The Queen City, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously wrote, sits “in her garlands dressed, on the banks of the Beautiful River.” Once claimed by the French and named by them exactly that: La Belle Riviere, the Ohio has been the soul and foundation of our city ever since the first houses went up, but our Beautiful River has also proved to be a weird and moody companion, coughing up a bizarre miscellany from time to time.
In 1879, Dr. A. Jackson Howe procured a live, three-foot long alligator for display at the museum of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History. The reptile had been captured on the Covington shore, while several others were spotted frolicking in the Ohio River among some empty coal barges. Three years later, John Thornton found an alligator sleeping beneath the floorboards of his Newport icehouse. Charles Pitts of Covington lassoed a three-and-a-half-foot alligator from the Ohio River at the foot of Covington’s Main Street in 1870.
Bodies, Lots Of Bodies
Almost from the time Cincinnati was first settled bodies have been recovered from the Ohio River including suicides, victims of foul play and accidental drownings. Among the earliest casualties was Francis Kennedy, who operated the first ferry between Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky and who drowned while hauling beef cattle to Fort Washington. Over the years, the old newspapers printed hundreds of inquest reports, often directed toward ascertaining the identities of bodies found overnight.
Catfish Of Unusual Size
The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune of February 3, 1849 reports that Frederick Diserens, proprietor of the William Tell restaurant, and Colonel Josiah J. Stratton of the Fire Department, had shipped a “mammoth cat fish” to the Exchange Hotel in Philadelphia. The leviathan, caught in the Ohio River at Cincinnati, measured five feet, ten inches in length and tipped the scales at 158 pounds. Prior to its shipment east, the beast hung outside Diserens’ establishment on the south side of what is now Government Square. In 2009, two fishermen landed a blue catfish measuring four feet, six inches long and weighing 96 pounds within view of downtown Cincinnati.
The Ohio River, lined with heavily fertilized farmland and a multitude of manufacturing plants, is regularly listed as among the most polluted streams in America. Residents of a certain age will recall the great carbon tetrachloride “slug” of 1977. When a tank full of toxic “carbon tet” ruptured at the FMC Corporation facility in February of that year, it released 5,000 to 6,000 pounds into the Ohio River as a 50- to 60-mile “slug” of highly polluted liquid. Water purification systems up and down the river shut off intake valves until the “slug” passed.
All of Cincinnati—and Covington, too—turned out on the morning of August 9, 1860 to watch an elephant swim across the Ohio River. The elephant was Lalla Rookh, star of the Dan Rice Circus. Lalla Rookh had been, for the past decade, a highlight of Dan Rice’s big-top extravaganzas. Billed as the “Pachyderm Princess,” she was famous for her tightrope act and she also danced, rang bells and fired a pistol. She was a huge draw and, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, brought out a good crowd for her river bath, estimated between 15,000 and 20,000.
No one ever solved the 1890 murder of Billy Fee, who was knifed and shot on the banks of the Ohio River near Lawrenceburg. Almost a year later a young man traveling by boat up the river past the murder scene cried out that he could see shadows on the darkened waters vividly recreating the murder scene. For years, residents of Lawrenceburg venturing near the river at night reported visions of the dreadful crime, accompanied by the sounds of shrieks and gunshots.
On August 11, 1849, a Clermont County “man of respectability” named John Wait swore to an affidavit in which he claimed to have seen a snake more than 30 feet in length on the banks of Hartman’s mill pond. A posse was assembled and searched all over for the beast with no results, even after draining the mill pond. Sightings, however, continued for the next decade. In 1858, the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune reported that the dam at Hartman’s mill had been badly damaged by a flood and the snake was assumed to have escaped toward the Ohio River. According to a 1940 article in the Cincinnati Post, the Cincinnati Zoo offered to help citizens near Gallipolis locate a snake estimated at 35 feet in length. Coincidence?
Green Clawed Beast
It was a sultry afternoon on 14 August 1955 when Naomi Johnson and some friends headed to the Ohio River at Evansville for a refreshing dip. While swimming just 15 feet offshore, something swam up behind Mrs. Johnson and grabbed her leg. She felt claws scratch her leg as the thing pulled her under the water. She began kicking her assailant and was pulled under a second time before her friends lifted her out of the river. Her left leg was extensively lacerated and bruised, with one mark distinctly hand-shaped. Mrs. Johnson claimed to have seen a UFO just before she was attacked, and there were several UFO sightings in the Evansville area around the time of the incident, leading her to believe an extraterrestrial origin for her attacker.
For most of our region’s history, the entire Ohio River belonged exclusively to Kentucky. That all changed on January 21, 1980, when the United States Supreme Court fixed the border between Ohio and Kentucky at the low-water mark of the river in 1792. With two centuries of dam construction and other navigational improvements, the Ohio River is significantly deeper and wider than it was in the 1790s. The border is now, in some cases, hundreds of feet off the Ohio shore.
