First, apologies for the recent lack of articles. Between moving back from a summer in Louisiana, then immediately turning around and moving to Vermont for my final semester at UVM, it’s been a very busy two weeks.
Second, I’d like to congratulate the Point Pleasant River Museum on this year’s Tribute to the River! I wish I could be there in person, but from everything I’m seeing online, it looks like a smashing success! And of course, from my point of view, life and work on the river are such an important part of our heritage, and a festival like this helps maintain our connection with that heritage.
After all, I like to point out in my articles that Mason County was a relatively important place in our state’s history. We are the site of the battle that opened our state to settlement, the location of salt works that supplied the Union Army and were enough of a threat to attract attention from major Confederate generals, a leader of the Statehood movement, manufacturer of TNT that helped our boys whip the Nazis, and producer of everything else from coal and petrochemicals to oceangoing warships. All of this was only possible because of the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers.
It was the confluence of those mighty rivers that first attracted George Washington to our region, where he was so impressed by the fertile valleys that they carved that he had it granted to his top officers from the French & Indian War. That same meeting point, with two rivers at its back and open land in either direction in front, was easily defended and won our survival while other settlements were virtually wiped off the map.
In an era before steam power, these rivers and our large creeks feeding them provided power to grain mills and sawmills. From these, Point Pleasant grew from a frontier outpost to a metropolitan river town. Following the advent of steam power, which still requires a steady source of water, we continued to grow and opened our machine shops, salt works, and shipyards. For a time, we were considered the Valley’s crown jewel between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
This industry gave Mason County a decent economic standing in the 1850s, and that provided those in charge with the means to attend colleges in the east and those at home with the means to begin improving our infrastructure. With this economic power came political power, and the delegates at Wheeling listened when Daniel Polsley told them that our only path forward was the creation of a new state. When Livia Poffenbarger asked the state to support a monument at Point Pleasant, the legislature did not ask why but rather how much they needed. Congress took a bit longer, but they came around after we elected our own congressman from Point Pleasant.
The rivers gave life to Mason County, to our lifeblood, economy, and politics. But, Old Man River also had his price. Hundreds of floods, too many to list even if I took up the entire article, destroyed our homes, businesses, and lives. Three times, in 1884, 1913, and 1937, the mighty Ohio threatened to wipe us off the map. But Old Man River didn’t know who he was fighting did he? We were no stranger to adversity. Our ancestors came here under the constant threat of death from so many different sources, labored in coal mines with chokedamp as their unseen neighbor, and worked on the river in a time when steamboat boiler explosions weren’t uncommon.
Every time the rivers rose, we moved to higher ground to wait it out with a stubbornness still found in our area. Neighbors with boats rowed around town to make sure everyone was ok and deliver supplies, and when the waters finally went down, neighbors banded together and began the long process of cleaning up. Some years, we were barely done cleaning up before the waters rose again, and we’d just start the whole thing over. Rather than wiping us off the map, the floods created a powerful sense of community that lasts to this day, stronger than anywhere else I’ve lived or visited.
Eventually, all of the river towns got sick of doing this every year, and the federal government was upset with Old Man River shutting down river traffic during the floods and taking away their tax revenue. Together, we built the dams, floodwalls, and levees, and those do a pretty good job of keeping the Old Man’s temper in check.
Information from a little bit of everywhere, from newspapers and letters to the writings of various local historians and my own research.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.