Exploring Athens County: Looking Back While Moving Forward
The southeastern corner of Athens County, Ohio sits right across the Ohio River from West Virginia, making it a perfect transition as I begin my month-long exploration of the Buckeye State. While the city of Athens is home to Ohio University and exhibits all of the best qualities of a quintessential college town, you don’t have to drive far before it becomes clear you are definitely still in Appalachia. As I drove the back roads and explored the history and culture of the area, I found it both new and familiar at the same time. The history of Athens County is fascinating, and in this post I’d like to tell you all about it through six stops I made as I visited the region.
Two thousand years before people of European descent entered the region, Southeast Ohio was inhabited by Native Americans we refer to as the Adena Culture. This is a name we have given to a broad group of people exhibiting similar cultural characteristics, but we actually know very little about them. We know that they were primarily a hunter-gatherer society, but that they also cultivated crops like pumpkin and squash. They used stone tools and also molded the rich clay found in the area into vessels for cooking and storing food. We have found shells used as tools and for ornamental purposes, suggesting they were either trading with coastal people or traveling there themselves. The Adena People were also mound-builders, constructing large earthen mounds for burial and ceremonial purposes. These mounds have provided much of what we know about these people, and can be found throughout the middle part of the country.
In Athens County, there is a group of these Adena mounds referred to as The Wolf Plains Group, centered around The Plains area just northwest of the city of Athens. This mound group was first described in the 1848 Smithsonian publication Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley by Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis. It is a fascinating area to explore with many of the mounds hidden right in plain view. My favorite of these mounds was the Hartman Mound pictured here. It is the largest mound in the group at 40 feet high and 140 feet in diameter, but it is also un-excavated meaning whatever secrets it holds remain intact. While it is certainly interesting to learn about people who came before us, I personally think it is more important to leave the dead where their families buried them. You can visit the Hartman Mound at the corner of Mound Street and Gary Drive in The Plains.
The Adena Culture gave way to the Hopewell Culture which lasted until around 500AD. At the time that non-natives began exploring the area, the Shawnee people were the predominant culture to be found there. The first permanent non-native settlers in the area arrived around 1797, and a town-site was laid out in 1800. Ohio became a state in 1803, and Ohio University was chartered the following year. The University had been envisioned years earlier by a man named Mannaseh Cutler, a Yale graduate and former chaplain in the Revolutionary Army, who would be responsible for writing the school’s charter.
In the heart of this new campus, a grand building in the Federal Style was constructed and completed in 1819. First named the College Edifice, it was commonly called simply “The Center Building”. This building was renamed Manassah Cutler Hall in 1914 in honor of the man who helped transform the vision of a university in the new state into a reality. Today, Cutler Hall sits quietly in the middle of the college green on the beautiful Ohio University campus. It is the oldest academic building west of the Allegheny Mountains and north of the Ohio River. You can visit Manassah Cutler Hall right off of Union Street in the heart of Uptown Athens.
Right around the time the first students were graduating from the newly formed Ohio University, Daniel Nelson was settling into the region about 15 miles to its northwest. Others would soon follow and the town of Nelsonville grew up around them. One of these early settlers was Thomas Dew, who migrated to the area from Maryland in 1819. The land around Nelsonville was rich in natural resources ripe for extraction. First salt and later clay and coal brought people and prosperity to the area. As these industries developed, Nelsonville flourished. In 1830, Dew built a two story brick hotel to accommodate people visiting the area.
In 1843, the Hocking Canal was built to try and get products to market quicker. Unfortunately, canal boats could only travel at about four miles per hour, and with the water freezing for months at a time in winter, the canal was never profitable. The Columbus and Hocking Valley Railroad began laying track in 1864 and reached Nelsonville in 1869 and Athens a year later. With the railroad, came increased access to the area and increased demand for its resources. The Dew House was happy to accommodate mine and railroad executives when they came to visit, and a third floor and balcony were added in 1876. When Stuart’s Opera House opened next door, Nelsonville was elevated to an elite status in Appalachia, and people came from near and far to see live performances and stay at The Dew House. During his 1912 presidential campaign, Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech from the balcony at The Dew House as he vied for the support of the people of Nelsonville. Today, The Dew House still stands in the Public Square in Nelsonville. It has been converted into apartments, but you can pop into The Mine Tavern next door which once housed the hotel’s dining room. This cool little tavern now offers great sandwiches, cold beer and a look back in time to a different era. Stuart’s Opera House is still right down the block as well and still hosts live performances today.
