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

Mile Marker 665: Leavenworth, Indiana

The Ohio River flooded in 1937, wiping out the residents of Leavenworth. Within a year, town officials were at work rebuilding Leavenworth, at the top of a cliff, rather than in its original location near the shoreline.

Leavenworth Boat Ramp: At the foot of West Street in the former Lock and Dam 44.

Mile Marker 606: Louisville, Kentucky

This is the point in the Ohio River story where boats had a lot of problems because a series of falls destroyed numerous hulls. As the Ohio became all the more valuable for shipping goods, the first canal (1830) was built on the river to accommodate safe passage of goods by boat. In Clarksville, Indiana, just across the river, Ohio Falls State Park is home to 300-million-year-old fossils that are visible in the limestone. Trailering Club member Jeff Nicholas brought his boat to Louisville to get a first-hand look at the Thunder Over Louisville weekend (every April) featuring boat races, fireworks on the river, and the Blue Angels in the air. When he arrived, however, he got a firsthand look at what happens during heavy spring rainfalls. "Cox Park is a very nice area," he says looking back at the boat ramp he first hoped to use. "It's just up river from the Louisville city center. Trouble is, the storm had brought the river level up 8 feet or more and the ramp was covered with debris, the dock was totally under water, the river was running at better than 8 mph and there was trash in the river from telephone poles to the sides of buildings. I wasn't about to put my boat in the water at this place." Nicholas was able to launch the following day, though not on the Ohio. He trailered the boat to Lake Barkley, just south of Paducah, where the Tennessee River meets the Ohio.

Louisville Boat Ramps:: Cox Park, free, Waterfront Park, to the west of I-65 bridge crossing the river, Riverview Park to the southwest

Mile Marker 464: Cincinnati, Ohio

photo of Serpentine Wall in Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati's Eden Park marks the Ohio River's halfway point. Of the nine bridges crossing the Ohio between Cincinnati and Kentucky, one is "the color purple," literally. Now called "the Purple People Bridge," it's a former L&N railroad bridge, painted purple, that's become a half-mile long pedestrian walkway between the two states. Right next to the Ohio side of the Purple People Bridge is Serpentine Wall, a gathering place for visitors and residents as well as an architectural variation of the common flood wall commonly seen in every river town.

Cincinnati Boat Ramps:

Schmidt Field, Mile Marker 466.6, $10/day 513-321-0862

Cincinnati Public Landing Ramp, Mile Marker 470.2, $10/day 513-352-6166

Riverside Ramp, Mile Marker 475.4, $10/day 513-921-5657

Mile Marker 249.5: Pomeroy, Ohio

This town of 2,000 residents has two notations in Ripley's Believe It Or Not: Because of the hilly landscape, the Meigs County Courthouse has a ground level entrance on all three floors and it's the only city in America without a four-way intersection.

Pomeroy Boat Ramp: Riverside Amphitheatre Courtesy Dock is one of 11 launch ramps in Meigs County with Ohio River access

Mile Marker 172.2: Marietta, Ohio

Founded in 1788, Marietta is the oldest city in Ohio. It's strategically located where the Muskingham River flows into the Ohio. For this reason, one of Marietta's first industries was shipbuilding, including numerous boats built for WW1 and WW2.

Before 21 dams and locks were built along the Ohio River, ships bound for, and from, the Mississippi could only operate six months out of the year because water levels reached depths of 18 inches during summer droughts. Today, the United States Army Corps of Engineers operates the dams and locks. The area between two dams, usually about 50 miles apart on average is called a "pool." Locks on the Ohio River have two chambers: One is for commercial traffic and measures 1,200 feet long by 110 feet wide; and the other, designed for recreational boats, is 600 feet long by 110 feet wide. Trailering Club member Wayne Cook got a first-hand look at the smaller lock while cruising upriver from Marietta to Pittsburgh. See his account in our sidebar on page 00.

Marietta Boat Ramp: Indian Acres Park on the Muskingham River

Mile Marker 0: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Photo of the Ohio River at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

This is the beginning of "the most beautiful river on earth," where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio. Terry Grantz, publisher of www.boatpittsburgh.com, notes that many boaters attend Pirate games on the water and if they're not catching baseballs out of PNC Park, they can follow the games on the stadium Jumbo Tron that can be viewed from the river. "There is a public wharf right outside PNC Park that boaters can tie up to for free to attend the game or any of the restaurant/bars that are in the vicinity," he says. "Also, there's another wharf down river in front of Heinz Field that gets filled up for Steelers games and concerts. We like to call it 'boatgating' or 'transomgating.'"

Pittsburgh Boat Ramps:

18th Street Boat Ramp on the south side, at Mile Marker 5.7 on the Monongahela River

13th Street (Sharpsburg, five miles northeast of Pittsburgh) on the Allegheny River

Newport Marina, Mile Marker 1.1 on the Ohio River 

This article was published in Summer 2011 issue of Trailering Magazine.

Locking Dramas And Rule Of The Road

By Wayne Cook

photo of BoatUS Member Wayne Cook's motorhome and boat

Before we left home, I looked up what I could on locks including the proper procedures to pass through them, which included having 100 feet of rope. Don't expect the lockmaster to toss you a line. While we were going north, we came to Willow Lock, and were behind a large barge that was just entering the lock. I called on the radio to the lockmaster, and very carefully requested passage. His response was, "going up or down river?" Oh yeah, I forgot that this did make a difference and I hadn't told him in my request. Startled, it took us a second to figure this out. Finally, I said, "Up river." After a little wait, he replied, "OK, go on in."

At this point, my wife and I stared at each other with a bewildered look on our face. I then picked up the radio mike and said, "Where do we go in? Behind the barge?" It completely filled the lock. He answered back, "To the left is a smaller lock, go in there." We didn't even see that lock from where we were in the river. There was a complete little lock next to the big lock that the barge went into.

At that point we noticed that the traffic light at the front of the lock was green. Once we got inside the lock, our small 18.5' boat seemed really small. At this particular lock, there was no one to take a rope. Instead, we saw pylons (bitts) at the water level so we hooked a rope on. With my wife in the bow and myself in the rear, we were afraid of what would happen, so we were both ready to untie if we needed to. Inch by inch the bitts went up with the water. By the end of the lock ride, I’d let off the rope and was just holding onto the pylon with a slight grip of my hand. My wife let her rope off completely and was just looking around. This was a very relaxing ride. We went up about 30 feet or so. I was watching the depth sounder change an inch or so at a time.

The US Army Corps of Engineers has this advice for securing your boat to mooring bitts in Ohio River locks:

There are two kinds of pins on the lock walls to tie the boats off on. There are stationary mooring bits and there are mooring bits that float in channels in the walls. Boat operators should always try to use the floating mooring bits, as these will usually not require the operator to make adjustments to the lines as the water levels in the chamber change.

Flood Walls

Most Ohio River towns are located at either a higher elevation than the river or have flood walls to protect the downtown from the always-expected springtime floods as rainfall increases and snowfall melts. While flood walls in each city were certainly tested this past spring, these structures exist because of what happened in January 1937 when the river kept rising and destroyed homes, businesses and, in some cases, lives in riverfront communities along the 981-mile length. Once the 14-25 foot walls were constructed however, residents in each community talked about feeling "enclosed" and removed from the water. So, in many towns, like Paducah, Kentucky, artists have been put to work and today, the walls keep the river from flooding, while giving residents and visitors a quick history lesson of events that occurred decades and centuries earlier close to where they're standing.


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