The River Rises

With The Banks blooming and Riverfront Park coming to life, the mighty, muddy, beautiful Ohio is finally claiming its place as our great liquid asset.

Photograph by Nathan Kirkman

What is it about the river? It curves through our valley and into our consciousness from our earliest days. Its majestic “S,” viewed from above, flows northwest past Lunken Airport to Schmidt Field, southwest to the city center, under our six bridges, and on to Indiana and Illinois, fulfilling Winston Churchill’s description of Cincinnati as “the most beautiful of America’s inland cities.” We keep it close in old lithographs and photos, framed in condominium lobbies and on office walls, and we sell it to tourists on postcards, because why would you send someone an image of this city without the river?

More than 30 years ago, C.D. Morrison, then the Commander, U.S. Coast Guard and Captain of the Port, Cincinnati, wrote, “The River is our life blood; we all partake of its sustenance daily, but tend to ignore it. It isn’t realistic to love the grape and despise the vine from which it grows.” There’s still some truth to that. The not-quite-clean-as-we-wish-it water, the anything-but-romantic commercial traffic, the unsightly terminals—it’s all a bit off-putting. The river is beautiful but it is also utilitarian. Alan Vicory, executive director and chief engineer for the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission calls it the “nation’s industrial aorta.”

The impact of the river on Cincinnati—historic, aesthetic, commercial, recreational, and emotional—has been profound. To gauge that, it helps to think about how each of those influences has played out over time, both independently and interconnectedly, to shape our perceptions of this place we call home. Among United States cities with rivers, Cincinnati is sui generis. Now, belatedly but brilliantly, the emergence of The Banks and Riverfront Park signals a new relationship between the city and its shoreline. In the heart of town, people will live, shop, dine, and enjoy all the amenities of a 21st century recreational plaza on the literal banks of the river that runs through us. We are reclaiming our birthright.

Once upon a time, in the heat of the summer, you could walk across the river. In The River Book: Cincinnati and the Ohio, published by the Program for Cincinnati in 1981, there’s a picture of the Ohio in 1883, just east of the L&N bridge, with nearly half its bottom exposed; through the center of town, it was just 1 foot, 11 inches deep. Today, of course, that couldn’t happen. The Ohio isn’t so much a river, some argue, as a series of lakes. Our “lake,” running between the Meldahl and the Markland dams, is 95 miles long. Except that in a spring like the one we just had, with the current running at five miles per hour (normally it runs only .75 miles per hour) and a velocity of 522,000 cubic feet per second (normally it’s 35,000 cfs), the alternative description fizzles. No lake could do that.

When people look at the river, they see mostly brown water. When artists paint the river, they make it blue. The instinct is to idealize. Most of the year, the boats that people watch on the river are barges—huge and ungainly, carrying coal and other commodities. The boats that artists like John Stobart and Frank McElwain paint are steamboats, and over the years those vessels have defined us: the Island Queen, which for decades took people between downtown and Coney Island; the Delta Queen, which made Cincinnati its home port for four decades; and the Showboat Majestic, moored at the public landing since 1967. The intermittent Tall Stacks Festival, dreamed up for the city’s 1988 bicentennial, celebrates those glory days. Steamboats had their heyday many generations ago, but we can’t seem to let them go.

Many writers, not least Harriet Beecher Stowe and Allan Eckert, have done their part to capture the spirit of the river in prose. In that tradition, former news anchor and television personality Nick Clooney said it about as well as anyone in an essay in The River Book. Starting by citing an “old valley saying”—The river will always come back for its driftwood—he speculated that somewhere, in a hill or a field, is a piece of driftwood that was washed up 79.9 feet above the riverbed in January of 1937—the worst flood ever. Someday, he notes, the river will come back to reclaim it.

