Story by Jeffrey HeilPhotos by Joseph Insalaco
The name "Ohio" comes from the Seneca, Ohi:yo', meaning "Good River". Numerous Native American civilizations lived along the Ohio River and used it for transportation and trading. The Ohio River was instrumental in the westward expansion of the United States. Lewis and Clark used the Ohio River to begin their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. During the 19th century, the river was the southern boundary of the Northwest Territory and part of the border between free and slave territories. Thus, it was the way to freedom for thousands of slaves escaping to the North using the Underground Railroad.
There are many journals of early Ohio River explorers and travelers. We were most interested in Lewis and Clark’s travels because we had previously cycled their route from St. Louis, Missouri to Astoria, Oregon. Meriwether Lewis started that journey in Washington DC where he received instructions from President Jefferson, obtained funding, and purchased equipment. Lewis left DC on July 5, 1803 and traveled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where the Ohio River begins. In September of that year, he loaded his boats, traveled down the Ohio River and met William Clark in Clarksville, Indiana. Together they floated down the Ohio to the Mississippi River then up to St. Louis.
The Ohio River, which flows southwesterly from Pittsburgh, to Cairo, Illinois, is a major tributary of the Mississippi River. It is 981 miles long, and flows through or along the border of six states. It took Lewis almost 6 months to reach St. Louis, we did it in less than 3 weeks. Our road journey was 1,100 miles over 19 days with 17,763 feet of climbing. Our daily journal, photos, and routes can be seen at ohioriverride2019.blogspot.com.
The Ohio River, before heading southwest, actually goes north from Pittsburgh. Since we could not find a good route along its northern journey, we headed west over the hills from Pittsburgh to Lawrenceville, West Virginia. There, we first saw the river and imagined floating a raft down to the Mississippi.
According to some of the early journals, the clay along the riverbanks was good for pottery and was the start of many settlements. The town of Newell, West Virginia was one of these towns where Laughlin Pottery was started in 1871. Owensboro, Kentucky was originally known as "Yellow Banks" from the color of the land beside the Ohio River. Marietta, Ohio dates to 1808 when a potter and his family settled there, making it one of the earliest pottery manufacturing sites in the entire Northwest Territory. The town of Henderson, Kentucky also had its origins in the river’s clay. It was initially called "Red Banks" because of the reddish clay soil of the bluffs overlooking the Ohio River.
We cycled in all 6 states that border the Ohio River. We crossed the river several times, sometimes for better roads or interesting places, other times for lodging. After we left Pennsylvania, we entered West Virginia but had to cross into Ohio for our first night’s lodging in Steubenville. The soldiers of the 1st American Regiment built Fort Steuben to protect the government surveyors mapping the land west of the Ohio River, and named the fort in honor of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. When the surveyors completed their task a few years later, the fort was abandoned but the town survived.
In Sistersville, West Virginia we had planned to take the ferry across the river to cycle on the Ohio side. When we got to the ferry it was “beached” and no one was around. We cycled back into town where we were told that the ferry was no longer running. We continued west on the West Virginia side to St. Marys, where we crossed the river and headed to Marietta, Ohio. During 1788, pioneers established Marietta as the first permanent settlement of the new territory. After cycling an endless commercial strip to reach the old town, we visited a Gothic Revival house that was built in 1855. Over the years, the house hosted some of Marietta’s most prominent and influential citizens. Marietta is also home to a river boat museum. Its collection includes the W.P. Snyder, Jr., the last steam powered towboat on the Ohio River. While no longer steam powered, we saw many tugboats gracefully pushing barges 3-wide and 6-long up the river.
