The West Virginia. Cyclopedia

Ohio River

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Industry and forest mingle along the banks of the Ohio River near Weirton, WV.

The area of the Ohio River that borders West Virginia, and the islands that located within it, are wholly owned by West Virginia, the deed of cession of the Northwest Territory fixing the low water mark on the Ohio side as the western boundary of (what was then) Virginia. More than 30 West Virginia communities extend along the river. See: Ohio River Communities.

Ohio River

The Ohio River is the most important stream in the development of West Virginia. It is formed in Pittsburgh, by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. Thence it flows in a general southwesterly dirction until it joins the Mississippi. From the Pennsylvania state line, near Chester, to Kenova, it forms the western boundary of West Virginia for a distance of 256 miles. George Washington apparently regarded the Allegheny River and the Ohio River as one river, referring to the "Ohio and the Aligany" as a (single) river in his journals.

The Ohio River with its tributaries drains all of West Virginia west of the Alleghenies; that is to say, more than 20,000 square miles. The principal tributaries in West Virginia are Wheeling Creek, Grave Creek, Fishing Creek, Middle Island Creek, Little Kanawha River, Mill Creek, Kanawha River, Guyandotte River, Twelvepole Creek and Big Sandy River.


The head of the Ohio is formed by the junction of the Monongahela River and Allegheny River at Pittsburgh, PA. The river's mouth flows generally west-southwest to join the Mississippi River, approximately 6.4 km (4 mi) southeast of Cairo, IL.

Topo Map (Head)
Topo Map (Mouth)

Early Navigation

In 1811, the first steamboat successfully navigated the Ohio, but it was 1817 before steamboat navigation passed from the experimental stage into useful service. By 1818 fifteen steamers had been built at various points on the river, and after 1824 the number of steamers rapidly increased.

Steamboats carried almost no freight until 1819, and for many years afterwards met with competition of a more primitive type of water craft, the flatboat. The use of flatboats not only persisted, but the flatboat increased in number and capacity, finally reaching a size of about 150 feet by 24 feet, able to carry 300 tons of produce. Flatboat traffic grew and flourished until the Civil War practically put an end to it.

Down-steam rates for both passenger and freight traffic were usually lower than those levied on up-stream business, because, as the time consumed was less, the cost of operation was less in fuel and power extended, and, in the case of passenger business, the expense of boarding the passengers was reduced. Steamboat captains charged in all cases what the traffic would bear. The days of prosperous steamboating wee the days of unregulated monopoly, and the variations in water depth and uncertainties of travel often so crowded the limited taffic season that passengers and shippers were wholly at the mercy of scheming steamboat captains.

The Civil War destroyed the greater part of the Ohio River trade and arrested the commerce of Cincinnati, which until 1860 was chiefly dependent upon the Ohio, and its connections. For a period of several years following the war's end, the rivers of West Virginia, as the rivers all over the United States, did comparatively little business.

Name Origin

Some sources claim the source of the river's name, Ohio, originated from the name given the river by an (unidentified) Native American tribe that meant "white foaming river" or "river of whitecaps". Other sources claim the origin as being a the name of an (unidentified) Native American tribe meaning "beautiful river," "frothy waters," "great river," or "something big." Some suggest the source of the "beautiful river" reference is from the Iroquois.

Variant Names

Aaboukingon, Akansea River, Alagany River, Allegany River, Allegeny River, Alleghany River, Alliganey River, Baudrane River, Bella Ribera, Belle Riviere, Cau-si-sip-i-on-e, Cubach, Dono, Eagle River, Fair River, Fleuve Chucagoa, Fleuve Saint Louis, Hohio River, Il Fiume Ohio, Kan-zan-za River, Ki-to-no, Kis-ke-ba-la-se-be River, Kis-ke-pi-la-se-pe River, Kiskepila Sepe, Kottono-cepe, L'Oyo Riviere, La Belle Riviere, La Riviere Ouabache, La Riviere Oyo, LaBelle Riviere, O-H-I-o-ple, O-Yo, O-h-i-o-ple, O-he-zun River, O-he-zun-River, O-he-zun-an-de-wa River, O-hee-yo, O-li-gen-si-pen, Ochio, Oheeo, Oheezuh, Ohi, Ohio, Ohionhiio, Ohiopeckhanne, Ohiople, Olighin-cipou River, Ouabache, Ouabouskigon, Oyeu River, Oyo, Oyo-peck-han-ne, Pa-la-wa-the pee River, Palawa Thepiki, River Allegane, Sabsquigs River, Sault River, Splawacipiki River, Turkey River

Sources of Additional Information

Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge