April 2007 Issue
Storied structures lead travelers to Fascinating sights along the Ohio River.
Since Charles Ellet first spanned the Ohio River at Wheeling in 1849, Ohioans have been gliding back and forth between distinct cultures, accents and cuisines in communities that hug the riverbanks.
A century and a half later, Ellet's Wheeling Suspension Bridge still stands - the oldest vehicular suspension bridge operating in the world, and to some, the greatest antebellum engineering achievement in America. Today, driving or walking, we're still merrily zigzagging across the Ohio, intrigued by what's on the other bank.
Here are a few zigs and zags to try on your next ramble along the river.
Marietta, Ohio, to Williamstown, West Virginia
Let's begin at the beginning - at the beginning of the Northwest Territory, that is.
In 1787, Revolutionary War Gen. Rufus Putnam led a group of 48 veterans, the Ohio Company of Associates, from Ipswich, Massachusetts, to the land beyond the Ohio River.
No less a personage than President George Washington wished them Godspeed. "No colony in America was settled under more favorable auspices," he wrote. "I know many of the settlers personally and there never were men better calculated to promote the welfare of a community."
Arriving in April 1788, the men dubbed the first settlement Muskinghum, a Delaware Indian word for "elk eye." Then, flushed with gratitude for French support in the American Revolution, they renamed the town for Queen Marie Antoinette, and Marietta was born.
You can retrace all this history at Marietta's Campus Martius (Camp of War) Museum - down to Gen. Putnam's log house. Once part of the original fort, it's now tucked within a protective wing of the museum. Just out back, imagine you're buying a bit of the new Ohio for $2 an acre at the Ohio Company's Land Office.
And how to get to this new hamlet at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers? By boat, of course. One block west of Campus Martius, you can follow the flatboats and their steamboat successors at the Ohio River Museum. Outside the museum on the Muskingum River, the W. P. Snyder Jr. still welcomes guests aboard as the last intact steam-powered sternwheeler towboat in the U.S.
Across the 1992 Williamstown-Marietta Bridge, which reuses some of the piers from its 1901 predecessor, the Fenton Glass Company heats things up as it has for more than a century. Glass is still handmade here, and travelers are welcome to tour for free; Fenton's is often ranked among the top 10 factory tours in the country.
Williamstown is part of Greater Parkersburg, an old Virginia town three years older than Marietta. Virginia, of course, was a slave state, and that plantation heritage has been preserved at Henderson Hall, a 17-room mansion just outside Williamstown on St. Rte. 14. It's been in the same family since its construction in 1859, and is open on summer Sunday afternoons.
Maysville, Kentucky, to Aberdeen, Ohio
The William H. Harsha Bridge links more than two states. It spans an American tale of two cities, splintered through the prism of slavery.
The river, of course, divided Bluegrass slavery from Buckeye freedom - one of the founding tenets of the Northwest Territory was "no slavery." And although making it ashore in Ohio as an escaping slave was monumental, it was much safer to keep moving along the Underground Railroad into Canada.
This is Uncle Tom's Cabin territory. Harriet Beecher Stowe visited Maysville's Marshall Key family in 1833, and saw a slave auction on the Washington County courthouse lawn. The Key home on Old Main Street is now the Harriet Beecher Stowe Slavery to Freedom Museum, with slavery artifacts and Civil War memorabilia
The story continues at the National Underground Railroad Museum in the Bierbower House, a documented safe house on West Fourth Street. You can still see hiding space beneath false floors.
Don't cross the 2001 Harsha Bridge without slowing down to admire the new floodwall murals on the McDonald Parkway, capturing Maysville from its earliest days as a trading center called Limestone.
In Ripley, downriver on the Ohio side, the tale of the Underground Railroad continues at the restored homes of John Rankin and John Parker. Rankin was a Presbyterian minister who, with his wife Jean and abolitionist neighbors, helped 2,000 escaping slaves. The Rankins often had 12 slaves hiding in their two-story house at once.
The stairs outside are a re-creation of those that ran between the river and the Rankin front door on Liberty Hill. It's said that one of the women who raced across the frozen Ohio became the model for Stowe's Eliza.
John Parker saw the situation from the other side, a black man who bought his freedom at age 18 and moved just north of the Mason-Dixon. An inventor who held one of the few 19th-century U.S. patents issued to a black man, Parker risked his life to venture into Kentucky and rescue slaves through Rankin's network.
