Ohio River: Long Water From Point To Point

By Pat Piper

The Ohio River begins in Pittsburgh and ends at the Mississippi. In between, history speaks through the towns

When Thomas Jefferson was about to assign Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to head west in search of a water route to the Pacific Ocean in the early 1800s, he was familiar with their starting point. It was a place called Fort Pitt, with mountains on either side, and where two rivers meet to form a third. Jefferson described that third river, the Ohio, as "the most beautiful river on Earth." As Lewis and Clark flowed along this water highway, they agreed the President was on to something.

In 2011, however, the river was anything but "beautiful." Heavy rains and melting snow in the spring resulted in the Ohio almost exceeding the 1937 record flood stages in many riverfront towns (and major cities).

In this story, we're going to trace the Ohio River, with the help of some friends. This long water trek includes a number of colorful stops along the way with some history, a few observations, personal experiences, and tried-and-true advice from our Trailering Club members, who'll also give us a brief look at the character of people who've seen the Ohio when it's been beautiful and when it';s been anything but. We begin at the river's end, in Cairo, Illinois, following its flow 981 miles back to Pittsburgh.

Mile Marker 981
Cairo, Illinois

 Aerial photo of the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois

Here, the Ohio River is wider than the Mississippi. Cairo is the most southern point of Illinois and the site of Fort Defiance during the Civil War. It was in Cairo where all boats passing Fort Defiance were stopped and searched for goods that were being shipped to Confederate troops. Cairo is mentioned in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn when the two boys try to get to the side of the river where Jim won't be sought after as a runaway slave. Huck is able to ward off bounty hunters by saying the other guy in their tent (Jim) has smallpox. The men quickly decide to search elsewhere.

Cairo Boat Ramp:

Fort Defiance State Park

Mile Marker 935
Paducah, Kentucky

photo of floodwall murals in Paducah, Kentucky

Not only is this considered the "Quilting Capital of the World" (April's "Quilt Week" brings in more than 30,000 visitors every year), but Paducah is known for the Lowertown Art District (www.lowertownartdistrict.com) where artists from across the country were given a break on rent to set up shop and produce paintings, sculptures, crafts, and pottery. Because Paducah was literally swept away during a record 1937 flood, construction began two years later on a flood wall that exceeds the water levels reached in 1937 by three feet. Paducah is where the Tennessee River empties into the Ohio. Kentucky Lake is about 70 miles from Paducah on the Tennessee River and part of the 4,500-mile Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (the Tenn-Tom).

Paducah Boat Ramp:

Broadway at the Ohio River, free.

Mile Marker 881
Cave-in-Rock State Park, Illinois

photo of Cave In Rock State Park, Illinois

This 65-acre park along the Illinois side has a lot of history and all of it centers around the 55-foot-wide cave set in a limestone cliff. Around 1800, Samuel Mason, a former officer in George Washington's Revolutionary Army, used the cave as a tavern and later as a base from which he and his gangs would launch surprise raids on boat travelers moving food and products down river.

Cave-in-Rock Boat Ramp:

There are two ramps in the state park. Both are free and trailer can be left overnight

Mile Marker 791.5
Evansville, Indiana

photo of Ron Riecken of TowBoatUS Evansville

Ron Riecken of TowBoatUS Evansville was friends with the late John Hartford, who wrote "Gentle On My Mind" for Glen Campbell in 1967. After piloting steamships with Hartford for a few years along the Ohio, Riecken went to work running the Inland Marina on the river, and for the past decade has owned TowBoatUS Evansville.

"People may not be aware of this, but they numbered the mile markers backward on the Ohio River," he says. "Since they started in Pittsburgh, that's where they started the numbering, but most mile markers begin at the mouth of the river, in this case Cairo, Illinois, and work upstream." Riecken is correct; Mile Marker 0 on the Mississippi is at Head of Passes, Louisiana, 95 miles south of New Orleans where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Inland Marina is home for LST 325, the only operating World War II Landing Ship Tank still in existence (there's a second one in Muskegon, Michigan, that remains moored). LSTs were built in Evansville and designed to transport troops, tanks, and supplies onto enemy shores. The ship, part of the 1944 D-Day invasion, makes a few journeys up and down the Ohio every year for events marking chapters of World War II history.

Evansville Bend is considered the sharpest turn along the entire river. The local United States Power Squadrons, of which Riecken is a charter member, has a burgee featuring "the bend."

Evansville Boat Ramps:

Angel Mounds, Mile Marker 786

City Front, Mile Marker 792

Dog Town, Mile Marker 797

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