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Ohio River Museum, the

Front & St. Clair Strrets
Marietta, Ohio

Phone: 740-373-3750 - 800-860-0145 - TTY

Statement of Purpose:

Imagine a late summer night on the Ohio River more than a century ago. A slender waning moon sparsely illuminates the silent river, its outline barely discernible against the riverbank. The only sounds that break the stillness are the chirping of crickets, the croaking of frogs, and the occasional splash of a fish.

Then, a point of light emerges from the darkness, followed by another. Closer they come: two steamboats churning the waters, racing side by side, decks glowing with light. Music and passengers' voices rise above the rush of escaping steam and the surge of water cascading from the paddlewheels.

In another instant, the boats vanish around the next bend, their wakes slapping the riverbanks.


The romantic golden age of river steamboats may evoke such images, but more than a century before then, the Ohio River - known to the Indians as "Oyo" - already was an important part of regional commerce.

The first white men on the river were French and British fur traders, who bartered trinkets, blankets, muskets, and tomahawk pipes for the valuable furs so readily available on the frontier.

White settlers who followed the fur traders traveled on flatboats. Unlike steam-powered boats, flatboats could travel only with the current. Upon arriving at their destinations, riders dismantled their boats and either sold the materials or used them to build homes or other structures. Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, slightly modified flatboats also carried produce from Ohio farms downstream toward New Orleans, stopping at ports until all the goods were sold.

Those traveling upstream used keelboats, which were designed to cut through the water. A keelboat's crew would propel the craft against the current by rowing or by cordelling: repeatedly tying a rope to a tree ahead of the boat and winching the craft forward to the tree. Obviously, getting upstream was a laborious, and expensive, process. The steamboat changed all that.


The first steamboat, Robert Fulton's Pittsburghbuilt "New Orleans", proved in 1811 that steam power could stem the Mississippi River's swift current. By 1817, steamboat operators were making record profits, paying for a boat's construction and operating costs in one trip.

Highlights & Collections:

Early steamboats were built as simple as possible to get the job - carrying goods and passengers to their destinations - done swiftly. With the rapid expansion of the railroads during the Civil War, however, steamboat owners built larger, more opulent crafts to attract new business. The use of Victorian architecture on the boats even created a new term: "steamboat gothic." These floating hotels featured private cabins for wealthier passengers.

Such luxury contrasted sharply with the conditions endured by deck passengers, who had no place to sleep except what they could find in the holds or on deck. Some even helped load cargo or fuel to pay for their passage. Disease spread quickly as cholera, smallpox, and other communicable ills found steamboat decks a superb breeding ground.

Despite the advances steamboats brought, river travel remained dangerous. Pilots had to be vigilant to quick changes: floods, silt deposits, or the scouring of riverbeds by the current.

In addition, river steamers had engines and boilers on the main deck instead of the hold, a tragic design. The pilothouse and part of the main passenger cabin were located directly above the boilers. When overloaded to achieve high speed or allowed to boil dry before taking in new water, the high-pressure boilers could explode, literally ripping a boat to pieces and killing hundreds.

In 1838, to set a speed record for travel between St. Louis and Cincinnati, the captain of the Moselle used pine knots to make the fire hotter and held down on the safety valves to increase the steam pressure. When the Moselle went just north of Cincinnati to pick up other passengers, the captain did not lower the boiler fires, no doubt intending to pass Cincinnati at full speed. When the boat started back toward the city, however, the boilers exploded, scattering debris and bodies over a wide area. Almost 150 died, including the captain.

Exhibits & Special Events:

The nation's worst maritime disaster was the result of a boiler explosion. On April 27, 1865, the Sultana was making her way north from Vicksburg, carrying among her passengers more than 2,000 Union soldiers released from Confederate prison camps. When the boilers exploded near Memphis, more than 1,500 lost their lives.


After the Civil War, railroads cut into the steamboats' profits. Their quicker speed, better cargo handling, and year-round "on-time" schedules enticed increasing numbers of travelers and shipping orders, despite the more comfortable passenger accommodations on the larger steamboats.

As the revenues from passengers and general freight disappeared, steam towboats were built to handle large, bulky cargoes, especially coal. Then came the diesel engine, and the less-efficient steamboat all but retired from the river. Today, a few steamboats are used for river cruises, but most are diesel-powered, driven by propellers while a fake sternwheel is moved by the passing water.


The Ohio River Museum, opened in 1974, recounts the history of the river and the boats that plied their trade on its waters.

A full-sized diorama re-creates the aquatic wildlife setting of an Ohio waterway two centuries ago. A twenty-four-foot model of a typical stern-wheel packet - a boat that transported mail, goods, and passengers - highlights an exhibit on the early years of the river steamboat. A thirty minute video on steamboat history, "Fire on the Water", contains footage of old excursion boats and river packets, as well as views of presentday steamboats such as the Delta Queen.

Displays featuring paintings, nautical gear, and ornate cabin furnishings recall the golden age of steamboat travel. A unique collection of steam-boat models includes the Buckeye State and the Robert E. Lee, winner of the legendary race with the Natchez.

Behind the museum, visitors may explore the W. P. Snyder, Jr., America's sole surviving steam-powered sternwheel towboat. Also on the grounds are a full-scale reproduction of a flatboat and the oldest steamboat pilothouse known to exist - that of the Tell City, built in 1885.


Saturdays: 9:30- 5:00

Sundays: noon to 5:00

We will be open for tours during the week by appointment only. 

The Ohio River Museum will be closed to the public during January, February, and March, except by appointment only. 

Call 740-373-3750 for more information.

Riverboat open same hours as museum, mid-April-Oct.

Admission & Directions:



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