Rusting away in an Ohio River tributary just 25 miles downriver from Cincinnati is a 186-foot yacht originally known as the Celt but probably most famous as the USS Sachem among a variety of names acquired over its 120-year history. Thomas Edison used it for anti-submarine research. It ran out of New York as a recreational fishing vessel and served as a coastal patrol ship during World War II. After the war it hauled tourists around Manhattan. Robert Miller of Finneytown bought the yacht for $7500 in the 1980s and rented it out to Madonna, who filmed part of her “Papa Don’t Preach” video onboard. Miller hauled it upriver to its current resting place shortly after sailing a boatload of friends around the rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986.
On March 11, 1879, a crowd of fifteen thousand swarmed the riverfront to catch a glimpse of the “Fearless Frogman,” Captain Paul Boynton, as he arrived in Cincinnati while floating from Pittsburgh to Cairo in a buoyant rubber suit. Outfitted with sails and oars, Boynton’s “peculiar life-saving dress” allowed him to maintain speeds of five or six miles per hour on his downriver odyssey. That night, he attended a performance at the Grand Opera House on Vine Street and, being recognized, was called to the stage and compelled to give a speech.
The Cincinnati Enquirer of September 6, 1894 reported two “nondescript creatures, horrible in appearance and strange in habits” at a sand bar in the Ohio River near Vevay, Indiana. The creatures appeared to be carnivorous, dining on fish and mussels plucked from the river. They were described as being yellowish in color, about five feet long, with webbed and clawed hands and feet. Their hairless heads had sharply pointed ears standing straight up. In the years since, the Vevay beings have been dubbed “Mud Mermaids.”
Police dispatchers along both sides of the Ohio River were swamped with frantic calls from late January to early February 1959 as dozens of residents and travelers reported strange creatures emerging from the depths. Sightings were recorded from New Richmond to the Licking River bridge. One witness compared the critter to an octopus while others said it looked like an immense human, leading to the nickname Octoman. Panic spread, with one 11-year-old boy calling the Cincinnati Post to confirm his teacher’s story that green men were clambering out of the river in platoons of 12. To add to the mystery, all the streetlights along Kellogg Avenue from Lunken Airport to Coney Island extinguished as the first reports came in. After a week, sightings abated and Octoman seemingly disappeared.
Just as the Ohio River slips across the state line from Pennsylvania, at the junction with Little Beaver Creek at East Liverpool, it covers a vast array of submerged designs carved into the rock. First recognized by French explorers in 1755, the display has been largely immersed in a much deeper river, only occasionally emerging into visibility in times of extreme drought. Hundreds of these Native American carvings were found for about 10 miles along the Ohio River from Midland, Pennsylvania through Wellsville, Ohio. The origin or date of the petroglyphs remains unknown and will likely never be determined.
In May 1962, several people reported a strange beast frolicking in the Ohio River near the Fernbank locks. The animal was not large; maybe three feet in length, but it was unlike anything naturally associated with the wildlife of the area. An expedition organized by the Cincinnati Zoo discovered that the mysterious visitor was a sea lion named “Playful George” that had escaped from a menagerie in Huntington, West Virginia and made its way nearly 200 miles downriver to the Markland Dam. George was captured and quarantined at the Zoo before returning home.
In the dim, pre-dawn light of Friday, January 11, 1878, Ben Karrick was driving his horse-drawn delivery wagon over the Roebling Suspension Bridge when he saw a most unusual sight in the Ohio River below—a sea serpent. He told the Cincinnati Gazette that the creature’s serpentine head protruded from the water some twelve or fifteen feet and it lashed the water into foam with its tail. Karrick told the newspaper that the beast made a noise similar to the deep lowing of a cow, interspersed with a loud hissing noise. A day previously, John Davidson, master of the Silver Moon steamboat, saw a nearly identical monster while docked at Vevay, Indiana. In July 1893, pleasure boaters near Blennerhassett Island saw “a monstrous submarine animal or serpent, with an immense head and staring, bulbous eyes” gliding alongside their boat. The witnesses estimated the critter at more than 10 feet in length.
Newspapers around the nation carried the news in July 1878 that Captain John T. Guire, identified as “the celebrated submarine diver,” had entered into a wager that he would walk from Cincinnati to Cairo on the bottom of the Ohio River. Guire’s previous exploits in the Mississippi River at St. Louis were cited as proof of his skill and determination. Although it was noted that Guire engaged in practice strolls near Cincinnati, it does not appear that the 500-mile underwater hike to Cairo ever materialized.