A Sweet Life on the Ohio River – Maysville, Kentucky

September 2015 – We knew as soon as we got to Maysville, Kentucky, that this was a unique town and that something special was going on here. But what makes one town stand out from all the rest?

Simon Kenton Bridge Maysville Kentucky Rooftops

A bird’s eye view of Maysville Kentucky

For one thing, there are some great bakeries that make this town very sweet!

On our first morning in town, we discovered the Parc Café where we found delicious lattés and yummy croissants and muffins in a really pretty setting. During our stay we kept coming back for more, and we found that there were different kinds of goodies coming out of the oven every time we stopped in.

Parc Cafe coffee shop Maysville Kentucky

The Parc Cafe is a great spot for a leisurely cuppa joe

Even more unusual is The College Cafe. This little corner bakery is where the students from the Maysville Institute of Culinary Arts show off what they have learned in class. And all I can say is that whoever is teaching down there really knows their stuff.

We dove into sinfully delicious brownies and cookies, and stocked up our RV pantry for later too, and all for pennies on the dollar, because they sell their wares at prices that just cover their costs!

Maysville College Cafe Maysville Institute of Culinary Arts

Students from the Maysville Institute of Culinary Arts strut their stuff here – yum!

But man doesn’t live by bread alone. There was something else here in Maysville that drew the town together, made the friendships so strong, and gave us a sense that neighbor helps neighbor and rich and poor rub shoulders without prejudice.

City Park flowers Maysville Kentucky

Pretty flowers in a city park

As we walked down to the river, we found that Maysville is actually a walled city. Unlike European walled cities, it isn’t walled against human invaders. Instead, it is walled against a much more powerful and brutal adversary: the Ohio River.

Maysville Kentucky Ohio River Flood Wall

Maysville is protected from the menacing Ohio River by an enormous floodwall.

This towering concrete wall protects the town from the river’s floodwaters that have a nasty habit of rising to alarming heights with frightening regularity. The back side of the floodwall, facing into town, is decorated with beautiful and enormous murals that stand two dozen or so feet high. Each one depicts a period of Maysville’s history, starting with the Shawnee Indian buffalo hunters who stalked their prey in the area in the 1600’s.

Maysville Kentucky Flood Wall Mural Bufallo Hunt

The first floodwall mural in the series shows the Shawnee Indian buffalo hunts of the 1600’s

Another mural depicts a later period in the 1800’s when paddle boats cruised up and down the Ohio River, connecting Maysville to distant towns and giving birth to a thriving economy as goods and people traveled up and downstream.

Maysville Kentucky Flood Wall Mural Paddleboat on the River 2

The Ohio River gave Maysville a highway to the world

A few decades later, the town’s buildings had become much taller and the paddle boats had been replaced by huge barges. Maysville had become a very important port, and industry was booming.

Maysville Kentucky Flood Wall Mural River Barges

By the late 1800’s Maysville was a truly happening place with big riverfront buildings and huge barges
delivering and shipping goods

But then the Ohio River flooded the town, first in 1884 and then again in 1937. Spring rains and snowmelt rushed downriver from the north, and the water in the city streets rose higher and higher until the buildings were immersed.

Maysville Kentucky 1884 Flood

The Ohio River asserts its authority by flooding the town in 1884

The 1937 flood was such a doozy that it wiped out many of the buildings on Front Street right along the river. Rather than giving up in despair, however, the townspeople responded by banding together and erecting an enormous floodwall to protect their town from the river in the future.

Flood Wall Gate Maysville Kentucky_

The floodwall gate at Limestone Landing

At Limestone Landing there is a huge floodwall gate. As we walked through, we wondered how the city closed the gate when floodwaters came. A city worker named Terry showed us the brick partitions that are stored right next to the gate. Would there really be time to get all those things in place? I asked him. Oh yes, he said, you usually get a few days’ notice!

Bricks to close floodwall gate Maysville Kentucky

The gate is closed by inserting these partitions
into the slots in the edges of the gate

I looked out at the placid and seemingly harmless water. The Ohio River sure didn’t look like an enemy, and it certainly wasn’t an enemy that used ambush tactics. Instead, it is a much more sinister foe that gives you plenty of advance warning before it attacks, and then relentlessly advances, inch by frightening inch!

It was hard to imagine those floodwaters rising so. Terry described standing on the railroad tracks alongside the river and watching a house float by in the terrifying flood of 1997.

Yet the river is very beautiful and placid 99% of the time. Down at the river’s edge the town has built a wonderful zig-zag boardwalk where we watched barges pushing cargo up and down the river under the Simon Kenton Memorial Bridge.

Simon Kenton Memorial Bridge and riverfront boardwalk Maysville Kentucky

There is a wonderful boardwalk along the river at Limestone Landing

One day a school class came down to the river to watch an old World War II ship sail past, and we listened from a distance as they were given a little lesson about the geography of the states of Ohio and Kentucky and the river that runs between them.

School class on the Ohio River bank Maysville Kentucky

School kids learn the history of their town
and the importance of the Ohio River

In the distance we could see a power plant that also relies on the river for its operations.