While Stuart’s Opera House was being built in Nelsonville, a grand building of a very different sort was being constructed back in Athens. Opened in 1874, the Athens Lunatic Asylum would grow to be the largest employer in the city of Athens. Built in a late Victorian Style, the hospital was originally designed to accommodate 572 patients. Fresh air, beautiful surroundings and meaningful work were all part of the prescription to treat mental health issues at the time. Patients were put to work at the on-site dairy, greenhouse or carriage shop, or in the fields and orchards that surrounded the hospital. Over the years the treatment would change from fresh air and hard work to electroshock and lobotomies, and the patient population grew to 1800 people. Finally closed as a mental health hospital in 1993, the buildings and grounds have been transferred to the Ohio University. Today, the buildings house classrooms, The Cultural Arts Center (in the old dairy barn), and even an art gallery. You can also hike the peaceful grounds of the hospital, now rebranded as The Ridges, and wander through the old orchards and cemeteries. To reach The Ridges turn off of Route 682 onto Ridge Road and continuing to the top of the drive.
When the railroad had reached Athens in 1870, it connected Athens to Columbus. When the Cincinatti, Washington and Baltimore (CW&B) Railroad started running trains through town in 1889 though, it connected Athens to the world. This connection allowed the natural resources being extracted to reach the Ohio River and the Chesapeake Bay and provided even more of a boon to the area. A station was built in Athens for passengers on this line. Soon thereafter, the CW&B was acquired by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) and the train depot was renamed to reflect this change. The coming of this rail line led to rapid growth in Athens County, and in 1915 the B&O Train Depot was expanded to meet this need. In 1976 the Amtrak train Shenandoah began utilizing this beautiful train station on Union Street in Athens, stopping off on its run between Cincinnati and Washington D.C. Low ridership caused the line to cease operation in 1981. The rail lines have long since gone and the building is now privately owned, but it is still a beautiful place to visit and remember the good old days when trains were king.
In 1911, the Sunday Creek Coal Company, at one time the second largest coal company in the world, opened Sunday Creek Mine #6 in Millfield. The town grew to a population of about 1500, with most of the men who lived there working in the mine. At its peak output, Mine #6 was producing 5000 tons of coal a day. In April 1930, the mine was closed to receive much needed repairs and improvements. When these improvements were completed, Mine #6 was considered the safest of Sunday Creek Coal Company’s 60 mines. On November 5, 1930 the company’s president, vice president, chief mine engineer and mine superintendent were on hand to inspect the recently installed safety equipment. At approximately 11:45 a.m. a rock fall broke an electric trolley wire which, in turn, lit a pocket of methane gas, and a massive explosion rocked Mine #6. This caused the entrance of the mine to collapse, trapping everyone inside. When the dust settled, 82 people were dead including the four executives, making this the worst mining disaster in Ohio history. Nine hours after the explosion, 19 survivors were rescued, having barricaded themselves behind a ventilation partition three miles into the mine. The community suffered a tremendous loss from this disaster, but the mine reopened a month later and remained in operation until 1945. While the mine tipple is long gone, the smokestack and remnants of some of the surrounding buildings still stand. There are clear signs pointing to the site from Millfield, and an historic marker on the side of the road marking its location.
Athens County has continued to grow and evolve, and today is home not only to Ohio University but also to Hocking College in Nelsonville. These schools and the businesses that support them are the major employers that drive the economy in the area. In recent years, tourism has also made a strong push with several forward thinking initiatives that pay homage to the area’s fascinating, complicated and sometimes tragic history. The Hockhocking-Adena Bikeway runs along the route of what was once the towpath to the Hocking Canal and later the Columbus and Hocking Valley Railroad bed. Once the center of a coal company town, the Eclipse Company Store has been repurposed as a craft beer hall, restaurant and music venue. You can even take a scenic ride on an old train with the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway.
All of the sites mentioned in this post are within an hour’s drive of Athens, and all are worth a visit. I love reading about history, but for me to really understand it, I need to go and stand where the people I’m reading about once stood, touch the bricks that they touched and smell the air that they breathed. Beyond the University, Athens County has a proud and fascinating industrial past and instead of ignoring it, they are owning it, repurposing it and moving towards the future.