The Muskingum River flows south through southeast Ohio, gathering waters via the Walhonding from the Ohio heartland and the Tuscarawas in east-central Ohio and sending them to Marietta and the confluence with the Ohio, “La Belle Riviere.” Long a highway for Indians in canoes and early rivermen in small wooden boats, the Muskingum yearned for more, wishing for the greatness and grandeur of its larger companions, the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri, where steamboats brought wayfarers, freight and excitement to remote towns along the banks of the rivers.
But the Muskingum could float a steamboat only in high water, and that is what happened in January 1824, when the Muskingum was at a good stage for a larger boat. Capt. John Green, piloting the Rufus Putnam, left Marietta at 10 a.m. Friday, Jan. 9, 1824, and entertained friends with a ride to Zanesville, 75 river miles from Marietta. The Rufus Putnam arrived across from Zanesville at 10 p.m. on a dark, rainy Saturday.
Ohio residents were not content to wait for high water, and the arrival of the Rufus Putnam spurred thinking about a slackwater system. The Ohio General Assembly authorized a state program of locks and dams on March 9, 1836, and engineer work began June 20, 1836, at Zanesville. Thus began the Muskingum River navigation that remains intact to this day.
The state canalized the river from Marietta to Dresden, a distance of 91 miles, connecting the river with the Ohio and Erie Canal, which left the Muskingum valley at Dresden and headed southwest to the Scioto River. Work was completed in 1841, and steamboats came to southeast Ohio, carrying freight and passengers for several decades. Some trade was limited to the Muskingum, and some boats ran to Pittsburgh and Wheeling and other points on regular runs.
The last steamboat on the Muskingum was the Liberty, operating out of Pittsburgh on the Ohio River, starting a regular Pittsburgh-Zanesville trade in 1919 and ceasing Muskingum travel in 1933. Liberty left Pittsburgh on its last trip on June 2, 1936.
The Milton, a gas-powered boat, traveled the Muskingum in the 1920s, and the last steamer to enter the Muskingum was the towboat W.P. Snyder Jr. on Sept. 16, 1955. The Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen arranged for it to be presented to the Ohio Historical Society as a museum boat, and it still lies anchored on the east bank by the Ohio River Museum in Marietta.
David F. Ross in the journal “American Canals” wrote, “Canalization restricted the river to small packets which could fit into the 35-by-150 foot lock chambers and imposed 11 lockage delays over the approximately 95 navigable miles of the river …” Repairs to locks 1 through 10 were made in 1891, and a new lock and dam at Lock 11 were built in 1910. Lock and Dam 1 were removed when the Belleville Dam on the Ohio River raised the water level and made it unnecessary. “Otherwise, what exists on the Muskingum today is the same system of locks and dams that the state built between 1836 and 1841, repaired but not modernized 50 years later,” said Ross.
The Army Corps of Engineers discontinued lockage operations in 1952 at locks 2-11 and in 1954 at Lock 1. The Muskingum River Parkway was created in 1958, the hand-cranked locks were returned to operation, and the Parkway is now part of the Ohio park system.
The Muskingum River Parkway was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers in July 2001. Public launch ramps are provided at Locks 4, 5, 6, 7 and 11 and private ramps near Locks 2, 7 and 10. Lock 11 at Ellis is closed until further notice, and the river channel from Dresden to Ellis is unmarked and difficult to follow. Some of the tributaries that empty into the Muskingum are navigable for short distances.
Information about the history of the system can be found in “Steamboats on the Muskingum” by Jay Mack Gamble, and navigation, camping and fishing information is available through ODNR at http://ohiodnr.com/watercraft/publications/tabid/3217/Default.aspx.
The Muskingum flows through a largely rural part of Ohio, encountering the occasional city, and ends life at Marietta and the Ohio. A visit to the Muskingum is a trip back in time to the days of wooden steamboats, canals and canoes, to Indians and pioneers and the days of early enterprise.
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