Marietta Ohio - A CNU Midwest Interview
Marietta, Ohio is a picturesque city situated at the confluence of the Ohio River and Muskingum River. As an Appalachian city, it should come as no surprise that Marietta’s topography is hilly. It is home to Marietta College, an impressive collection of steel truss bridges and rail lines, and has several historic, walkable neighborhoods.
Marietta was first officially settled on April 7, 1788. It is the county seat of Washington County, Ohio, which was named for the man – George Washington – who was one of the original promoters and advocates for regional development. According to 2019 U.S. Census data, Marietta’s population is 13,356.
CNU Midwest had the opportunity to speak with Marietta’s Director of Development, Daniel Everson, about both Marietta’s proud past and its very bright future.
Marietta is a beautiful river city that seems to have a significant history. Can you tell us more about that history and what about that history makes Marietta special?
I can give you some very broad strokes about what I personally think makes Marietta special: you don’t often think about revolutionary war history in connection with Appalachia, but given that Marietta was founded as a land grant for Revolutionary War generals and was the first permanent settlement in the northwest territory the history is a lot richer than most people might realize. Basically, the only difference between Marietta and a city like Philadelphia is that Philadelphia continued to grow into a really big city, while Marietta stayed a small town – but the basic historic bones and revolutionary-era origins of both cities are similar. And I’m glad that’s finally being more widely recognized: David McCullough’s book “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West” has stirred wider interest in our regional history.
An often overlooked part of Marietta is its Native American history. We have a very unique and beautiful Adena mound (the Conus mound) right in the middle of town which is part of the larger Marietta Earthworks network of mounds, and there are a number of native tribes with strong history and continuing interest in the region. So while we immediately think of this as a post-Revolutionary War westward settlement, there is also some really interesting pre-US history that people tend to overlook.
Marietta is located at the intersection of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers. What effect does that have on daily life for residents and businesses and how do you Marietta’s history should inform its future?
That’s another thing about Marietta that I think is very unique – and it is both a challenge and an opportunity from a community development point of view. On the one hand, there are flooding risks that make certain areas difficult to develop. On the other hand, we can lay claim to being a riverboat city, which draws on an entirely different vein of American history. There is an annual sternwheeler festival that promotes a lot of tourism, and that festival is really a celebration of America’s shared cultural past as much as it is a celebration of Marietta. Seeing the sternwheelers on the Ohio River brings to mind Mark Twain and that bygone era when we as a nation relied on our waterways much more than we do today.
Marietta in my view is a time capsule to several different eras: and my big-picture view is that whatever we do to develop this city should honor and seek to lift up the history that makes Marietta unique among American cities.
Marietta has great urban “bones”. It has a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly main street (Front Street) with some very walkable neighborhoods. It also has topography with river views. What improvements would you like to see made to Marietta’s streets and public gathering places to make it even better?
Along with the benefits, historic cities present certain challenges. One challenge, in particular, is the need to ensure that public places are open to everyone. Specifically, Marietta was built by pioneers in an era before anyone had universal public accessibility in mind. One improvement that I’d like to see citywide are better transitions between streets and sidewalks that are wheelchair accessible. I know the ongoing effort to improve city street crossing is really a passion for some of the folks in city engineering. I actually think these kinds of projects benefit everybody because some of us are just clumsy and prone to tripping on curbs.
You mention topography with river views, and that’s very true. One of the neat things about Marietta, from a walkability perspective, is its picturesque river trail. The trail, which is used both by bike riders and pedestrians, runs right alongside the city’s two rivers. Walking or biking the trail a great way to get outside, get some exercise, and generally get from one part of town to another. It’s perfect for those that would prefer not to drive and has excellent near-citywide coverage. Unfortunately, the easternmost part of the river trail suffered a major structural setback not long ago, and this happened not long after that part of the trail first opened. So the city at this point is focused on an effort to fix this major problem, and that’s been frustrating. Still, most of the river trail remains open, and if you want to get to know Marietta you could do a lot worse than walking the length of the river trail and taking in the sights.
One other neat thing about the river trail, as it relates to downtown, is that it runs through the heart of the Marietta historic district, and will take you right to the Campus Martius Museum of the Northwest Territory and the Ohio River Museum. At the point where the Ohio River meets the Muskingum, there is a plaque commemorating the place where Marquis de Lafayette debarked to visit Marietta. George Washington himself scouted the area, promoted the effort to make a land grant to Revolutionary War generals, and had a documented great love for the region. There’s also a downtown monument to westward expansion (“Memorial to the Start Westward of the Nation”) which was designed by preeminent public works sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the man who designed Mount Rushmore. It was dedicated in Marietta by Franklin Roosevelt in 1938. The river trail provides a great window into all this history. So for those who have a passion both for national history and urban walkability, the river trail is a wonderful asset.
It feels like Marietta’s historic downtown street, Front Street, has had a resurgence in recent years. How did that happen? Are there any big, “game-changer” projects on the horizon?
I’d say that what has already happened has been the biggest game changer. Marietta’s downtown is really special. It wasn’t always that way, and in such an old city it wasn’t inevitable that it would be so picturesque at this point in time. It only happened because the community pulled together, developed a vision, and worked to preserve and improve an area that everyone was really proud of.
One big project that’s been ongoing down on Front Street is an effort to preserve the Start Westward Monument, because the monument was carved in sandstone and has become weathered with time. Supposedly Gutzon Borglum’s point of view was that his design for Start Westward needed to be cast in bronze, but sandstone was the cheaper option. You have to keep in mind that this monument to our revolutionary history came out of the Great Depression public works era. Against that backdrop, one imagines that the designer’s original vision sometimes took a backseat to cost.
Part of the monument preservation effort is a wider effort to improve its setting – the east Muskingum Park portion of the river trail, which is the key part of the river trail that connects downtown to the museum district. There’s a mayoral committee actively working on promoting and pushing forward that preservation and enrichment effort, and they’re really passionate. The vision is to build on what Marietta actually has, by more clearly highlighting the important points of history in a way that makes the history unmistakable to visitors.
What is the status of the Downtown Plan that Enrich Marietta and the City government are putting together?
The Enrich Marietta Plan was published in January 2020, and it represents the results of a wide community collaboration to develop a vision for urban improvement. That plan envisions a downtown spanning both sides of the Muskingum River, including historic Harmar in addition to the commercial downtown center. As part of that plan, community members were invited to identify areas in need of preservation, areas in need of enhancement, and areas in need of transformation. As development progresses in the city over time, the core idea is to draw on the ideas and principles in that plan to continue Marietta’s improvement as an attractive, walkable and picturesque small town.