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Four Months in a Sneak-Box

By Nathaniel H. Bishop (1837-1902), 1879

Chapter 2

Sources of the Ohio River


THE southerly branch of the Ohio River, and one of its chief affluents, is made by the union of the West Fork and Tygart Valley rivers, in the county of Marion, state of Virginia, the united waters of which flow north into Pennsylvania as the Monongahela River, and is there joined by the Cheat River, its principal tributary. The Monongahela unites with the Alleghany to form the Ohio, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The length of the Monongahela, without computing that of its tributaries, is about one hundred and fifty miles; but if we include its eastern fork, the Tygart Valley River, which flows from Randolph County, Virginia, the whole length of this tributary of the Ohio may exceed three hundred miles. It has a width at its union with the Alleghany of nearly one-fourth of a mile, and a depth of water sufficient for large steamboats to ascend sixty miles, to Brownsville, Pennsylvania, while light-draught vessels can reach its head, at Fairmont, Virginia.

The northern branch of the Ohio, known as the Alleghany River, has a length of four hundred miles, and its source is in the county of Potter, in northern Pennsylvania. It takes a very circuitous course through a portion of New York state, and re-enters Pennsylvania flowing through a hilly region, and at the flourishing city of Pittsburgh mingles its waters with its southern sister, the Monongahela.

The region traversed by the Alleghany is wild and mountainous, rich in pine forests, coal, and petroleum oil; and the extraction from its rocky beds of the last-named article is so enormous in quantity, that at the present time more than four million barrels of oil are awaiting shipment in the oil districts of Pennsylvania. The smaller steamboats can ascend the river to Olean, about two hundred and fifty miles above Pittsburgh. At Olean, the river has a breadth of twenty rods.

In consequence of its high latitude, the clear waters of the Alleghany usually freeze over by the 25th of December, after having transported upon its current the season's work, from the numerous saw-mills of the great wilderness through which it flows, in the form of rafts consisting of two hundred million feet of excellent lumber.

The Ohio River has a width of about half a mile below Pittsburgh, and this is its medial breadth along its winding course to its mouth at Cairo; but in places it narrows to less than twenty-five hundred feet, while it frequently widens to more than a mile. A geographical writer says, that, "In tracing the Ohio to its source, we must regard the Alleghany as its proper continuation. A boat may start with sufficient water within seven miles of Lake Erie, in sight sometimes of the sails which whiten the approach to the harbor of Buffalo, and float securely down the Conewango, or Cassadaga, to the Alleghany, down the Alleghany to the Ohio, and thence uninterruptedly to the Gulf of Mexico."

There are grave reasons for doubting that part of the statement which refers to a boat starting from a point within seven miles of Lake Erie. It is to be hoped that some member of the New York Canoe Club will explore the route mentioned, and give the results of his investigations to the public. He would need a canoe light enough to be easily carried upon the shoulders of one man, with the aid of the canoeist's indispensable assistant--the canoe-yoke.

It will be seen that the Ohio with its affluents drains an immense extent of country composed of portions of seven large states of the Union, rich in agricultural wealth, in timber, iron, coal, petroleum, salt, clays, and building-stone. The rainfall of the Ohio Valley is so great as to give the river a mean discharge at its mouth (according to the report of the United States government engineers) of one hundred and fifty-eight thousand cubic feet per second. This is the drainage of an area embracing two hundred and fourteen thousand square miles.

The head of the Ohio River, at Pittsburgh, has an elevation of eleven hundred and fifty feet above the sea, while in the long descent to its mouth there is a gradual fall of only four hundred feet; hence its current, excepting during the seasons of freshets, is more gentle and uniform than that of any other North American river of equal length. During half the year the depth of water is sufficient to float steamboats of the largest class along its entire length. Between the lowest stage of water, in the month of September, and the highest, in March, there is sometimes a range of fifty feet in depth. The spring freshets in the tributaries will cause the waters of the great river to rise twelve feet in twelve hours. During the season of low water the current of the Ohio is so slow, as flatboat-men have informed me, that their boats are carried by the flow of the stream only ten miles in a day. The most shallow portion of the river is between Troy and Evansville. Troy is twelve miles below the historic Blennerhasset's Island, which lies between the states of Ohio and Virginia. Here the water sometimes shoals to a depth of only two feet.

Robert Cavelier de la Salle is credited with having made the discovery of the Ohio River. From the St. Lawrence country he went to Onondaga, and reaching a tributary of the Ohio River, he descended the great stream to the "Fa1ls," at Louisville, Kentucky. His men having deserted him, he returned alone to Lake Erie. This exploration of the Ohio was made in the winter of 1669-70, or in the following spring.

