Maysville, Kentucky: Americana on the Ohio River

HistoricSign.Maysville.LeochaThis summer, on a trip to northern Kentucky, I ended up in the town of Maysville on the south bank of the Ohio River. This is a town where time stands still. Riverboats dock beside the bridge. Cabaret plays in the restored opera house. Locals talk politics over ham and eggs at the diner. Maysville and its neighboring town Washington (a living museum) offer a wonderful and fast-disappearing peek into the world of early America.

Once upon a time, Maysville was the gateway to the Wild West. In fact, before becoming the gateway, it was the Wild West. Though most Americans associate buffalo with the Plains states much farther to the west, herds of buffalo once rumbled beside the Ohio River. BuffaloTraceMural.maysville.LeochaThe great beasts would ford the river here at Limestone Landing from the Ohio side, then roam southward along the trace to the salt licks deeper in Kentucky, beating a trail that later was followed by settlers and eventually became the first paved road in the United States.

An impressive list of historical characters came to Maysville. In the late 1760s the frontiersman Daniel Boone followed the buffalo trace and helped lay out the town, then called Limestone. He raised his family and fought Indians here. Meriwether Lewis passed through the town on his way to meet William Clark. Lafayette came through on his way to the new lands opening to the west. Henry Clay spoke here and President Andrew Jackson slept here. The town hosted Ulysses Grant and Zachary Taylor and is the birthplace of Rosemary Clooney.

The Underground Railroad ran through Maysville, too, smuggling runaway slaves across the river to Ohio and on to eventual freedom in Canada. Just getting to the North, across the Ohio River, wasn’t enough, for the law required that slaves found in the North be returned to their owners in the South. For these runaways, reaching Canada was the only sure way to escape servitude.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” after seeing a slave auction in nearby Washington, Ky., which is just up the hill from Maysville. Murals painted on the river wall in Maysville show some of the signals used by the Underground Railroad, such as lanterns hung on the Ohio side of the river and quilts used to signal when it was safe to cross over. In “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Liza’s winter crossing over the ice took place just downriver from Maysville.

TobaccoMural.maysville.LeochaOnce, the second-largest tobacco market in the world was held in Maysville. Decades ago, farmers brought millions of pounds of their tobacco, called “Kentucky burley,” into town to sell and then ship down the Ohio River. Fresh vegetable stands still punctuate roads through the surrounding fields. In fall, there are apple, pumpkin and honey festivals here, and the local Amish community is active with baking, crafts and furniture making all year long.

Downtown Maysville is a time capsule of America from the 1800s. The town center is preserved much as it was at the beginning of the 1900s, when it was one of the main Ohio River ports; in those days, fancy riverboats and laden flatboats plied the river. No glowing golden arches or flickering neon ruins the scene. Train whistles can still be heard beside the river — Amtrak barrels through on the run from Chicago to Washington, D.C., and freight trains carrying coal rumble past the old town warehouses.

GeorgianHouses.Maysville.LeochaThe city government has buried utility lines under cobblestone streets and it works hard to preserve the history and art of Maysville. A new museum houses one of the country’s best collections of miniatures of all kinds — everything from buildings to completely furnished individual rooms and artworks — as well as an exceptional regional historical collection. Within a three-block stretch of Third Street, five different types of Gothic architecture — Renaissance, Tudor, Basilica, Neo-Gothic and Gothic Revival — can be seen in the churches. Stately old row houses with curling iron grillwork stand guard over the historic district, many carefully restored by doctors, lawyers and artists. Almost 50 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city has also created a wonderful artwork on the flood wall of the river, consisting of a series of murals that celebrate the history of Maysville. Panels depict the Buffalo Trace, Lafayette coming to town in 1825, the Underground Railroad, the tobacco farms and more. The old town fountain has been moved and restored, and new galleries for art, fine jewelry and custom furniture are adding a new panache to the city streets.

PostOffice.Washington.leochaUp on the bluff above the downtown area, the old town of Washington is a living museum of life in the pioneer days. A walk along Main Street passes the last functioning log cabin post office in America, as well as the old church, the visitors center (built in a 1790 cabin) and the Marshall Key House, which today houses the Harriet Beecher Stowe Slavery to Freedom Museum. There is also a collection of 23 different horse-drawn carriages, runabouts and buggies.

Maysville and Washington are perfect destinations for anyone touring the northern Kentucky region during the foliage season or harvest. They make a nice day trip, too, from either Cincinnati, Ohio, or Lexington, Ky.

Accommodations. The French Quarter Inn (606-564-8000) is the downtown hotel, right along the flood wall at the corner of McDonald Parkway and Market Street. There are two notable downtown bed and breakfasts that evoke the historic past: The Magnolia Inn (606-564-5857) is built in a restored 1870 brick home; Moon River (606-563-8812) is in a Market Street row house. Chain hotels such as Best Western, Hampton Inn and Super 8 Motel are up on the bluff that rises to the south of town along AA Highway 9 and Highway 68.MaysvilleMural.leocha

Dining. A new upscale restaurant, The Courtyard on Cherry Alley (really on Third Street; 606-564-9200) has an impressive French-inspired courtyard; it complements the handful of diners and small eateries in the old downtown area. Chandler’s (606-564-6385) serves up authentic ribs and southern fare for lunch and dinner in a restored building on Market Street. Italian meals plus all-American basic fare can be found at Caproni’s (606-564-4321), across from the train station. For breakfast, try either Delite’s or Margie’s Southern Café; both are small Market Street diners that also serve lunch. A new coffeehouse, The Daily Grind, on Market Street, brings gourmet blends, strong espresso and frothy cappuccinos to the center of town.

Maysville Welcome Center, 115 E. Third St. in downtown Maysville next to the Simon Kenton Bridge (606-564-6986). Open Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; closed Sundays.

Maysville-Mason Convention & Visitors Bureau, 201 E. Third St. in downtown Maysville (888-875-6297). Open Mon.-Fri. 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and some Saturdays.

Old Washington Visitors Center in the Washington Historic District, 2215 Old Main St., Maysville (606-759-7411). Open Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sun. noon to 4 p.m. Guided tours of the Washington Historic District are available from here.