A tour of the best driving roads in Ohio was long overdue. The weather looked perfect for May 30-June 1, so I pointed the ever-willing BMW Z4 westward and set off in pursuit of driving fun and historical exploration. Not to mention a visit with my college roommate Buzz (of "A Nice Morning Drive" and "Red Barchetta" fame) and his wife Linda.
After a mere 341 miles, averaging 69.7 mph and 30.1 mpg, I arrived at the start of my tour: a handsome bridge over tiny Fox Creek near New Concord. This particular bridge wouldn't merit special attention except for the fact that it's S-shaped. Back in the day, apparently, when a bridge needed to cross a stream at an oblique angle, it was easiest to build in an S-shape so that the actual crossing was at right angles to the stream. That way, the arch itself—the weakest link—could be kept as short as possible. This bridge carried all of the horse, cattle, carriage, wagon, and pedestrian traffic along the original National Road, starting in 1828. It also sheltered numerous runaway slaves using the "Underground Railroad" to escape to the north. The bridge, together with the rest of the National Road, was paved with bricks during World War I to facilitate military traffic.
Ohio has a vast number of handsome Victorian houses, including this one in Cumberland…
…and an even greater number of beautiful views of lush countryside. To the far side of the road lies The Wilds
, a private, non-profit wildlife conservation area that was built on top of an abandoned strip coal mine. Somewhere in the 9,000 acres are cheetahs, giraffes, and rhinoceroses (oh my!), although I didn't spot any from this vantage point.
Despite the generally lush surroundings, much of Ohio has been experiencing a drought. Here, you would think that I was in the middle of a southwest desert.
The State of Ohio also features almost as many scenic rundown buildings as West Virginia. This was probably a corn crib at one time. Now, however, it is tilting farther and farther from vertical as a result of holding thousands of aluminum cans.
In fact, as I traveled through southeastern Ohio, it seemed that only one in four barns or other rural buildings were in active use. A great many places had become veritable ghost towns.
Once again I was following a route from RoadRunner Magazine
. The latest issue has a tour called Haunted Ohio: Who Ya Gonna Call?
, and it's a corker—some of the best motorcycling and sports car roads you can imagine, including Ohio's version of the Tail of the Dragon. I can recommend it highly for the roads alone; the interesting historic and paranormal locations cited in the article represent icing on the cake.
I detoured a bit toward Watertown to find the 1806 Federal-style home of Colonel Simeon Deming. Col. Deming had served with distinction during the American Revolution, and, like many others, was granted land in the Midwest as reimbursement for his military service. My interest in Col. Deming was primarily due to the fact that he was a distant relative of one of my heroes: W. Edwards Deming
, the father of modern quality control and management systems in manufacturing throughout the world. Dr. Deming almost singlehandedly led Japan in the 1950s to its now-vaunted status of high-quality automobiles and other manufactured goods, with the U.S. adopting Deming's principles in the 1980s to remain competitive. The cars we drive and the motorcycles we ride—not to mention the TVs we watch, the iPADs we use, and virtually every other product we own—are immeasurably better than they would have been in the absence of this genius' efforts. Toward the end of his long life, Dr. Deming received the National Medal of Technology from President Reagan in 1987, the Distinguished Career in Science Award from the National Academy of Sciences in 1988, and induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1991.
Col. Deming's property also seemed like a good spot for a scenic photo of my long-suffering but much-loved Z4.
Nearby, the Harra Covered Bridge has afforded shelter to those crossing the South Branch of Wolf Creek from 1875 through the late 1990s. I was to encounter many covered bridges on this trip through Ohio, some on purpose and others by complete serendipity.
The bridge also offered a good view of this recently expanded goose family.
Not surprisingly, Churchtown featured the glorious Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church, which dates back to 1866. They don't build 'em like they used to.
The same could be said of the W.P. Snyder, Jr., a sternwheel steamboat that was used to push coal barges up and down the Monongahela River from 1918 through 1953. The vessel has been moored at Marietta on the Muskingum River for many years and is now part of the Ohio River Museum. It is the only such towboat that still exists on American waterways. (Historic photo courtesy of the National Register of Historic Places.)
The Ohio Land Company Office was constructed in 1788 and is believed to be the oldest building in all of Ohio. Marietta, OH was the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territories, and Rufus Putnam led the first colonizing party here after learning of the area's beauty from his friend George Washington. (Washington had visited this area as a young surveyor.) For regular readers of these reports, Rufus Putnam was the half uncle—as best I can tell—of Israel "Old Put" Putnam of Revolutionary War fame. (Old Put famously rode his horse straight down a steep flight of stone steps to escape the British during the war.) The historical drawing of Rufus Putnam landing at the junction of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers is courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society.
