Buckley island has a rich history, but research is complicated by the many names the island has had over the years. In 1774 it was known as Devoll’s Island after Col. P. Devoll, its first white owner. In subsequent years, it was also known as Kerr, Marietta, Meigs, and Buckley Island.
Though French fur traders were undoubtedly visiting the island as early as the 1690’s, one of the earliest accounts clearly describing the island come from George Washington, who visited in the fall of 1770. He was interested in laying claim to all the lands on the south side of the Ohio River (unfortunately for Washington, he had been beat a year earlier by the Tomlinson family, who first settled what is now Williamstown). Following is an excerpt from Washington’s journal:
Friday 26 … we encamped just above the mouth of a creek [the Little Muskingum River] which appears pretty large at the mouth and just above an island [Buckley Island].
Saturday 27. Left our encampment a quarter before seven, and after passing the creek near which we lay, and another [Duck Creek] much the same size and on the same side; also an island [Buckley Island] about 2 miles in length but not wide, we came to the mouth of Muskingum distant from our encampment about 4 miles. This river is about 150 yards wide at the mouth; a gentle currant and clear stream runs out of it, and is navigable a great way into the country for canoes.
Washington originally planned to claim all the lands from here to the Little Kanawha, where present day Parkersburg is located. Instead, possibly because the Tomlinson’s had already claimed the land around present day Williamstown, Washington ended up claiming 2,370 acres at what is now Washington, West Virginia. But the area must have made a strong, favorable impression on Washington; it was on his advice that his officers chose to locate Marietta, Ohio at the mouth of the Muskingum in 1788 as the first settlement of the Northwest Territory.
In October 1775, shortly after the Americans declared independence, it became expedient for commissioners from the Continental Congress to hold a council with chiefs of the Six Nations, the Delawares, and the Shawnee Indians. It was agreed the Indians would remain neutral in the coming war, and in exchange all the lands north and east of the Ohio River would remain theirs forever. After Americans won their independence, some effort was made to honor the treaty … for a little while. European settlers in the Ohio lands were regarded as illegal squatters, and Ft. Harmar was built right off the toe of Buckley Island, at the mouth of the Muskingum to try and defend the Indian lands from squatters. Hamilton Kerr, who owned Buckley Island at this time, worked for the garrison at the fort as a scout and hunter. Joseph Barker wrote, “I have heard Mr. Hamilton Kerr say that the hills between Muskingum and Duck Creek was the best hunting ground he had ever seen. He could leisurely kill 15 deer a day, and frequently all in the morning. The Indians, by burning the woods every year, created good pastureland for the deer and good hunting for himself.”
A soldier from the Fort Harmar garrison named Joseph Buell wrote in his journal, January 31, 1787, “Hamilton Kerr, our hunter, began to build a house on the island [Buckley Island] … some of our men were ordered out as a fatigue party to assist him.” The soldiers objected because no extra pay was offered, but a keg of whiskey made them forget their complaints. The cabin was built, and a stockade was constructed around it. This was located just above Duck Creek (about the location of the I-77 bridge, today). “There they cleared and cultivated a small field which supplied vegetables for the family and feed for their stock.”
With the construction of the cabin and stockade, the island was now prepared for the arrival of the whole Kerr family. Hamilton’s father, Matthew, and his two brothers, George and Matthew Jr., all arrived in 1787. Hamilton’s sister, Jane, her husband Peter Niswonger, and their three children also came to the island. Peter also took a job working as a scout and hunter for Fort Harmar. For a brief while, it probably seemed to the family they would be allowed to work the land in peace. Marietta was established right across the water in 1788, which must have leant an air of stability and safety to the area. But in 1789, the Indian Wars began in earnest.
