Discovering The Monongahela River

Beauty Around Every Bend

Published in Houuseboat Magazine, June 1996.

By Gerald A. Troyanek

When I was in grade school, my attention was always drawn to the big map of the United States hanging over the blackboard in front of the room. You know the one I’m talking about, the one that teacher always used to show us where an important event in our history took place. Anyway, when all the other kids were out playing during recess, I’d sometimes stay in and follow the course of rivers with my finger.

I would envision myself climbing aboard a boat at my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin, on the upper Mississippi and follow it down to where the Ohio joined in. From there, my imaginary journey would follow the mighty Ohio all the way up to the great industrial city of Pittsburgh. I wondered about those "other" rivers. I could hardly pronounce Monongahela let alone image what it would be like to cruise on this mysterious river that helped create the mighty Ohio.

I’ve heard it said those childhood dreams only come true in the movies. Then again I’ve heard that if you really believe in your dreams they just might come true. Well, here I am 40 years later, a DWM, my older but not that much wiser eyes following the nav chart sailing line along the banks of a river whose name I only remember seeing on a map and still have trouble saying: The Monongahela. Well, I’m here to tell you that some dreams to come true!

The Monongahela is formed by the confluence of the West Fork and Tygart Valley rivers just above Fairmont, West Virginia. It flows north through some of the most beautiful scenery West Virginia has to offer. It joins the Allegheny at Point State Park at Pittsburgh to form the 981-mile long Ohio River. Much to my surprise, the 128-miles Monongahela is a river undergoing transition and rebirth.

Once polluted to near death by industry and careless communities, the river has slowly rebounded to become a jewel in the recreational boating crown of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Although the lower half of the Monongahela is still frequented by moderate amounts of commercial traffic, the upper reaches provide for exceptional tranquil cruising and sightseeing.

Nine Locks and Dams provide excellent deep-channel navigation from Pittsburgh to the crystal clear waters of the Tygart Valley River at Fairmont. West Virginia lockages range from 8’ to 22’. All locks Monitor VHF channel 13 religiously and are operated 24 hours a day EXCEPT Hildebrand Lock, MRM 108.0 at Laurel Point, West Virginia and Opekiska Lock, MRM 115.4 at Catawba, West Virginia. At press times, these last two locks on the Upper Monongahela were open only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily, so plan to arrive by 3:30 p.m. if you need lockage.

Moving at an average speed of ten miles per hour at 2300 rpm, I found that a week was plenty of time for a round-trip journey. This should give you plenty of time to enjoy the sights and visit the many towns found along the length of the Monongahela.

All but the first three locks on the lower river above Pittsburgh are equipped with floating bollards. Unlike the locks on the Upper Mississippi which provide mooring lines, the locktenders on the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny rely on YOU to provide mooring line. Have at least 75-100 feet of line secured to either your bow or stern cleat. As you enter the lock, the locktender will lower a line with a hook attached. After settling to your spot on the wall, drape your line over the hook and the locktender will haul it up and run it around a bit at the top of the wall.

Larger boats require 2-3 bits, so be prepared to hold the loose end that remains either at your bow or stern, taking up or playing our line as you rise of fall. When your lockage is complete, simply undo your secured line and slowly pull it up and around the bollard back down to your boat.

Your first encounter with the "River Banks That Slide" will either be coming upstream off the Ohio or downstream from the Allegheny. Mile 0.00 for the Ohio, Allegheny and the Monongahela is at Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh. The sight of this city from the river is like Dorothy and friends viewing the Emerald City from a distance, and I suggest dropping anchor or tying to the point for an hour or so to get your bearings. If you drop the hook, keep a radio tuned to VHF channel 13 for security calls from tows and cruise boats in the area. This area is extremely congested with pleasure craft during the weekends and you will casually observe and curse the nameless and many "no wake" law breakers. I made the silly mistake of coming around the point at 3 p.m. on Sunday and it was like threading a needle without any glasses!

If you decide to spend time in Pittsburgh before going up the Monongahela, you will soon discover that all downtown marinas and docks are located along the Allegheny River. All require an advance call for overnight dockage, so consult the most recent edition to Quimby’s Cruising Guide for the latest listings. At last survey, there were five facilities before arriving at Allegheny Lock and Dam #2, 6.7 miles upstream. North Shore and Dave’s leases were non-renewed by the city for 1996, but both were planning to relocate at press time. If you need fuel, now would be a good time to top your tanks, because your first opportunity for fuel on the Monongahela is four miles above Braddock Lock and Dam at mile 15.8.

