History traveled the Ohio River

G. Sam Piatt

PDT Outdoors Columnist

The steamboat days on the Ohio River are gone forever – those days when the big steam packets plied the river and panted into the town landings to catch their breath, flags flying, steam calliope blasting out a lively tune that set dogs to barking, little boys running and old men limping down to the bank for a look.

The last Ohio River packet boat to travel the Big Sandy River was the J.P. Davis. The 137-foot sternwheeler was owned by Capt. John F. Davis and named in honor of his son, the late J. Paul Davis (May 12, 1901 – May 31, 1993) of South Shore.

J. Paul, who operated a gas station in South Shore for more than 60 years, was 20 years old when his father pulled the boat out of the old Fullerton landing during January and February of 1921 on three trips up the Big Sandy, each time loaded down with groceries and merchandise for sale.

J. Paul said he had learned to play two tunes – “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” – on the boat’s steam calliope, and he would belt them out as the boat approached a landing on either side of the river where people had gathered.

“We sold completely out before we reached Paintsville, and returned home immediately to load up again,” Davis said in a 1984 newspaper interview with this reporter.

The boat reached Prestonsburg on the second trip and once again sold everything it had to offer. A rapid fall of the river stranded the boat in Prestonsburg for two weeks, until a hard rain returned the river to traveling level.

The third and last trip was made several days later. The Big Sandy was at such an acceptable level that the boat, even after selling all its merchandise, continued on upstream until it reached Pikeville.

“We docked there for several hours and hundreds of people came down to see the largest packet that had ever reached there,” Davis said.


Born of two established rivers, the Allegheny and the Monongahela, the Ohio stretches 981 miles from Pittsburgh to Cairo, dropping nearly 450 feet from beginning to end.

“If it were a crow instead of a stream, the Ohio would cover the distance in only half as many miles. The other half it spends meandering,” wrote Scott Russell Sanders in his essay, “The Force of Moving Water.”

Credit for the “discovery” of the Ohio River, in 1669, goes to the French explorer Rene de la Salle.

The Iroquois called it “Oyo,” which early French explorers interpreted to mean, “beautiful river.” Zadock Cramer, who wrote “The Navigator,” a guide book used by early Ohio River travelers, described it as “the most beautiful river in the universe.”

To the pioneers it was known as a highway through the wilderness. They traveled the river in keelboats and flatboats and rafts, the current carrying them to new opportunities, new homes and new lives.

The keelboat, about 60 feet long and eight feet wide, could travel upstream, powered by sails, oars, push poles and hand winches. They carried on a trade of furs, whisky, lead, salt, coffee and sugar.

But it was the flatboat that was the mainstay of the early rivermen. Box shaped, 50 feet long and 12 feet wide, they were the prime means of downstream travel well into the 19th century, moving people and tons of flour, pork, fruit, corn and vegetables.

At the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, when the 13 British colonies won their freedom from Great Britain and became the independent United States of America, the pull of the Ohio River for settlement and commerce spread like a fever among the easterners looking for new opportunities in the west. In the spring of 1788, a flotilla of more than 300 flatboats, carrying 6,000 settlers, 3,000 head of livestock and 150 wagons floated past Fort Harmar, which was to become Marietta. Two years later the valley had an estimated white population of 125,000 residents.

The first established village in Kentucky was Shannoah, consisting of lodges and bark huts and built by Shawnee Indians on the site of an earlier Fort Ancient mound works at South Portsmouth. The village was visited in 1751 by Christopher Gist and other white men, some of whom stayed to open a trading post.

Not all settlers traveled the river in order to establish settlements on its banks. The Poague family left Virginia in 1799 and migrated across the mountains and through Kentucky to establish Poague’s Landing, the forerunner of Ashland.

River towns such as Marietta, Point Pleasant, Huntington, Ironton and Portsmouth were developed along the shores of the Ohio as the early river travelers stopped to build their log homes.

It was the coming of the steamboat that really brought prosperity and growth to the river towns. Credit for the invention of a practical steamboat has generally gone to Robert Fulton (1807).

The “New Orleans,” built by Fulton’s associates at the head of the river, was the first steamboat to ascend the Ohio. In late 1811, when it landed at Parkersburg, at the mouth of the Little Kanawha River, all 100 residents of the village poured out to marvel at it.

It was Woodrow Wilson who said, “A spot of local history is like an inn upon a highway; it is a stage upon a far journey; it is a place the national history has passed through.”

Today’s “inns” have a system of levees and floodwalls to stave off occasional rampages by the river, which, whenever it takes a notion, reminds residents of who was there first.

Outside the walls, where diesel towboats with 10,000-horsepower engines hustle tons of cargo along, the Ohio River continues its flow of history.

G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (606) 932-3619 or [email protected]

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