It was a great decision. It was relatively warm and sunny when we hit Aberdeen, the Ohio River Terminus of Zane’s Trace, the first continuous road through Ohio, 1798. Did you ever read Zane Grey’s Betty Zane when you were a child?
At least this portion of the valley was pretty with far more trees along the shore than we expected. Now and then the road moved inland just a bit to allow farms on the bottomlands fertilized by river floods. Barges made their way both ways on the river. Those heading south were often loaded with coal, probably for various electrical power plants along the way.
Some towns/villages were better maintained than others. Ripley, Ohio was very lovely. After General Smith defeated the Union forces at Richmond, Kentucky, the Ohio governor called for volunteers to defend Cincinnati; over 15,000 farm boys responded including 1300 from Brown County, county seat Ripley. A confederate scout reported: “They call them Squirrel Hunters; farm boys that never had to shoot at the same squirrel twice.” They defended but did not have to fight.
Ripley citizens paid $1000 for a three inch rifled cannon to protect their town from Confederate raiders who swore to burn the “damned abolitionist hellhole to the ground with no quarter.” After the battle of Augusta, Kentucky, Confederate forces under General Basil Duke camped across the river at Brooksville. Ripley’s home guard crossed the river in the rain under the cover of night and made a surprise attack starting with the roar of the canon. They routed the surprised Confederate troops. The cannon is still next to the library. It was next fired to honor Generals Grant and Sherman when they visited in 1912 and at the Ripley sesqui-centennial in 1962.
Hiriam Ulysses Grant was born in a small timber-frame cabin in the frontier town of Point Pleasant, Ohio in 1822. The Congressman appointing him to West Point mistakenly gave the initial of his mother’s maiden name as Grant’s middle initial, and U.S. Grant kept that name for the rest of his life.
The further south we went, the more likely we were to see vacation homes and more often RV parks serving as vacation homes.
We by-passed Cincinnati but rejoined the river road at Aurora, Indiana.
Just beyond Belterra, a huge resort and casino, we came to Vevay in Switzerland County, which was much more interesting. I once read that German immigrants had successful vineyards along the river that supplied the root stock to France when the French vines were hit by blight. However, both the restored French vines and California eventually took over the wine market. There are vineyards in Switzerland County again/still. The street closest to the water has many old interesting buildings and houses, some more grand than others.
Madison, another river town we had never heard of, had its 133 block downtown area designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2006. It is the largest contiguous National Historical Landmark in the United States. One again, we enjoyed looking at great old houses and mansions.
The road veered from the river and was not particularly scenic, so we went inland for a while to Salem before catching scenic Indiana 66 back to the river. We were surprised to see several large lumber mills around Salem. Who know Indiana had a logging industry?
In 1828, 19-year old Abraham Lincoln got on a flatboat at Rockport and went to New Orleans where he saw a slave auction. He is quoted as having said “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing, I’ll hit it hard.”
Rockport has a short stretch of high bluff that gave cover to the first settler in 1806. Later residents moved to the top of the bluff to escape the annual floods. It was not a well-preserved town, but a hotel clerk tipped us to what was a surprisingly good Mexican restaurant, Los Panchos.
Heading toward Illinois, we passed through huge flat farmland with oil wells pumping, another thing I would not have expected to see in Indiana.
In the movie How The West Was Won Jimmy Stewart, a fur trapper, is lured by a pretty girl to the back of a cave, a literal nest of thieves, to “see the varmit.” She stabs him in the back. The story was based on a real Ohio River cave known as Cave In Rock in Illinois. Samuel Mason and the Harpe Brothers and others in the late 18th century and early 19th century preyed on unsuspecting settlers floating downriver and may have used the cave. State officials say there is no historical evidence the cave was used for robbery and murder, but locals believe it was, we enjoyed the movie (often rerun on TCM), and we wanted to see it for ourselves.
The juncture of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, at the area known today as Cairo (locals pronounce it kay-row), was first seen by Europeans Marquette and Joliet in 1673. A logical spot for trade and defense — except it was frequently under water — Cairo was the site of many ambitious unfulfilled plans. Unfortunately, modern Cairo has seen better times; those better times were last during the Civil War when it built gunboats for Grant and was a military staging and logistical base for the Union Army.
I can’t say that we would recommend a visit to Cairo — unless like us you just want to see the confluence of the rivers. It is easy to miss. The river has silted far beyond its Civil War shores. But if you go to where the road splits one way to a bridge to Kentucky and the other to a bridge to Missouri, there is a little overgrown city park with a great view, a fitting conclusion to our trip down the Ohio.