The director of the Dépôt des Cartes of the Marine and Colonies, at Paris, in 1872 possessed a rich mass of historical documents, the collection of which had covered thirty years of his life. This material related chiefly to the French rule in North America, and its owner had offered to dispose of it to the French government on condition that the entire collection should be published. The French government was, however, only willing to publish parts of the whole, and the director retained possession of his property. Through the efforts of Mr. Francis Parkman, the truthful American historian, supported by friends, an appropriation was made by Congress, in 1873, for the purchase and publication of this valuable collection of the French director; and it is now the property of the United States government. All that relates to the Sieur de la Salle--his journals and letters--has been published in the original French, in three large volumes of six hundred pages each. La Salle discovered the Ohio, yet the possession of the rich historical matter referred to throws but little light upon the details of this important event. The discoverer--of the great west, in an address to Frontenac, the governor of Canada, made in 1677, asserted that he had discovered the Ohio, and had descended it to a fall which obstructed it. This locality is now known as the "Falls of the Ohio," at Louisville, Kentucky.

The second manuscript map of Galine'e, made about the year 1672, has upon it this inscription: "River Ohio, so called by the Iroquois on account of its beauty, which the Sieur de la Salle descended." It was probably the interpretation of the Iroquois word Ohio which caused the French frequently to designate this noble stream as "La belle rivière."

A little later the missionary Marquette designed a map, upon which he calls the Ohio the "Ouabouskiaou." Louis Joliet's first map gives the Ohio without a name, but supplies its place with an inscription stating that La Salle had descended it. In Joliet's second map he calls the Ohio "Ouboustikou."

After the missionaries and other explorers had given to the world the knowledge possessed at that early day of the great west, a young and talented engineer of the French government, living in Quebec, and named Jean Baptiste Louis Franquelin, completed, in 1684, the most elaborate map of the times, a carefully traced copy of which, through the courtesy of Mr. Francis Parkman, I have been allowed to examine. The original map of Franquelin has recently disappeared, and is supposed to have been destroyed. This map is described in the appendix to Mr. Parkman's "Discovery of the Great West," as being "six feet long and four and a half wide." On it, the Ohio is called "Fleuve St. Louis, ou Chucagoa, ou Casquinampogamou;" but the appellation of "River St. Louis" was dropped very soon after the appearance of Franquelin's map, and to the present time it justly retains the Iroquois name given it by its brave discoverer La Salle.

It would be interesting to know by which of the routes used by the Indians in those early days La Salle travelled to the Ohio. After the existence of the Ohio was made known, the first route made use of in reaching that river by the coureurs de bois and other French travellers from Canada, was that from the southern shore of Lake Erie, from a point near where the town of Westfield now stands, across the wilderness by portage southward about nine miles to Chautaugue Lake. These parties used light bark canoes, which were easily carried upon the shoulders of men whenever a "carry" between the two streams became necessary. The canoes were paddled on the lake to its southern end, out of which flowed a shallow brook, which afforded water enough in places to float the frail craft. The shoal water, and the obstructions made by fallen trees, necessitated frequent portages. This wild and tortuous stream led the voyagers to the Alleghany River, where an ample depth of water and a propitious current carried them into the Ohio.

The French, finding this a laborious and tedious route, abandoned it for a better one. Where the town of Erie now stands, on the southern shore of the lake of the same name, a small stream flows from the southward into that inland sea. Opposite its mouth is Presque Isle, which protects the locality from the north winds, and, acting as a barrier to the turbulent waves, offers to the mariner a safe port of refuge behind its shores. The French ascended the little stream, and from its banks made a short portage to the Riviére des boeuf, or some tributary of French Creek, and descended it to the Alleghany and the Ohio. This Erie and French River route finally became the military highway of the Canadians to the Ohio Valley, and may be called the second route from Lake Erie.

The third route to the Ohio from Lake Erie commenced at the extreme southwestern end of that inland sea. The voyagers entered Maumee Bay and ascended the Maumee River, hauling their birch canoes around the rapids between Maumee City and Perrysburgh, and between Providence and Grand Rapids. Surmounting these obstacles, they reached the site of Fort Wayne, where the St. Joseph and St. Mary rivers unite, and make, according to the author of the "History of the Maumee Valley," the "Maumee," or "Mother of Waters," as interpreted from the Indian tongue. At this point, when ninety-eight miles from Lake Erie, the travellers were forced to make a portage of a mile and a half to a branch called Little River, which they descended to the Wabash, which stream, in the early days of French exploration, was thought to be the main river of the Ohio system. The Wabash is now the boundary line for a distance of two hundred miles between the states of Indiana and Illinois. Following the Wabash, the voyager would enter the Ohio River about one hundred and forty miles above its junction with the Mississippi.

The great Indian diplomatist, "Little Turtle," in making a treaty speech in 1795, when confronting Anthony Wayne, insisted that the Fort Wayne portage was the "key or gateway" of the tribes having communication with the inland chain of lakes and the gulf coast. It is now claimed by many persons that this was the principal and favorite route of communication between the high and low latitudes followed by the savages hundreds of years before Europeans commenced the exploration of the great west.

There was a fourth route from the north to the tributaries of the Ohio, which was used by the Seneca Indians frequently, though rarely by the whites. It was further east than the three already described. The Genesee River flows into Lake Ontario about midway between its eastern shores and the longitude of the eastern end of Lake Erie. In using this fourth route, the savages followed the Genesee, and made a portage to some one of the affluents of the Alleghany to reach the Ohio River.

[Indian in canoe] [16KB]

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