“Then why stay?” Clooney wrote. “Because it is beautiful, and beauty is rare and worth a price. Because it always changes, and is always interesting. And because on an early summer morning, when the mist rises from the banks and the sun glints in intricate patterns on the water surface; when you are alone with almost primeval silence and are touched by the power of its broad, relentless sweep to the sea; then, even for the canny old river-watcher, wise to its ways, suspicious of its intentions, and scarred by its excesses; even for him, all is once more forgiven.”

When the river froze, in the winter of 1977, I walked across it. No, it probably wasn’t smart, but a lot of us did it anyway—because the experience was there for the taking, and we suspected it might not come again. In the fall of 2007, when I came back to live in Cincinnati after 21 years away, I started seeing publicity for an event called Paddlefest. The following summer, I rented a canoe and joined the flotilla, a sunlit confetti of colored T-shirts, weathered fiberglass, and paddles digging like pistons. Paddlefest was, and is, a celebration of the river altogether new to me. It said loud and clear that the local take on the river had changed. A month later came The Great Ohio River Swim. What was going on? I couldn’t imagine, but I swam in it.

It turns out the river’s renaissance has its roots in something called the Gallis Report, a high-profile study commissioned by civic leaders in the late 1990s to point the way to a rosier economic future for this entire region. Among its many observations, the report noted that an “awareness and understanding of the environment is emerging as one of the most important issues of urbanization.”

It went on: “The Ohio River, extending from Ripley to Rising Sun…can be transformed into an unmatched system of parks, greenways, ecological and natural preserves, linking the tourism, recreation, and historic areas into a single integrated network of amenities.”

“It was,” says Brewster Rhoads, primary architect of Paddlefest and chairman of its parent organization, The Ohio River Way, “an ‘A-ha moment’ for our civic and corporate leadership. Make the river the front door to the city, not the back. Sell it to the world as the image of Cincinnati.” In the years leading up to the Gallis Report, the Serpentine Wall, Yeatman’s Cove, Sawyer Point Park, Adams Place, and Newport on the Levee had all opened. “They saw those things,” Rhoads recalls, “and [consultant] Michael Gallis said, Put the pedal to the metal.” Since then, The Banks, Riverfront Park, Adams Crossing, Foster’s Point, and Twain’s Point have changed the landscape on the Ohio side; Kentucky got the Ascent, the Cincinnati Marriott at RiverCenter, and the South Shore Condominiums, among others. A-ha indeed.

Rhoads radiates enthusiasm for the river like a car dealer with a new model; he’s a walking recitation of waterfront progress. A political and organizational consultant who moved here more than 30 years ago, he brings the commitment of the converted to Cincinnati. “Water attracts people, especially as they downsize,” he says. “With these developments, you have the advantage of a water view and of walking to the bank. You can be physically active in your own neighborhood. There’s a lot of research about water being calming, connecting us to the natural world.”

Short, compact, and muscular, Rhoads walks his talk. He paddles his own kayak some 200 days a year, he frequently spends time in a 1955 double-decker steel houseboat, and he keeps a scrapbook of photos—everything from ancient graffiti on the bridge pilings to drop-dead sunsets taken from the water—that he is eager to share. Paddlefest, he says, “is a floating pep rally for the beauty of the Ohio.”

In the wake of Gallis’s findings, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation committed to a five-year, $200,000 grant to start an organization to focus on the river. Rhoads was a volunteer, then a consultant, then the head of a committee charged with the recreational piece of the project. Out of this came The Ohio River Way, a nonprofit organization working to promote, protect, and celebrate the natural beauty and recreational benefits of the Ohio River. Paddlefest, in 2002, was the committee’s first salvo, and although it attracted just 285 participants, and the river was not closed to commercial traffic, it sent a message: The river is cleaner and safer than you might have thought. “It looked,” Rhoads recalls, “like another community’s waterway.”

