A Place of History and Transformation
Summit Lake: Setting the Record Straight Series
By: Abigail Bashor
Urban legend enthusiasts will find themselves at home when learning about and discussing the history of Summit Lake in Akron, Ohio.
Sunken Ferris wheels, slithering alligators, and even the occasional ghost sighting are all distinct myths that Akron locals have heard about the area through hushed whispers and campfire stories. Even so, this hasn’t stopped such stories from seeping into the minds and realities of many area residents, creating a distinct sense of mystery and skepticism around the lake itself.
For decades, Summit Lake has embedded itself into Akron’s long and storied past. One hundred years ago, Summit Beach Park held its opening day as an amusement park. The summer of 1917 saw Ohioans near and far flock to the park area to enjoy rides on “The Whip” and other thrilling rollercoasters. A wooden carousel with intricately carved animals was a favorite among children, while a grand Ferris wheel loomed over area with stunning views to match. Additional attractions such as a dance hall, penny arcade, boat launch, and accessible beach were on site for visitors, as well. Soon after the parks inaugural opening, however, the entirety of Summit Lake was deemed unsafe from pollution, spurring the construction of an insulated filtered-water swimming area called the “Crystal Pool.”
Although it was once considered the city’s “waterfront playground,” the lake served area communities long before it was solidified as a leading recreational space. Historian and former chief of interpretive programming and education for Summit Metro Parks, Maureen McGinty, says that the lake’s geography has lent itself to much of Akron’s development. “It’s a pretty neat place naturally because Summit Lake was there before the glaciers,” she explains. “It’s called ‘Summit’ because it’s the ‘highest point,’ almost 400 feet above Lake Erie.” McGinty says the well-known lock system within Akron actually starts its numerical arrangement at the lake itself. Whether one ventures northward or southward, through Lock 1 North or Lock 1 South for example, they would start at Summit Lake. “There’s a continental divide, which means the water on one side flows up the Cuyahoga River to Lake Erie, and on the other flows south to the Tuscarawas, and then to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.” She explains that the early American Indian tribes native to the area knew this, and would therefore “portage” their canoes up from the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie watershed to the southern watershed as means of transportation.
By the time industrial Midwest cities were beginning to crop up during the 19th century, demand for the shipment of goods was high. Prior to the construction of the railroad system, canals were deemed the best way to connect people and supplies. “When they were building the canal, it was really swampy,” says McGinty. “In order to lower the lake for the canal to pass through, because it was so high, they had to dredge it out by nine feet.” Lacking modern-day equipment, this was no easy task, and eventually a “floating towpath” was instead constructed to assist boats across the difficult marsh sections of the lake. Today, a contemporary reconstruction of the floating towpath allows Towpath Trail users to bike or walk across Summit Lake as though they are traveling along that same historical route.
“After the heyday of the canal, someone could take a boat from Akron to Summit Lake,” says McGinty of the area’s more recreational period. Factory workers from Akron’s booming rubber industry throughout the first half of the 20th century would spend weekends with their families near the lake area. Until the realization dawned that the lake was polluted by industrial waste, McGinty says events such as rowing competitions and other beach and boating activities took place frequently. She also notes that surrounding businesses took interest in the area, including Akron’s line of streetcars and busses. “Summit Lake gave their streetcars work for the weekends; they would take people to the amusement park at the lake. There’s an old garage for those cars on the southern end of the lake where they used to house them that’s still there today.”
As time progressed and the identity of Akron as an industrial powerhouse waned, Summit Lake felt those effects just as well. Growth in the area stagnated, and economic opportunity halted for many residents, creating a lapse in upkeep for the lake and its surrounding environment. The once celebrated “playground” became largely forgotten.
Chris Falconer grew up on the West Side of Akron during the 1980s and recalls his childhood visits to Summit Lake where he would attend baseball games with neighbors and occasionally visit friends. He remembers a period of time as he grew older when he and others would pass through the area, but wouldn’t spend much time there or at places like the community center. “When I was in the area, it didn’t really seem like a place you wanted to associate with or spend your time at,” he says. “There was always seemed to be this stereotype and clash between those who lived on the hill and those who lived in the valley.”
As Falconer reached high school, the underpinnings of tension that surrounded the area boiled over in overt and extreme ways. School integration and busing into local Kenmore High School were sobering experiences Falconer witnessed firsthand. “My friends who I had gone to the baseball games with at Summit Lake were a few years older than me and would tell me stories about going to Kenmore,” he explains. “By the time it was my turn to go, I didn’t want anything to do with the school because of all the stories: folks outside the school with picket signs, being told not to walk in the area at nighttime, and so on.” Falconer remembers entering the school and seeing racial slurs everywhere, from the walls to the desks to the bathrooms. “I kind of shut down. I didn’t want to participate. It was a sense that you weren’t really wanted there.”
Working in education now, Falconer looks back at how that particular school experience truly challenged him. “I remember telling my mom that I didn’t want to go because of the things going on, and she just thought it was me not wanting to go to school in general. After I graduated, she read somewhere in the paper around 1990 about Kenmore’s racial tensions, and that really brought it to light for her.”
Over 20 years later, Falconer says he’s seen the Summit Lake area change in ways he couldn’t imagine. Visiting along with his family, the upgraded towpath and other recreational activities have really drawn Falconer to the area once again with a willingness to learn and explore. Still, he notes a certain hesitation common among local residents to engage in the same way.
“Growing up, you always hear about stories of how there was once an amusement park down there; that there are cars in the lake, alligators, a Ferris wheel that you can see if the light hits at the right angle. All those urban legends.” Falconer says he’s mostly skeptical of these stories, though. “I’ve never seen the Ferris wheel, but they say it’s at the deepest point of the lake,” he jokes gleefully.
Despite the environmental and social improvements being made at Summit Lake, uncertainty and suspicion remain a difficult barrier to break for many residents. As someone who previously saw doubt in the area as well, Falconer understands these hesitations. “Even with the changes taking place, folks will scoff at the idea of fishing in the lake and will bring up all the urban legends as reasons why they should stay away, whether it’s fact-based or not.” Still, he says, an open mind should prevail. “But when they get down there, they realize that it’s changed quite a bit. Everyone who has visited recently because of the new life that’s been brought to the area is really amazed.”
While embracing new things can be difficult, Falconer says that spark of transformation is just what Summit Lake needs. “I think as people come to know the area for what it is now, and not what it was, it will become more impactful and folks will keep coming,” he explains. “You have this new culture emerging that might be hard for some to adjust to, but you just have to be a little bit more open to what this great change is.”
Note: This piece is part 1 of a series focused on the history and current state of Summit Lake as we lead up to the results of the environmental assessment.
//Abigail Bashor is an Akron Civic Commons Storyteller and University of Akron student.//