At the end of the Revolutionary War, many of the soldiers and officers that had fought so valiantly for the American cause could be paid by the cash-strapped young nation only in land warrants, redeemable for plots in the westward expansion of the original thirteen colonies. Upon the nation’s acquisition of the vast Northwest Territory — lands north and west of the Ohio River — by way of 1783’s Treaty of Paris, many military men and their families saw hope in the territorial wilderness. By 1787, the Continental Congress had passed the Northwest Ordinance, setting forth terms by which the lands of the new frontier could be claimed, settled, administered, and, eventually, admitted to statehood.
So it was that in the spring of 1788, a group of forty-eight settlers, organized as the Ohio Company of Associates, under General Rufus Putnam, alit on the frontier bank of the Ohio River, just above the mouth of the Muskingum River. There, within the protective range of nearby Fort Harmar, they established the new town of Marietta, Ohio. In traditional colonial fashion, First Street was the first street to parallel the Muskingum, second street the second, and so on. Of course, Putnam became one of the burgeoning town’s primary thoroughfares.
The town’s original structures were thus Colonial in layout and design, bearing the typical hints of Georgian and Queen Anne design, along with a frontier farmhouse simplicity. Marietta’s historic City Hall is a post-Revolutionary Colonial archetype.
Named to honor Marie Antoinette, whose nation supported the Revolutionary aims of the colonies, Marietta became the first established American governmental entity of the Northwest Territories. It thus marked the new nation’s first steps westward. The city became the county seat of Washington County, and the grand and imposing Washington County Courthouse dominates the city center to this day.
Marietta also saw many years of growth and increased business activity through the early 1800s. As a river town having direct access via the Ohio River to both the Mississippi (and thus New Orleans and beyond) and the Monongahela (and thus Pittsburgh and points east), the growing city thrived. As the uses and applications of oil and petroleum products expanded, so too did the business of Marietta. By 1835, Marietta College, one of the Midwest’s oldest universities, had been chartered, and had developed a vital program in petroleum engineering and geologic studies. Steam-powered river traffic nurtured a host of local industries and fostered the construction of a number of bridges spanning the Ohio and the Muskingum Rivers.
As river traffic gave way to rail and highway, however, Marietta faced stagnation, then decline. Due to intense rail rivalries, primary rail lines managed to somehow always bypass the city, and the first major interconnection regional thoroughfare (Interstate 77) did not arrive until the 1960s.
The city’s predominant architectural style is therefore that of a late Colonial village frozen in time. The grid of downtown streets is flanked by former frame residences, utilitarian structures and the intermittent brick and stone edifice of traditional Colonial detailing. Most of Marietta College’s three dozen or more structures are either faithful replicas of Colonial models, or somewhat more modern adaptations in red brick, stone and glass.