The Ohio River Cruise’s Unexpected Twist

I’m a person who loves water: lakes, ponds, and especially rivers. There is something mesmerizing, archetypal, and life-giving to me about bodies of water.  The value of water is especially heightened to me as a resident of Los Angeles during California’s terrible drought.

So, while in Cincinnati for my Fund For Teachers fellowship,  I could not wait to get on (not in) the Ohio River.  It’s the largest river feeding into the Mississippi; it has been a major artery of transportation for people and goods; and it was the defining border between free- and slave-states before the Civil War.  My study of the Underground Railroad would not be complete without the Ohio.

Ohio Riverboat Deck

Ohio Riverboat Deck

A few days ago I finally got my chance to take a two-hour, historic Ohio River cruise on a vessel made to look like the old-time Victorian river boats.

As my partner and I excitedly stood in line to pay for our tickets for the tour, I had some time to look around and take it all in. What a great view. How nice that there are so many families here.  So many of the families with… ah, little kids..ah…some of them with funny triangular hats.


The woman ahead of me said to the cashier, “Six tickets for the Pirates Cruise.”


Then I began to notice the faint sound of pirate music. And see some little tikes with fake felt eye patches, and fuzzy black beards held to their faces with elastic string.  OMG.

Ohio Riverboat's Paddle Wheels

Ohio Riverboat’s Paddle Wheels

“Excuse me,” I said to the cashier. “I think I am on the wrong ship. I am here for the historic tour of the Ohio River. You know, the one that is going to help me learn about this river, which more enslaved people crossed than anywhere else to escape slavery. The place memorialized by authors from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Toni Morrison.  A symbol of freedom.  I must be in the wrong place.”

“You’re in he right place, alright,” she said.  “The pirate cruise and the historic tour go on all at once.”

What?  I was here to learn about the Ohio River and think deeply about its role in pre-Civil Wars days.  But now, this teacher on vacation was about to be stuck on a pirate boat with a bunch of kids – cute thought they might be, I wanted to be way, way off-duty. “Where can I avoid the kids?” I asked, as I paid for the ticket.

“Third floor,” she said. “But you can hear the pirate music everywhere.”

Oh, goodie.

Ohio River Pirate Cruise For Kids

Ohio River Pirate Cruise For Kids

Hear it, I did.  Everywhere. With lyrics like this: “My name is Roger the Pirate, and my favorite letter is Rrrrr!”


The boat pushed off.  I wandered around. I peeked into the pirate room. It was actually pretty cute.  There was ice cream, popcorn, foam swashbuckling swords, and an adult painting mustaches on little ones’ faces.

Most exciting for them was the centerpiece of activity:   a big blue tarp with a wooden board over it, where the kids did some plank-walking.  I can’t help it. Even if I want to be in adult-only space during summer vacation, I just love being around kids.

Then, I heard the captain’s voice announcing the beginning of the historic tour. I went back up to the top deck, stood under one of the tinny speakers, felt the wonderful breeze off the water, watched the big, red paddle wheels whirl – and listened.


Links to all Underground Railroad blog posts:

  1. Kicking Off My Fund For Teachers Fellowship
  2. Cincinnati’s Freedom Center
  3. Underground Railroad, Slavery and the Erasure of Memory in Flushing, Ohio
  4. Unexpected Twist on an Ohio River cruise (This Post)
  5. Why Ripley Ohio Moves Me
  6. A History Hater Teaches History


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  • Michael Taylor, NBCT

    Reply Reply June 23, 2015

    I love the way you’ve juxtaposed the pirate cruise description with the Ohio slave tour. I think your students will appreciate the pairing of these events as well.

    • Melissa

      Reply Reply June 23, 2015

      Michael, thanks the compliment. You reading my blog inspires me to keep writing.

  • Oz Teitelbaum

    Reply Reply June 25, 2015

    I shudder to ask why both tours occur simultaneously…..but who am I? Hope your travels continue to be safe, easy and fun filled.

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