By Patricia Beech –
There is no doubt that the Ohio River is the heart and soul of Manchester.
“I truly believe that the people who have not lived in a river town have missed much (and I do not mean floods – we take them in our stride),” wrote Bess Foster in her 1966 essay, “A History of Manchester”. “The beauty and the romance of the river is something one cannot forget.”
The people who live in Manchester say they do have a special love for the 981-mile long waterway that inspired the birth of their town.
“I grew up on the river around the boats” says Bill Evans, the village’s Assistant Fire Chief. “When we were kids, we spent almost all our time swimming and fishing and playing there – it was a great place to grow up.”
It was the river that inspired the town’s founder, Nathaniel Massie, to establish the village in 1791.
An adventurer, soldier, and statesman, Massie wanted to build a settlement that could be used as a base of operations for his crew of land surveyors. By the fall of 1790 he had convinced thirty families to join him on his quest to construct and settle in a fort located at Three Islands.
Colonel John McDonald, who lived in the fort, wrote in 1834, “This little confederacy, with Massie at the helm, went to work with spirit. Cabins were raised and by the middle of March 1791, the whole town was enclosed with strong pickets, firmly fixed in the ground with blockhouses at each angle for defense.”
Originally called Massie’s Station, the name was later changed to Manchester in honor of Massie’s hometown in England.
The settlement grew quickly. Expanding beyond the confines of the fort, it became the central location for all goods moving in and out of the county. Businesses, hotels, schools, and churches began springing up, and in 1839 the town was officially incorporated.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century Manchester was the hub of activity for river traffic. Keel boats, packet boats, theater showboats, ferries, and steam towboats landed daily at the town’s wharf to unload cargo and reload freight and passengers.
The village was also subjected to frequent flooding – including the great flood of 1937. According to Foster, the river reached a flood stage of 79.99 feet and the entire lower Ohio River valley was under water from from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cairo, Illinois. “None of us will ever forget it,” she wrote. “All the businesses and homes were flooded, many up to the second floor, and the entire population of Manchester existed on three streets – Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth.”
Foster also writes about the Big Freeze of 1918 that left the river frozen for 28 days. “When the big thaw finally came,” she wrote, “the packet boats, wharf boats, and small craft were crushed into splinters.”
By the mid 20th century railroads had replaced river traffic as the main source for shipping local freight and goods. While the river at Manchester was no longer a thriving center of commerce, it had attracted the attention of the coal-based-power-generating industry, seeking sites that could provide adequate water supplies.
Manchester welcomed the new industry. The J.M. Stuart and Killen Power Stations were built along Highway 52 on the east and west borders of the village, which once again experienced several decades of growth and prosperity. Highway 52, running parallel to the river, became the main thoroughfare for commercial traffic moving goods and people across southern Ohio.
Linda Rossman, who has lived 48 years in Manchester, recalls how businesses began flourishing in the village.
“I worked at Cox’s IGA for 21 years – it was a booming business, and I worked at the pants factory on 7th Street for 16 years,” she says. “I made good money, we all made good money back then.”
It was a boom time, but it was destined not to last.
“Manchester was struck a mighty blow when the Appalachian Highway was built in the northern part of the county,” says MLSD school board member Kathleen Stacy, “It took all the traffic off of Route 52, all those trucks, all those people who stopped at the diners to eat, all the guys who stayed in the motels – all that left when the highway came through.”
When, after nearly fifty years of production, the local power company announced the closing of its two plants, the villagers began looking once again at the river to amp up their struggling local economy.
“I’ve lived here all my life, and I love the river,” says Manchester Fire Chief Rick Bowman, “I don’t think people realize the potential we’ve got with the river – it needs to be developed, it needs better access to make it easier for people to get to it and use it.”
“The town’s greatest asset is the Ohio River, but we haven’t learned how to harness that yet,” she says. “The people in Manchester are willing, but they aren’t always sure what action they should take, and in the meantime, the river just sits there waiting for us to do something with it.”
Stacy says she would like to see a grassroots movement develop in the community that would allow more ideas to be brought to the table.
