June 12, 2012

Dangers of Rivers Through the Years



When Betty Louise Metcalf of Connellsville (Pennsylvania) died on August 2, 2011, at the age of 90, she was remembered in her obituary as taking every opportunity to fish in “her” Youghiogheny River (in Pennsylvania).

I, too, enjoyed the Youghiegneny River. For eight years I lived within walking distance of its shores, and enjoyed cooling off in its waters during the hot summer:

But the river has its dangers. Grim reminders that danger lurks int he region’s watercourses are illustrated in the following Pennsylvania stories:

Emergency crews searched for a person reported missing on Saturday afternoon after a boat capsized on the Youghiogheny River Lake near Confluence, a Fayette County emergency dispatcher said…Two other passengers suffered injuries…the boat overturned about 2:30 pm near the Yough Dam…The body of a kayaker was pulled from the Youghiogheny River a week after swift water swept him away at Ohiopyle State Park.3


The start of a holiday weekend turned tragic on Friday when a Mount Pleasant teen drown in the Youghiogheny River, near Yough Park. Connellsville police Chief Jim Capitos said Scott Jeffries Jr., 17, of 606 Alexis Court had been fishing with family and friends at an area referred to as “flat rock”, across the river from the popular park…the water current had carried Jeffries’ body about 100 yards downstream.4

     This is the same river that challenged travelers headed west in the 1700s. At the time there were no bridges to aid their crossing.

In the fall of 1790 there was no Yough Dam. The Ohiopyle drowning site is near the Great Crossings, the spot where Braddock Trail travelers crossed the Youghiogheny River.


     While many newcomers to the United States seemed content to settle down upon the coast, whence they could look out upon the expanse of ocean which separated them from the ideas and theories they had left forever when they spread their sails to the heaven-invoked breezes which were to waft them to a strange but prolific world2 others preferred relocating west as land became scarce and the population became dense.

One specific group of French emigrants was brought to the United States by the Scioto Associates. They came to escape the French Revolution and to fulfill their dream of finding a Garden of Eden in this country. They expected that their promised land, which they purchased in France, was located on the seacoast, but it was located in Gallipolis, Ohio, along the Ohio River.

The French emigrants were unaware that Ohio was a long, difficult, land and river water journey from the Atlantic Ocean. Traveling west entailed climbing steep mountains—at times so steep they had to push the wagons to help the oxen move them up the mountain. It was definitely primitive transportation. They had to keep the wagons on rutted path-like trails. Then they had to ford rivers—Savage River, the Youghiogheny among them. They had to beware of wild animals and hostile Indians. Their food supplies were often meager. The weather was hot at times, rainy at other times.

Once the French emigrants, most of whom were from the upper crust of France, reached the Monongahela River—some at Redstone (currently Brownsville)—which was reached from the Yough River by an Indian path, and others at Connellsville, and West Newton—their river travel became easier. To get to their Ohio destination, Gallipolis, they had to travel down the Monongahela River to Pittsburgh, then down the Ohio River.


     All of the boats in this period were hand-powered, with poles or oars for steering, and usually floated with the current. The flatboat was the cheapest of the many types of boats used to travel on the river. It became the standard conveyance for families moving west.

Many persons, including entrepreneurs and travelers, built flatboats— which were whatever they could put together. Some were big and strong and might even carry several families. Some barely held together, or were small. Even if it was his best it might prove not adequate for the trip ahead. It was a flat bottom boat, mostly rectangular in shape, with high sides and possibly a flat roofed cabin toward the back. A sweep formed the rudder to the rear and one of the men travelled on the roof and used the sweep to guide the flatboat as it traveled down the rivers. The flatboat carried the horses and wagons, all the family’s goods, as it traveled to the new lands to the west.

One entrepreneur who constructed flatboats was Elder George Wolfe, who resided in Redstone. He built good flatboats, that would take them safely down the river.

River travel wasn’t necessarily safe. In fact, It was so dangerous to travel in the dark that the flatboat had to be tied up to the shore at night. This wasn’t necessarily a negative since it gave travelers an opportunity to stretch its legs after the tiring day. A cooked meal tasted good, and fresh meat added to family provisions.

Flatboats were meant for one-way travel. When the travelers reached their destination, their flatboat was dismantled and the wood contributed to their new life.

In the early days, Redstone was the major spot where riverboats were constructed. While visiting Brownsville recently I was informed that Redstone was expected to be a more major city than Pittsburgh, and that its riverboat construction business far outstretched that of the city located at the junction of the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny rivers.



Writing About a 1790 Journey to Ohio

The Market Street Arts Festival in Brownsville, PA.

Marketing Quaker and Amish Goods—Then and Now

ALEXANDRIA, D. C. (Virginia) IN THE 1790s

The French military in America during the American Revolution Part 1

From the Bastille to Cinderella


1 Tribune-Review newspaper,Greensburg, PA, Aug. 3, 2011

2unknown source





  1. I enjoyed reading about 1790 Ohio River. The 2911 date doesn’t seem to fit the story. You have given me an idea to post something I had written a few years ago about our own Rivers in New Hampshire. I just have to decide which river writing to post

    Comment by Dame Gussie — June 12, 2012 @ 7:14 am | Reply

    • Thanks for noting my typo. I did correct it!

      I, too, am from New Hampshire although I live in Soutnwestern Pennsylvania now. Where in N. H. are you located? I grew up in Portsmouth.

      Thanks for being one of my readers.

      Carolyn Cornell Holland

      Comment by carolyncholland — June 12, 2012 @ 8:09 am | Reply

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