Over the past week I’ve read articles describing the recovery of a barge that crashed into the Clark Memorial Bridge last Christmas and a survey showing that the Ohio River is teeming with over 90 different species of fish. There was also an announcement that Brochin Expeditions will begin renting jet skis on the river on Memorial Day. Although the Ohio River is a dominant presence in our region, it often remains in the background until something novel, dramatic, or tragic occurs.
A 2018 World Wildlife Foundation report, Valuing Rivers, argues that healthy rivers provide tremendous benefits to societies and economies, although these are often not acknowledged or prioritized. Environmental scientist Jeff Opperman says, “Rivers wind their way through countries’ histories, myths, stories and songs. In our hearts, we must really love rivers, because we write more songs about them than any other geographic feature.” Among some of the favorites are Johnny Cash’s “Five Feet High and Rising, “ Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks ,” Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927 ,” Ike and Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” and almost anything by the late John Hartford.
My wife Diane and I liked the idea of living near the Ohio River when we first moved to the area. Diane grew up a few blocks away from Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. Her brother, grandfather, and great uncles were involved in fishing, shipping, and ship building. I’m from a small Illinois town on the Mississippi River. My hometown is directly across from St. Louis, so this area had a very familiar feeling. My father’s friend Bill lived in a clubhouse right on the Mississippi River. It was a ramshackle affair, complete with hound dogs, chickens, and rabbit hutches. There was a dip net set up on the river and a home-made dock with a small fishing boat. My father liked to go there to drink, play cards, fish, but mostly to drink. When I was older I learned to drive right there on the levee. Like the song “American Pie,” I literally drove our Chevy to the levy.
River club houses were especially popular then and we often visited another friend’s clubhouse on the Kaskaskia River. This place was way out in the country in a corn field. The kids would always beg the grownups to take them into town in the wooden jon boat. In the little village of Keyesport you could buy ice cream for a quarter or get a haircut for 50 cents. Later my older brother had a club house of his own on the Meramec River, in Missouri. Like a lot of river clubhouses, however, it was destroyed in one of the numerous floods.
When you live near rivers, bridges also figure prominently in your life. I often hear people say that they don’t like crossing the bridge to Louisville. My mother and sisters always hated crossing the Mississippi River bridges to St. Louis. They blamed the traffic, but there were probably other reasons as well.
Many people have a fear of crossing bridges. Sometimes it’s related to a fear of heights or falling. As a child I couldn’t imagine ever driving a car across a bridge. The two bridges closest to us were both terrifying. The McKinley Bridge had extremely narrow lanes and at its end you drove through a cloud of paregoric fumes emanating from the Mallinckrodt Chemical works. The Chain of Rocks Bridge was even worse with a 22 degree turn right in the middle of the bridge. Motorists, unfamiliar with this bridge, often failed to negotiate the unexpected turn. As a child I always visualized careening off the side of the bridge and plunging into the water. The other day we were crossing the Lewis and Clark Bridge and we saw a sailboat coming down the middle of the river. Although it was a gorgeous sight, I still found myself edging over to the middle lane. As a girl in Wisconsin, Diane disliked riding her bicycle over bridges that had metal gratings — they gave her nightmares about falling through the openings.
For some people, crossing a bridge represents leaving their own safe terrain for potentially hostile territory. It’s probably more than a coincidence that large rivers often serve as boundaries between major political divisions such as states. People also, of course, complain about the tolls, but I’m not sure that’s the main stumbling block.
Even if you grew up in close proximity to a river, it seems like there are few people capable or willing to teach you about the river’s customs, history, and heritage. People who actually lived on the river, like Bill, were often on the fringes of society and tended to keep to themselves. My father did tell me stories about fishing on the Mississippi and how he worked, as a boy, at a chocolate factory situated on the river. He also told me how the river froze over one winter and they were able to drive a truck across it. Diane speaks of how the small rivers in her Wisconsin hometown froze every winter, allowing her cousins to cross the river directly over to the high school, instead of taking the long walk to the bridge.
Author and self-described river rat, Paul Schneider, says, “A river is not so much a place as it is a living phenomenon moving across and through a place and a time that are being created and destroyed by its presence. A river is not unlike a life: You don’t go to a river simply to be there, you go to share a few moments with it, and hope that you remember it forever.”
— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.