Lew Wetzel, a famous pioneer and “indian killer,” was a friend of Hamilton Kerr. (For more information on their history together, see the description for Williamson Island). Lew Wetzel wanted relations with the Indians to deteriorate, wanted a war that would lead to their annihilation, so he murdered a Delaware chief, Que-Sha-Shey, who had been on the way to Fort Harmar to negotiate peace. Most of the settlers in the area viewed Wetzel as a hero; a defender of hearth and home from “the savages.” So in this context it is not surprising that Hamilton Kerr would risk assisting Wetzel in his escape from justice. General Harmar’s spies caught wind of Wetzel’s whereabouts. From a radio broadcast by Louise Zimmer: “The word was that Hamilton Kerr was going to join Lew Wetzel and the two of them intended to leave for Kentucky early the next morning. This meant they would go to sleep early in anticipation of a long and difficult journey. Harmar’s men waited until after midnight, giving the Kerr household time to be soundly asleep. A fleet of canoes slipped silently from the west side of the Muskingum River, paddling quietly as possible up the Ohio River toward the island. They cautiously glided past the cabin area, just in case anyone was watching (which they weren’t) and landed on the point of land farthest away from the cabin. It had rained earlier in the evening. The wet leaves and soft grass yielded without a sound as what amounted to a small army crept up to surround the Kerr home. Then when all rifles were aimed and ready, Captain Kingsbury pounded on the door and demanded admission in the name of the law! Kerr opened the door with a lantern in one hand and his rifle in the other – but Kerr was no fool: he knew an army when he saw one and allowed himself to be disarmed without a struggle. Likewise, Wetzel surrendered quietly and, bound hand and foot, he was taken to the fort. He was manacled with iron fetters and locked in the jail at Fort Harmar.” (To hear what happened next, see the description for Muskingum Island.)
Lew Wetzel’s murder of the Delaware chief had the intended effect: the Indian Wars raged on. In 1790, Indians killed a number of people at Big Bottom, about 30 miles north of Marietta on the Muskingum River. After the Big Bottom Massacre, the Kerrs and Niswongers moved in with the garrison at Fort Harmer, leaving their cows, horses, hogs, corn and vegetables on the island. They went to the island daily to feed their stock and harvest vegetables. At this time, it is said that Matthew Kerr decided to protect the family’s farm on the island by buying 40 mastiff dogs in Pittsburgh, putting them on a flatboat, and bringing them to the island. This ended up being a terrible idea. The Indians considered dog meat a delicacy, so rather than repelling the Indians, as intended, Indians flocked to the island, hunting the mastiffs until they had killed and eaten all of the dogs.
“On June 16, 1791,” according to local historian Ben Baine, “Matthew Kerr left Fort Harmar and went to the island to do his chores. When he was finished, he discovered a black horse tied to a tree and decided to take it back to the garrison. The next day he went to the island in spite of the warnings of his children that the horse indicated the presence of Indians. After reaching the island he fed his stock, gathered some potatoes, picked up his gun and returned to his canoe. As he pushed off from shore, he was shot three or four times by Indians who were hidden on the bank. People standing on Ohio Street, in Marietta, heard the sounds of the guns, and then watched in horror as the Indians took his gun and then scalped him. They watched the Indians run down the bank of the river and listened to their yells of victory. The canoe with Matthew’s body was recovered just above Fort Harmar.”
In 1793 an epidemic of scarlet fever resulted in an order that infected persons be sent to the island (though this effort was short-lived, as the disease had already spread). Same with a Great fever/smallpox epidemic in 1822. Those who died were buried on the island. Concurrent with this, there was farming on the island throughout the 19th century, with various families living there including Meigs and Bland. They had to content with the old growth trees that, by modern standards, were monstrous in size. A stable with two windows and door, built for two horses, was created in a sycamore whose top blew out. These early farmers also had to endure regular floods that would scour the island of their crops and their homes but, on a good year, the soil of the island was extraordinarily productive, making this precarious lifestyle worth the risk. By the middle of the century, the island was reportedly used as a crossing point for the Underground Railroad.
