A River Runs Through It: the Mighty Muskingum and the Landscapes of Morgan County
BY GRANT JOY
Morgan County comprises the eastern boundary of Ohio’s Winding Road (OWR) region. OWR’s AmeriCorps member, Grant Joy, participated in the 2020 “Found in Ohio: Traces, Trails, and Tales Media Tour” sponsored through a collaborative effort of Visit Zanesville, and the Guernsey County and Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureaus. Over the following days, OWR will be sharing three stories that Grant has written that make Morgan County unique. Through these stories, we hope readers can better understand the authentic assets and experiences that Morgan County has to offer all while coming to understand why he views Morgan County as Ohio’s Frontier County.
What is so appealing about Morgan County is that the natural landscape dominates the county. Morgan County is Ohio’s fourth least-populated county and has a population of 36 people per square mile compared to Ohio’s average of 282 people per square mile. Thus, the landscape shapes the fabric of the county and cultivates a deep sense of place to the people who call themselves Morgan Countians. The land is a quilted-patchwork: of forested hill country and ravines that sprawl outward stretching toward the next ridge, interstitched with dairy farms and towering fields of corn. Morgan County is a place where a river runs through it, a bucolic place rich in history, culture, and community.
Immersive outdoor experiences abound in Morgan County. Roughly, the county has about 17,000 acres of public land for residents and visitors to enjoy. AEP’s ReCreation Land allows free-camping with a permit that can be obtained from the AEP Office in McConnelsville as well as ODNR offices. The ReCreation Land is unique to the story of Morgan County. Once valued for the 110 million tons of coal that were extracted beneath the land, the same land has since been reclaimed, as 63 million trees, 350 lakes, and 290 campsites are available for the outdoor recreation adventurers. The Buckeye Trail also runs through the park, providing reasons for hiking enthusiasts to visit and explore. The county is home to ODNR’s newest state park in honor of Jesse Owens. The 5,735-acre park and wildlife area provides free camping and waterways suitable for fishing, paddling, and boating. These two parks exemplify how the county has repositioned itself around the natural abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities that can be experienced. It shows how communities can reinvent and reclaim a once exploited land, providing visitors an opportunity to connect with it through immersive outdoor recreation experiences. Through these experiences, visitors will be able to cultivate an ethic of stewardship to ensure these place-based assets are available for future generations.
In addition to the newly created Jesse Owens State Park and portions of the Muskingum River Parkway State Park, Burr Oak State Park also sits on the county’s western boundary and provides all the amenities of a traditional state park, including the rustic Burr Oak Lodge that has 60 rooms for guests. The amount of outdoor recreational opportunities offered to visitors and residents alike show why Morgan County is the front porch to the great outdoors. For more information on AEP ReCreation Land, visit online here. A wonderful characteristic of Morgan County is its pastoral landscape and the old farms that dot the countryside. Driving along state routes and backroads of Morgan County, visitors are treated to the splendor of a landscape that is timeless and tranquil, with independent family farms and Amish farms interspersed. The county possesses six covered bridges. Chesterhill, much like Stockport, is a quaint village, home to the Triple Nickel Diner and the Chesterhill Produce Auction. The CPA is unique in that it is a social enterprise that works to sell and distribute fresh local produce to the area. It allows for underserved areas a chance to enjoy fresh and nutritious food while also allowing local farmers a chance to sell their produce at the market without traveling into Athens or Marietta. The hill country surrounding the village of Chesterhill is also home to a community of Amish farmers. The CPA plays a vital role in allowing greater accessibility for the Amish community to sell their goods without the hassle of traveling long distances. Check out more information on CPA online here.
Outside of the rigid topography that defines Morgan County, one thing visitors will notice is the Muskingum River that lazily flows through the heart of the county. The Muskingum River has played a significant role in defining the county’s identity and has served as a main thoroughfare for the area in the past, but also shapes a way forward for the county. The Muskingum River is home to the Muskingum River Parkway State Park as it winds and flows along the Ohio State Route 60, the main highway through the county, in addition to State Routes 376 and 266. The Muskingum River system is home to the oldest continually operating hand-lock system of its kind in the United States. Constructed between 1836 and 1841, one can’t help but think of the ingenuity it took to build the system, the expertise of the lock-tenders, past and present, and the importance the river played in shipping goods to market. At the time of its construction, the locks were part of the country’s early transportation system. The lock system has survived the test of time: it is representative of the hardiness, determination, and self-reliance found throughout the county, in its landscape, its people, and the structures that make Morgan County a great place to spend time.
The River is recovering from decades of pollution. As the river recovers, the Muskingum can serve as an outlet for water recreation enthusiasts. The Muskingum can be a great challenge for paddlers, and provides ample opportunity and accessibility for those who like to fish. Together, it’s a great blend of outdoor recreation and local history. While the Muskingum River is transitioning from its days as a main transportation artery and recovering from pollution, it embodies a resilient spirit and a caratharic outlet for those who visit it. The Muskingum River is a continued bastion of outdoor recreation and adventure, as the Muskingum still serves as a natural focal point for the county. To learn more about the Muskingum River Parkway State Park, click the following link here.
Overall, Morgan County offers a great blend of activities for visitors to experience. It offers a landscape for those who want to slow down and unplug for a weekend. Spend some time driving the backroads of MoCo and you’ll find a landscape unique from the rest of Ohio, so different from the modernization that engulfs other counties in the state. If you’re a craft beer fan, head over to historic McConnelsville and make a stop at Old Bridge Brewery to quench your thirst. If you’re looking to immerse yourself in the beauty of the county, you’re able to camp for free at Jesse Owens State Park and make sure to stop along the Muskingum River Parkway. Despite its ruralness, the county offers a chance to take a step back while also offering amenities found in larger cities. To learn more, please visit: https://www.visitmorgancountyohio.com/ or call 740-962-4909.
About the author: Grant Joy was the 2019-20 AmeriCorps member serving this year for Ohio’s Winding Road. This was his third AmeriCorps service year. He spent the past two years serving in Colorado and Vermont before deciding to come back closer to home in southern Ohio. After AmeriCorps, he is looking forward to continue sharing stories of the people and places that make Ohio’s Rising Appalachia a unique and vibrant region.