The Ohio River is one of America’s biggest rivers. It is not the longest river by any means, but it is one of the widest rivers and also one of the deepest. It stretches from Pittsburgh down to West Virginia along the Kentucky/Ohio border, the Kentucky/Indiana border, part of Illinois and all the way down until it feeds into the Mississippi River near Cairo, Illinois.
- Three Rivers in Pittsburgh – start of the Ohio River
River Crossing near Cairo, IL
Over the last few years I have had the opportunity to travel along much of the length of the river on both sides. Essentially, if one can say they circumnavigated a river, then that is what I have pretty much done with the Ohio River.
Ohio River bridge between Cincinnati and Newport, KY
Obviously, this has not been done in one trip. It has taken me many different trips to visit the many sites along the river, but each has warranted many unique surprises and interesting stops.
Hillbilly Hot Dogs near Lesage, WV – one of many unique places on the Ohio River
Throughout my travels in United States, I have also traversed many a mile along the Mississippi River, I have traversed most of the Missouri River, and I have crossed over or traveled along the length of many of the other large rivers in the United States. But few offer the variety of scenic nature coupled with history that the Ohio River offers along that trek.
Scenic Ohio River between West Virginia and Kentucky
The various towns and villages along the river offer an abundance of history, architecture, flora and fauna. There are some towns that are dying and are trying to get a rebirth. One can see a number of quirky and offbeat places along the river. And there are many towns that have large outdoor murals painted along river retaining walls.
Scene from a River Wall mural in Paducah, KY
In this post I plan on covering the entire length of the river from north to south beginning in Pittsburgh, where the river is born and then all the way to Cairo, IL. Less a travelogue and more of a picture and story post, I want to show the abundance and variety that can be seen on both sides of the river.
Rabbit Hash General Store in Kentucky
Above is a map of the entire length of the river, with sites that I will note in this blog pinpointed on the map.
Before I get started, here are a few unique facts about the Ohio River.
- The Ohio River is 981 miles long
- At the confluence of the Ohio River and the Mississippi River, the Ohio River is actually bigger than the Mississippi River is. It is the main stream of the Mississippi.
- The river gets it start where the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River join in Pittsburgh.
- There are nine major metropolitan areas along the river including the following: Pittsburgh, Wheeling, West Virginia; Parkersburg, West Virginia; Huntington, West Virginia; Steubenville, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; Evansville, Indiana; Owensboro, Kentucky; and, Paducah, Kentucky.
One of many Ohio River Crossings
- As of this writing, there are 116 known crossings over the river including bridges, dams and locks, railroad bridges, and ferry crossings.
- The river has been used since prehistoric times by the Native Americans, was a transportation route for many of the Native Americans in the 1600s, was used by European explorers, and the location near Louisville was where Meriwether Lewis originally met John Clark to determine and set the course for the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Meriwether Lews meets John Clark at the Falls of the Ohio near present day Clarksville, IN
The Ohio River North to South from Pittsburgh, PA – Cincinnati, OH
Downtown Pittsburgh – where the Ohio River gets its start
Pittsburgh is a fun town and could probably warrant a two or three day visit. Lots of great art too!
A colorful dinosaur at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, originally part of Dinomite Days in 2003. This one is called “Alphabetasaurus” and was painted by elementary school children.
Arch – 20 foot tall Transformer like robot made of bridges in downtown Pittsburgh, created by Glenn Kaino in 2008
“Walking to the Sky” by Jonathan Borofsky, located on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh
The river flows north out of Pittsburgh and reaches its northernmost point in Rochester, PA, passing by Freedom, PA along the way. Form there it arches southwest towards the panhandle of West Virginia where it passes under the bridge separating East Liverpool, OH and Chester, WV, which is the northernmost point of WV at the tip top of the panhandle.
World’s Largest Teapot in Chester, West Virginia
Chester, WV is home to the “World’s Largest Teapot”, which serves as the town’s tourism office. The Jennings Randolph Memorial Bridge spans 754 feet across the Ohio into East Liverpool. Just south is another bridge, the Newell Toll bridge, which crosses from East Liverpool into Newell, WV and has about a 742 foot span as well. East Liverpool is also known as the Pottery Capital of the World.