Ban Baine noted, “The island provided much entertainment for Ohio and West Virginians in the early years. Cock fighting, illegal in both states, took place at the head of the island, away from the farmhouses. The cockfights took place outside, and in the summer. The night before the event, the promoters would take the beer to the island and get it cold by burying it in the ground with ice. If you planned on drinking beer, it cost twice as much … 10 cents a drink, where back over in Marietta it was only 5 cents. This was a non-discriminatory atmosphere, no one gave a damn whether or not you were black, white, red, yellow, rich or poor … it drew men of all calibers, but if your money was green, you were welcome. The cockfights took place inside a 16-foot round pen with about 3 foot outside wall. Matches were fought using time limits as well as to the death. In supreme control of the fight was the judge, whose decisions were final. Rooster, gamecocks, stags went into the pen at the age of 10 to 15 months. The stags were matched by weight. Steel spurs with knife like edges were attached over their natural spurs in order to shorten each match. Since the island belonged to West Virginia, the Marietta police could not take any action. Williamstown, at the time, was policed by the County Sheriff based in Parkersburg, so he was no problem. Alcohol and food were ferried in, bettering was heavy, and a good time was had by all those who enjoyed this type of sport.”
Stories of disease quarantines and illicit activities make it sound like the island must have been a forgotten wilderness during the 19th century, but this is not the case. The island was owned by a succession of individuals who leased the land to farmers, many of whom lived on the island at length. Following the construction of a dam across the backchannel (which connected the island to the West Virginia shore), access to the island became relatively easy. During the 1870’s, the Rowell family lived in a large farmhouse and leased land near the head of the island. Several of their children were born on the island, including George (1871), Rosalie (1875), and Bertha (1876). The Rowell’s daughter, Sarah, married Martin Rose, and they gave birth to a daughter, Daisy at their leased farmhouse near the foot of the island.
A new, more sturdy concrete dam was built in 1889. Driving across the top of this dam is how farmers accessed their fields. Historian Ben Blaine noted, “After the construction of the dam, the island proved a great fishing ground. Fish were so plentiful that nets were used to catch them, and young men would hire out to raise the nets and salt the fish, as well as to skin and draw them. The fish were then sold to local stores … The island was a favorite place for campers, anglers, and swimmers long before the turn of the century. During this period, those who had vacation time usually spent it close to home, and with a lot of playing in or near rivers.” This lasted until 1969, when the much larger, modern lock and dam system flooded the river to a greater depth than ever before. The 1889 dam was mostly removed, but the foundation remains. To this day, a straight line of ripples can be seen on the back channel created by the current passing over the old dam. This is located almost exactly at the kayak landing sign for the Kayak Challenge.
Much fuss has been made about the existence of an amusement park on the island. Such a tale might conjure images of Cedar Point, with its rollercoasters, but this is not what existed on Buckley Island. That having been said, it was a fairly large and popular facility. According to Ben Blaine, “In June 1897, the Buckeye and Eureka Pipeline Co. obtained a 20-year lease for 5 acres at the head of the island for use as a summer resort and amusement park. Employees of the company from Ohio and West Virginia proceeded very rapidly with the construction in preparation for a huge company picnic. They erected a dance pavilion that was 80 feet long and 60 feet wide.” The main dance pavilion was two stories tall, built in Victorian style with verandas and with a large pond and water fountain centered on the vast lawn out front. “The sides of the building contained numerous glass windows that were designed to swing open and allow the fresh summer breezes to flow. Air conditioning was dependent on the whims of nature. Bowling alleys and horseshoe pits were constructed. Bath houses were built for the swimmers. Swings and picnic facilities were added along with a musical merry-go-round, and of course a small electrical power plant … that completed the park. There weren’t any concession stands for food or drink.”
“On Thursday, July 15, 1897, the park opened for business with the company entertaining all its local employees. The weather was an activities chairman’s dream. They came from all directions: Marietta, Macksburg, Elba, Corning and other parts of Ohio and from Sistersville and numerous other oil field communities in West Virginia.”
