Maps take you on a river journey to the past
I have always had a thing about maps. They can give you both insight into where you are, and a peek back to where you were. Thus is the case with a series of maps published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1911 and 1914. Using 280 maps, the series provides a detailed view of the entire Ohio River Valley more than a century ago. Of particular interest is map number 48, that shows the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers. That’s right, a detailed map of Marietta from the start of the last century, complete with the elevation measurements for not only the land in the area, but also the river bottom. You can see it for yourself on page 2 of today’s Times.
Most people today are only familiar with the Ohio River the way we know it today. A wide body of water capable of being navigated with 1,200-foot-long barges loaded with coal and other raw materials. The maps, drawn before massive structures such as the Willow Island Lock and Dam were constructed show a much different river. Take the area around Marietta for instance. Buckley’s Island, aka Kerr Island, aka Marietta Island, had a sand bar that extended well below the Williamstown Bridge. In fact, the map shows it extending nearly to The Muskingum River.
At the other end of the island, a pair of dams helped guide water down the Ohio side to help make sure there was enough water for the sternwheelers to move up and down the river. Most of the island is shown as being cultivated, except for the head of the island, which is marked as a pasture. A ferry provided transportation to and from the island from the West Virginia side.
On the Muskingum you can see the different sand bars between downtown and Harmar, as well as Dam #1 and the oddly shaped lock that provides passage up the Muskingum. The ownership and usage of riverside land is marked, as is the type of vegetation that boat captains could expect as they traveled the river.
The maps also provide the details of the rail lines of the day, including the street cars that connected the neighborhoods of Marietta and even connected Marietta to Parkersburg.
These maps, in printed form, would have been used by riverboat pilots to help them guide their boats around the snags, islands, bridges and sand bars that stood between them and their destinations. The maps clearly illustrate how dangerous the river was during this period of industrialization.
Riverboat pilots today have state of the art navigation equipment that display a detailed electronic map in front of them, as well anything else that may be present in the river. River markers show up as bright dots, and their own barges are clearly visible on the map as well.
I was fortunate enough to ride a tow boat with a string of barges years ago from Marietta to New Martinsville. The captain of the Paul G. Blazer described the job as 95 percent boredom and 5 percent sheer terror because they have so many tools at their disposal but were always prepared for the unexpected.
These historical maps are in the public domain, which means that anyone is free to use them in any way that they want. The easiest way to find them is do a web search for “Atlas of the Ohio River.” Marietta is map number 48. Parkersburg is map number 52. Have fun being an armchair explorer and watch out for the river snags.
Art Smith is online manager for The Times. He can be reached at