Aerial view East Liverpool, OH (bottom) and Chester, WV (top) with the William Jennings Bridge crossing over the Ohio River. The small island is Babbs Island (from Wikipedia)
From there one can head south on either side of the river. The Ohio side has the Ohio River Scenic Byway (OH Hwy 7) and on the West Virginia side out of Chester is Ohio River Blvd. (WV Hwy 2). Both sides make wonderful scenic drives and there are many points where one can criss-cross over the River. The Ohio River Scenic Byway is also in Indiana and Illinois and is designated a national Scenic Byway.
A typical scene of Ohio River as seen from the Scenic Byway
The first major town on the Ohio side is Toronto. An old industrial town, Toronto is currently known as the Gem City. Though industry has declined, the town does have a nice scenic feel to it.
Welcome to Steubenville, OH
The next major stop down Ohio Highway 7 is the hillside town of Steubenville, Ohio. It is another town that has been decimated by the loss of industrial work, but they have strived diligently to build a revitalization campaign for the town to bring tourism in.
Fort Steuben Historical Site, Steubenville, OH
Historical Fort Steuben
It is home to an old army fort called Fort Steuben. They have rebuilt much of it so you can visit there and get some historical perspective.
Dean Martin mural in Steubenville, OH painted by Robert Dever in 1998
Sumoflam and Dino in Steubenville
But, of more interest to me, is the number of murals that dot the town. Following is a selection of 4 or 5 of my favorites including the beautiful mural of Dean Martin who was originally from Steubenville.
“River Reflections” Mural by Susan Kelly Frye and David Frye in Steubenville, OH
Stanton Park mural by Alan Wylie of Glasgow, Scotland
Market Street by Michael Wojczuk. This was the first mural painted in Steubenville
Also below is the statue of a steelworker which is right at the end of the Market Street Bridge crossing over the Ohio River into Steubenville from West Virginia.
Ohio Valley Steelworker by Dmitri Akis in Steubenville, OH
Across the river is the West Virginia town of Weirton. It extends from the Ohio border on the west to the Pennsylvania border on the east at a point where the northern extension of West Virginia is five miles across. Therefore, it is the only city in the United States that borders two other states on two sides, and its own state on the other two. Weirton has been the scene for a number of well known movies including Deer Hunter and Super 8, among others.
Continuing south on Ohio highway seven, you can drive through the uniquely named town of Brilliant, Ohio. Brilliant is the home of the nationally known Wells Township haunted house. The town got its name originally from the glass factory of the same name that was located there. Obviously, the town name is a shining example of some of the unique town names we have in this country.
Further south is the town of Bridgeport, Ohio which is directly across the river from Wheeling, West Virginia. This is also a unique spot on the river as the bridges cross one of the Ohio River’s largest islands, called Wheeling Island in between the town of Wheeling and the town of Bridgeport. Wheeling Island is the most populated island in the Ohio River. It lies within the city of Wheeling in West Virginia and is also the home of a large casino and resort.
If you are a history buff, you will find that Wheeling, West Virginia is a haven of Civil War and West Virginia history.
Grave Creek Mound in Moundsville, WV
Grave Creek Mound in Moundsville, WV
If you continue on the West Virginia side of the river, you’ll make your way into the town of Moundsville. Named for the large Indian burial mound (Grave Creek Mound), the town was also home to the architecturally amazing West Virginia Penitentiary. And if you are interested in toys, the Marx Toy Museum is well worth a visit…just to see the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.
Historic West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville
Marx Toy Museum in Moundsville
Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots
Continuing on South and a bit west, on Ohio Route 7, you arrive in the picturesque town of Powhatan Point. While “Powhatan” likely memorializes the Native-American tribe of the same name, the “Point” in the town’s name refers to the confluence between Captina Creek and the Ohio River. Powhatan Point is the closest town on the Ohio side of Captina Island in the Ohio River.
Powhatan Point, Ohio
A classic old house on the outskirts of Powhatan Point…history before your very eyes
Across the river from Powhatan are two 400 foot tall cooling towers of the Willow Island Generating station. These massive structures really impress when you drive by them on WV Hwy 2 and you can see how cars and trucks look like little ants in comparison. The drive down the road further provides some views of manufacturing and chemical plants as you approach New Martinsville, WV.
