Ohio River History - Quimby's Cruising Guide

Ohio River History

From The Point at Pittsburgh to the Mississippi River could be the first part of a trip to Florida, the East Coast, the Bahamas or around the world. But if you lack the time (or money) to take such an extravagant journey, a cruise to Marietta, Ohio, just 173 miles down the river from Pittsburgh, can still offer much boating enjoyment.

A rich history abounds on this stretch of the Ohio. Between East Liverpool and Toronto, Ohio, one sees the region where brick and pottery were made. And Wheeling, W.Va., was not only a leading center for tobacco and cigars, but also the headquarters for the building of the Washington, which claimed many firsts in steamboat construction. At Sistersville, W.Va., there are many oil wells dotting the shoreline, and just below Grape Island, on a hilltop, is a large prominent tree used for generations as a pilot’s mark. At the end of the 173-mile stretch is historic Marietta. 

Transportation on the streams of the Ohio River basin evolved from the use of the bark and dugout canoes of Native Americans. Whether the river was explored by Robert de La Salle in 1669, as long alleged, is now questioned, but it is well documented that Arnout Viele, an Albany fur trader, descended the Allegheny and Ohio in 1692.

Pittsburgh had its beginning adjoining Fort Pitt in 1764. Marietta and Cincinnati were settled in 1788, and settlement north of the Ohio River received a strong impetus with the victory over the Sioux at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.

The first steamboat to navigate the Ohio River was the New Orleans, built in 1811 at Pittsburgh by Fulton Enterprise. It descended the Ohio never to return, but many interests devoted themselves in following years to the development and building of steamboats better suited to use on the inland rivers.

The success of the western river steamboats and their impact on the Ohio valley was largely responsible for the enactment of the first Waterways Improvement Act in 1824. The act directed that experiments be conducted to determine the best method of coping with sandbars in the Ohio River and that measures be taken for the removal of snags obstructing navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

And so began a succession of improvements resulting in the construction of a canalized navigation system consisting today of 20 locks and dams that provide year-round transit of the river’s entire 981 miles.