Which is exactly what he was after. Ten years later, Paddlefest is the largest paddling event in the United States, adding fuel to Rhoads’s desire to brand the region as “the Paddling Capital of the U.S.” The Great Ohio River Swim, now in its fourth year, was conceived when a triathlon enthusiast floated the idea to Rhoads. The first year they had about 40 swimmers. This July there were 131. At the same time, bike trails are unfurling along the shoreline and bass fishing tournaments are annual events. “It’s all part of the idea that promoting recreational opportunities in the region is an economic strategy,” Rhoads says.

For those of us of a certain age who grew up here in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, was there anything less promotable about Cincinnati than its river? It had been polluted for so long that almost no one could imagine it otherwise. Outbreaks of gastroenteritis in Charleston, West Virginia, and then in Huntington in the early part of the 20th century first alerted politicians to the dangers of unchecked abuse. Their solution: Let the states bordering the river do something about it. In 1936, the eight states involved started talking. In 1948, they signed the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Compact, legally binding and approved by Congress. Out of that came the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, or, as it is more commonly known, ORSANCO. At the core of ORSANCO’s mission is a pledge between the states to abate interstate water pollution—with the regulatory authority to enforce it.

“When we were created, 63 years ago, less than 2 percent of the population along the Ohio River corridor received any sewage treatment,” says Alan Vicory. “Now they all do. The river then was termed an open cesspool. Now we have national bass fishing competitions. The water quality has dramatically improved.” The federal Clean Water Act of 1972, he added, established massive public works programs for the construction of sewage plants and has provided a tremendous boost to ORSANCO’s programs.

Sitting in a large-windowed office overlooking the flood plain below Kellogg Avenue, Vicory and his colleague Jerry Schulte, manager of source water protection and emergency response programs at ORSANCO, are wise men of the river. They know it the way anglers know fishing holes. They’ve spent their professional lives monitoring it. And like all good anglers, they know about fish.

Case in point: Last year somebody caught a 96-pound catfish here. “You don’t grow large, long-lived fish in a polluted environment,” says Schulte. One hundred and twenty-five species of fish now thrive in the Ohio, among them bass, buffalo fish, paddlefish, gizzard shad, catfish, sauger (jack salmon), and walleye. The fish resurgence is one of the good stories of the river.

On the rainy April morning I sat with Vicory and Schulte, the water was close to cresting at 55.3 feet, and they were philosophic: “This is a time to stay away from the river. This is a natural process. Respect it. There isn’t enough money to protect against this phenomenon,” Vicory said.

I asked them if the Ohio River had ever been potable. “The year 1800 was a decisive point,” Schulte said. “That’s when people went to ground or well water. Look at the [1848] mural of Cincinnati in the library. We took a lot of trees off the landscape; we created a lot of mud. It was a large, shallow river, and there were always natural levels of bacteria. But how much? It’s hard to say.”

Vicory added: “For the most part, pollution is not driving the biology of the river. It’s the hydrology, habitat, and floods.”

But relative improvement does not leave the river pristine. Now secondary sources of pollution, including agricultural and urban run-off, are the problem. Ammonia-based fertilizers, phosphorous and urine, grit and oil from city streets all play a part. Also serious, although intermittent, is overflow from community sewer relief points—that is, effluent triggered by heavy rains, rendering normal sewers unable to handle the run-off. These overflow points are major polluters in the rain. “If it’s been dry, the river is probably in great shape,” Vicory told me, “but rain produces chemical and bacterial input. In the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve continued to improve, but not precipitously. Two-thirds of the river at times is unsuitable for swimming. Nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizer and human waste give rise to algae blooms which can suck up the limited oxygen in the water, giving rise to fetid conditions.”

It is encouraging, he says, that Cincinnati has signed onto a $2 billion to $3 billion program over 25 to 30 years to correct these combined sewer overflows, as have Louisville, Pittsburgh, Wheeling, and Northern Kentucky. In the meantime, patience is in order. “These issues—and people don’t like to hear this—are real,” Vicory said. “We don’t have the technology to fix them immediately. Which speaks to the importance of not polluting in the first place.”

