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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Reuben Gold Thwaites

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, January 30, 2005

Reuben Gold Thwaites was the secretary of the Wisconsin State Historical Society from 1886 until his death in 1913.

In that position, he edited the "Wisconsin State Journal."  His name is familiar to anyone interested in American history as the editor of countless articles and books at the turn of the last century.

He is noted for his biography of Daniel Boone and Father Marquette, and his editing of the Lewis and Clark Journals.  His 36 volume set, "Early Western Travels, 1748-1846" is renowned for its scope.

My interest is a journey that Thwaites, his wife and son took exactly 110 years ago.  "Afloat on the Ohio" is the story of that journey in a skiff the length of the Ohio River, taken in 1894.

His journey began at Charleroi on the Monongahela River in May, and concluded five weeks later at Cairo where the Ohio joins the Mississippi. 

In 1894, the river was seeing rapid growth in industrialization, yet retained much of its natural charm.  The river was still wild; the lock and dam system was just in the early stages of construction. His skiff, "The Pilgrim," had been brought by rail from his home in Wisconsin.  They camped and acquired supplies from the river towns along the Ohio River.

Thwaites describes the river scene in 1894 as "wooded hill-slopes, romantic ravines, and beautiful islands, giant trees such as sycamores, elms, walnuts and what nots."

On May 4, 1894, his family pushed away from the shore from the boatyard at Brownsville, Pa. and a worker in the yard was concerned about his wife being a passenger on the trip.

According to Thwaites, the man said, "Good luck to yees, an' ye don't git th' missus drowndid 'fore ye git to Cairo!"

The first part of the trip was downstream on the Mon to Pittsburg.  (1894 was the time period that Pittsburgh was missing the 'h') It was a leisurely trip downriver, the author Thwaites stopped to talk to anyone interested, and to research his log to write his adventures. The family camped at Yellow Creek, and enjoyed the many islands of the Ohio River of 1894.

A slack water dam was under construction near New Cumberland, an attempt to keep enough water in the Ohio River to accommodate steamboats. Brick and tile factories lines the river south of East Liverpool, "dumping their daily output of debris along the river in heaps up to 100 feet high."

He described a tangle of poison ivy and ferns as being abundant along the riverbank, making it difficult to stop and gather wild plants for study.
 
Steubenville is described as a "smart, well-built, substantial town of some 16,000 residents" in 1894.  It was a place to purchase supplies and talk with the local residents. One man complained about steamboats and how they churn up the river, making fishing difficult.

Upon arrival at Moundsville, the Thwaites family noted that they were "brown from the mud of the river journey."  Sunburn was becoming a problem, even in May.

And so went their journey down the Ohio River, well documented by a great author of the day.  He observed, "what a soul-satisfying life, we possess the world, while afloat on the Ohio!"