The city was hot, the water was cool and the clothes were optional.

Akron youths splashed and frolicked all summer long in the muck and grime of the Ohio & Erie Canal during the late 19th century and early 20th century. The water was of questionable purity and content, but children didn’t seem to mind as they escaped the swelter and enjoyed a free swim.

Local historian Cloyd R. Quine (1881-1967) recalled some of the most popular spots along the canal in his 1952 booklet Akron’s Old Swimming Holes. The waterway was at least 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep in the center, providing ample space for hundreds of swimmers each day when the city’s population was 16,500.

Each spot had a nickname, and some were quaint, if not mysterious.

“The Pee Zee,” also known as “Ninety,” was a short section of the canal between South Street and Summit Lake. “On the tow path on the east side was a large ice house later removed when Nollan’s Park was established,” Quine recalled. “On the west bank there were several small boat houses and an old sunken canal boat.”

Why the place was called “The Pee Zee” or “Ninety” is anyone’s guess today, but it was the most popular swimming hole south of Exchange Street.

“The Forty” and “The Eighty” were swimming holes between Thornton and South streets. They were also known as “Forty Rods” and “Eighty Rods,” their supposed distance from the Thornton Street bridge.

“The Saw Mill” was located near the Lower Basin of the canal, close to the Brewster Coal Co. near the southwest corner of Exchange and Main streets.

Also thronged with swimmers were Lock 2 near W.J. Payne’s boat yard between present-day Akron Children’s Hospital and Canal Park; Lock 5 near the Stone Mill at the foot of Mill Street at South Howard Street; Lock 13 beneath the Baltimore & Ohio trestle at Cascade Mills; Lock 17, then outside the city limits, a half-mile north of Market Street; and Lock 19, also known as Black Dog Crossing, the present site where Memorial Parkway crosses the Little Cuyahoga Valley.

Lads harass passers-by

Children were supposed to wear bathing suits, but many couldn’t afford them in those days. Some kids, mostly boys, peeled off all their clothes and plunged into the water, creating an ongoing battle with city officials. As it turned out, nude boys could be rude boys.

They mocked the passengers of passing canalboats and threatened to tip over canoes. They shouted profanities to women on the banks of the canal. They ripped apart barns and stole the wood for floating in the water. They tampered with the locks, opening the wickets to raise the water level for swimming.

Worst of all, they committed “depredations of many kinds.”

In other words, these ornery boys were exhibitionists.

Fielding citizen complaints, police frequently chased the lads out of the water. Some boys left their clothes on the banks and sprinted naked through town.

Violators face fine

In 1886, the Akron City Council passed the following ordinance: “It shall be unlawful for any person in a naked state, or with the person so much undressed as that there is an indecent exposure of the body, publicly, or where he may be publicly seen, at any time to bathe in the open water of the Ohio Canal, between Locks One and Nine of this city, or during the hours of daylight in any other portions of said canal, or in any other waters within said city. It shall be unlawful for any person at any time to bathe beneath or immediately adjacent to any bridge in said city, crossing said canal or any other water.”

Violators faced a whopping fine of $10 (more than $350 today) if they were caught au naturel along the canal.

This, of course, solved the nude-bathing problem once and for all.

Just kidding.

Naked boys cavorted in the water all summer. Some played practical jokes on each other, hiding clothes, tying them in knots or slathering them in mud.

Occasionally, police arrived to shoo the children away. The boys skedaddled to another section of the canal and started splashing again.

“They go in bathing without the semblance of a rag to hide their nudity, and many intentionally make exhibitions of themselves that ought to cause every one of the offenders to be sent to the stoneyard until the water is too cold to make bathing desirable,” the Akron Daily Democrat fumed in 1894.

City leaders approved construction of a changing booth downtown and proposed a swimsuit-lending system for kids who didn’t own one. These steps seemed to have little effect.

Problem persists

In 1900, Police Chief Hughlin Harrison announced a crackdown on nude swimmers, saying: “Decency demands it.” Harrison said officers would not tolerate young men “exposing their persons” in plain view of businesses where young women were employed.

“In fact, I am convinced that some of the boys and young men take great delight in doing this,” Harrison said. “Again, a great many of the females, in going to and from work, have to cross and pass along the canal and during the bathing season have to take roundabout ways to avoid these scenes.”

The hooligans would not be contained. For another decade, complaints persisted of noise, profanity and disorderly conduct from nude bathers.

Mayor William T. Sawyer suggested “a good drubbing” was in order.

“It’s all right to go swimming, but if the young men who are given the privilege do not know how to behave as gentlemen, it is time to stop them,” Sawyer said in 1908. “When the order is given for no more swimming in the canal at that point, any violators of the order will be arrested.”

More splashing.

More frolicking.

In 1912, Mayor Frank W. Rockwell announced new restrictions on canal bathing: “It is not our object to keep the boys from enjoying themselves so long as they conduct themselves with decency, but their present conduct there must be stopped.”

Nature ends au naturel

It took an act of nature for that. The flood of 1913 wrecked the canal system, making the depleted waterway less appealing for swimmers. Meanwhile, Akron and Summit County opened public beaches, wading ponds and artificial pools so kids could cool off in the summer.

Although bathers have occasionally ventured into the murky water over the past century, the canal remains a swimming hole best relegated to the past.

Clothed or unclothed.

Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or mjprice@thebeaconjournal.com.