The Ohio River as we know it is the residue of the last glacial age in this region, some 17,000 years ago. As the glacier receded, something more than 10,000 years ago, it left terraces of sand and gravel along the shores of a wide and shallow stream; downtown Cincinnati, above Fourth Street, is built on such a terrace. The first human inhabitants, the so-called Mound Builders, were followed by early Indian groups, the Adena and Hopewell, and later the Shawnee and Miami. By the time Europeans arrived in any number, the land that would become Cincinnati was already a crossroads. It had abundant forests and land for growing—and the river.

In the years following Cincinnati’s founding, at the end of the 18th century, the Ohio brought settlers by the thousands. Most came by flatboat. With few roads, the West was best penetrated by water. You could bring your family, your worldly goods, and even the foundation of a house at the other end. Once the journey was over, flatboats were broken up; with no good way to get them back upstream, their planks served as building boards.

Keelboats, a slightly later innovation, differed in that they could go upriver, but only with great effort. Requiring between two and three dozen men to pole and pull them, they gained special notoriety with Mike Fink, the most famous of these haulers. Able to “out-drink, out-shoot, out-fight, out-run, and out-dance” any other, according to contemporary lore, Fink remains a household name today, even if the boats that made him famous were mostly gone by the 1830s. Their undoing, of course, was steamboats, which by then were fast monopolizing river transport.

The first of them, the New Orleans, was built in Pittsburgh in 1811. It traveled to Cincinnati, and then to Louisville, where it was stopped by the falls—forcing it to move back and forth between the two cities who knows how many times until the waters rose. By the 1830s, there were some 200 steamboats on the “western waters” (the Ohio River and its tributaries) and in 1852, more than 8,000—just under one an hour—docked here. Then the railroads arrived. In the year the first east-west railway was completed in Cincinnati, the major steamboat line carried $35 million in freight and 80,000 passengers—big numbers for the time. Four years later, that steamboat line was bankrupt.

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, Cincinnati grew to become the fourth largest city in the nation, with the river critical to its success. On its currents, enterprising businessmen could import all the necessities of life; no one who lived here had to depend solely on his crops or products for survival. Local forests provided hickory for a once-thriving carriage trade. Acorns and nuts provided swill for the hogs (thus “Porkopolis”) that launched a lively tanning industry, while their by-products, tallow and lard, generated candles and soap.

Although serious talk of a bridge between Ohio and Kentucky had begun by 1810, nothing was done about it for more than 40 years. Not only had there never been a bridge across a river so wide, there was concern that it would block boat traffic. The solution, finally embarked upon in 1856 and completed 10 years later, was John A. Roebling’s Suspension Bridge, then the longest of its kind in the world and an engineering marvel of its time. With the center of its roadway 90 feet above the water under normal conditions, it was plenty high enough for steamboats to make the passage.

Three more bridges, mostly for railroads—the L&N, the C&O, and the Central—were completed before 1900. Then came a long hiatus, until 1963, when the Brent Spence Bridge—Interstate 75’s “car-strangled spanner”—opened. Five years later, the C&O Bridge, heavily in need of repair, was demolished; in its place, and built on its original railroad piers, came the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, opened in 1974 and named after a Kentucky newspaperman who had covered the capitol in Frankfort and was a favorite of legislators.

Downtown Cincinnati’s final bridge (the “Golden Arches”), named for Daniel Carter Beard, cofounder of the Boy Scouts, opened in 1977. Three additional spans, one each to carry the western and eastern arcs of Interstate 275, and one more atop the Markland Dam, bring to nine the total bridges comprising the “Cincinnati passage.” It is the largest concentration of bridges anywhere on the river.

Throughout this period, river commerce evolved. Steamboats remained dominant into the early 20th century—but what the railroads didn’t do to them, they may have done to themselves. River historian Jim Coomer, writing in The River Book, comments, “Steamboats were usually short-lived and short on cargo capacity. They were pummeled by winds, steered poorly at low speeds, were given to impaling their fragile bellies on snags and bars, caught fire from their own sparks, and occasionally blew themselves to kindling wood accompanied, more often than not, by passengers and crew who thought they had other plans.”