Maysville Kentucky RIverwalk and power plant

The Ohio River is at the foundation of the area’s economy

The Ohio River plays an important part in many aspects of day to day life here. And just as the barges carry goods up and down the river day in and day out, trains have done the same thing right next to the river for a century.

Train tracks Maysville Kentucky

Trains parallel the barges next to the river.

Maysville is a waterfront town, and Limestone Landing is a great place to enjoy the beauty of the river. From the floodwall gate a tunnel goes underneath the train tracks to the river, and hundreds of clay tiles line the tunnel walls, each one imprinted with a child’s hand. This very cool riverside artwork was a school project in the mid 1990’s.

Children's hand imprints in flood wall gate tunnel

Touching artwork decorates the walls of the tunnel under the train tracks,
courtesy of the local high school kids in the mid 1990’s

We’d never spent much time in a river town before, and as the days passed we began to realize just how deeply the Ohio River is integrated into Maysville’s soul. It’s not just that the river gave rise to the town’s early settlement and burgeoning economy two centuries ago. It is simpler and yet also more subtle than that.

The Ohio River put Maysville on the map, but in return, it has reminded the town, in startling 50-60 year intervals ever since, that it also has the ability to take it off the map!

The oldest folks in town remember the horrific devastation of the flood of 1937. Most everyone else remembers the flood of 1997 when the river crested just shy of the top of the flood wall.

Barge on the Ohio River

As this barge floats past Maysville, it’s hard to imagine how devastating an Ohio River flood can be.

But Maysville gets plenty of small reminders of what the river can do in between those mammoth floods. Last year’s heavy snows and rains brought the river almost to the base of the floodwall in the spring, covering the zig-zag boardwalk by many feet and rising through the clay tile decorated tunnel and going right up the staircase that leads to the floodwall gate. It did the same thing a few years earlier.

Without a doubt, living with a neighbor — and benefactor — just over the wall that is as temperamental as the Mighty Ohio River will shape a town’s personality.

Perhaps it has united the community in ways that other towns never experience. Keeping the river at bay must be a special source of pride, and certainly everyone we met expressed a genuine affection for Maysville that is far deeper than most people feel for their hometown.

Simon Kenton Bridge and St Patrick's Cathedral Maysville KY

The historic Simon Kenton Memorial Bridge

And perhaps the bakeries in Maysville are so good because people in town understand the importance of living by this credo:

Life is short and uncertain — eat dessert first!

High up on 6th Street we got an awesome bird’s eye view of the town and the river as we looked across the rooftops at the two suspension bridges, the older Simon Kenton Memorial Bridge and the very modern William Harsha suspension bridge in the distance.

William Harsha Bridge and Maysville Kentucky church steeples

Maysville is flanked by two beautiful suspension bridges.
The William Harsha bridge in the distance has a wonderfully sleek and modern design.

In the days that followed, we learned that there was another equally important sculptor, besides the Ohio River, that played a role in forming Maysville’s unique spirit: the tobacco fields. And we were very fortunate to be given a special view of this labor intensive industry up close…


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12 thoughts on “A Sweet Life on the Ohio River – Maysville, Kentucky

  1. We are so pleased that you enjoyed our beautiful, historic town. We are downtown shop owners & it is always nice to read a wonderful review. Feel free to stop by the Merle Norman Cosmetics & Gifts when you visit again.

  2. This is a fantastic advertisement for Maysville, and the pictures are wonderful. Thank you so much!! Next time you come to Maysville, check out Old Washington on the top of the hill. It was settled first, before Maysville, and has awesome log cabins, as signs of its pioneer history.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the pics, Marsha. Maysville is very photogenic! This is one of a series of online articles I’ve been writing about Maysville, and the trip we made to Washington will be included in an upcoming post. We had a great tour out there!!

  3. Awesome write up about Maysville and what our little town has to offer! The pictures are wonderful! The artwork in the tunnel is one of my favorite things to admire in Maysville. I remember making that hand print in either the 4th or 5th grade… It took me months to finally find it on the wall! Thank you for sharing your experience!

    • Wow — your hand is on the wall, Ashley?! How cool totally cool!!! I had thought some of the hands were truly child sized, but I forgot to ask about it when we were in town, and all I could find online were references to high school kids. Thanks for dropping me a line here and letting me know you were part of the project. When we saw those hand tiles in the tunnel we knew we were in a very special place!!!

      • It was a great school project for my 4th and 5th graders at Jones Elementary. We had an artist in residence to design this program. As an art teacher it was a real task to dry that many slabs before they went to the kiln.

  4. I was born in Maysville in 1983, my Dad in 1940s and my Grandmother in the 1920s. I lived there until 2010. It is great to see Maysville through an outside pair or eyes! Loved the article and Love my hometown. PS: My handprint is on the wall too ?

    • Another owner of a hand print plus three generations in Maysville – what fun! We just love the way so many people have a really long history with the town. And how neat to have left your own personal mark on the town with an imprint of your hand!

  5. Good thing you keep up your cycling, when you run into such a town with such good food and deserts !! I love riding my bike and I look forward to making it a mode of transportation when we stop and park the fiver when we arrive at our destinations. !! Jim Hipple ( I also love good food and goodies !!)


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