In Point Pleasant, West Virginia we sought out the Lowe Hotel, built in 1901. The current owners purchased it in 1990 and restored it to its former glory. Except for the window air conditioners and bathrooms, it is period correct. It is a family-run business and the family lives on the first floor. Our hosts treated us to a room overlooking the Ohio River. Wandering around the town, we discovered Mothman. His statue and museum were prominent downtown attractions. Being totally clueless, we asked the hotel proprietor about Mothman. He told us that a man that looked like a moth was spotted many times around town and predicted disasters, including the collapse of their bridge over the Ohio River in 1967. After the bridge collapsed, Mothman disappeared but lives on with the town’s festival that brings in 15,000 visitors annually. Additionally, Mothman’s prophesies were featured in 2002 movie, starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney.
Some days were full of diverse points of interest. For example, on our way to Huntington, West Virginia, our first stop was at a roadside historical sign that noted a Native American burial mound. The sign was interesting, but as far as we could see, the terrain was flat. Our next stop was at Green Bottom, the home of a Civil War General. Later, we came to Hillbilly Hot Dogs. This restaurant was featured on the TV show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and looked “stereotypical hillbilly”. In Huntington, we stopped at the Madie Carroll House. The original section of the house was built prior to 1810 and is believed to have arrived by flatboat from Gallipolis, Ohio. As our eclectic day continued, we found a nice place for a late breakfast called Butter It Up. Its name is derived from blending a tablespoon of butter into a cup of coffee before serving it. We spent the night in Huntington and enjoyed its vibrant downtown, restaurants, and entertainment. The town is home to Marshall University and young folks were everywhere. (A 2006 movie “We are Marshall” depicts the University’s effort to recover after a plane crash takes the lives of most of Marshall University's football team.)
Joe does a wonderful job of planning our routes. In the past, he has come up with some interesting ways to avoid traffic. We have gone through parking lots, industrial sites, the wrong way on one-way streets, on narrow paths that were trails in name only, over abandoned bridges, and through construction sites. To avoid the busy highway into Ironton, Ohio, we cycled thru a cemetery, a first for us. Ironton has miles of brick streets and very well-kept old homes. The town was founded in 1849 by John Campbell, a prominent pig iron manufacturer. Between 1850 and 1890, Ironton was one of the foremost producers of iron in the world.
Many towns along the Ohio are noted for their flood wall murals. Portsmouth, Ohio started its painting in 1993, creating a mural 20 feet high x 160 feet long. The mural project was completed in 2002 with 2,200 feet of art along the Ohio River. The project is the largest known work of art by a single artist.
One river crossing took us from Ohio to Maysville, Kentucky, where we planned to spend the night. We had to cross the Simon Kenton Memorial Bridge built in 1931. Its main span is 1,060 feet long, and the total length of the bridge is 1,991 feet. Maysville is a neat little town with a vibrant downtown, many historic sites, and plenty of restaurants. We stopped at the National Underground Railroad Museum, which is housed in a former safe house. Next we toured the Kentucky Gateway Museum that contains regional history and over 4,000 artifacts. We also saw the Russell Theatre which was the site of the world premiere of Rosemary Clooney's first film (“The Stars Are Singing”, in 1953). Maysville also has flood wall murals depicting the town’s history.
“Believe it or not”, we visited a second town named Ripley. It was in Ohio, the first one was in West Virginia. The Ohio town was named in 1816 to honor General Eleazar Wheelock Ripley, an American officer of the War of 1812. There we stopped at John Parker’s house. He was an American abolitionist, inventor, iron molder and industrialist. Parker, who was African American, helped hundreds of slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. He was one of the few blacks to patent an invention before 1900. His house in Ripley is designated a National Historic Landmark and has been restored. Next, we walked our bikes up a half mile hill that was too steep to ride. At the top we visited John Rankin's house and enjoyed a marvelous view of the Ohio River. John Rankin was a Presbyterian minister, educator and abolitionist. Upon moving to Ripley in 1822, he became known as one of Ohio's first and most active "conductors" of the Underground Railroad. In contrast to Rankin’s home and view we next stopped at Ulysses S. Grant's birthplace. The house was so small it could be included in the TV show that features tiny homes.
