Strolling on the river: Remembering when Tri-Staters walked on the frozen Ohio

This week's deep freeze brings back memories

Once upon a time, during an arctic blast like we've been having this week, the Ohio River froze and hundreds of adventurous (some would say foolhardy) Tri-Staters walked and frolicked on the ice.

It really did happen, you know, even if it didn't come across your Twitter feed. One guy even drove his VW across the frozen river. And everyone who ventured on the ice apparently lived to tell about it.

The current record-breaking freeze and double snowstorms this week had Good Morning Tri-State anchor Chris Riva remembering those crazy days from the late 70s (Riva was in grade school). See his Facebook post and video:




Many Tri-Staters must be wondering if the river could freeze this week. The short answer is no. Read on for the explanation.

The stories and pictures tell a remarkable tale in Cincinnati history and are bringing back a lot of memories on our Facebook page.

WCPO photographer Ron Fischer remembers taking pictures of people walking across the river but not daring to do it himself.

"I chickened out," Fischer said. "I sometimes wish I would have done it …


"It was unbelievable. They had tugs busting up the ice so the barges could go through, but it got to a point where they couldn't do it anymore, so they said the heck with it and let it freeze over."

9 On Your Side's Tom McKee reported on the scene.

"It probably wasn't the safest thing to do, but people were still doing it – probably to tell their kids and their grandkids and their great-grandkids that they had done it," McKee said.

Riva, much younger than those guys, remembers the joy of being off from school for snow days and feeling "miserable" when he had makeup days on the weekend.

The river has frozen 14 times in Cincinnati since 1874, according to the Department of Commerce, but not since 1977 and '78.

Those winters were the coldest in Cincinnati history. The temperature dropped to a record low of minus-25 on Jan. 18, 1977. That winter, there were 28 days when temps fell to zero or below.

Photo in the Cincinnati Post on Jan. 20, 1977

And the cold spread across the Ohio River Valley. The river froze from Louisville to Pittsburgh.

In Cincinnati, the Coast Guard estimated the ice to be 8 to 12 inches thick.

Low river flow contributed to the freeze, experts said. In 1978, massive snowfall also factored in.

Bill Jones and Sherry Neal pose for picture on frozen Ohio River in front of 740 Marina, Newport, on Jan. 19, 1977.

Don't those conditions sound familiar?

If you drove across the river this week or work or live on the riverfront, you may have noticed ice along the banks and floating downstream. But that's not uncommon, the experts say.

Ask restaurateur Jeff Ruby. Last year, ice on the river broke his floating Waterfont restaurant free from the shore and sent into crashing into the Clay Wade Bailey bridge.

It's just not a sign that the river is freezing over.

Ducks gather in the ice on the banks of the Ohio River Thursday (Dwayne Slavey/WCPO)

"Ice on the banks forms in a quieter area where the water is shallower. It won't extend much farther," Bob Sneed, Army Corps of Engineers hydraulic engineer, told 9 On Your Side Thursday.

Although the current deep freeze will continue Friday, it won't stay cold enough long enough for the river to freeze, Sneed said.

"You would have to have this really cold weather for a week or more, and that's just not in the forecast," Sneed said. "In 1977, you had sustained, intense cold for about a month."

Julie Reed, Ohio River Forecast Center hydrologist, agreed.

"You'd need really prolonged cold weather, like a week in single digits. We're going to get a break in the temperatures this weekend, so there's no danger of that," she said.

Temperatures will shoot up into the 30s on Saturday and Sunday, according to the 9 On Your Side First Warning Weather forecast.

In the meantime, you can share your pictures and memories of the frozen Ohio River on our Facebook page or Twitter @WCPO.

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