Willow Island Cooling Towers as seen from near Powhatan Point
Willow Island Cooling Towers as seen from the West Virginia side. They are over 400 feet tall
A few miles south on the WV side is the small town of Sistersville. This town was well known for its ferry, which crosses the river into the unincorporated village of Fly, Ohio, which is really only a portage point for the ferry. Known as the oldest ferry in West Virginia, it has been in continuous operation since 1817. The historic Fly Ferry Landing in Fly, Ohio has been Operating since 1815, and is the longest continuous working mode of transportation in Monroe County and one of only four remaining on the Ohio River between Pittsburgh and the Mississippi River. It is the only one in operation along the 277 miles of river bordering West Virginia.
Sistersville Ferry, Sistersville, WV
Fly Landing for Sistersvlle Ferry, in Fly, Ohio
The Fly Landing is located on the apex of the longest straight stretch on the Ohio River called the “Long Reach.” The landing is near the site where George Washington encamped during a survey trip to the west on Oct. 25, 1770. It is owned and operated by the City of Sisterville, WV.
On the West Virginia side of the river, still on WV Route 2, you will eventually wind your way into another fun named town…the town of Friendly, WV. This town is the setting for the novel Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.
Friendly, West Virginia
Mail Pouch Barn in Friendly, WV
The Mail Pouch barn, shown above, is one of many done by the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company. According to Wikipedia, there were over 20,000 of these barns painted in 22 states during the 1960s. I have seen a few and have photos of a few from Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and other locations.
Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption, Marietta, OH
Proceeding southwest on Ohio Route 7 you will eventually find your way to the historic town of Marietta, Ohio. Marietta was established on April 7, 1788 as the first permanent settlement of the Northwest Territory. It is also home of a prehistoric Adena burial mound and the Mound Cemetery was built around it to protect this burial ground. It is also home to the Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption, which was originally called St. Mary Church and completed in 1909, though the Catholic presence has been there since August 16, 1749 when Rev. Joseph Peter de Bonnecamp, S.J. offered a Mass for Celeron de Brienville and his 300 troops and local Native Americans at the confluence of the Muskingum River and the Ohio River on. The church was later designated a minor Basilica by Pope Francis in 2013.
Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption, Marietta, Ohio
The next major area of population is the Parkersburg, WV/Belpre, OH area. Due to busy schedules, I have never really had a chance to spend much time in this area. But it is chock full of history and would make an awesome day trip!!
Parkersburg-Belpre Bridge, built in 1980
A few more miles down Ohio Hwy 7 joins with US 50 and runs you through the unincorporated town of Torch., which is separated from the river by about three miles. Torch is interesting because the next town down is Coolville and just a bit northeast of both is the town of Frost, OH. A bit of hot and cold! Torch is also home to the “Healing Chapel” which is proclaimed to be “the smallest church in Ohio.” At 10 x 14 and with only enough room to seat 6 or 7 people. It is located at the rest area near Ohio 62 just off of US 50.
The Healing Chapel – Ohio’s Smallest Church
Proceeding south just about 4 miles you come to the town of Coolville, OH. I am only aware of one other town with Cool in its name and that is in Cool, Texas. Only a town of about 500 people, it still has a cool personality!
Coolville Welcome Sign, Coolville, OH
Old Coolville Wall Mural “Building Community One Block at a Time”
From this point the river meanders southeast and the roads take you southwest. On the Ohio side from Coolville, Hwy 7 distances itself from the river until it reaches a big northward bend in the river at OH Hwy 833 near Pomeroy, OH. In West Virginia, WV Hwy 2 joins with Interstate 77 at Parkersburg and veers way east of the river until Hwy 2 merges with US Hwy 33 near Ravenswood, WV. Once can follow US 33 across the river into Ohio and then on to OH Hwy 7 near Pomeroy or can remain in West Virginia and follow WV Hwy 2 away from the river and west until it reaches Point Pleasant, WV which would be the next destination of interest for either road as OH Hwy 7 and WV Hwy 2 seem to converge when Hwy 2 hits US 35 at the Silver Memorial Bridge.
