Travel: Marietta harkens back to early days of steamboats
MARIETTA, Ohio - Mark Twain might never have plied the waters of the mighty Muskingum, but the river where Ohio began has plenty of its own stories harking back to the early days of steamboats. The river also is one of a very few places where travelers still can get a real taste of 19th-century-style paddleboat travel.
Marietta, Ohio’s oldest permanent settlement, was founded in 1788 at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers. The first steamboatmade the run up the Muskingum from Marietta to Zanesville in about 1820.
Shortly after that first steamboat trip, the young state constructed a series of locks and dams to make the Muskingum navigable on a regular basis. From the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, more than 200 different steamboats chugged up and down the Muskingum, taking goods and passengers through the heart of the Buckeye State and beyond.
Today the river is home to the only remaining hand-operated lock system in the United States. The nine still-operational locks stretching upstream to Zanesville have been declared a National Historic Engineering Landmark. There is nothing else like them, at least not on a river-long scale.
Although the days of heavy travel on the Muskingum River are over, the locks still operate on weekends from mid-May through mid-October, as well as on Fridays and Mondays during the summer and on certain holidays.
These days, almost all of the traffic through the locks is recreational. But the Valley Gem sternwheeler, leaving from its dock on the Muskingum near downtown Marietta, still offers paying customers an old-fashioned river excursion.
The Valley Gem gives short sight-seeing trips most days between May and October. But a few times each year, the boat makes an all-day voyage through the three locks upstream of Marietta and back down again, giving passengers a chance to immerse themselves (figuratively, to be sure) in the kind of river travel that was familiar to their great-great-grandparents.
Earlier this month I took the all-day excursion, enjoying the tranquil, rhythmic slapping of the paddle-wheel astern as it pushed the boat forward past verdant walls of trees punctuated by the occasional farm, riverfront home or small town. (I also enjoyed the day’s three buffet-style meals, including a hot breakfast and dinner with prime rib.)
The pace changed as we approached the historic locks, where most passengers would gather at the rails to watch the very slow ballet of turning wheels, closing gates and rising water that moved the Valley Gem to the river's next level.
As the Valley Gem pulled into each lock from downstream, the lock walls towered above us like a narrow canyon made of very old sandstone blocks. The boat just barely fits into the locks, which are about 180 feet long and 36 feet wide.
One operator was stationed at each lock. After the boat pulled in, the operator would close the two massive wooden gates behind us, one at a time, by walking in a circle while pushing a large lever attached to the 19th-century rack-and-pinion gear system.
Once the downstream doors were closed, the operator would crank open the valves that let water into the chamber from upstream. And then the Valley Gem, ever so slowly, would begin to rise, standing higher and higher against its surroundings until floating on the same level as the river above the dam.
The operator would then open the gates in front to allow us to continue upstream.
Each lock along the Muskingum has its own unique design and personality. At Devola, the first lock upstream of Marietta, the lock chamber sits directly perpendicular to the dam, the roar of the water spilling over the low dam structure adding to the atmosphere.
The next lock, at Lowell, is well downstream of the Lowell Dam. Exiting the lock, boats enter a long canal that bypasses the dam and forms Buell’s Island, today the site of several houses, farm fields and a town park.
The canal isn’t much wider than the lock chamber, and at a few very narrow points, passengers sitting along the upper-deck rail had to duck or move to avoid tree branches from massive, overhanging sycamores. Seeing the town swimming pool go by just a few yards from the boat, or watching cars zoom by along Ohio Route 60 at eye level on the other side, was a singular experience.
At various points during the day, one of the Valley Gem’s crew would offer narration about the history of the river and the lock system.
We learned about the Enterprise, a steamboat based in Zanesville designed to transport seven Conestoga wagons at a time - and the oxen or horses used to pull the wagons and the families who were going west. The Enterprise floated this cargo all the way to St. Joseph, Missouri, where the real westward adventure would start.
And at our final lock, at Beverly, we heard the tragic story of the Buckeye Belle. More than 20 people died in 1852 when the Belle’s boiler exploded near the lock, one of the worst river tragedies in Ohio history.
As the shadows lengthened, the light offered a different perspective of the river and locks than that of earlier in the day. Just above Beverly, the Valley Gem turned, slowly, at a wide space in the river to start the descent that would return us to our point of departure, about 25 miles downstream.
Although the trip was leisurely, time flew. After all, in our 10 hours on the river, we had packed in 150 years of history.
Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com.
If you go
The Valley Gem sternwheeler, based in Marietta, offers a variety of river cruises.
The Muskingum River Day Cruise, a 10-hour trip up the Muskingum River, includes passage through three of the river’s historic, hand-operated locks. The cruise will be offered Aug. 18, Oct. 12 and Oct. 14. Tickets cost $85 per person and include three buffet-style meals and soft drinks throughout the day.
The Valley Gem also offers 90-minute narrated sightseeing tours on the Ohio and Muskingum rivers on many days through September, as well as specialty history, festival, dinner and murder-mystery cruises.