While in Marietta, I wanted to get a look at "The Castle," which was built in 1855 and is now a museum. The good news was that the museum was open. The bad news was that it was closing in 5 minutes. Thankfully, the staff took pity on a hapless tourist and volunteered the time to show me the video and give me a quick tour of the inside of the elegant Gothic Revival mansion. I was taken by the story of Jessie Davis, who lived there in the late 1800s as a precocious little girl and eventually inherited the mansion at age 55. She moved back in and lived there until 5 days shy of her 100th birthday. It's a beautiful place, and now I
want to live there. I wonder how much a year-round museum pass would cost?
It may be that the Ohio Land Company Office is the oldest building in Ohio, but there are far older "buildings" of another sort throughout the state. In 1801, the Mound Cemetery in Marietta was built around this ancient Native American mound. Such mounds were generally used for ceremonial purposes, including funerals. This one was built by one of the tribes of the Ohio Hopewell Culture, sometime between 100 and 500 AD. As for the later colonial cemetery, its claim to fame is that there are more officers from the Revolutionary War buried here than anywhere else in the country.
As noted in the RoadRunner Magazine
article, the Lafayette Hotel is well known for various hauntings, with the third floor being particularly notorious. Check out The Lafayette Hotel
from Forgotten Ohio
for a full roster of the hotel's ghosts. (Maybe they should be called "ghuests"?)
Fort Harmar stood on the other side of the Muskingum River, a little downstream from this abandoned railroad bridge and right at the river's junction with the Ohio River. It dates back to 1785 and was built to defend the planned settlement at Marietta from Indian attacks.
Today, the Harmar Historic District in Marietta is a popular tourist attraction. As for the railroad bridge, it's one of the very few unused drawbridges that still works—in this instance, by swiveling an entire section of the bridge to allow ships to pass through. It's opened once a year during the town's "Pioneer Days" festival.
It took me three tries to find The Anchorage, my last stop in Marietta. It's located at the end of a narrow, one-lane drive on the side of a steep hill facing the Ohio River. Douglas Putnam ("Old Put's" great grandson) built the place in 1859, in the Italianate style. It may have been part of the Underground Railroad in Ohio; Douglas' brother David was a prominent abolitionist in Marietta, and there are large tunnels leading from the basement of the mansion. (An interesting account
of this possibility is given by local resident Lynne Sturtevant.) Naturally this 22-room home is said to be haunted—in this instance, by the ghost of Eliza Putnam, Douglas' wife, who lived here for only 3 years before dying. (Old photo courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society of Ohio.)
It seems that you can't swing a dead cat in Ohio without hitting at least one ghost.
Marietta was a fascinating place, but I was well behind schedule for this first leg of my tour. I made good time on Route 550, which proved to be an outstandingly fun road. But then I found Route 555, which was laid out in 1938 and is often called "Ohio's Tail of the Dragon," after the famous byway in Tennessee. I picked it up toward the end of its 62 miles and thoroughly enjoyed the twisting, turning, roller-coaster ride down to Little Hocking on the Ohio River. It's hard to imagine a better vehicle than the Z4 for tackling the "Triple Nickle" (although a BMW S1000RR might do the trick…) Of course, I need to go back and do the rest of 555 at the first opportunity.
It's also worth mentioning that, as I motored briskly along 555, around one blind corner I suddenly encounter a "gleaming alloy air car … two lanes wide." (You Rush fans will get the reference.) It proved to be a huge farm harvester, lumbering along the road and taking up its entire width! It was a good reminder of why we always maintain a safety margin on public roads. I was able to slow immediately, and, by both of us scrunching over to our respective sides of the highway, we passed by without incident.
Further along 555, I found the Root Covered Bridge (but few signs of the town of Root itself; it has now largely disappeared).
Little Hocking has been home to many generations of the Curtis family, dating back to at least the late 1600s. Nathaniel Sawyer built this house in 1798, and Horace Curtis expanded it in 1828 and immediately used it to initiate the operation of the Underground Railroad in Ohio. Today, the house looks surprisingly modern until you notice the massive, English-style, central chimney.
Horace Curtis' brother Walter was a prominent local politician and lived a little further downstream on the banks of the Ohio River. He built one of the finest farmhouses in this part of Ohio in the early 1800s, in the Greek Revival style. Abandoned for many years, the house is now all but invisible from the road. (Winter photo courtesy of the National Register of Historic Places.)