On a lighter note, you can take a refreshing break on summer Saturdays at the Kinkead Ridge winery. Pack a picnic, then head to the winery's production center. Vintners Ron Barrett and Nancy Bentley will be glad to sell you a bottle of their finest for your feast.
Cincinnati to Covington and Newport, Kentucky
While Cincinnati has a number of more prosaic links to Kentucky, two of the most exciting require a little shoe leather right now.
The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge to Covington, a stone-and-cable history lesson in itself, is open only to pedestrians until repairs are completed later this month. The Purple People Bridge to Newport is the country's longest pedestrian span between two states.
Begun during the steamboat boom, interrupted by the Civil War and completed in 1866, the Roebling is now a proud landmark beloved of both states - although it is owned by the state of Kentucky.
Today, shoppers move easily between downtown Cincinnati, with Tiffany's and Saks, and Covington, with idiosyncratic boutiques along MainStrasse.
Cincinnati's waterfront is anchored by the Paul Brown stadium for football and the Great American Ball Park for baseball. In between is the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Just a mile west, the Art Deco Union Terminal encompasses three great museums: History, Natural History and Science, and Children's, plus the newly renovated OMNIMAX theater.
Across the Roebling, Covington's MainStrasse Village clusters its shops in Victorian-era buildings. They're gathered around a chiming bell tower and the Goose Girl Fountain, selling everything from medieval armor and Turkish rugs to stained glass and magic supplies. Shopping's thirsty work, so why not stop in one of MainStrasse's 19 pubs?
But just one drink, please, if you plan to drive east to Newport and tackle the Purple People Bridge Climb. You'll go 150 feet above the waves, jump-suited and "transfastened" to the purple trusses.
The 1872 Louisville & Nashville railroad bridge has been purple and pedestrian for years, but the climb was new in 2006. At the fifth-truss summit, climbers ring The Achievement Bell and saunter back triumphantly on the bridge deck.
Warsaw, Kentucky, to Vevay, Indiana
Forget the Northwest Territory. For real age, the ground sloths, giant mastodons and woolly mammoths of Big Bone Lick State Park win, tusks down.
The park, just upriver from Warsaw in Union, is a time capsule of the animals drawn to delicious salt licks and warm, bubbling springs during the last Ice Age, more than 15,000 years ago. Mired in the bogs, many died here, and their giant bones were on display as early as 1739.
The Delaware and Shawnee relied on the lick for salt and meat. Meriwether Lewis, co-leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition, visited twice, sending boxes of bones to the inquisitive President Jefferson.
Today, the animals are back, both in a museum and an open-air diorama. Wander around the Discovery Trail and you'll have a reward at the end: a glimpse of Kentucky's first buffalo herd since they were hunted out in 1800.
The park, "Birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontology," is also a playground for picnicking, sports and miniature golf. Hikers head for the three-and-a-half-mile trail around the lake - just beware of salt bogs.
The link between Kentucky's Gallatin County and Indiana's Switzerland County arrived in 1963, in the concrete form of the Markland Dam. But tiny Ghent, Kentucky, just downstream, claims it sent the first car across the Ohio - on ice - to Vevay, Indiana, on January 1, 1918.
Vevay (pronounced VEEvee) may be small, but it carries a big title - birthplace of the American wine industry. Swiss immigrant Jean Jacques Dufour harvested his first grapes about 1806 or '07, and launched the new country's first successful vineyard on the strength of local Vevay Alexander grapes.
With 16 million acres of grapes in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, the Ohio River Valley is now the country's largest designated wine area. Enjoy a sip of vintage Vevay on the deck of Ridge Winery, overlooking the Ohio.
A few miles east of Vevay, the Belterra Casino Resort and Spa marks the intertwining of wine and gaming all along the Indiana Wine Trail. From Belterra, with 600 rooms and a golf course, the riverside Routes 156 and 56 meander through Rising Sun, with Grand Victoria Casino and Resort by Hyatt, to Lawrenceburg, with Argosy Casino and Hotel.
Northwest of Lawrenceburg in Guilford, Chateau Pomije serves its Gold Medal chardonnay with meals in a 150-year-old barn. And although our route's left the mighty Ohio behind, the tasting patio still looks out over a lake for that all-important water view.