A little more than a century ago, two things happened to bring about change. First, it became possible to build hulls of steel instead of wood, which were stronger, more durable, and lighter in weight. Then, in the 1920s, the Corps of Engineers decided to build a network of low-level dams to ensure that the river would never fall below a depth of nine feet. The changes were a prelude to the kinds of commercial traffic we have today. Riverboats may not have been as efficient as trains for shipping dry goods and perishables, but they were far less expensive for commodities like coal. Other catalysts for change, between 1930 and 1950, were the introduction of welding to replace riveting as a construction method, and the replacement of steam engines by lighter, more powerful diesels. The combination made larger barges with more powerful tows not only possible but financially sound.

But the existing locks on the river could not handle the larger barges and river traffic became snarled. The serious delays helped to persuade the Corps of Engineers that a new set of higher dams was needed. Although World War II delayed the plans, by the 1950s they were well underway. Today, where there were 46 dams, there are now just 19, all much larger than their predecessors, with locks capable of handling proportionately larger barges. Instead of nine feet, the Ohio River in front of Cincinnati pools at 26 feet.

Now, approximately 200 barges a day pass by. In the 26 miles that the Corps of Engineers defines as the Cincinnati catchment, we have 46 marine-based facilities (terminals). Water transportation is dramatically less expensive than rail or trucks, and it pollutes less. For moving coal (half of river traffic), aggregates, petroleum, iron/steel, grain, and chemicals, it’s ideal.

“River commerce has grown over the past 25 years,” says Eric Doepke, chair of the River Advisory Council. “Today, about 14.5 million tons of cargo are shipped through Cincinnati each year. We are the fifth largest inland port in the United States, and we would like to be larger. In Europe, where inland waterway traffic is better integrated with inter-urban commerce than here, we have a model. And in fact, Europeans are coming over here to look at how they might invest. We can get bigger. It’s all about marketing—marketing your assets.”

Eric Russo, the soft-spoken, curly-haired director of the Hillside Trust for the past 22 years, grew up in Cincinnati. As a child, he spent time in Eden Park, Ault Park, and Alms Park, looking out at the flood plains and the river, forming the perspective that has guided his professional life. “There is something in human nature that wants to take in commanding views and long distances,” he said. “They give some sense of peace and space and belonging. It’s a relief from urban congestion.”

We were standing at the Donald Spencer Overlook, Eden Park’s highest point, noting what has changed in recent years and what has not, in the panorama before us. Still dramatic is the overall topographical effect: the river’s sweep; the wide, flat lands that embrace it; the hills, low and rolling in the distance, then higher and steeper nearby.

But intruding, to the east, are the multi-storied condominiums that march across the ridgeline of Walnut Hills. Until the post-war era, construction technology wasn’t capable of positioning heavy high-rises on fragile hilltops. Now it is, and in Cincinnati, where the views are so appealing, developers are ever tempted to add more.

Less vertically obtrusive, but also less kind to wider swatches of hilltops, are the housing developments scraping the Kentucky heights to both the east and west; however pleasing the views for those looking out, their presence has permanently degraded the look of the valley for those who remember what it was not too long ago. Likewise, high and low-rises along the south shore, and one on the Cincinnati side, offer a preview of what could happen if unchallenged construction continues apace. It wouldn’t be pretty. Eric Russo’s mission, and the Hillside Trust’s, is to mount that challenge.

“Views are a public asset, an iconic treasure that we need to have in place for future generations,” he said. “And no one is advocating preservation of views except the Hillside Trust. We need to look at how we can marry development with views. It’s not a zero-sum game. Developers need to, in some instances, lower heights or reconfigure the components of a building. We’re asking for a greater level of design excellence, and the sustainability of public views, certainly.”