Our introduction to Indiana was interesting. Twenty-five miles from our destination, our route was marked “road closed in 3.5 miles, local traffic only”. The detour, which would involve a big climb in the heat of the day, was not appealing. We ignored the warning and kept cycling along the river and came to the second sign that read “road closed in 1 mile, blah, blah, blah.” We also ignored this warning and eventually went thru the construction site, between barricades and road graders, but on fresh asphalt. Thankfully, we stayed the course because our route took us to the town of Patriot, Indiana. We arrived just as the town’s July 4th parade ended. The folks must have needed a boost to get through the post-parade letdown as we became the center of attention with our loaded bikes and Joe taking pictures. One family approached us because their 3-year-old daughter wanted to share her “parade-float candy” with us. Also, several teenage boys marveled that we had just cycled all the way from Cincinnati, Ohio.
While most of our time was spent cycling on road ways, we did enjoy some great trails in Wheeling, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky. The Louisville Loop Trail was along the river and provided about 2 hours of traffic-free cycling that took us near West Point, Kentucky. There, we stopped at a small farmers market to purchase fruit. We met some nice folks who asked about our travels and shared some local history. Before leaving, they gave us peaches and brownies. The peaches were ripe, juicy, and delicious. The brownies were also excellent and later served as our lunch. Those nice people made our day.
We started out for Lewisport, Kentucky at dawns first light, but the thick fog made seeing anything difficult. Other senses took over and the unseen were heard--birds chirping, cows mooing, donkeys baying, woodpeckers tapping, and dogs barking. Horse’s hoofs clopped up the hill faster than we pedaled our bikes as a Mennonite carriage approached. Later, we stopped at an old house that was undergoing renovation which belonged to Joseph Holt. He was a member of the President Buchanan administration and convinced Buchanan to oppose the secession of the South. He returned to Kentucky and successfully battled the secessionist element to keep Kentucky in the Union. President Abraham Lincoln appointed him Judge Advocate General of the United States Army. He served as Lincoln's chief arbiter and enforcer of military law, and supporter of emancipation.
After all that history and several serious hills, we found the River View Restaurant on the top of our second climb. The view was fantastic and the food good (sandwiches, ice tea, and strawberry pie). The owner and several patrons stopped at our table to hear of our adventure.
Owensboro, Kentucky also proved to be an interesting stop. It is the fourth-largest city in the state by population. The first European descendant to settle in Owensboro was frontiersman William Smothers in 1797, for whom the riverfront park is named. While Lewis and Clark wintered there, we made a short stop at a funky coffee shop for breakfast and visited Smothers Park and the International Blue Grass Museum.
We spent a great deal of time planning our routes to assure that each day ended with a place to sleep and eat. However, our stop in Cairo, Illinois proved our fallibility. The restaurant next to our hotel had closed and the nearest one was 8 miles away. The “sympathetic” hotel clerk suggested that we walk across the highway to a Dollar General and get a supper that we could cook in the room’s microwave. After a long look at all the “great” options we settled on frozen chicken pies, fruit cups, cookies, and chocolates. Needless to say, we looked forward to the morning’s hotel breakfast, but alas, it proved to be equally unappetizing. The next day we began our ride hungry and faced another challenge. Our planned route to cross the Mississippi River into Missouri was closed due to flooding. A motorist told us that this part of Illinois had been flooded for most of the summer and that access to the bridge had been closed for a month. Since we were heading north anyway, we stayed in Illinois and went to Anna, Illinois, where motels and food were available. This route took us thru Jonesboro, Illinois were Lincoln and Douglas had their famous debate and where Mom’s Café served us lunch and some motherly advice.
Leving Chester was our last cycling day as we headed to St. Louis, Missouri. The transition between rural cycling and our first view of St. Louis’ tall buildings was surprising. We were still in the country but looming in front of us was the city. From St. Louis we loaded our bikes into a rental van and drove back to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where our personal vehicles were waiting for our travels home. It was a wonderful journey following the westward expansion of our nation and learning about the Underground Railroad.