Skip to site content
The Group Travel Leader Small Market Meetings Going on Faith

An Ohio River odyssey

Though the scenery looked calm enough beneath the treetops, the bouncy and bobbing wagon ride seemed poised for a quick getaway from marauding Native American tribes or some other danger on the Ohio River island.

“Hold on to your hats; we’re going to pick up speed,” yelled our wagon driver as she enthusiastically shook the reins, urging the horses faster along the shaded lane.

I held tight to the wooden sides of the wagon as the horses galloped faster across the 500-acre island now known as the Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park, in West Virginia, near Parkersburg. The boisterous ride amid the quiet setting of historic buildings and foundations added a healthy dose of excitement to the secretive island that time forgot.

The wagon ride ended in front of the dramatic white Blennerhassett Mansion reproduction. The original structure, long ago swept away by floods, once housed the island’s most infamous character, Harman Blennerhassett, who brought notoriety to the remote island with treason, incest and wealth in the 18th century.

The hidden gem along the Ohio River exemplifies the rich history garnered by towns along the waterway in the heyday of river transportation. On my ride along the Ohio River from Cincinnati to Marietta, Ohio, and back, I explored many river towns still showcasing their eclectic pasts with museums, guided tours and other riverside attractions.

Simply Cincy

Cincinnati’s favorable spot along the river became clear when I reached the top of the 574-foot Carew Tower, whose observation deck allowed me to see not only Fountain Square directly below, but also Cincinnati’s seven hills and connecting river winding its way into the distance.

Unlike other river settlements that later became ghost towns, Cincinnati has retained a large population and importance in Ohio as the third-largest city in the state.

The city’s Krohn Conservatory remains one of its many in-demand attractions. The 1933 art-deco aluminum-and-glass conservatory shelters a maze of horticulture from the driest and wettest places in the world. The twisting cacti in the Desert House are representative of a rough collection of plant life, and the vivid orchids and thick jungle vegetation of the Tropical House bring to life an environment exploding with color and activity. The Palm House features exotic trees around a waterfall and a cavern.

Just down the river in Ripley, Ohio, Victorian homes face the Kentucky border as they have since before the Civil War, when they stood as symbols of freedom for slaves escaping across the Ohio River. The restored homes, once used as safe havens for runaways, keep a candle in their front window in honor of the owners. So many in the town willingly aided slaves, and Ripley became a central part of the Underground Railroad.

“You have to remember the river looked very different then,” said June Zipperian, First Settlement Tours guide. “At some points it was only a foot deep, and you could wade across. Abolitionists in the town would do things to hide slaves coming across.”

At Thomas Collin’s house, Zipperian related stories of how the woodcarver constructed coffins with false bottoms to hide slaves. Similar stories came from numerous riverfront houses.

The historic Rankin House sits atop Ripley’s bluff, clearly visible from all over town. Candles that once guided slaves to their freedom shine there as well, as the Rev. John Rankin was one of the most outspoken abolitionists of his time.

“They [the Rankins] had 13 children, and they all lived in this tiny house at one time,” said Kirk Hinman, tour guide at the Rankin House. “They sheltered more than 2,000 slaves escaping to freedom, with as many as 12 escapees hiding in the Rankin home at one time.”

Tours of the home commemorate the family’s bravery and escapee Eliza Harris, who crossed the river with her baby. Visiting writer Harriet Beecher Stowe chronicled Harris in her famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

An Amish paradise

A land without buttons, electricity or televisions exists in Holmes County, Ohio, which claims the largest Amish population in the world. To introduce us to the Amish way of thinking, an Amish guide with round glasses, a broad-rimmed black hat and a long white beard climbed aboard my group’s tour bus to narrate the country drive.

“We believe that children are blessings from God, so we spend a lot of time with our families,” said Lester Beachy, Swiss Valley Tours guide. “We play a lot of sports, but not competitively. We play games together, and in the winter we go ice skating. Without television we find other ways to occupy our time.”

Amish baling hay and riding beside the road in horse-and-buggies illustrated the relaxed pace of the religious group. At the 116-acre Yoder’s Amish Home, I explored an 1866 Amish homestead inside and out.

