Bitten by the Canal Bug
he village of Franklin Mills (today’s Kent) undoubtedly owed its existence to the Cuyahoga river. Waters rushing through the narrow gorge above and below the present day Crain Ave. bridge provided the power needed for the operation of grist and saw mills. Distilleries, tanneries, and forges soon followed, forming an “upper village” and a “lower village”. Collectively, they were known as Franklin Mills.
In the early twenties the country had been bitten by the “canal bug”. By 1825 one canal—the Ohio—had been planned, authorized, financed, and partly built. In 1827 legislation sanctioned the construction of another canal—the Pennsylvania & Ohio—to link Cleveland to Pittsburgh. Tentative plans provided that it should extend from Beaver, PA,
on the Mahoning River, to Akron, OH, via Ravenna and Franklin Mills! But for a time it seemed as though the canal was only a dream due to difficulties with financing. Those
“on the inside” however, knew for certain that the canal was a reality. Eastern capitalists, enriched by years of prosperity, were looking westward towards Ohio for places to invest their money, and were seeking water power sites. The P. & O. canal and abundant water power…a money making opportunity, if there ever was one.
So along comes Zenas Kent, prosperous Ravenna merchant and builder, with many influential friends. It is most likely that he had a clear knowledge that construction on the
P. & O. canal would soon begin. He acquired approximately 500 acres of land and kept buying parcels of land adjoining the lower village. By the end of 1833 he was the biggest landowner in the Township, and most of the land was next to the best water power site.
Now the stage is set for the Franklin Land Company. An organization of capitalists from Cleveland, Boston, Hudson, Ravenna, and elsewhere, who believed that Franklin Mills could be one of the foremost manufacturing centers of the country. They purchased the water power site and 750 acres from Zenas Kent and his wife for $75,000. About the same time, the Franklin Land Company bought the holdings of Pomeroy & Rhodes in the upper village. This gave the company complete control over the river, as well as all property that is now Kent.
Then things moved fast. A large tract of land on the East side of the river was surveyed and laid out into lots, with business streets and wide thoroughfares. Today that tract of land is Kent’s downtown business district. The canal builders—large gangs of Irishmen—built a giant lock, a beautiful arched dam across the river, and a sturdy covered bridge at the foot of Main St. The canal and bridge builders had to be housed and fed, as did the carpenters and bricklayers who came to work on the new buildings. Many stores were opened and did a thriving business. In a few short years investors bought everything in sight…95 per cent of the land now within the city limits of Kent changed hands at least once.
Downtown Kent, undoubtedly owes its existence to the Pennsylvania & Ohio canal.
Top Image: Painting by an unknown traveling artist, a German lad, who made a living by moving from place-to-place on the canal, painting views such as this one. The Kent block (structure in background), built in 1837-38 was destroyed by fire in 1972.