The Muskingum River has been an important pathway for both trade and communication throughout much of Ohio's history. The original founders of Marietta chose to build their community where the Muskingum River met the Ohio River.
Throughout the history of the Northwest Territory and the early years of Ohio statehood, the Muskingum River was not navigated easily. In the spring, the river would flood and fast currents would make travel treacherous. During the summer months, the opposite was true. Many times the water levels declined to the point that river travel became impossible. Residents of southeastern Ohio were looking for a way to utilize the river, and they thought that they had an opportunity when the Ohio legislature began discussion of a canal system for the state. These people were disappointed when the Ohio and Erie Canal bypassed the Muskingum River. After lobbying the state legislature, they were able to convince politicians that improvements on the Muskingum River would lead to improved traffic from the Ohio River into the state.
The new project was known as the Muskingum River Improvement. Construction began in 1836 and was completed in 1841. Improvements consisted of a system of eleven locks and dams that made the Muskingum River navigable from Marietta to a short feeder canal just south of Dresden, Ohio, that connected to the Ohio and Erie Canal. Residents of southeastern Ohio were pleased as the river system now encouraged economic opportunity in the region. The Muskingum River had hand-operated locks that were designed so that a boat could pass through each lock in about fifteen minutes.
Like the canal systems throughout the state, the Muskingum River system faced serious problems in the late nineteenth century. The locks and dams deteriorated and the state of Ohio did not devote resources to the canals. In many parts of the state, railroads had made canals obsolete. People who lived near the Muskingum River, however, did not have easy access to railroad lines. They put pressure on the state government to repair the locks. Ultimately, the United States Army Corps of Engineers took responsibility for the Muskingum River system and made a number of repairs and improvements.
The Muskingum River faced another serious challenge in 1913, when a massive flood hit the state. It took five years for repairs to be made to the river's locks and dams. Even though the Muskingum River reopened to boat traffic in 1918, it would never again contribute to the economy of southeastern Ohio in the same way. By 1948, the Army Corp of Engineers made the decision to no longer provide upkeep for the Muskingum River system.
In 1958, the state of Ohio once again took over ownership of the Muskingum River system. Area residents had put pressure on the state to restore the locks and canals so that the river could be fully utilized for recreational purposes. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources manages the system today. The Muskingum River system is the oldest of its kind in the nation.