Settlers made a first foothold at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers in 1788, when “Northwest Territory” meant not the remote Canadian arctic but a vast area west of Pennsylvania stretching to the Mississippi. In recognition of France’s assistance in the recent Revolutionary War, they called the new town Marietta, after the French queen Marie Antoinette. The town fared better than she did: The introduction of steamboats in 1811, and the local discovery of oil 50 years later, fueled a century-long boom, and today the small and once affluent Marietta is a hand-some, leafy riverside town of Victorian homes that wears its history proudly.
Its oldest attractions go back over 2,000 years—earth mounds constructed by a culture known as the Adena that may date to as far back as 800 B.C. The most prominent is the thirty-foot Conus Mound at Mound Cemetery downtown, where many of the city’s founders occupy graves nearby. On the site of the town’s first settlement is the Campus Martius Museum, which incorporates Ohio’s oldest residence, the house of General Rufus Putnam, friend of George Washington and leader of the first group of 48 settlers from New England.
A 3-minute stroll to the Ohio River Museum will enlighten visitors about the Golden Age of Steamboats through models and artifacts and a chance to board the 1918 W. P. Snyder Jr., the nation’s only remaining stern-wheeled steam towboat, moored just outside. Much of the downtown is on the National Historic Register, including the distinctive triangular Lafayette Hotel, one of the country’s most atmospheric riverboat-era hotels still operating. Built in 1918 on the site of a former hotel, the Lafayette offers smallish Victorian-style guest rooms (most with river views), but its atmosphere quotient is high, particularly in the welcoming Riverview Lounge. It also houses the city’s best-known restaurant, the Gun Room, where a collection of 16 antique long rifles adorns the walls.
Marietta is the jumping-off point for the Covered Bridge Scenic Byway, which meanders through 44 miles of pine-and-hardwood-covered hills along the Little Muskingum River in Wayne National Forest. The bridges that provide the main attraction were covered to protect their valuable deck timbers from the elements, and also provided a moment’s relief for horse-and-buggy travelers in foul weather, and for locals to meet and, maybe, court and spark, hence the endearing term “kissing bridges.” Ohio is second in the nation in the number of covered bridges still standing (150); the three along this scenic byway originated between 1878 and 1887. Enjoy the grace and slow pace of this lovely stretch of the Ohio River Valley, dotted with 19th-century barns with Mail Pouch Tobacco ads painted across their sides and old oil rigs that still cough up the odd barrel.