La Belle Rivière

Sailing the Ohio is like reliving history.

Jack O'Connell - Ohio River

Published Mar 19, 2024 10:46 PM by Jack O'Connell

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2024 edition.)


The French fur traders who discovered it called it “la belle rivière” – “the beautiful river.” The Iroquois, who first told them of a great river flowing west, called it “Oyo” for “beautiful.” Other native tribes described it as “Ohi” or “O’hui” for “very white” or “sparkling” or “foaming” (white caps).

The British colonists, disdaining anything French, preferred the original name – and thus it became the Ohio. And despite years of industrialization, pollution and commercial barge traffic, the Ohio River today remains all of those things – beautiful and white and sparkling with the occasional white cap.

Formed by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers at Pittsburgh, the Ohio flows southwesterly for 981 miles until it joins the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. Those of you who’ve read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (I assume that includes all of you savvy readers) will recall that Cairo (pronounced “CARE-oh”) is where Huck and Jim – rafting south on the Mississippi from Hannibal – were supposed to turn left and up the Ohio to freedom. Instead, they passed Cairo in the middle of the night and continued south, deeper into slave territory.

And here’s a little-known fact – one of many we learned on our cruise last August. Mark Twain – the adopted name of author Samuel Langhorne Clemens – actually is riverman’s jargon for “12 feet” – the safe depth at which to travel the Mississippi (and the Ohio too, for that matter). Clemens was, after all, a steamboat captain, and “twain” meant two fathoms. So “mark twain” meant a depth of 12 feet.

Facts & Figures

When we tell people we cruised the Ohio on our summer vacation last year they kind of look at us funny. “You did what?” They want us to say Alaska or Antarctica or somewhere romantic like a river cruise on the Rhine. And in fact the Ohio is one of the least-traveled itineraries among American Cruise Lines’ many offerings. There were only 84 people on our 150-passenger paddlewheeler American Heritage, which is actually powered by twin azimuthing Z-drives and two bow thrusters, one on each side (the paddlewheel is just for show).   

But that’s why we did it. We wanted “the road less traveled.” We wanted to follow the path of those hearty souls who ventured beyond the Appalachians to settle a new country and are rightfully celebrated in David McCullough’s monumental work, "The Pioneers."

Very few people know about the Ohio any more or its key place in American history. It was the way west – the main artery that opened up the vast Northwest Territory ceded by the British at the end of the Revolutionary War. Tens of thousands of veterans and others traveled by flatboat or skiff and later by steamboat down the Ohio in hopes of starting a new life, lured by the promise of free land and unlimited opportunity. Moreover, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 proclaimed that slavery was prohibited in the new territory.

Six states border the Ohio (can you name them?). It’s the main tributary of the Mississippi, the fourth longest river in the U.S. and second only to the Mississippi in terms of the amount of barge traffic and cargo carried. Nineteen locks and dams enable the flow of river traffic, carrying everything from coal and coke to petroleum, sand, grains and aggregates.

The locks themselves are toll-free although there’s a federal tax on diesel fuel that goes into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund and helps pay the cost of maintenance and upkeep. Cargoes move by barge in what are called “tows.” The maximum-size tow that can transit the 19 locks on the Ohio is 15 barges (five rows of three barges each), extending 1,000 feet in length and pushed by a single towboat.

Locks are fascinating. I never tire of their massive walls and the technology that makes them possible. They operate on gravity, of course, and from Pittsburgh to Cairo the Ohio drops about 400 feet, meaning one lock every 20 miles or so. Traveling upriver, as we were, you enter the lock, the rear gates close behind you, and sluices in the closed front gates slowly admit water, gradually raising the vessel to the level of the river ahead. Then the front gates open and you glide through. Going downriver, the process is reversed.

Just beyond Louisville, for example, we went through the Cannelton Lock & Dam, a 25-foot lift. Built in 1966, Cannelton replaced three older structures and has two chambers – one 600 feet in length for riverboats like ours and the other 1,200 feet in length to accommodate 15-barge tows.

