Cruising the Ohio River
by Mary Jo
September was cruise time! As with our April cruise of the Chesapeake Bay, we an American Cruise Lines small ship cruise. Since ACL cruises only in American waters, it was much easier and less likely to be canceled than flying to Europe at a time when border restrictions are constantly changing. We decided on a cruise of the Ohio River, starting from Pittsburgh and ending in St. Louis. It would be simple to get to and from, and more important, it was a part of the US that we didn't know well, and which has masses of history.
The Ohio River was the southern border of a vast tract of wilderness that had been ceded to the US by Great Britain in the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the American War of Independence. The Northwest Territory doubled the size the young United States and covered all or part of what would become six states, but at the time, it was entirely undeveloped: no towns, no farms, no roads, only a handful of small forts.
When this vast new frontier opened up, the Ohio River became the road to the west. Ships and barges carrying explorers followed by soldiers and settlers braved rapids and unpredictable waters to travel all the way down to the Mississippi River and beyond.
The Ohio River is formed when the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers join together at what became the site of Pittsburgh. Our journey started there with a complimentary night at the Drury Hotel, which was once a Federal Reserve Bank. You can still see the massive vault on the lower level. <G>
There was so much I didn't know about the Ohio River! It's dynamic and unpredictable, 981 miles long, it drops roughly 500 feet between Pittsburgh and the Mississippi, which is why 19 locks have been constructed to insure smooth passage along the river. They are very long locks since they must accommodate very long strings of barges.
Another reason for the locks was to control floodwaters. In 1937 there was a monstrous flood that inundated towns and cities along the river for weeks. We were told that after the floodwaters subsided, residents along the river turned to the Army Corps of Engineers and said, "Fix this!" So locks were built as well as concrete embankments with flood walls along the top. Long concrete walls aren't terribly interesting, so many of the towns have striking murals painted on them. In most cases, the murals depict the area's history, and hence they're fascinating. Here is one of the images.
But so much for the facts. Our first morning on board, I was delighted to step out on the balcony and see the mists below. Magical!
The second day we were scheduled for Marietta, Ohio, a town with a lot of history. In 1788, it was established as the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory. It was a vital stop on the Underground Railroad as slaves escaping from the south were free once they reached Ohio. It was also a regular stop on steamship routes. There are a couple of great museums there, the Campus Martius museum which focuses on the western expansion and the indigenous populations, and the Ohio River museum, which focuses on the river.
I would love to have visited them, but Oops! Marietta was having a sternwheeler festival that weekend and there were no parking places for our Queen of the Mississippi. <G> Yes, the river is unpredictable! But below is a picture of the wheel of our stern wheeler, which was part of the fun of this ship.
Next stop was Maysville, Kentucky, a charming and scenic town. The Gateway Museum there has an astonishing collection of miniatures. Right next door, the showroom of a local bourbon distillery was giving away tiny cups of bourbon slushies. They were delicious and didn't have a lot of bourbon flavor, which was fine by me. <G>
Next stop was Cincinnati, a substantial city with many interesting sights, including a museum of the Underground Railroad. Cincinnati is hilly, dramatic, and rich in history as well as architecture. A church tower near the river was pointed out to us. Its priest would go up in the tower and signal with lights when it was safe to bring fleeing slaves across the river to freedom.
Our ship was parked right by the Cincinnati Bengals football stadium, and that afternoon was the first game of the football season. This explained why people were walking around carrying gigantic stuffed tigers on their shoulders. <G>
Henderson, Kentucky is not large, but it's the site of the very impressive Audubon museum. The building is striking (a WPA project, we were told) as were the many splendid illustration of birds done by Audubon.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the cruise was Paducah, KY. ("Rhymes with bazooka.") I had no particular expectations of the town, so it was all great. Our guide was a native son who really loved his home town, and his enthusiasm was contagious. He was one of the best guides I've ever seen and he brought the city's history alive.
Twenty blocks of the town center are a historic district and on the National Register of Historic Places. The town is also one of 180 cities worldwide that are part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, and there was amazing creativity wherever you look. Lower Town, the oldest part of Paducah, was badly run down until the city instituted a program to sell the old houses to artists for $1, with buyers committing to restoring their now homes. The results are terrific. (The town also has some of the best river wall murals on the Ohio.)
Paducah is also the home of the National Quilt Museum, which is fabulous. This elephant quilt hangs there. In non-pandemic times, there is a huge quilt show in which 35,000 committed quilters descend on this town of 25,000 people. (!)
The Ohio River empties into the Mississippi, where we turned right and headed up river. Cape Girardeau, Missouri also had really fine mural walls.
Our cruise ended in St. Louis, which was also a city of surprises. Founded by the French in 1764, it predates the Northwest Territory I discussed above. It was part of the Louisiana Purchase, another land acquisition which doubled the size of the United States, and included land for fifteen US states and two Canadian provinces, but that's a story for another day.
I'd visited St, Louis a couple of times for conferences, and my clearest memory was of a long ago RWA conference when the Mississippi was flooded and the famous Gateway Arch was standing out in the river, surrounded by water. (The conference hotel was only a block or so above the flood water line,) The Arch commemorates the settlement of the far west. Our ship was parked just below the Arch, and it was a splendid sight to wake up to.
We had another excellent guide showing us neighborhoods of really impressive urban renewal, and our coach drove around the humongous Budweiser beer brewery. There was a brief sighting of a couple of the famous Budweiser Clydesdales. <G>
But the big surprise was the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, known as the new cathedral. (There's an old cathedral as well, also beautiful but smaller.) To be honest, I'd never heard of it, but the structure is famous for its mosaic covered interior, made up of 41.5 million pieces of tile. And it's STUNNING! As soon as I stepped inside, I snapped back to my college art history class and the word "Byzantine!" reverberated in my mind. The style is very characteristically Byzantine, and there probably isn't another place like it this side of the old Eastern Roman Empire.