To see it now, a visitor might hardly guess the Ohio River at Parkersburg was a stretch of river that many boat captains feared. Long ago known as the "Graveyard of the Ohio," it was considered one of the most dangerous sections on the 981-mile river.
Now a popular destination for water recreation—fishing, kayaking, and water skiing, in particular—it was long littered with the wrecks of steamers and barges, and mariners untold met their ends in its watery depths.
"When you think about it, it's actually quite chilling," says Mark Lewis, executive director of the Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"Here, where people frolic so enjoyably in the water, captains were once apprehensive, though, of course, the river has changed since those wild and wooly days."
Sternwheelers filled with tourists now ply the river between Parkersburg's Point Park and historic Blennerhassett Island; and kayaks, pontoons, and speed boats wander ceaselessly along the Ohio and the Little Kanawha River.
The river has also been tamed by navigation improvements, and the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge now protects much of the habitat along the river, the waters of which are now running remarkably clean.
According to most sources, the graveyard gained its infamy as a result of a difficult bend in the river, the angle of which was increased by the main channel's flow along the north side of Blennerhassett Island.
Historian Jim Comstock was among those who wrote of the complex navigation and the graveyard's legend.
"[The] Graveyard of the Ohio—an important name in the old log books of early rivermen in the Ohio—was just north of Blennerhassett Island," he wrote in the W.Va. Heritage Encyclopedia in 1974.
"In the last century, in the spring when the freshness had set in, the section of the river between Parkersburg and the island was one of the most dangerous to maneuver a craft through in all the entire length of it.
"It was back in the early eighties, and great river steamers, much larger than the most of those that take their course down the Ohio today, plied up and down between Pittsburgh and points south.
"Too, large barges with coal—sometimes an acre of it—went by, and it was a marvelous feat to swing these barges around below Parkersburg to make the bend in the river just above Blennerhassett Island—difficult because the channel was on the Ohio side of the island."
Comstock mourned the legend and heroism of the age, though perhaps it would ease his loss to see so much activity on the river today
"As for 'The Graveyard," only rivermen remember that such a name was ever associated with the island. Hearing of it for the first time one's first thought is that it must have to do with some burial ground in the neighborhood, rather than the river, until he learns of the thousands of dollars worth of coal which went down on rafts which sank at this point."
Read also: 1869 wreck of steamer Rebecca occurred Dec. 7 on the Ohio; Could clerk’s body remain in watery grave beneath Ohio River?
Sign up to receive a FREE copy of West Virginia Explorer Magazine in your email weekly. Sign me up!