On the day we talked, Russo was showing me several of his favorite river views—Eden Park, Mt. Echo in Price Hill, Jackson Hill in Mt. Auburn, and Devou Park in Covington. “It is a very unusual city within the Midwest,” he told me. “People don’t realize what’s here until it’s gone. They take it for granted.”

So that the marvelous river views currently surrounding us do not vanish, Russo is pushing hard to have Cincinnati City Council pass a proposed Public View Overlay Ordinance, a regulatory act that would prevent development that doesn’t take into account its impact on a view.

Russo spent 18 months photographing overlooks in different seasons and weather conditions. From these, he identified 83 “view corridors”—in parks, recreation areas, dead end streets, public stairways, and street right-of-ways (e.g. Columbia Parkway, Elberon Avenue)—and put them all together in a 2007 report to the city with recommendations for development controls. The Planning Department used the study to craft a proposed view corridor ordinance that was passed in 2009 by the Planning Commission. City Council has yet to pass the ordinance. Roxanne Qualls, who chairs the Livable Communities Committee, where the ordinance now resides, has only four votes to approve. She needs a fifth to make it work.

Says Russo: “Altogether, in the city, there are 119,000 parcels of land, both public and private, of all shapes and sizes. The Hillside Overlay District”—land earmarked in 2004 for special zoning restrictions to prevent deleterious hillside development—“contains fewer than 10,000 acres. Of those, the new ordinance would be applied to just 467 parcels, or less than five percent of the total parcels in the Hillside Overlay District.”

So why wouldn’t anybody want to protect our views? From the standpoint of those not yet prepared to pass the ordinance, it could impede economic development. Or, in the view of a real estate lawyer so disposed, it could stand in the way of a property owner’s right to develop his land to its best economic use.

An example: Thirty acres of land on the riverfront, directly east of Friendship Park, are privately owned. Currently the site is being used mainly as a staging area for a barge terminal. But it has occurred to the owner, Russo reports, that filling it with high-rise condominiums would be a better economic use of the land—a development that could devastate the view south from Eden Park as we now know it.

Before he left City Council two years ago, Vice Mayor David Crowley, who died in January, vociferously championed the Public View Overlay Ordinance. The Mt. Adams location of his family business, Crowley’s Highland House, had endowed him with an unusual appreciation for the river views. Now, with Crowley gone, there is a vacuum. “Today,” says Russo, “no one is advocating the preservation of our views except the Hillside Trust.”

The Ohio River is our great inheritance. It is what generations before us have made of it, and it will be what we choose to do with it as we pass through. In our lifetimes, many decisions have been made. Sawyer Point Park, the Serpentine Wall, the Purple People Bridge, the Boathouse restaurant, and Friendship Park have reconnected us to the river in ways unknown two generations ago. Contrarily, our two stadiums and the arena have cut us off from it. Now, with The Banks and Riverfront Park, we are saying loud and clear: Don’t let that happen again. Keep us connected. We want to see and hear and be near the river; it is so much of what we are all about.

In years to come, other decisions will present themselves. Can we create the Ohio River Trail—the hiking-biking path from downtown to Lunken Airport—that The Ohio River Way is calling for? Will we pass the Public View Overlay Ordinance? Will we allow unchecked development along the shoreline? Along the ridgelines? When private interests clash with public considerations, where will we draw the line?

In so many ways, the Ohio River changes. But in so many more, it does not. It will always be a bearer of prosperity, and with any luck, it will always be beautiful. A source of wonder and renewal for all who stand before it, the river is a metaphor for living. It comes from places we can’t see, it moves on to places that we don’t know, and it bathes us in possibilities while it’s here. Our only obligation, really, is to use it wisely and pass on our inheritance intact, as wondrous as it came to us.

In Eden Park, at the Donald Spencer Overlook, is a memorial to John L. Vance (1839–1921), president of the Ohio Valley Improvement Association, with this quote from the Book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” He surely had it right.

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