As you depart downtown Pittsburgh heading up the Monongahela, many high bridges, commercial docks and fleeting areas dot the shoreline. Rounding the bend at Mile 6.3, Sandcastle Entertainment Complex will come into view off starboard. This popular attraction offers an amusement and water park, restaurant and entertainment center. Sandcastle’s courtesy dock is usually jammed with all types of watercraft from the Pittsburgh area and luck plays a part in finding a spot to park.

After locking through Braddock Lock and Dam at Mile 11.2, you’ll be 8’ higher in elevation and passing the quiet hulks of what was once America’s huge steel industry. There was a time when the night sky was aglow with light generated by these rusting relics and as I passed, I had to wonder what happened to all the people that were employed in these hellish places. Rounding the bend at McKeesport, you will pass the mouth of the Youghiogheny River at Mile 15.6. Shallow and navigable for only a mile, Yough View and Virdie’s Lounge Courtesy docks will be found along its banks.

The first of a half dozen private boat clubs will come into view at Mile 15.8 RDB where the Monongahela Valley Boat Club has been in existence since 1942. Although it is a private club, they welcome the cruising public with services including fuel and transient docking. The same is true at MRM 22.8 RDB where the Elizabeth Boat Club has resided since 1961, and these friendly folks welcome all traveling boat club members willing to reciprocate. If no members are around at the boat club and you feel the need to go ashore for provisions, the City of Elizabeth offers courtesy docking just above the highway bridge at Riverfront Park at Mile 23.0 RDB.

After another 8’ lift at Lock and Dam #3 at MRM 23.8 near Elizabeth, the river begins to broaden and lose its industrial surroundings in favor of lush wooded Pennsylvania hillsides. Carousel Marina and Restaurant will be found at Mile 27.5. If you run out of daylight like I did, this is your chance to tie-off for the evening and enjoy a tasty meal or a stiff cocktail at Ralph Solan’s restaurant and lounge. If you must press on, there are four more opportunities to dock before the next lock. There is Sue Molnar’s Marina at Mile 29.2, Beach Club Marina at Mile 30.7, and Monongahela Mariners Boat Club, Mile 31.8. The Grandview Marina & Saloon is at Mile 32.4. Many of these marinas and clubs have very limited transient dock space, so I highly recommend calling ahead to check if space is available for your size craft.

Lock and Dam #4 at Monessen blocks forward progress at Mile 41.5. After clearing the lock and passing under the Belle Vernon Highway Bridge at Mile 43.5, Harbor Town Marina will appear off the starboard. Chantelle McManus, HTM’s lovely harbor master will see to all your boating needs. Home of Snooter’s Restaurant, this would also be a good spot to cap a good day’s run up from Pittsburgh.

Between Spears, Pennsylvania, and Maxwell Lock and Dam up river, you will encounter five more small boat clubs and marinas scattered between a mix of industry and quiet shoreline. I found that Denbo Marina at Mile 58.8 has an area set aside for the owner’s antique car and fire truck collection. If you get off on rare wheeled vehicles, take a few moments to check it our. They also have a good selection of marine supplies.

Beginning with Maxwell Lock at Mile 62.3, the remaining locks and dams on the Monongahela have floating mooring bits. The 21-mile long Maxwell pool is also the longest on the river, and most of the heavy weekend pleasure boating will be found between here and Grays Landing Lock and Dam at Mile 82. Just above the visitable communities of Fredericktown and Millsboro at Mile 65.6 is Ten Mile Creek, and it is home to three marinas and one very old boat club. The first marina just under the old railroad bridge to starboard on Ten Mile Creek is Engle’s Holiday Harbor. This marina is one of the friendliest on the river and the Engle family will celebrate 50 years in the boating business in 1996. If you need anything in the way of repairs, parts or marine supplies for your vessel, this is the place.

My Monongahela River adventure began at Engle’s which is also home to the Olde Phartes Fleete. The Fleete is a very special group of boaters over the age of 40 whose credo is "Age and treachery shall overcome youth and ambition," and it came as a surprise to discover that I had been "elevated in status to that of Honorary Member of the Olde Phartes Fleete." I’ll never forget that special flatbed truck ceremony where Head Pharte James Hackney presented me with a gold-framed certificate and toasted my arrival an departure with a cold can of Penn Pilsner, the official brew of the Fleete. Naturally, the Olde Pharte pennant now flies with pride beneath my Bucky Badger windsock on every river I travel! If you stop, try to visit the clubhouse building and membership shrine.