“They still make lye soap,” said Mariam, the Mennonite guide of the home. “It consists of animal fat, ashes and rainwater. They also still make their own clothes. The ladies’ dresses have to be pinned together, because they can’t have buttons or zippers.”

The simple decorations and handcrafted possessions in Amish homes depict a modest home in the extreme; even the outfits the Amish wear must conform in color.

Horse-and-buggy rides around the surrounding green farmland serenely ended the tour of the quaint county.

At the Warther Museum and Knife Factory in Dover, Ohio, about 20 minutes east of Holmes County, guests are invited to learn about a man who exemplified eccentric genius.

“In all the pictures of Mooney, please notice his hair,” said Kathy Gibson, the Warther’s tour guide. “Mooney was quite a character. A wooden pair of pliers became his calling card. He guaranteed making a pair in 20 seconds. When he appeared on the Johnny Carson Show, he hit 9.9 seconds.”

With the wild, white hair of a mad scientist, Ernest “Mooney” Warther taught himself to carve unbelievably complex creations, such as ivory trains, quality knives and 511 attached working pairs of wooden pliers, from one block of wood. A video, a knife shop and 64 trains carved from ebony, ivory and walnut illustrate Warther’s celebrated talent.

Getting fancy at Fenton

Closer to the river in Williamstown, West Virginia, swirling colors and twisting shapes revive the traditions of 1800s glassmaking at the Fenton Art Glass Co. The shop and museum display a representative history of America’s glassmaking with many examples from Fenton’s collection of handmade colored glass.

The museum plays a video on the history of the company describing the intricate process required to create a piece of Fenton Art Glass, from blowing it into a shape to hand-painting the decorations.

Nearby in Marietta, Ohio, at the connected Campus Maritus Museum and the Ohio River Museum, I explored the rough realities for steamboat crews on the Ohio River. The Campus Maritus Museum interprets the early settlements of Ohio with antique tools and audio dramatizations; the Ohio River Museum outlines the development of river vessels with miniature paddle-wheelers, videos and the W.P. Snyder Jr., the sole surviving steam-powered stern-wheel towboat. I climbed aboard the 1918 vessel floating in a waterway outside the museum to view the claustrophobic living quarters of the crews.

My next stop led me to the forested island on the Ohio where Harman Blennerhassett decided to build his mansion in 1799. He left Ireland due to charges of treason against the British government and because he decided to marry his niece, which was decidedly frowned upon back then as well.

A walk through the elegant property taught me that Blennerhassett not only had scandal attached to his name, but also immersed himself in medical, scientific and other studies of the day. The house would have seemed an unbelievable luxury when the island still sat in the middle of nowhere in the Ohio wilderness.

“People didn’t have color in their rooms usually, so pigment was considered a privilege only the wealthy could afford,” said Janet, a park guide. “People would write home and in their journals, marveling at the colors in the room.”

A pleasant point

On my way back toward Cincinnati, I toured Point Pleasant, West Virginia, another river town supposedly named because George Washington called it “a pleasant point” while surveying the area in the 1740s. Today, the first American president’s influence is still evident on a visit to Mount Vernon, which is a reproduction of the famous Virginian property of the same name on land that Washington once owned.

The current owner, Bret Morgan, takes groups through the mansion he helped restore to match the original Mount Vernon down to the tiles. His explanations of the renovation challenges he faced in each room served as a how-to guide to restoring aging homes.

“We came close to tearing this building down but decided not to,” said Morgan. “What’s amazing is this building is from the time when people did real plasterwork. It was very well built and such a long time ago. I’ve always felt the craftsmanship of the 1700s and 1800s is a lost art.”

I concluded my trip up and down the Ohio River at the Point Pleasant River Museum, which summarized the natural and commercial history of the life-giving river with a 2,200-gallon aquarium of river creatures, a simulated experience piloting a speeding paddle-wheeler and many other interactive exhibits.

Though my attempt at piloting ended abruptly when I failed to turn fast enough around a river bend, the memory of the peaceful river smoothly flowing beside the towns I visited stayed with me long after I left.