“From Marietta’s Ohio River landing, the chartered steamboats Catharine Davis and Eliza made trip after trip to the head of the island, depositing picnickers and returning for more. Others taking part in the outing went by boat from Miller’s Landing at the confluence of the Ohio and Little Muskingum Rivers. Some of the braver souls from West Virginia walked across the stone wing dam that was located between the island and the West Virginia shore. The merrymakers were greeted by lively tunes from the Marietta Band & Orchestra, which played during the afternoon and stayed to play for dancing far into the night. Those who tried to keep count of the crowd put the number attending between 3,000 and 4,000.”
“George Rowell (who had been born on the island), became the carpenter/caretaker for the Buckeye Eureka Park. George, his wife Effie, and son Bernard lived on Ingleside Avenue in the Norwood section of Marietta. In order to go back and forth to work, his mode of transportation was a skiff that he kept on Duck Creek. He would walk from his home to the creek, get in his skiff and row down to the mouth of the creek, then across the Ohio River to the island. His son Bernard recalled (1986) things getting very busy on the island and the three of them rowing over and working all day.”
“On July 27, 1900, the Buckeye and Eureka Pipeline Company entertained the employees of all its various plants from many states, some 7,000 people. It is difficult to visualize that many people on the island. The two packet boats that had been chartered to haul the people to the island were tested to their fullest capacity on every trip between the landing and the island park. The early morning rain brought hundreds from the region’s oil field son a day of perfect weather.”
“Many among the pipeline crowd sat under shade trees to listen to the famous Marietta Concert Reed Band. Some lounged in hammocks or swings. Those individuals who felt energetic tried their skill and muscle at striking machines, a game called cat-come-back, or cane racks. Others just relaxed on the musical merry-go-round.” The Sistersville and Marietta baseball teams crossed bats at the island picnic in the third of a three-game series. The reporter covering the event said, ‘Through the efforts of the umpire, the game was lost to Sistersville.’ The score was 9 to 5.”
“Besides bringing their baseball team to the island festivities, the people of Sistersville brought their well-known Thistle Band to help with the entertainment. The Marietta Times also noted, ‘It was a great day for loves and not a few took advantage of the shady nooks to be found at the head of the island.’
“The 1900 picnic was apparently the biggest event ever recorded for the Buckeye-Eureka Park. The island peaked in popularity around 1900, when the area was in the middle of its biggest oil boom. Everyone seemed to have money to spend and looked for ways to enjoy leisure hours. Clubs, fraternal orders and individuals brought their picnic baskets for an all-day outing. The oil boom waned in the following years, but the downfall of the park was not caused by economic factors, but instead it was the 1907 flood.”
“In March 1907, the Ohio River Valley was hit by a severe and quick-rising flood that caught everyone by surprise. The river crested at 50.6 feet on March 16. That was the second highest crest recorded up until that time. Many merchants and residents had building flooded before their goods could be moved and therefore suffered severe losses. The roaring flood waters swept through and over Buckley’s Island, virtually destroying the park. Two acres of land at the head of the island were washed away. The pavilion, where thousands had danced for years, was tilted, battered and broken. The park was never rebuilt after that disaster.”
It is unclear exactly when the house and barns currently on the island were built. Since the 18th century, numerous structures have been on the island, most of which were destroyed by floods which overtopped the island in 1790, 1813, 1815, 1832, 1847, 1852, 1860, 1861, 1883, 1884, 1891, 1898, 1907, 1913, 1927, 1936, 1937, 1940, 1943, 1945, 1948, 1952, and 1964. The worst flood was in 1913, cresting at 58.3 feet, which it is said put over 20 feet of water over the island. It is likely the cement farmhouse was built after this flood event. This house was last owned by Howard G. Buckley prior to his death in 1992. Howard had grown corn on the island for many years. He willed the island to his nephew, Jerry Buckley, who later sold the island and 50 acres on the mainland to the refuge in 1994.
Island Access: Williamstown public access ramp under, under SR 14 bridge in Williamstown, WV