August/September 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 4
The R/B River Explorer , America’s only hotel barge, is a red, white, and blue whale of a vessel. At 590 feet long and 54 feet wide it could swallow whole schools of the brightly painted narrow boats and barges that travel the waterways of Britain and Europe. Consisting of two former petroleum barges lashed together and pushed by Miss Nari , a powerful 140-foot towboat, River Explorer ’s blocky shape betrays her commercial past despite the softening effect of bunting and pennants. The hybrid is the invention of Eddy Conrad, a 62-year-old onetime towing operator and present-day visionary based in New Orleans. “I designed this whole project on two barges I didn’t own.” Conrad had never been on a passenger ship of any kind, and to explain his leap into new territory, he offers a cryptic analogy: “It’s like the Protestants.”
Once he acquired the barges, Conrad attached them and raised two decks over them. On the lead barge, the DeSoto, he created public rooms and the Pilot House. Behind is the LaSalle , which holds 100 cabins on two levels. Spanning both is a huge open-air deck.
I joined the Explorer in Cincinnati one afternoon last June, at the start of a weeklong roundtrip on the Ohio River, traveling around 160 miles to Huntingdon, West Virginia, with several stops and side trips along the way. Perhaps even more appealing than any of the places we visited was the chance to settle back on the homely (in the most favorable sense) barge and surrender to river time. River time, built into the Explorer , is defined by the owner and crew as “it happens when it happens,” and it has a lot to do with the wonderfully relaxed, unfussy atmosphere on board.
There are, as on any cruise, entertainments and diversions. On the first night Steve Sanford, Cincinnati’s city forester, came aboard to introduce the Ohio. He spoke of the river’s wooded shoreline, remarking that none of the trees we would see along our route were more than 60 or 70 years old. As settlers came down the Ohio on flatboats, on keelboats, and finally under steam, “we cleared 190 million acres west of the Mississippi,” Sandford said. “We tore this country up, we chopped it down.” He explained that reforestation efforts starting around 1900 have dramatically filled in the landscape today. “As you look on each side, remember all that took place,” he said.
So I started to look on each side, head swiveling between Ohio to port and Kentucky to starboard. “The whole time you are on the Ohio River you’ll be in Kentucky. The states have been fighting about that forever,” Sanford had told us. What everyone noticed right off was that the river, after a month of spring rain, was extremely high. Its murky brownish green color and tangles of tree limbs floating briskly downstream were tip-offs.
Half the Explorer ’s cabins have a narrow veranda furnished with a simple metal bench, and since I was occupying one of those, I settled outdoors for long stretches and watched life on the Kentucky and West Virginia shores upriver (my cabin was starboard) and Ohio on the way down. Through the binoculars that are provided in every room I saw kids swimming to a raft watched over by two large black dogs, a woman breakfasting on her front lawn, and a man staring back at me through his binoculars.
The cabins are roomy and very comfortable, outfitted with refrigerators, cable TV, and coffee-makers. Public rooms combine the owner’s passion for collecting, for history, and for simply making people feel at home. On the perimeter of the main lounge are booths like those in a coffee shop, but separating each one is a glass panel beautifully etched with the image of one of the bridges that span the rivers the Explorer travels; a label explains its history. Similarly, every cabin is named for a state. Mine was Ohio and bore the number 217, the first digit referring to the deck and the next two to the order in which the state entered the Union. Conrad doesn’t tell anyone this; he wants passengers to figure it out for themselves. For further edification, the state bird and flower adorn the door.
Around noon of the second day we tied up at our first port of call, the beautiful little town of Ripley, Ohio. It is a place of Federal-style brick mansions, white-columned frame houses, and shady walks along the flower-strewn riverbank. Over-looking the river on Front Street is an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor with the not-so-old-fashioned name of Rockin’ Robin’s Soda Shoppe. Movies could be made in Ripley. And in fact, one was— Father Is a Bachelor , a 1950 production starring William Holden. It’s easy to associate the place with words like picturesque and charming , but it does have another side.
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.”