PROBABLY LIKE EVERY STATE, OHIO can be very regional; the northerners stay in the north, and the southerners stay in the south. I grew up in the north, in Cleveland, which is separated from Canada only by Lake Erie; I didn’t set foot in Cincinnati (the southern tip) until I was an adult. As a child, we drove straight down to West Virginia without stopping when we went on summer vacation.
But I was writing a novel that took place in Cincinnati and along the Ohio River, and visit it I must. It was a great trip.
First of all, there were statues of pigs everywhere. What could be better than that?
In my novel, I’d been writing about the pigs in Cincinnati in the 1830s. Frances Trollope mentioned them in her book, Domestic Manners of the Americans, and I fell in love with the idea of pigs roaming around the streets, eating garbage and generally being nuisances:
“As I made my way across the street I tried to stay away
from the snuffling pigs running loose and making
every effort to bump up against me.” (from The Underground River)
In the twenty-first century the pigs no longer roam the streets of Cincinnati, but their heritage lives on. You have to respect a city who honors their porcine past.
When I went on this research trip, I lured my teenage son to go along with me with promises of visiting friends in Louisville, Kentucky (also on the Ohio River). He was a good sport. We visited Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house. (“So you’re the little lady who started this great big war,” Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said upon meeting her.) There we learned that Cincinnati, like the country as a whole, was polarized around the issue of slavery: in 1836, two years before my novel takes place, there was a an anti-abolitionist riot led by working class white men who feared that if slaves were freed they would get their jobs. But many pastors preached against the evils of slavery, and one recounted a story of a young slave woman who fled Kentucky in the winter, when the Ohio River was frozen over. She barely made it across before the ice started cracking.
Harriet Beecher Stowe heard the story, and it became the germ for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Another thing I wanted to do was ride on a steamboat. Okay, it sounds hoaky, but I really wanted to feel what it was like to be steaming down the river, like my character May did before her steamboat, the Moselle, blew up.
I’m happy to say that ours did not blow up.
On board the Belle of Cincinnati, we were treated to a running commentary by the captain over loudspeaker that combined both history and current urban planning. As we steamed west, my son and I played two-handed spades and ate sun chips and looked out at the beautifully landscaped riverbanks. When the captain invited all the children to come up and take a peek at the pilothouse, I went up, too — although John Henry felt he was really to old for that.
Unlike the other children there, I didn’t ask to try on his captain’s hat or pretend to steer the ship (although it was tempting). Instead, I asked the captain where the Moselle had blown up, (the “Fulton landing” is all I knew). He wasn’t sure, but he said he would try to find out. He became busy entertaining the real children, and so after taking in the beautiful view from the upper deck, I went back down to my seat. However, I was rewarded a few minutes later when the captain announced we were “at the spot where the steamship Moselle sank” over the loudspeaker.
Doesn’t look like much now, does it? The river is much more manicured than it was in the last century. But I got a little tingly feeling anyway. Still do.
Three hundred people were on board the Moselle, and less than half survived. It was a steamboat version of the Titanic—a captain who was too proud of his boat, and who pushed her too hard to make good time. From our seats on the Belle of Cincinnati, the shore did not seem so far away, but people had to swim nearly half a mile to get to shore. They were wearing those heavy Victorian costumes which, in a panic (and think of all those buttons), many didn’t bother to remove.
Besides walking across the iced-over Ohio River to freedom, or rowing across the water in a rowboat in the dead of night (without a light), some slaves stowed away on steamboats. They hid behind the boilers, but were routinely caught and sent back “home,” where a whipping or worse (usually much worse) awaited them. Our steamboat captain pointed out the Second Baptist Church on the northern side of the river. If the light in the steeple was lit, he said, that was a signal that it was safe for slaves to cross over.
Our steamboat turned around just past Fulton. We’d had a pleasant two hours with no mishaps. Back on shore, the boat docked, stretched out the gangplank, and all of us twenty-first century tourists walked in a neat line back to our cars.
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