The Mon River’s industrial past makes it more than just a pretty place to paddle.
Our Monongahela was the first river in the nation to be completely controlled for navigation. In its natural state, it was sometimes flooded and sometimes too shallow for boats. But as dams tamed the river from its mouth at Pittsburgh progressively southward through the 1800s, port towns grew and thrived on the banks of new, deep slackwater pools, all the way to the head of the river at Fairmont.
Today, commercial river traffic has slowed, and those towns have riverside lifestyles that are the envy of communities all around. Morgantown is among the envied. Its position on the Point Marion pool of the river—pools are named for the downstream dams that form them—puts boating, fishing, and lazy river-watching all at our doorstep.
But the river is also a great excuse for a road trip. So strap your canoe or kayak up top, heft your bike onto your bike rack, and toss the fishing rods in the back. And don’t forget the cooler—this is a trip along a formerly beaten path, with fewer shops and restaurants than some destinations but rich in recreation, scenery, and history.
Just Across the Border
A relaxed day trip gets us to two places on the next pool downriver, the Grays Landing pool. A good way to start a day trip is breakfast in Point Marion, just over the Pennsylvania border. Apple Annie’s (28 Church Street, 724.725.1300, on Facebook)—the founding location of the Morgantown bakery of the same name—is a perennial favorite, and the Riverside Diner (120 Penn Street, 724.725.9911, on Facebook) has a loyal following, too. Given a ready supply of sand and transportation at its peninsula where the Cheat River flows into the Mon, Point Marion prospered in the early 1900s with at least four glass manufacturers. Today, the town and its rivers are calm. Put in the Mon at the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC) boat ramp adjacent to Point Marion Community Park (South Main Street). You can rent a kayak there from Mon River Recreation (724.320.8237, monriverrecreation.com). The public dock at the park is a good place to toss in a line—sauger, bass, walleye, muskie, and catfish are plentiful in the Mon. You might see a heron or a kingfisher, too.
You can also put into the Grays Landing pool by heading another 10 miles north to Greensboro. A glassmaking, pottery, and clay roofing tile center in the 19th century, quiet Greensboro shows little sign of that industry today. If you’re lucky, the eclectic Riverrun Books and Prints used bookstore (106 County Street, 724.943.4944) will be open. Launch your canoe or kayak at the Volunteer Fire Department on Front Street or at the bottom of County Street. Boats on trailers can put in at the PFBC Glassworks Boat Launch just north of town (342 Stoney Hill Road), which is also a good place to fish. This is also the eastern trailhead of the Warrior Trail that runs 67 miles west to the Ohio River, a path said to have been used for 5,000 years by Native Americans and maintained for hikers today by local volunteers. For a shorter experience, bike or walk the 1.25-mile-long Greensboro Walking & and Biking Trail between the bottom of County Street and Mon View Park (377 Stoney HIll Road, 724.943.3201).
A satisfying way to end the day is to head a few miles farther north to Carmichaels for take-out sandwiches from the Hungarian Smokehouse (543 North Eighty-Eight Road, 724.966.2200, hungariansmokehouse.com) or a sit-down dinner at Hartley Inn (102 South Market Street, 724.966.2813, hartleyinn.com), then take in a double feature at the SkyView Drive-In (595 South Eighty Eight Road, 724.966.2364, skyviewdriveinpa.com). If you don’t want to drive the 25 miles home to Morgantown afterward, book a room in advance at Captain’s Watch Inn in Greensboro (County Road at the river, 724.943.3131, thecaptainswatch.net).
More Distant Exploits
Traveling north along the Mon is like traveling back in time—each port town farther north was established earlier and shows more of its history today. A full weekend gives enough time to venture to downriver pools where the Monongahela is wider and the towns are older.
Head about 20 minutes north of Greensboro to Rices Landing, which thrived as a river port from the 1850s and later as a producer of coal and coke. Check out the W.A. Young & Sons Foundry and Machine Shop that, among other services, fashioned repairs for steamboats and operated through 1965 (116 Water Street; tours Sundays in summer, call 724.710.4898). If you’re biking, you can park at the 5.2-mile-long Greene River Trail trailhead off Main Street; if you’re bound for the Maxwell pool of the river, fishing licenses and bait are available at Ozie’s Sport Shop (1020 North Route 88, 724.592.5009), and there’s a boat ramp at Min Love Park (137 Main Street).
When you’ve pedaled or paddled up an appetite, no lunch in the area beats the locally famous fried chicken 10 minutes’ drive north at the Fredericktown Butcher Shop (334 Front Street, 724.377.0439, on Facebook). Drive your take-out to the pavilions on Water Street and Front Street in Fredericktown for comfortable riverside dining.
The northernmost stop on this river towns tour, Brownsville was once the town Morgantown wanted to be: It beat out Morgantown as the Monongahela River crossing of the National Road that connected the Potomac River at Cumberland, Maryland with the Ohio River at Wheeling and beyond. After the road opened in 1817, many travelers heading west switched at Brownsville to river transportation, making the town a boatbuilding hub and a trading post for everything from clothing to groceries to hardware, with a booming business for hotels and taverns, too. To see some of that history today, visit the Flatiron Building Heritage Visitor Center (69 Market Street, 724.785.9331) and, on a weekend afternoon, tour the 19th century Nemacolin Castle, built by the founding president of the Monongahela National Bank (Brashear and Front streets, 724.785.6882).
Brownsville lies on the Charleroi pool of the river, a little busier than the Grays Landing and Maxwell pools. Access here is from the Brownsville Riverside Wharf Park at the bottom of Banks Street. If you’re off the river and hungry before 2 p.m., check out the century-old diner Fiddle’s Restaurant (101 Water Street, 724.785.2020, on Facebook). Later, for a more elegant dinner, visit Twelve Oaks Restaurant & Tavern (815 Water Street, 724.785.3200, twelveoaksbrownsville.com), housed in a 21-room 1906 mansion built by the son of local rye whiskey distiller Sam Thompson. To stay the night in this area, book ahead at Wilcov Bed & Breakfast in Brownsville (514 Market Street, 724.880.6528, wilcovbedandbreakfast.com) or, in Fredericktown, at Riverside Inn (Front Street, 724.377.2833) or the Riviera Restaurant Lounge Hotel (578 Front Street, 724.377.1480, on Facebook).
This is just a sample of the access points and things to do downriver. If you’re more ambitious, you can learn online how to lock through from one pool to the next—then you can paddle all of the Mon’s 130 miles of historic towns, from Fairmont to Pittsburgh.