Marietta is a multi-faceted jewel along the Ohio River

Art Weber

        Marietta is said to be Ohio’s oldest permanent settlement, and America’s first in the Old Northwest Territories. The presence of extensive Hopewell Mounds in the old city makes it clear that those first city settlers in 1788 were not the first to call the area home.
        Marietta is a jewel along the Ohio, multi-faceted and layered. Those who ventured west after the American Revolution in search of new lands in the Ohio River Valley were thrilled to find this scenic spot at the mouth of the Muskingum River where it joined the beautiful Ohio River.
        Though they didn’t understand their origin, they built their city on top of a large complex of Hopewell Mounds. Archaeologists estimate these Marietta earthworks may be 2,500 years old. During the intervening centuries since their construction, the great hardwood forest had reclaimed the mounds, covering the earthworks with huge oaks, some judged to be nearly 600 years old.
        Today the mounds, many of them on privately owned land, are absorbed in the city’s daily life. The library is built on a huge mound, as is the oldest cemetery. The blending is at once surprising, interesting, disturbing, and, finally, comes the realization that incorporating the mounds into the settlement is the reason the mounds are still with us.
        The mounds intertwined with modern life are only part of the fascination with this historic river town, with its operating sternwheel steamboat, great riverfront dining, quaint shopping and stately Victorian homes.
        Today’s Ohio river is different than the river those early settlers found. In those early days, the Ohio River was a relatively shallow, fast-running river full of riffles and rapids. Of course, that was before the days of dams and locks; man-made creations that for the last 100-plus years has turned the free-flowing river into a series of deeper pools in the river that made it more reliable for commercial boat traffic.
        “Today’s river has been described as a series of lakes created by dams,” said Janet Butler, then visitor services coordinator for the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Area, which protects 22 islands, some of them large and most in the vicinity of Marietta.
        “People say its average depth was less than one foot. It was faster and much shallower before the dams. It will never go back to that because of the river’s importance to commercial navigation.”
        Islands, some of them large, dot the river channel.
        “They must have been like mountains in mid-river,” offered Tom Cross, who heads up the Adams County Travel and Visitors Bureau.
        The best way to see them and the wildlife they protect is to board the Valley Gem, a modern-era sternwheeler that runs excursions on the Ohio River out of Marietta. And that’s not all.
        “There’s a wonderful underwater world here,” Butler said. “The river holds 40 species of mussels.”
        The variety, number, and quality of mussels in both the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers put them in demand for the manufacture of buttons. Marietta was once home for a number of button factories.
        Paddlefish, too, have made a comeback. That unusual and long-lived fish is a filter feeder, using a system of gill rakers to filter tiny plankton from the water in a manner not unlike giant baleen whales.
        The shallow-draft sternwheeler is a reminder of days past, when the river was wilder and faster and cleaner. An excellent way to relive those days is to attend Marietta’s famous Ohio River Sternwheel Festival, which will be held Sept. 10-12.
        But Marietta has much to offer any time of year. For more information, visit


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