Just up from Engle’s is Ten Mile Yacht Club. Established in 1947, it is one of the oldest clubs on the river. If you get the chance, stop in and spend some time visiting with club manager Shamus Moriarty. Tell them Jerry sent you. He just might show you his sprawling Green Cove Yacht Club. Besides providing the usual boating amenities, it features a good restaurant and lounge. Just beyond Green Cove under the Route 88 highway bridge lies Sunset Marina, a nice small boat facility.

Once leaving the off channel security of Ten Mile Creek, you will soon be passing Jessop Boat Club at Mile 72.8 and Chuck’s Landing at Mile 75.5 on your way to Grays Landing Lock and Dam at Mile 82.0. This new lock replaces old Lock #7 at Mile 85 which was a bottleneck and headache to commercial and recreational captains alike. Though the charts will show Lock 7 crossing the channel, the dam was being demolished when I passed and there was a Corp. man directing traffic through the narrow gateless locks chamber that remained. There may be a tow or other traffic coming down through from above, so before rounding the bend at Greensboro, do a Security call on VHF 13 to let him know you’re coming.

A new marina and campground are taking shape at Mile 88.6 just below the junction with the Cheat River. Appropriately named Two Rivers, this stop features gas, diesel (w/call), limited transient docking, rest rooms/showers/laundry, refreshments and snacks. Built along the old Danri Coal mooring cells, owner Herman Gugliotta plans to expand his dockage further along the cells as funds permit. This place has the makings for a good break from cruising for boaters in the coming years.

Just around the bend at Mile 90.8 is Point Marion Lock and Dam with a lift of 19’. After passing the Monongahela power station just upstream of the lock, you will find yourself in a West Virginia state of mind. It was somewhere along here that I realized I was heading upstream but traveling South.

I had no idea there were so many rivers in the United States that flowed North until I actually cruised them.

Bob Gall’s Riverside Marine is coming up on the left descending bank at Mile 95.4. Seeing a storm brewing over the West Virginian Mountains, I decided to tie-off for the evening and Bob graciously gave me a quick tour of Morgantown and the University of West Virginia campus located there. After a great meal at one of Morgantown’s many hot spots, it was back to the dock to prepare for early morning departure.

As I approached Morgantown, it occurred to me how important coal is to the economic base of this area of the country. As I looked up into the hills, I could see the mine shafts that still turn out huge amounts of the black stuff. From Riverside Marine to downtown Morgantown, it’s one coal loading facility after another, so stay alert and out of the way of work boats making down-bound coal tows. One thing that must be stressed here is to give and answer Security calls on VHF 13 to let all vessels in the area know what your intentions are.

Between Morgantown Lock at Mile 102 and Hildebrand Lock at Mile 108 the scenery just keeps getting better and better and I expected to see a native American cruising around the next bend in his canoe. Between the locks and located under the I-79 bridge is Twin Spruce fuel dock. If you forgot that Hildebrand and Opekiska Locks were only open between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. and you are stuck between, Six and Plum Marina and Campground is awaiting your arrival at Mile 112.5. I’m sure Teresa Brewer would not mind seeing your craft moored at her dock for the evening.

After locking Opekiska, the remaining 13 miles of river wedged between Marion and Monongalia Counties will wind its way to Fairmont, West Virginia, where Marion County Parks and Recreation maintain a courtesy dock for easy access to town. Another mile upstream the Monongahela branches off into the West Fork and Tygart Valley Rivers. There is only one management decision to be made at this juncture, and that is to go 2.3 miles up the clear waters of the Tygart to Wood’s Boat House to top your tanks for the return voyage. Wood’s has plenty or room for small craft, but if your vessel is larger than 26’ in length, I recommend docking for the evening at Hawkins’s Landing, near the river’s entrance. Chuck’s place is the first set of docks to starboard coming up the Tygart and you will have power and rest rooms if you need it. It’s a quiet, peaceful and friendly place to spend the night.

Now that you are familiar with the river called Monongahela, all that remains is to cruise back down and enjoy everything you missed coming up. I truly hope you enjoyed your cruise as much as I did when I made the trip. I do not know about you, but there is not another feeling in the world like the one you have when you just finished exploring a new river. Thank God for those rivers and the cruising adventures they bring our way.