Market Street. Four years later at the site, he donated an Indian statue that was dedicated July 4, 1905, as a tribute to those who had traveled the old path.
Kasch bought the 6-foot bronze figure for $75 from J.L. Mott Iron Works in Bronx, N.Y. The statue was moved decades later to West Market and Portage Path, where it stands today. By the way, a 2-foot-high arrowhead sculpture in front of PNC Bank at Highland Square marks the original route.
Kasch developed two allotments on the former Cobb farm, carving Ardmore and Elmore avenues into the old estate. While Bloomfield Avenue and Hollinger Avenue are among the streets in the neighborhood, Charles Bassett Cobb somehow got overlooked.
There is no Cobb Avenue. At least not anymore.
“Let the historic and venerated old name, Portage Path, stand forever,” Lane implored.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.