Exploring the past and present in Athens Co.

Radar Hill
Beautiful views abound when hiking Radar Hill near the Ridges on the campus of Ohio University. (Julie Geiss photo)

When it comes to sharing similar interests with my kids, I average about 50% in commonality. When my boys talk about motors and archery, it goes in one ear and out the other. However, when my oldest daughter suggested a sunset hike, I was 100% in on the adventure. 

We were visiting Athens County, Ohio, where there are many options for hiking. She had seen photos of Radar Hill near the Ridges on the campus of Ohio University. Most people in Athens County know the history of the area, but it was all new to me. I soaked up the local narrative like a sponge. 

Mental hospital

Formerly known as the Athens Lunatic Asylum, the facility operated as a mental hospital from 1874 to 1993. Perched on a vista overlooking the Hocking River, the Victorian-style buildings are reminiscent of another era. 

The main entrance has a series of balconies with a tall tower flanking each side. The original plan for the buildings and surrounding land was to create a Kirkbride Plan mental hospital. 

Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride was a famous psychiatrist who believed patients needed to experience fresh air and natural light and to thrive and recover. The area encircling the hospital included ponds, gardens and fountains. It seemed more like a park than a hospital. It is rumored that in the 1920s there was an alligator that lived in one of the fountains. There were also orchards, gardens, greenhouses and livestock. 

The theory behind the Kirkbride plan stressed that when patients were immersed in a natural environment and engaged in physical labor, they would overcome their mental difficulties. 

While this theory has helped many people over time, it also opened the door for possible abuse in the form of work without compensation. By 1993, the last patient was transferred to another facility.

Athens Lunatic Asylum
The buildings and land formerly a part of the Athens Lunatic Asylum, a facility operated as a mental hospital from 1874 to 1993, are now owned by Ohio University.

Several trails

Ohio University obtained full ownership of the multiple buildings totaling 700,000 square feet and the land which included over 700-acres. The main building was renamed Lin Hall and now houses the Kennedy Museum of Art and the Ohio University Museum Complex. 

Along with a functional auditorium, the additional building space is used for offices, classrooms and storage. The university police department also has a home base at the Ridges. The orchard lands left from the asylum days and the land around the buildings have transitioned into recreational use with several trails. 

The trails vary in length from 1.2 to 2.2 miles. Our goal was to hike to the top of Radar Hill before the sun slipped behind the hills. We parked at the Ridges Observatory near the water tower. 

Immediately, we noticed a sweet aroma. As we walked along, I spotted the source of the smell, Japanese honeysuckle. An invasive species, Lonicera japonica was brought from Eastern Asia and introduced to Long Island, New York, in 1806. 

Since then, the rapidly spreading vine has become quite the nuisance. The invasive plant is located throughout the eastern United States from Maine to Florida. It stretches in the west to Wisconsin and Texas. 

Originally used for ornamental purposes and erosion control, the species now forms tangles that smother and eventually kill native vegetation. It’s hard to believe something with such an enticing smell and beauty could be so dangerous. Perhaps the nearby college students could learn a lesson by observing this deceptive foliage. 

The trail to Radar Hill is a part of Ohio University’s Land Lab. Over 500 species of flora have been identified in the area. As we hiked along the trail, we noticed the tall grass surrounding us. Currently, a tall-grass prairie restoration project is aiming to increase the biodiversity of plants native to southern Ohio. 

We followed the trail to the highest point. The presence of peach and purple cloud swirls indicated that our timing was perfect. Before us stretched the rolling hills that define Athens County, an area rich in history and unique landscapes. 

Our short hike, with an even faster downhill return trip, was enough to spark our interest in other areas to explore. It is a great feeling to know that we stood on the precipice of land conservation. 

Learning from the past and pressing on towards a better future, the horizon is billowing with new possibilities.


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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at juliegeiss1414@gmail.com.



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