“The Mighty Ohio”
“You ask me where I would reside, / If in some palace fine, / Where costly jewels rich and bright, / In gorgeous splendor shine.
“If I would live in splendor gay / With servant at command, / Where every wish could be supplied, / While soft as silk my hands.
“If I would choose Virginia, / Or some sunny Southern plain, / Or would I choose some far off land / Where kings and monarchs reign.
“Or would I choose some humble cot / With shade trees by its side; / And in it be content to live / Close by Ohio’s rolling tide.
“Yes, I would choose Ohio’s shores, / And in some cottage neat, / Half hid by vines and flowers bright, / My life would pass so sweet.
“I love her fair, meek daughters, / Her sons so proud and free, / Her rivers are the loveliest / Of any that there be.
“Yes, I would choose some quiet spot / By Ohio’s sparkling wave, / Whose rippling sounds so musical / Like the voice of the brave.
“O; native, dear Ohio / The dearest spot to me, / How lovely are thy sunny shores; / The home of those that’s free.
“There’s something now that bids me turn / My bark of life to thee, / In thee our brave ones have a home / And thou art wholly free.
That poem is from the March 12th, 1863 edition of the Weekly Register, penned by Ms. Rowena Armenia Blankenship of Mercerville, Ohio, just down the river. In the first years of its existence, she submitted several poems to the Register, which are all very good in my opinion. High quality of Ms. Blankenship’s poems aside, this one also serves well to illustrate my point in writing this article.
The Ohio River, murky and polluted as those waters may occasionally be, is the lifeblood of our area. Why, one could even go so far as to call it the lifeblood of America! For in all American history, no point more truly defined the American spirit than the young nation’s expansion west of the Ohio.
From its true headwaters in Central Pennsylvania, the Ohio traces a 1,310-mile-long route to its confluence with the Mississippi at Cairo. Forged by the Allegheny and Monongahela at Pittsburgh and joined by the Muskingum at Marietta, Great Kanawha at Point Pleasant, Scioto at Portsmouth, Great Miami at Lawrenceburg, the Wabash near Uniontown, and the Cumberland and Tennessee near Paducah, it drains a good portion of 15 states. At Cairo, it is a larger river than even the Mississippi itself, thus any hydrologist will tell you that this makes it the main stream of the largest river in the United States! It is a mighty river…
Coveted by both the French and British, it was the border between empires. After the Treaty of Camp Charlotte ended Lord Dunmore’s War between settlers and Native Americans, it was border between cultures. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established it as the border between slavery and freedom, and when those tensions came to a head in 1861, it was the border between two nations at war. Yet empires, nations, and wars come and go, and the mighty Ohio River flows ever westward…
Old Man River himself, we’ve been in a running battle with the mighty Ohio since mankind first settled this valley. Native American legends tell of floods in which only the hilltops were dry, and of course, 1832, 1884, 1913, and 1937 stand out in our own memory. A series of seventy reservoirs along its tributaries has lessened the damage since then, but every so often, we still need to close the floodwalls and clean out the stores in Pomeroy. Completely taming the Old Man just simply isn’t possible, and none who’ve seen the Ohio at flood stage would dare doubt its might…
Yet, a curse can also be a blessing. That same raw power that destroyed cities and homes also drove the wheels of industry. From water-powered grist mills and sawmills to steam-powered coal mines, salt furnaces, steel mills, and shipyards to the modern diesel and electric chemical refineries, the Ohio was the means to both produce goods and take them to market. The American Rhine, a truly mighty river…
And we here in Mason County are blessed to have, not one, but two mighty rivers at our disposal! Between the Ohio and Great Kanawha, two rail lines, and Route 35, we certainly have everything we need to build a solid, diversified economy based in agriculture, industry, recreation, and tourism. It’ll take all four, industry or tourism alone will not do it, but if all four are brought together… Then, just maybe, the Ohio Valley will once again display its might.
Information from the Weekly Register, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and several general histories of the region.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.