I decided to depart a ways from my planned route to visit a place I hadn't been to for a number of years. As I neared the Fur Peace Ranch
, I noticed an abundance of wild black rabbits. Odd, but definitely photogenic (and willing to pose for a 3-exposure HDR photograph).
The guitar ranch, by the way, is owned and operated by Jorma and Vanessa Kaukonen. Now, "If you don't know Jorma, you don't know Jack!" So I'll remind you that Jorma was the lead guitarist for the Jefferson Airplane, and Jack Cassidy was the bass player. They're still active all these years later as Hot Tuna. The Fur Peace Ranch offers instruction in electric and acoustic guitar as well as in other instruments and song writing. It's a wonderful experience, but on this particular Thursday, the gate was locked and no one was home.
Pomeroy was my next port of call. It's perched right on the Ohio River and, consequently, has been flooded many times over the years. The Ohio River's first coal barges were loaded here in the 1800s, and barge traffic continues to operate today.
My destination for the night was Gallipolis, Ohio, and I got there with just barely enough light left to find the several places of interest I'd mapped out. I drove down to the water's edge on a virtually nonexistent path in search of the first of these, namely this railroad bridge across the Ohio River into Point Pleasant, West Virginia. It was scenic enough, with its reflection in the water's surface—but it's also a reminder of the Silver Bridge that used to stand nearby.
The Silver Bridge carried vehicular traffic between the two cities from 1928 to 1967. Tragically, on December 15, 1967 at the height of rush hour, the bridge collapsed without warning, sending cars plummeting into the river below and killing 46 of the drivers and passengers. The bridge used an eyebar-chain suspension design. When built using rows of four to six redundant eyebar links, together with a high "excess strength" factor (e.g., ten), such bridges are very safe. But the Silver Bridge was built without
redundancy and with a much lower excess strength factor. The bridge's structural integrity was further jeopardized by the greater number and weight of passenger cars and trucks over time. The stress failure of a single eyebar link brought the entire bridge down in less than a minute. A noted engineering historian wrote that it was "a design that inadvertently made inspection all but impossible and failure all but inevitable. If ever a design was to blame for a failure, this was it."
The collapse of the Silver Bridge led to a nationwide program of bridge inspections—but not to the prevention of all bridge failures, as we have seen in recent times.
I also found the confluence of the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, where the Battle of Point Pleasant occurred in 1774 when 1,000 Virginia riflemen were attacked by roughly 300 to 500 Shawnee Indians. The Native Americans were trying to prevent the colonial militia from moving into Ohio. Although a formal settlement with the Iroquois had granted such access 6 years earlier, the Shawnees had not been part of the negotiation and refused to accept it. A fierce battle ensued, eventually resulting in the withdrawal of the Indian forces and a subsequent treaty allowing access to Ohio and granting all Shawnee lands south of the Ohio River to Virginia.
By now, the sun had disappeared below the far shore of the Ohio River. With a quick look at the reconstructed 1776 Fort Randolph, it was time to go looking for the infamous Mothman…
Exactly 13 months before the collapse of the Silver Bridge, a number of Point Pleasant residents reported seeing a large, flying man with a wing span of about 10 feet and bright, glowing red eyes. Two married couples said that the creature had flown behind their car for more than a mile, and a group of gravediggers saw it flying through the nearby woods for about a minute and a half. One man heard a disturbance in his corn field and saw a large pair of red eyes reflecting in his light. He sent his highly agitated German Shepherd into the field—and the dog never came back out.
Over the next year, more than 100 people said they had seen the flying person, who soon became known as the Mothman. Following the bridge collapse, the Mothman was never seen again. In 1975, John Keel wrote a book called The Mothman Prophesies
, portraying a connection between the Mothman and the bridge disaster. Richard Gere and Laura Linney starred in a 2002 movie of the same name.
Explanations ranged from the prosaic (a Sandhill Crane far from its normal migratory path) to the imaginative (an alien being from a UFO, investigating the World War II munitions site located just outside of Point Pleasant). Your guess is as good as mine. The only Mothman I managed to spot in the town was this statue, created in 2003 in conjunction with Point Pleasant's first Mothman Festival.
But I still want to know what happened to the German Shepherd…
By now it was after 9:00 PM. I called and booked the last room at the Gallipolis Hampton Inn and looked around in vain for an open restaurant. Fortunately, the local Bob Evans came to the rescue. A western omelet and some strawberry shortcake revived my spirits, which had been worn down by bridge disasters, unfair treatment of Native Americans, and the odd Mothman or two, and then I was off to a good night's sleep. I'd covered 340 miles of highway driving to get to Ohio, plus 210 more miles of touring on this first day.