The barges themselves are generally 195 feet in length by 35 feet wide. One barge can carry up to 1,500 tons of cargo – equal to 15 rail cars or 60 trucks. One 15-barge tow carries the equivalent of 225 rail cars and takes more than 1,000 trucks off the road – a strong argument for the environmental benefits of waterborne transportation.

Coal is by far the biggest product on the Ohio. No fewer than 26 coal-fired power plants line its banks – an average of one every 38 miles. It’s the main source of power for the region, and every one of the states along the Ohio are major coal producers. An endless stream of coal “tows” punctuated our journey, most of it for domestic consumption but some for export via the Mississippi and New Orleans.           


We actually began our journey in St. Louis with a visit to the aptly named Gateway Arch, that marvel of modern architecture designed by Eero Saarinen that rests alongside the Mississippi and symbolizes St. Louis’s stature as the “Gateway City” to the West. We rode the cramped five-people-to-a-car tram to the top (like being in a space shuttle) and admired the view from 630 feet up.

The American Heritage was moored nearby, and we boarded her the next day and headed down the Mississippi to Cairo, a distance of 180 miles. Overnight we made the big left-hand turn up the Ohio and passed through the infamous Olmstead Locks, the busiest intersection on the entire Ohio-Mississippi system and the most expensive waterways reconstruction project in the nation’s history. Over the course of its more than 30-year rebuild, its cost ballooned from less than $800 million to over $3 billion.

Nonetheless, its grand reopening in 2018, replacing two older structures, eliminated a major choke point and reduced transit times to an hour or less from what was sometimes days in years past. About 100 million tons of cargo pass through the Olmsted Locks each year, and backups and breakdowns were common.

Our first stop on the Ohio, traveling upriver, was Paducah, Kentucky – “Atomic City” – so named for having the nation’s first uranium enrichment plant. It’s also called “Quilt City” because it’s home to the National Quilt Museum. But what caught our attention was the Inland Waterways Museum, a treasure trove of information about the Ohio, its locks and dams and the famous flood of 1937 that led to the building of flood walls (many adorned with colorful murals) in almost every major city along its banks.

And for you foodies like me, I had the best catfish sandwich ever at an unassuming diner called Doe’s in Paducah. Don’t miss it!

While on the subject of food, the menu offerings aboard American Cruise Line riverboats are hard to beat – a far cry from what the early pioneers ate. Here’s a sampling of entrée choices one night: Dijon-Crusted Roast Pork Tenderloin, Roasted Turkey, BBQ Lane Red Fish. I had the red fish. The hardest decision we had to make each day was what to have for dinner that night (you filled out a card at breakfast indicating your preference).

That night we were entertained by the Wheelhouse Rousters, featuring western Kentucky folk music, a mix of Irish, Scottish and hillbilly tunes. I think they were beating on pots and pans at one point. Each night we were treated to a different form of entertainment, mainly musical, but sometimes involving brain games or trivia. Never a dull moment.

Next stop was Evansville, Indiana – “Crescent City,” like New Orleans, because it’s on a curve of the river. We docked across from Evansville in Henderson, Kentucky, home of the Audubon Museum & Nature Center, a not-to-be-missed gem where John James Audubon spent 10 years documenting and painting birds.  

Perhaps the most anticipated highlight of the trip was Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. We arrived early in the morning – but not too early for a nip of bourbon – in time to watch the horses thunder by on their morning workouts. The mist was still rising off the track, and the horses were barely visible at the far end. As they emerged from the fog and got closer, breath visible from their nostrils, you could feel their power and strength. And the sound – the sound of their hooves breaking the silence of the morning as they thundered by – was unforgettable.

On the River

There were lots of other stops – Cincinnati and Marietta, Ohio. Maysville, Kentucky. And Pittsburgh at the end, where the western migration started and where we visited the Heinz Museum, a wonderland of history and exhibits reminiscent of the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit.

But the real joy was just being on the river, sitting in a rocker watching the river – and the world – go by, imagining how the original settlers felt and what they were thinking as they journeyed westward in their rough-hewn flatboats carrying all their worldly possessions. It’s still the same river – beautiful, quiet, majestic, enveloping you in its wonder and variety and taking you back to an earlier time.

Jack O'Connell is the magazine's Senior Editor.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.