History might be right under your feet

One of the things I love about living during this time is that frequently, history is right under your feet if you know where to look. Today, we use the Muskingum River for a variety of boating. Marietta High School and Marietta College both have large boathouses along Gilman Street in Harmar. Kayakers frequent the river, as do dozens of boaters that moor their boats on the river or use the boat ramp at the Washington County Fairgrounds.

When the Pioneers arrived in 1788, the Muskingum River was not a grand strip of water cutting the county in half. For most of the year, it hardly had any water in it all. Planners saw the value in the river and began the process of connecting the Muskingum and its tributaries with the Cuyahoga and the Great Lakes. It would take a series of canals and a lot of work.

There were some attempts to use the river without locks and dams. The Rufus Putnam, named for the city’s founder, was the first craft to travel up the river. In 1824, it reached Zanesville in two days during a period of high water. It traveled back to Marietta in eight hours.

The only way to make the river truly useful was to make the river deeper. In 1835, the planning started to improve the navigability on the river by building a series of dams. Each dam would include a lock to allow the passage of boats.

Work on Lock and Dam number 1 started in 1837 and was completed in 1841. A series of land deals meant that the lock would be constructed on the west bank of the river. The lock was 185 x 36, which was too small for most boats to use, and was a navigational challenge for those that did use it because the natural channel for the river went down the east side of the river.

It is this lock that people can view as they travel the river today. The west wall of the lock chamber is still there, and you can still walk along the top of the wall. You can easily access it from the sidewalk that connects the boat houses to Fort Street. The photo on page 2 of today’s Times is the pocket into which the upstream wooden door would fit when boats were exiting the lock.

In the 1880s, work started to replace the Harmar lock with a larger one on the east bank. Construction on the double hour-glass shaped lock dragged on for years. One of the engineers on that job was George Washington Goethals, who learned about lock construction in Marietta before becoming chief engineer of the massive Panama Canal project many years later.

The east side lock and the dam was removed following the construction of The Belleville lock and dam. The dam went into operation on the Ohio River in 1968 and raised the level of the river in Marietta, making Lock and Dam number 1 on the Muskingum unnecessary.

The lock wall on the west side of the river remained. In 1983 the sternwheeler Becky Thatcher was moved across the river so that its spot behind The Armory could be dredged. The boat was tied off along the wall. The level of the river fell, and the boat ended up on some rocks likely left from the dam removal. The boat sank, sitting sadly on the bottom of the river long enough that the boat had a permanent bow to it even after it was raised, and the hull replaced.

Although not as clear as the structure on the west side of the river, some of the east side lock can be seen from the sidewalk of the Putnam Street Bridge. The stone sits directly behind the old lock house next to The Armory.

The next time you take a walk in Marietta remember to look down. You may be walking on top of history.

Art Smith is online manager of The Times, he can be reached at



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