“It has to start at the grassroots level,” she says. “You go to meetings at your church, you go to the school board meetings, you go to the Commissioners meetings – that’s how you make a difference. If the Commissioners and the people who make the decisions would get more input from the people on 2nd Street and 3rd Street and 4th Street that might help those people feel empowered to do something for Manchester.”
“The community needs to be pro-active, and take the initiative when opportunities present themselves,” says Rick Foster, a 35-year resident of Manchester. “There are times when we’ve had to deal with bad things like the power plants closing. We aren’t always dealt a fair hand, so it important that we come together and work as a team to solve our problems.”
Village councilman Skip Wagner says that the townspeople are the most important ingredient for bringing positive changes to the village.
“Manchester’s best asset is its people,” he says. “There’s a strong sense of community here, and a sense of belonging. Even the people who leave feel drawn to come back.”
“The great thing about Manchester is that they do have a strong sense of community,” says Stacy. “Somebody from Manchester might be bad, but they’re Manchester’s bad – the people are very tight-knit, like a family.”
“I love the fact that I have great neighbors and live in a community where we look out for each other,” says Amber Dryden Grooms, who has lived in the village for 12 years. “I take pride in the neighborhood where I live and it’s always great to see positive changes taking place in the town.”
Eating lunch at the local 8-Ball Restaurant, John and Donita Spires talk about the changes they’ve witnessed in their town.
John recalls a time when Manchester was a thriving village.
“Back in the days when people all came to town on Saturday night, they would park up town early in the day to be sure they’d have a spot that evening,” he says. “All the stores would stay open late, and the people would shop and visit with one another.”
“Manchester is a special place,” says Donita, who was born and still lives on 8th Street in the village. “It’s sad that our downtown area just isn’t what it used to be, the businesses are gone, and the buildings really need attention.”
Chief Evans also recalls coming to town on Friday and Saturday nights with his parents.
“It used to be packed, all the businesses were open, but now there’s nothing there,” he says. “The town was built by families who had stores, but as they have died off the businesses closed down, and now there’s nothing to keep people here – there’s no jobs like there used to be.”
Tony Helterbridle, left Manchester 48 years ago when he was 14 years old. He returned five years ago and opened a business on Main Street.
“Too many of our landowners aren’t taking care of their properties, and the town needs to do something about all the empty buildings,” he says. “We need novelty businesses like antique shops, candy shops, and that kind of thing instead of empty buildings.”
Most of the citizens share Helterbridle’s frustration with property owners who allow their properties to become rundown.
Improving the town’s appearance is a priority for Christine Henderson who serves on the village council. Henderson’s family has lived in Manchester for eight generations. Her grandfather owned and farmed the largest of Manchester’s islands, which she says has been in her family four generations.
She has written and been awarded several grants for town improvements, including a $43,000 grant from Nature Works to renovate Massie Park.
“The people here care about their town, and they’re willing to pull together to make it a better place,” she says. “Manchester is a unique town, we have a lot of history, and that allows us to set aside our differences, especially when we need to do things in our village.”
Residents point to the local school district as an example of the people’s determination to work together to successfully overcome their town’s problems.
“I’m not very objective here, but I think our school district has brought the best out of people over the last 15 years – it’s certainly a plus for our community,” says Rick Foster. “It’s a blessing to live in a small community where people stick together to accomplish their goals.”
Promoting education and encouraging students to achieve is critical to the health of the town, according to Stacy.
“It’s a disservice we do to our young people if we fail to teach them how to navigate the world outside of Manchester,” she says. “The world is a scary place, but so is poverty. I have seen what poverty does to people – it freezes them, it immobilizes them, and it demeans them. We need to teach our young people not to settle for poverty, but to go where they can be successful – whether that is in Manchester or someplace else.”
As the people of Manchester prepare to enter a post-power plant economy, they do so with hope and faith that the history and legacy they’ve inherited will continue to sustain them far into the future.
“We all share memories of our town,” says Henderson, “It’s equally important that we share a vision of the future we want to create together.”