July 2009 Issue
In three visits over nearly five decades, the writer finds that Marietta’s historic Lafayette Hotel retains its colorful character and river-town charm.
There is, some say, a ghost that prowls the upper floors of the old Lafayette Hotel in Marietta, Ohio.
The ghost is known to be partial to women. I asked the hotel’s general manager, Sheila Rhodes, about it.
“Well,” said Ms. Rhodes, “all I know is what I’ve heard.”
“What have you heard?” I asked.
“Okay,” she said. “The top floors were built by a previous owner. And one night a couple checked into a suite up there. And she decided to take a shower. And he decided to join her in the shower.”
“And as soon as he got in, the water turned ice cold,” she said.
“Plumbing problems,” I said.
“Except,” she said, “Later that night his wife fell asleep. And he decided to go out and get some ice. So he left the door open. And as soon as he got into the hall, the door shut behind him. He couldn’t get back in. The ghost didn’t want him near her.”
“You believe all this?” I asked.
She gave me a merry wink.
If there were a ghost in the Lafayette Hotel, it maybe should be the ghost of Marie Antoinette. The town — the oldest in Ohio — was named after her.
But even though she lost her head to the guillotine in the French Revolution, nobody claims she haunts Marietta. For such a ghost, that’s fly-over country.
Lafayette was a shrewder politician. While all about him were losing their heads, he was safe in an Austrian prison and kept his on his neck. But he had been an American Revolution hero. So when he came back to America to visit, glasses were lifted wherever he went, celebrating his rock-star, sold-out victory tour.
At a time when rivers were our nation’s jetways, he drifted up the Ohio, landed in Marietta and stayed at a hotel that was then called the Bellvue. That hotel burned down in 1912. But it was rebuilt in 1918 and renamed the Lafayette in honor of his stop there in 1825.
I first found the Lafayette in 1960. I had driven all night from my Army camp in Georgia headed for my wedding. When I crossed from West Virginia into Ohio, I wanted a place to shave, throw some water on my face and travel on.
I saw this old brick building on the bank of the river. I parked my car and went in. And stepped back in time about a century.
The hotel, somewhat shopworn but still rather well kept up, looked as if Lafayette might have checked out that morning. It was full of all the original trappings of river traffic. Trimmed in rich mahogany and upholstered in claret-colored brocade, its walls and hallways were crowded with pictures of steamships, faded posters advertising midnight boat excursions, old ship’s clocks and great wheels from the helms of sternwheelers. I looked around in wonder. I figured I had entered a place that was part “Brigadoon” and part a chapter from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.
But I had come in there for two things. A sink and a urinal. So I did what I had come for and moved on.
I thought I’d flushed the experience of the hotel behind me, but I was wrong.
When I went to Ohio University in the late ’50s, one of the great pluses about the school was that there was no good way to get from Cleveland to your dorm. We liked that idea because our parents couldn’t drop in on a Saturday morning just to see how we were doing. Whatever we were doing, we wanted at least 24 hours worth of diplomacy and appeasement preparation. They couldn’t just pop in on a whim.
They still can’t. But I-77 has shortened the ride. When you head south from Cleveland, I-77 carves a slice through the wonderful green hills of Appalachia. After you pass Cambridge, the verdant landscape is broken only by a large sign that says “adult videos — truckers welcome.” Then you drive on to Marietta.
You take a kink to the west and drive another hour to the campus of OU.
Where you can enter your kid’s door without knocking. But I wouldn’t.
I mention this because the next time I saw the Lafayette was a couple of decades later. I was on my way to visit my son at Ohio University. I was routed through Marietta and saw the old hotel and told my wife that we had to stop there. We walked into the Lafayette
Hotel lobby and it was as it always had been, but better.
We stayed the night and took a ride on the Valley Gem, a replica of an old riverboat, up the Muskingum River, vowing to visit again soon.
Well, it took another 20 some years, but we finally returned. Everything seemed to have stood still in time, but the whole place was smarter.
It was like the old hotel had gotten shipshape and Bristol fashion.
All the artifacts of the river are still there. But now the mahogany gleams with polish. The bar is a wonder of yesterday’s conviviality. Chandeliers sparkle. Upholstered lobby chairs invite. We were back a hundred years ago again.
And, if you hanker for “steam-boatin’,” the walls are still hung with posters of old steamboat rides where people danced beneath the stars on the slow, patient river.
Over time, each hotel room has been redecorated. Now all the furniture is an original antique or a carefully copied piece. If you ignore the TV set beyond the armoire doors or the air-conditioning unit in the wall, you would think you were spending the night in an opulent hotel of Mark Twain’s era.
Two of the rooms in the Lafayette have balconies that look down at the Ohio River. Many other rooms have the same window view. Price-wise, these rooms cost about as much as a city hotel that looks out on an air shaft.
You can sit on the balcony at night or by your window and watch the moonlight ripple on the water as barges slowly and silently make their way down the river heading for the Mississippi.
I was born on a lake, but I love river towns. A lake just sits there. But a river is always going somewhere. And it beckons you to go, too.
Lakes don’t beckon. Their borders announce boundaries.
Rivers, heedless of geography, flow with ceaseless destination. They were headed someplace before we were here, or before the Indians who fished from their banks were, or certainly, before Lafayette floated up the Ohio with no dream of how much bigger this country would grow.
I asked Ms. Rhodes if she ever wondered why Marietta, situated at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers, never became a Cincinnati or a Pittsburgh.
“I don’t know,” she said. “We’re just as happy it didn’t.”
This summer money is short. If you can afford a vacation of any kind, Ohio is a wonderful place to visit.
We invented airplanes. We sent the first man in orbit around the earth. We are the birthplace of the first man to step on the moon. And the Lafayette is on the banks of a river that empties its water into the muddy Mississippi.
The mingled waters opened a natural pathway to what became the greatest nation on earth.
Looking for a nice, short vacation? Walk into the hotel lobby and say: “Lafayette, we are here! Feagler sent us.”
Dick Feagler, former columnist for the Cleveland Press and the The Plain Dealer, currently hosts a talk show, “Feagler and Friends,” on WVIZ, Cleveland’s PBS station.