Rolling on the river

Switzerland County museum
highlights life on the Ohio River

By Konnie McCollum
Contributing Writer

VEVAY, Ind. (December 2006) – Switzerland County, Ind., located at mile 537.6 of the Ohio River, has long been recognized as one of the most important river communities of the 19th century. Vevay, the county seat, became a major port of call for steamboats churning up and down the river.

Ohio River History Museum

Photo by Konnie McCollum

The Life on the Ohio River History
Museum features replicas of steamboats
that once operated on the river.

The Life on the Ohio River History Museum, located at 208 Market St., documents the history of riverboats, from the earliest flatboats to the steamboats, which traveled along the shores of Switzerland County.
The museum has been opened for about two years. Previously, many of the exhibits were housed in the Switzerland County Historical Museum, located on the grounds next to the river museum.
Thanks to money bequeathed to the Switzerland County Historical Society by Doris Dupraz, officials at the historical museum were able to buy on land contract the building that now houses the river museum. The Paul Ogle Foundation of Jeffersonville, Ind., then stepped in and paid off the $102,000 mortgage on the museum.
“When the building next to the history museum became available, we knew we had to get it,” said Martha Bladen, the historical society’’s president. She said the river history artifacts and documents were squeezed into a corner of the history museum and needed their own building.
The Switzerland County Council and the Town of Vevay Council also granted the museum money to help renovate the building. The Town of Vevay helped fund the concrete sidewalks and the courtyard garden.
Local Boy Scouts working on an Eagle Scout project laid the brick sidewalk, while members of the Junior Historical Society at the Switzerland County High School helped with yard maintenance and other physical labors.
The exhibits in the new museum include rare flatboat and steamboat documents not found in any other museum, such as passenger ledgers, shipping ledgers and bills of laden that describe the historical story of both people and goods that traveled along the river.
There is an exhibit in one section of the museum that highlights steamboat disasters. There are even artifacts on display from the 1868 disastrous collision between the two steamboats United States and America along the Switzerland county shores.
Other exhibits include rare models of various boats that have played a prominent role in river history. There is a large model of the famous Ohio River steam packet boat, the City of Louisville, at the museum. The model was built by a man who had once been a member of her crew.
Eleven smaller replicas of model boats made with matchbooks and other small everyday items are enclosed in glass cases. The perfectly-detailed, hand-crafted models were made by Switzerland County native Harold Patterson, once an actor on Capi. Billy Bryant’s New Showboat.
Along the wall in the main exhibit room is a mural depicting the shoreline of the entire Ohio River. A similar mural showing the shoreline of Switzerland County runs along the wall in the entryway. Old photos, letters and journals help reconstruct the life of riverboat workers and travelers.
Danny Back, a member of the Historical Indiana Speakers Association, said, “This museum tells the entire story of riverboat life.” Back helped conduct the feasibility study used in the application for the grant.
In addition to the funds for the new Life on the Ohio River Museum, Bladen said the Paul Ogle Foundation also granted the Switzerland County Historical Society $65,000 for renovation on its historical museum.
“The building, which has housed the museum since 1970, needed major work,” she said. The building was formerly a Presbyterian Church.
Bladen said contractors lowered the ceilings, fixed the leaks, put in new plaster, better lighting, new duct work for air conditioning and heating, removed mold, fixed floors, and did other structural work on the building.
The Community Foundation of Switzerland County paid for the flooring and carpet, while the Vevay-Switzerland County Foundation paid for a security system.
The Switzerland County Historical Museum highlights the Swiss families who immigrated to the area, and the items in the museum have to have some significance for local people. The first piano in Indiana is on display in the museum. It was brought to Switzerland County in 1817 by concert pianist Mary Wright, who reportedly performed concerts for people in her log cabin.

• For more information about the Life on the Ohio River History Museum or the Switzerland County Historical Museum, call (812) 427-3560 or call the Switzerland County Welcome Center at 1-800-HELLO-VV.

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