Leisurely cruise takes travelers up the Ohio and back in time amid mahogany, teak and crystal THE ROMANCE OF THE RIVERBOAT

November 24, 1991|By John Madson | John Madson,Universal Press Syndicate

Mark Twain never cared much for the blue Ohio.

He was a true, mud-blooded Mississippi riverman, saying that Ohio River water was just too clear to be healthy, while muddy Mississippi River water was so nutritious that a man drinking it "could grow corn in his stomach if he wanted to."

Well, Twain knew rivers and wrote truly. But the Ohio deserved better. Even without a rich cargo of mud, it's nourishing enough -- a jade-colored feast for the eyes with as much history as you care to digest.

For years I've been too beguiled by the Missouri and upper Mississippi rivers to spend time on the Ohio. But not long ago I was on it for four days and five nights, cruising the upper Ohio from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh on an old-time paddle wheeler named the Delta Queen. She's a great white wedding cake of a boat, 65 years old, done up in mahogany, teak, Tiffany stained glass, crystal chandeliers and gleaming brass.

All this was a cultural jolt for someone like me, accustomed to a battered johnboat named Cirrhosis of the River, to sleeping on sandbars and running trotlines for catfish. And there I was on the Delta Queen, in a paneled stateroom with a brass plate on the door: "November, 1986. Her Royal Highness, Princess Margaret."

No gritty bedroll on this trip; I'd sleep in a bed once graced by a princess. On a hunch, I checked under the mattress. Sure enough, no pea.

The Delta Queen was a hostess in the grand manner, dedicated to getting her live cargo up the Ohio River as safely, well-fed and entertained as possible. There were three meals and two buffets each day and ragtime and a dance band each night.

All that should have been enough. But by the second day the river began asserting itself. My old rambling itch was coming on, and I couldn't scratch it. The bigger the boat, the farther I'm kept from the essence of the river. And the Queen was a lovely old grandmother, keeping me in, devising games and stratagems to amuse me -- but never letting me play in the grubby, wonderful river world outside.

Color and comfort

Whatever the Queen withholds in hands-on river experience, she tries to make up for in color and comfort. And in her old-fashioned, genteel way, the Delta Queen does give her passengers the time and continuity to begin feeling the river's endless flow of strength and peace. She is nearly alone in that; only she and her sister boat, the newer Mississippi Queen, have passenger cabins and provide extended travel on the Mississippi, Ohio and Cumberland rivers. Of course, you might do much the same thing on your own, with more freedom of choice and movement, in anything from a lavish houseboat to a common johnboat. Barring that, the two Queens are the only options for overnight travel.

Still, the boat herself is only part of the cruise. The other part is the river itself. The Ohio's valley is narrow by most Missouri and Mississippi River standards, flanked by heavily forested headlands that often rise hundreds of feet. Then the bankside trees give way to small towns facing the river with narrow storefronts scarcely changed in a hundred years or more -- towns like Pomeroy, Ohio, "eight miles long and one street wide," between the riverbank and a steep bluff. As we passed, our steam calliope was thundering "Little Sir Echo" and the bluff sent it back to us, note for note. There, as at every town and landing, people stopped whatever they were doing to watch, wave and mark the Delta Queen's passing.

Denied the freedom to ramble on my own, I did some fantasizing as we went along. And the Upper Ohio has plenty of fuel for that.

This was one of the great ways west -- the first leg of a river system that led 3,500 miles from the Alleghenies to the Rockies. I left my cabin late at night and went out on deck, half-asleep and half-hoping to see the stack lanterns of phantom steamboats. If any river has such ghosts, it's the Ohio, for in its day it was boatbuilder to young America. Lewis and Clark's keelboat was built near Pittsburgh. So was the most famous of the old Missouri River steamers, the Far West, a low-hulled, spoon-billed stern-wheeler that would one day bring Custer's wounded troopers home from the Little Big Horn.

Fantasies on shore

There was fuel for fantasies ashore, as well.

We had steamed through the night to Maysville, Ky., getting there well before daylight and looking like a woodcut out of "Tom Sawyer": a boat designated as a National Historic Landmark moored at a town that's on the National Register of Historic Sites.

We left Maysville in early afternoon, heading out into the channel where we were joined by a convoy of Sunday boaters.

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