Friday, February 21, 2014

Coming Home - The Beautiful River

           “Everybody has to leave, everybody has to leave their home and come back so they can love it again for all new reasons.”
Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road

            I grew up near the banks of the Ohio River, a mere three blocks to the west of my childhood home.  As a child I fished from its banks, walked and rode over bridges crossing it, was a passenger in boats upon its waters, and occasionally watched it flood as high as the corner of the street on which I lived.  But I knew very little of the river’s lore or history.  And while the river often captured my imagination, I never thought of it as beautiful.

            I eventually moved away and lived near other waters and  rafted sections of the Youghiogheny, Nantahala, New and Gauley Rivers, canoed down the Delaware River, kayaked down the Shenandoah and Buckhannon Rivers and in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and in kayak and sailboat explored New York’s Hudson River, the New York Harbor and Jamaica Bay as well as other nearby New York waters. I never thought I would come back home to the banks of the Ohio.

            Year’s after leaving the Ohio behind, while reading Stephen E. Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage; I learned that the Ohio River served as Lewis and Clark’s approach route as the Corp of Discovery made its way by flatboat from Pittsburgh to the mouth of the Missouri. Ambrose’s account rekindled my latent memory about learning that one of the members of that expedition, Sargent Patrick Gass, eventually settled in and spent the rest of his life in my home town along the Ohio’s eastern bank. I would later visit Gass’s grave and see the historical marker commemorating the Corp of Discovery floating past my home town.

            After being away for thirty-seven years and only returning for rare visits, I recently came back to live in the town of my childhood where I learning things about the town’s and regions’ history and culture that I never knew, including the lore and history of the Ohio River. Some of the lessons are accidental. Some are intentional.

            Not long after coming home some friends invited me to their farmhouse for dinner.  During the evening’s dinner conversation, as we were sharing stories about family and friends as well as the area, I learned that the Ohio River was once known as La Belle Riviere or LaBelle Riviere, a French name meaning The Beautiful River.  Hearing that tidbit of history, I wondered why I had not earlier learned that, or if I had learned it, why I had forgotten it.

            Thanks to the research capabilities of the internet I have since learned that the Ohio River was once known by dozens of other names and that it was not until 1931 that The Board of Geographic Names settled on “Ohio River” as the river’s official name.  I have also learned that the French and Native Americans considered what we now call the Alleghany River as part of the Ohio. Had history turned out differently, had the French maintained their claims in the New World and the British not prevailed, the mighty river that forms the boundary between many states might now be called La Belle Riviere and that those of us living along its banks might now be speaking French as our native language.

            More recently, I learned that Dillon Bustin wrote a song entitled La Belle Riviere that captures the river’s history and beauty as well as its ecological degradation.  Yet Dillon’s lyrics also hold hope, hope that the mighty La Belle Riviere might can once again live up to her name.

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