Milepost 197.0 – Westbound Between Exits 193 and 209
County: Portage How it got its name
Most transcontinental travelers are familiar with the Continental Divide that separates the watersheds of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Another great divide that separates the vast basins of the St. Lawrence River and Mississippi River traverses northern Ohio in a general east-west direction. Northward from this divide Ohio’s rivers and streams flow into Lake Erie and their waters are carried on through Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River into the Atlantic Ocean. Southward from the divide the waters course into the Ohio River and the Mississippi River – Father of Waters – to the Gulf of Mexico.
In traveling north and south across the divide in Ohio the Indians made use of the convenient river routes. They paddled their canoes as far upstream as possible and then carried the light craft overland across the divide to the headwaters of another stream, continuing downstream to their destinations. The trip over the divide was known as a portage. The historical importance of the portage is reflected in the naming of Portage County, in which the Portage Service Plaza is located, and the Portage Lakes in Summit County, south of Akron.
Some of the portages across the divide in Ohio became important routes of trade and warfare. One of the most famous of these was an eight-mile portage through the present site of Akron from the deep gorge of the Cuyahoga River, where it curves northward toward Lake Erie, to the Portage Lakes at the head of the Tuscarawas River, a branch of the Muskingum River, which flows into the Ohio River. This portage was so well known that it was used as a boundary line in several important treaties.
A portage across the divide in north central Ohio linked the Scioto and Sandusky Rivers in the vicinity of Upper Sandusky to provide another important route from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. A western Ohio route between the lake and the Ohio River utilized an easy portage linking the Great Miami River with the headwaters of the Auglaize River, a tributary of the Maumee River, in the vicinity of Wapakoneta.
The cross-state divide separates rivers whose courses were determined in large part by glaciers which covered northern Ohio many thousands of years ago. In the vicinity of Akron and Mansfield the divide is prominent and rugged. Its highest point, just east of Bellefontaine, is 1,550 feet. Where the Ohio Turnpike crosses the divide, two miles west of the Portage Service Plaza the elevation is 1,253 feet – highest point on the 241-mile toll road. Near Marion, the divide is so nearly flat that the headwaters of the Scioto and Sandusky Rivers almost meet. In fact, they did converge during the disastrous 1913 Ohio flood, and the waters stood there like a pond, trying to decide whether to flow to Lake Erie or join the raging flood in the Scioto and Ohio River valleys.
Perhaps the most celebrated spot along the 300-mile length of the divide in Ohio is a barn on the Craig farm at an elevation of 1,265 feet, seven miles west of Mansfield, between the Palmer Springs head of the north-flowing Sandusky River, and the pond from which arises the south-flowing Mohican branch of the Muskingum River. It was this spot to which one of Ohio’s famous sons, President James A. Garfield, referred when he said, in Victorian eloquence, “A little bird standing on the ridge of that barn can, by a flutter of its tiny wings cast a drop of water into the Gulf of St. Lawrence or the Gulf of Mexico.”
The portage across the divide, used first by the Indians, later served the trappers, traders, soldiers and settlers. They subsequently became the pathways for the early turnpikes, canals, railroads and highways that enabled Ohioans to improve their meanings of shipping and receiving goods, thus bringing prosperity to farms and towns in all parts of the state.