My Ohio: River Rat

The Ohio River makes an indelible impression on those who grow up along its banks. 

I was born and grew up in the small town of Middleport, Ohio, on the banks of the Ohio River. Some folks might call me a river rat.

Growing up along the Ohio was mostly a pleasant and peaceful adventure. There was the backdrop of the West Virginia hills, splendidly adorned in green hardwood forests, accented with sandstone rock outcrops. Moonlight on the river in the stillness of a warm night could be a breathtaking experience, and at sunset walks along the railroad tracks by the river’s edge were a relaxing way to bring a busy day to a close.

I especially liked to watch the towboat traffic. The steamboat era was coming to an end when I was in grade school. However, I photographed the last of the working steam towboats, the moonlight excursion boats and the always exciting showboats. When the towboat Joe Cook came into port in Middleport on its last official visit as a working boat, I was there with my camera. It was the end of an era, and I realized it.

Of course, the Ohio was not always peaceful. In the ’40s and ’50s, my generation got out of school for floods. Anyone who grew up along the river heard endless stories of the devastating floods of 1913 and 1937. My dad kept a big johnboat in the back yard, which we used to help rescue relatives in flood times and occasionally to get to town.

A short walk away from the river were the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio. When not riding our bicycles or walking along the river, my friends and I would go hiking into the nearby hills. One of my favorite hikes was up Bone Hollow Road. It was an abandoned dirt road that led us across a ridge to Leading Creek, a feeder stream to the Ohio, where we would fish for catfish.

In November, I would hike with my dad on the ridges overlooking the Ohio Valley where abundant clumps of dark green mistletoe grew at the top of some of the tall trees. Carrying a bag and a shotgun, my dad would shoot at the base of the clumps of mistletoe, sending them plunging to the ground below where we would gather our Christmas decorations.

On summer evenings, as the sun dipped to the horizon, shadows of the surrounding hills reflected from the river’s surface, lingering over the darkening waters. Moonlight on the lazy river was a breathtaking experience. It was these warm evenings with the golden moon reflecting on the river that made a night trip on the old excursion boats such a memorable experience for couples of all ages.

We usually accepted the river as just another part of the landscape, but understood the importance of the Ohio in our history and realized its role in the development of the area. A steamboat was engraved in the crest of our class rings alongside our school mascot. Today, although our high school was lost to consolidation, alumni still gather in town each Memorial Day weekend to celebrate our younger days along the river.

Riverview Cemetery in Middleport is located in a beautiful setting on a hilltop overlooking the Ohio River Valley. Each Memorial Day, folks still gather there, as they have for years, honoring those who have passed on and renewing acquaintances with those who return for a visit.

Honoring my river heritage, I have chosen my final resting place here in this riverview location, and the memorial marker I designed has a large engraving of an old paddlewheel steamboat.

Somehow the call of the hills and the beckoning of the river never seem to fade from memory for some of us. I still enjoy a return to the area to walk along the river, recalling the many good times of growing up there. The river’s journey never ends. Neither does my fascination with it.

Yes, you can call me a river rat at heart. I won’t mind.

William Taylor is a Columbus-based freelance writer.