Ohio River Valley: On the Trail of Simon Kenton
August 7, 2013
Filed under Favorite Rides: Motorcycle Rides from Rider Readers, Featured Favorite Ride, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel, Touring and Rallies
Simon Kenton is one of America’s least-known heroes. Kenton and Daniel Boone were contemporaries in the beautiful but deadly wilderness of the Ohio River Valley during the nation-building period of the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Boone’s story would have ended badly in a 1777 battle with Shawnee warriors had Kenton not saved his life, thus enabling a generation of raccoon cap-wearing kids to watch Fess Parker play the role of this famous Kentuckian on TV two centuries later. Kenton’s story is even more amazing than Mr. Boone’s. I have long been an admirer of his and decided to take a motorcycle day trip to retrace his footsteps while enjoying scenic roads seemingly custom made for two-wheelers.
Kenton was born in 1755 in the Virginia Mountains. At the age of 16, after mistakenly believing he had killed another man over the love of a woman, he fled to a life of adventure and danger in the frontier. American history was greatly affected by that adolescent fistfight.
In 1774, Kenton’s service as a military scout took him to the juncture of the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, at present day Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and the fierce day-long battle at the place Native Americans called Tu-Endie-Wei. An impressive park preserves the site of that battle and this is where I began my two-wheeled journey of discovery. After a tour of the battleground, I crossed the Ohio River to Ohio Route 7. This designated Scenic Byway not only charms with qualities that endear it to motorcyclists, it beguiles the curious rider with examples of intriguing history as it follows the Ohio River on its downstream course. Roads that closely follow rivers have special appeal for motorcyclists, and Route 7 is no exception as it waltzes to and fro in harmony with the meandering waterway. Frequent glimpses of the large river, bounded by forested Appalachian foothills, bring smiles to my face as I silently mouth the frequently used but totally inadequate exclamation of “Wow!”
The Ohio River Valley has some of the best, if least known, motorcycling roads in the country, some of which can be traced directly to Kenton. He was one of the first white men to explore this wilderness, cutting trails through the wilds that have morphed into roads that we enjoy riding today. After savoring the best motorcycling that Route 7 has to offer, I turned west on State Route 217, bisecting a peninsula of forested hills and hollows formed when the Ohio River makes a large loop to the south. Route 217 is but one of the many lightly traveled “secret” routes that riders familiar with Ohio’s serpentine back roads have the privilege of riding. Motorcyclists quickly exhaust their supply of superlatives when describing 217 and State Route 141, which I join farther west on my way to the city of Ironton. With hardly a straight or level stretch, these roads on the north slope of Appalachia are a gift from the motorcycling gods.
With my mental and physical energy spent from the thrills, I arrived in Ironton ready for a break at Frogtown USA, a favorite rider eatery and entertainment spot on Business Route 52.
From Ironton, a multi-lane “improved” version of U.S. 52 follows the Ohio River northward the last few miles to Portsmouth, where the Scioto River joins it. For uncountable generations, the Scioto was home to Native American nations who built towns and ceremonial earthworks along its shores. To this day, dozens of native place names and mounds offer testimony to that remarkable history. Kenton spent years exploring this region and led many settlers to new lives in the nearby hills and valleys.
After stopping to see the impressive floodwall murals that line the waterfront in Portsmouth, I continued west on 52, leaving traffic and congestion behind. This enjoyable and smooth pavement, once again two meandering lanes for optimal two-wheeled fun, carried me through the rustic beauty of the Shawnee State Forest. The next two hours were delightful as I experienced frequent changes in my horizon, leaning through the many sweeping curves. Traffic was very light on this sunny spring day and I found myself immersed in motorcycling bliss as I rode through the scenic landscape, enjoying frequent views of the impressive Ohio River to my left and steep cliffs on my right. The muscular and melodic bass beat from my Harley Road King’s exhaust pipes reverberated off the trees and limestone walls, adding another sensual aspect to the experience.
After traveling 146 miles from Point Pleasant, I crossed the Ohio River again. This time, it was on the Simon Kenton Memorial Bridge riding from Aberdeen, Ohio, to Maysville, Kentucky. Historically, this shallow stretch of the river was a key crossing point, with migrating American bison having created a trail that Native Americans utilized for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of European and American explorers. It was at this spot that Kenton barely survived an Indian attack in 1775.
After an al fresco lunch on the Maysville waterfront, admiring more floodwall murals, I re-crossed the river and began following a trail that Kenton carved in the wilderness north to present-day Springfield. This path was called Kenton’s Trace and parts of it remain today under the concrete of modern roads. Kenton’s Trace helped open the interior of Ohio to nervous and tenuous settlement.
Today, the smooth, two-lane asphalt provided for a pleasurable ride through the fields and woodlots of the rolling lands of southwestern Ohio. From Aberdeen, I turned onto State Route 41 and, after just a couple miles, headed north on State Route 763 where the fun began in earnest again. This is another of those narrow strips of pavement that rise and fall as quickly as a rider can work the clutch, while at the same time requiring flicking the bike left and right as one curve leads into another. It’s a land of small farms in the hollows surrounded by forested hills. One beautiful view after another will have riders thinking they’ve rolled into a living Currier & Ives painting.
When 763 ends, State Route 125 seamlessly leads me to the village of Russellville and U.S. 62, on which I continued my northward ride. Highway 62 is a federal road but its two lanes are very enjoyable, with calmer horizontal and vertical curves all the way to State Route 72 just north of the town of Hillsboro. Route 72 continues the pattern of sweeping curves and gentle hills through miles of verdant countryside. Since it’s not a main thoroughfare, traffic is light and the riding was kicked back and enjoyable as I rode on or near Kenton’s original trail.
Fifty miles north of Hillsboro, I reached the village of Clifton on the Little Miami River. This stream is so picturesque and geologically unique it is listed as both a state and federal scenic river. John Bryan State Park borders this charming village on the west and a footpath follows the river as it funnels through the dramatic Clifton Gorge just west of the village. The Clifton Mill is a must stop for any motorcyclist in this area. Built in 1802 atop a 20-foot bedrock chasm that channels the river, the functioning mill is a fascinating example of water-powered grist mills critical to life on the frontier. An adjacent 1940s gas station museum adds to the allure, while a short distance away a sign on Route 72 declares the stretch of roadway as being the original Kenton Trace.
I continued my ride through history north into Springfield on Route 72. Once a trail of dread, Kenton walked it in 1778 as a prisoner, but survived to walk it again 20 years later when he finally settled down and built a cabin in 1799. Rumbling north of Springfield on Old 68 took me past that original homestead where the Simon Kenton Inn & Publik House is located.
After 275 miles, I completed my quest at Oakdale Cemetery in Urbana where Kenton was ultimately laid to rest. It seemed appropriate to park my bike at his gravesite as I paid my respects and contemplated his story. I think the old gentleman would completely understand why some of us so love the freedom and adventure we get from motorcycling. After all, he lived his entire life pursuing those same qualities.
(This Favorite Ride article was published in the August 2013 issue of Rider magazine.)