Point Pleasant, West Virginia
Sitting at the confluence of the Kanawha River as it folows into the Ohio River, and established in 1794, Point Pleasant is treasure trove of history going way back to the Battle of Point Pleasant (also known as the Battle of Kanawha) took place on Oct. 10, 1774. This was a battle between the Shawnee Indians, led by Chief Cornstalk and the Virginia militia led by Colonel Andrew Lewis. Lewis prevailed and a treaty was signed. There is now a towering obelisk in town to memorialize this battle.
Point Pleasant has a marvelous floodwall mural depicting this battle (see a number of my photos here). The mural was painted by world renown mural artist Robert Dafford, who has also painted major floodwall murals in Covington, KY; Paducah, KY; Portsmouth, OH and in Louisiana.
Part of the Dafford floodwall mural in Point Pleasant, WV
Portion of Dafford mural with sculptures of Chief Cornstalk and Colonel Andrew Lewis
But history is not the only drawing card to Point Pleasant. Indeed, mystery surrounds this town with one of the more unusual legends to be found in the U.S. Point Pleasant is the home of “The Mothman,” a legendary winged creature that was reportedly seen in the area from mid-November 1966 to mid-December 1967. Some have explained this “red eyed” creature as an alien while others note that it sounded like descriptions of a sand crane, including the red eyes that seemed to glow. Since that time there has been a book by John Keel, written in 1975 and a film, starring Richard Gere, called “The Mothman Prophecies.” There is also a “Mothman Museum and Research Center” along with a 12-foot-tall metallic statue of the creature which was created by artist Robert Roach.
The Mothman by Robert Roach, in Point Pleasant, West Virginia
Glowing Red Eyes of the Mothman
Mothman Museum in Point Pleasant, WV
One last item of note…on both an historical point as well as the Mothman, in December 1967 the Silver Bridge, which at the time was a suspension bridge that had been built in 1928 to connect Point Pleasant to Gallipolis, OH over the Ohio River, collapsed causing 46 people to fall to their death. In 1969 the Silver Memorial Bridge was completed to replace it. This bridge is 1,964 feet in length.
Silver Memorial Bridge (photo from Wikipedia)
You can continue south on WV Hwy 2 for about 30 miles into the small village of Lesage, WV. Near the National Historic Landmark of “Clover Site“, this town of a little over 1,300 people is also the home of the totally quirky and offbeat Hillbilly Hot Dogs, home of the giant 15″ “Homewrecker” dog. This place has been featured on a few TV shows including Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”
Using an old school bus for the restaurant, the property is decked out with all sorts of kitschy items and junk, rolls of toilet paper, old license plates and more. Really a lot of fun.
Hillbilly Hot Dogs, Lesage, WV
Hillbilly Hot Dogs, home of the Homewrecker
Yes, even hillbillies can have a website….
The drive along the river continues south into Huntington, WV. Just for fun, veer off eastward on US Hwy 60 into Barboursville to get a shot of their Pink Elephant.
Pink Elephant in Barboursville, WV (just east of Huntington, WV)
From the Huntington area, the Ohip River heads north through the oil refineries of Ashland, Kentucky as it begins to form the borders of Kentucky and Ohio. One can follow US 52 north on the Ohio side or US 23 north on the Kentucky side. Both will lead you to the beautiful river town of Portsmouth, OH. I once had the occasion to visit and didn’t have my camera with me. But this river town is another one of the Flood Wall Mural meccas of Robert Dafford. There are 44 murals in the town, many on a 2000 foot long 20 foot tall flood wall “canvas.”
Chillicothe Street 1940s by Robert Dafford in Portsmouth, OH
The river meanders its way westward to the next big crossing at Maysville, Kentucky and its neighboring historical are of Washington, KY. On the Ohio side you can follow US 52, but on the Kentucky side you must veer way south on KY Hwy 9, until you get to US 62.
William H. Harsha Bridge from Maysville, KY into Ohio.
The William H. Harsha bridge spans nearly 2100 feet across the river and is one of the more beautiful recent bridges on the river, having opened in 2000.
Unfortunately, between Maysville and Cincinnati, I have not had the opportunity to travel along the river yet. So, I’ll end this part of the trek in Newport, Kentucky overlooking Cincinnati at night. Part 2 will cover the remainder from Cincinnati to Louisville and on to Paducah, KY and Cairo, IL.
Cincinnati, Ohio as seen from Newport, KY