River Time

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Starting about the time of its 1812 founding, Ripley was a red-hot center of abolitionist activity, because of its location across the river from the slaveholding state of Kentucky and because so many settlers in Ohio abhorred the institution. A sign placed by a tree along the river explains that here in the mid-nineteenth century a slave woman managed to flee her master and cross the river on ice floes, an incident Harriet Beecher Stowe incorporated into Uncle Tom’s Cabin . “Eliza’s” destination in real life was a house set high on the bluffs, owned by the Reverend John Rankin. Rankin was known, along with his wife, Jean, for being willing to risk life and property to see slavery ended. Two thousand runaways are said to have been safely set on the path to freedom after sheltering with the Rankins. The house, filled with many original furnishings, now stands as a museum that speaks eloquently of those extraordinary times.

Many other sites around Ripley demonstrate how brightly the flame of abolition burned. The house of John Parker, a famous black conductor on the Underground Railroad, is currently under restoration and will soon open as a museum. Looking back later on the years of struggle, Parker said, “Ripley wielded more influence than any other town, big or little. It was the real terminus of the Underground Railroad.” The stirring Liberty Monument in Riverfront Park honors Parker, Rankin, and other activists, such as Sen. Alexander Campbell, Col. James Poage (Ripley’s founder), and the Reverend James Gilliand, known as the Apostle of Freedom. A sign on an imposing stone house names its owner, Thomas Collins, “Englishman, Cabinet Maker, Chief Conductor on the Underground Railroad,” adding, “Through this door stole refugees in numbers. The night was never too dark nor the journey too long for its owner to issue forth leading the helpless across the hills to freedom.”

One of the best aspects of this journey is that you get to spend real time in several ports; it’s not just a matter of an hour or two whipping past the main sights and out. This was especially welcome in Marietta, Ohio, a jewel of a small city, described more than 60 years ago by the WPA Guide as “modern yet delightfully old.” We had more than 24 hours in town to ratify the truth of that.

Marietta was the first American settlement to spring from the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, which allowed development of the region northwest of the Ohio River. The act of Congress setting this in place was, one local historian writes, “one of the three fundamental documents in the founding of our country,” providing “the several rights and freedoms we now take for granted,” some of which appear only later in the Bill of Rights. Not least among them was the prohibition of slavery.

In Marietta the Explorer tied up along a lovely waterfront park that climbs the banks of the Muskingum River where it flows into the Ohio. Across a narrow stretch of water lay the site of the “picketed point” where the earliest settlers banded together for protection from local Indians. Commanding a dominant place near the confluence of the rivers is the flatiron-shaped Lafayette Hotel, named for the French hero of our Revolution, who arrived nearby during his national tour of 1825. The hotel, built in 1918 on the site of an earlier incarnation, contains an impressive small collection of early American rifles, as well as many riverboat artifacts.

Many of Marietta’s attractions focus on its days as a center of river-borne commerce. The Ohio River Museum there pays tribute to the first Indian inhabitants and explorers but is most notable for its steamboat memorabilia, including the oldest surviving pilothouse, plus railings, signboards, enormous ships’ wheels, and many fine old photographs. Perhaps the most highly regarded acquisition is the 1918 stern-wheeler towboat W. P. Snyder, Jr. , laid up in 1954 and saved from destruction by swift action by the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, who delivered it to the museum under its own steam the following year.

There are mysterious prehistoric marvels in Marietta in the form of mounds that are thought to have been burial grounds of the Hopewell culture of the tenth century. Once, many such mounds rose like signposts along a trail to the Muskingum River, forming what has since been called the Sacra Via. Of the two that remain within the town, one lies at the heart of Mound Cemetery, circled by the graves of many of the town’s founding fathers. More officers of the Revolution are buried here, it is said, than anywhere else in the country.

At the risk of drifting into New Age romanticism, I must admit I don’t think it’s possible to visit this place without connecting with its ancient spirits. The silent grassy hill, the tilting, worn gravestones of the dogged pioneers, the mansions that speak of affluent late-nineteenth-century America in the square surrounding this resting place, and the two rivers that bound the city all become rippling concentric circles.

And time spent on the river itself, urging our behemoth through huge locks, watching pleasure craft and coal barges stream by, waving to admirers onshore, fighting the impulse to disdain power plants that rise out of nowhere to mar a postcard sunset—all this just widens the circle. In a somewhat boosterish film shown on board, I learned that today on the Ohio barges—30,000 of them—carry 20 percent of the nation’s coal, 30 percent of its oil, and 15 percent of its total freight. “The river flows through all of us,” said one of the crew. “As a nation and as individuals.”