Saturday, October 3, 2009

THE BIG LITTLE ISLAND

    During a 1754 surveying journey down the Ohio River, George Washington noted in his journal about Brown's Island: "At eleven or twleve miles from this (Yellow Creek), and above what is called the Long Island, which though distinguished is not very remarkable for length, breath or goodness."  As a military leader, as the first president and as a surveyor, the ambitious Virginian made many mistakes, amongst them his assessment of Brown's Island, for its history has been anything other than unremarkable.
     Long before young Washington snubbed the two-mile river island, Indians had made it a frequent stop as evidenced by the large number of projectile points and artifacts gleaned from its rich soil after the arrival of the first settlers there during the late 1700s.   Artifact hunters have continued finding these little treasures until the construction of the Weirton Steel coke oven was completed during the early 1970s. Also signifying the importance of the island was petroglyph known as Harts Rock at the island head.  A petroglyph is a rock into which was carved or pecked crude renditions of animals, celestial objects and other symbols of importance to indigenous people.
     On his watch from Mingo Town to Yellow Creek during the Revolutionary War, Michael Myers claimed to have slain an Indian who was carving an image into Harts Rock.
     Brown's island was named after Colonel Richard Brown, of Baltimore, who had fought under the command of George Washington.  Around 1800, he purchased 1,150 acres of land in present day Weirton, including the 350 acres comprising the island.  Brown became a local magistrate and built a farm on the island, one manned by slaves.  On the Ohio side of the island, he had a grist mill constructed,  arguably the first-ever dam on the Ohio River.
     "The slaves, cattle, officers and the appearance of everything here," wrote Reuben Gold Thwaites in his journal, "indicated the greatest abundance of the produce of this plentiful country.  Though he does not keep a tavern, he knows how to charge as if he did, we having to pay him a half dollar for our plain supper, plainer bed, and two quarts of milk we took with us the next morning, which was very high in a country where cash is very scarce and everything else very abundant."
       Brown's brother Hugh returning from a visit from the island, drowned on the Ohio side of the river, along with his horse.  The perils of fording the river and impending floods did not deter further settlement on this land bisecting the river.
      "We passed Brown's Island," wrote Gilbert Swing in his 1889 book, Events in the Life and History of the Swing Family, "a great summer resort six miles above Steubenville, containing two hundred acres of land, with large shade trees, beautiful lawns and extensive boarding-houses erected upon it.  This is one of the most beautiful islands in the Ohio River."
      Families continued to live and farm on the island until the great flood of 1937 wiped out all existing structures.
      One of the more notable characters to have called the island home was Samuel Burnell, known as the hermit of Brown's Island.  Around 1870, when the federal government established pilot lights along the Ohio River, Burnell took charge of those on Brown's Island and vicinity.   "He built a little cabin among the thick hillside forest, just visible from passing boats, and there he lived alone, doing his own cooking and household chores.  When the boats passed they would sound their whistles, he would come out and salute, and then retire to his cabin again," noted the 20th Century History of Steubenville and Jefferson County.
      Another notable journey down the Ohio was commanded by Merriweather Lewis en route to join George Rodgers Clark at Louisville in 1805.  September 5 of that year, Lewis wrote in his journal while his expedition camped at the head of Brown's Island: "Foggy again.  It grew very dark and my canoes which had on board the most valuable part of my stores had not come up, ordered the trumpet to be sound and they answered."
        A little more than 30 years later, in 1836, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction of the first navigation dam upon the Ohio River, one of square sandstone blocks spanning from the Ohio shore at Wellsmar across to the island.  Two years later, the crops constructed a diagonal dam stretching from the head of Brown's Island to Jeddo Run and by 1840 erected a half-moon dam on the Virginia shore opposite the head of the island.
      The diagonal dam would later become the site of what the New York Times heralded a disaster when on March 15, 1888, three stream boats--the Ed Roberts, the Sam Clark and the Eagle collided and spilled 40,000 bushels of coal into the river.  The wreck and the ensuing clean-up disrupted river traffic until June 12 of that year.
       Head engineer of that operation, William martin reported finding 21 coal boats and barges stranded and scattered from the head to the foot of the island.
      The steamboat disaster was certainly not the last.  On March 22, 1932, an airmail passenger plane crashed into the Ohio River along the upper east bank of the island, killing pilot Hal George and passenger Doctor Carol S. Cole.  December, forty years later, a Weirton Steel coke oven explosion killed 19 workers and injured another 20, ironically one fatality named Brown.