Along the Ohio

Ruben Gold Thwaites. Afloat on the Ohio: An Historical Pilgrimage of a Thousand Miles in a Skiff, from Redstone to Cairo.

If this book were made into a film, its musical score should be Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony. The varied settings and historical reflections match up well with its varied musical themes. This narrative is similar to his Historic Waterways, but this is a longer trip, with his friend the doctor and his wife and 10 year old son together the whole time. It is historic in that much of the text concerns events that occurred in the previous two and a half centuries. The Ohio Valley is also where the battle to expand the colonies and later the United States beyond the Eastern seaboard took place: the accounts he gives of the conquest and settlement of the region sent me to Wikipedia to learn about the beaver wars, the Northwest War and other conflicts that my school history classes and U.S. stamp collection only left me with a few names like Fallen Timbers and General Braddock. The voyage takes Thwaites and his companions past the sites of Native American towns, forts, trading posts, ambushes, battles and settlements. George Washington spent much time before the Revolutionary War in the Ohio country, both as a military officer and as a surveyor, marking out lands both for his own speculations and for others. The struggles of the colonists from Virginia and Pennsylvania to drive out first the French and then the British from the Ohio had effects on the larger global struggles of these two nations. These were among the bloodiest conflicts in our history, although the later wars with the plains Indians have garnered more attention, along with those in the Hudson Valley and central New York, thanks to James Fenimore Cooper

The other part of the story is of the valley as it appeared in the late nineteenth century: The country they passed through was much more heavily settled and industrialized than the rural regions of Wisconsin described in Historic Waterways. Beginning at Redstone on the Monongahela, the banks were lined with coal tipples, oil and gas wells, mills and factories as well as river towns large and small, and farms that range from prosperous to squalid. There is more river traffic, including a steady procession of steamboats making waves that threaten to swamp their skiff or flood their tent on the bank. These are not bucolic streams but busy waterways in what was, in 1897, the industrial heart of America. The resources of the country were being rapidly converted into goods to be floated up or downriver or loaded onto railcars, which were already displacing the steamboats. Everywhere the waste from mills, mines and wells was being dumped on the banks or poured into the river itself. Thousands of Eastern Europeans were coming to the factories to earn a fortune that they could take back to the homeland, according to Thwaites’s informants, and already there were complaints about the downward pressure on Americans’ wages.

Below Cincinnati and Louisville, though, the river flowed through less developed country, and the rural poverty on both sides made it hard to find the supplies they needed for daily sustenance. Still, there were many well-kept farms and moderately prosperous towns. There was also a stark reminder that this was during the successful counter-reconstruction period, when the hopes of freed slaves were being overturned by southern whites. Thwaites reports, without comment, an exchange between a group of blacks working on an island on the Kentucky side and a black man on the Ohio shore. Their taunts are silenced when the Ohio man points out that at least he has not been put to work doing gang labor on an island that he can’t leave.

As in Historic Waterways, there is rich detail about the river, the weather, the people they meet along the way. The rivermen especially, have that independence of mind, along with a penchant for repartee, that is found in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi or Richard Bissel’s wonderful A Stretch on the River. There is less of natural history, although his wife avidly botanized at every opportunity and he describes the wildflowers they find. So much of the country had been emptied of wildlife a hundred years of uncontrolled exploitation, and the air and water so polluted by slag, mine tailings, coal smoke and oil that fish and birds were becoming scarcer all the time. A more recent account of the devastating changes wrought upon the fish of the Ohio River (and the Great Lakes) by development, channelization and drainage can be found (if you can locate a copy) in the introduction to The Fishes of Ohio by Milton Bernhard Trautman. Ohio State University Press, 1957.

Throughout, Thwaites makes reference to the early narratives of travel in the Ohio Valley, which he himself played a major role in editing and publishing. I think I may want to read some of those myself.

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