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Parkersburg Floodwall Pictures and History
 
By Larry Brian Radka
 
 
 

Parkersburg, West Virginia has needed flood protection from the overflowing waters of the Ohio and Little Kanawha Rivers ever since 1783, when Capt. Alexander Parker purchased the land the city rose upon.

 
 

During the late winter and early spring, rainfall normally increases and the winter snow thaw begins in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia—where the snowmelt feeds the Tigers Valley and West Fork Rivers that form the Monongahela a few miles northeast of Petty John (Monongah).*

 

 

The Monongahela snowmelt then combines with run-off into the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh (Pittsburg) to flow south in the Ohio River where smaller rivers, such as the Muskingum at Marietta, add to the high water that has periodically flooded Parkersburg.

 

 

Unfortunately, except for some locks and dams in the Ohio River and its tributaries, nothing was done to protect the city until the late 1940’s.

 

 

And Parkersburg records, kept since 1832, aptly attest to height of the floods.

 

 

Over 70 times since, the two rivers rose high enough to overflow their banks and damage its beautiful downtown buildings.  The the Wood County Court House, built in 1899, illustrated in a recent photograph above serves as a an example.

 

 

Another is the Parkersburg City Building—built in 1895.  Sadly though, the city fathers of Parkersburg apparently placed more importance on the cost of its repair and maintenance than its esthetic value and allowed the landmark to be demolished in 1981.

 

 

 

And many of Parkersburg nineteenth-century homes like the one above did not escape the ravaging floods costing untold dollars.

 

 

And this hardly speaks for the losses of revenue for businesses in the Ohio River Valley—due to these periodic interruptions in river commerce.

 

 

Water-level gauges with large white numerals painted on the Ohio and Little Kanawha bridge pillars (illustrated above and below) reduce the chances of costly bridge collisions by warning pilots of the rivers' levels.

 

 

Normal pool of the Ohio River at Parkersburg is 20 feet.  Flood damage occurs when the Ohio River water level at Parkersburg rises above 36 feet
 
 
 

However, on March 29, 1913 its water level rose to 58.9 feet and produced the worst flood there on record.  The extent of some of the damage is illustrated in the old photographs above and  below.

 
 
 
In the 1913 flood, horse and carriage, motor vehicle, and trolley traffic ceased in downtown Parkersburg. 
 
 
In the 1913 flood, horse and carriage, motor vehicle, and trolley traffic ceased in downtown Parkersburg.
 
 
Residents used row boats to carry on business instead.
 
 
The waters from the Ohio and Little Kanawha Rivers flooded the city’s Market Street as far up as 5th and 6th Streets and Juliana above 7th Street.  The depth of the rivers' waters in the downtown area of Parkersburg are documented in the 1913 photograph above.
 
 
 
The photographs above and below indicate the watery condition surrounding Wood County Courthouse in the Spring of 1913 and the drier situation I encountered in the Spring of 2008.  Note the Carbon Arc Lamp hanging in the upper left-hand side of this Market Street view of this beautiful old “Court House.”
 
 
 
 
The photograph below shows the water was deep enough on Ann Street to navigate a canoe.
 
 
It covered Ann Street up to 9th, and Murdoch Avenue.
 
 
The Southside of Parkersburg did not escape the devastation when the rivers' waters also poured over Camden Avenue.
 
“Many houses near the river were either carried away,” wrote James Dawson and Gary Null, “smashed against each other, or simply crushed.”  In Parkersburg, An Early Portrait, they went on to add, “One house was actually picked up and deposited upside-down in the middle of Skirvin Street (one street below Garfield that exists now only in a segment).  Every piece of furniture inside the Trinity Church on Juliana Street, including a $5000 pipe organ, was ruined.  Several buildings close to 3rd and Ann Streets burned as a direct result of the flood.  The list is endless.”
 
Two other major floods that drowned a substantial portion of the city occurred on February 9, 1884 and January 26, 1937.  The downtown depth of the latter is illustrated in the old photograph below.
 
 

The Ohio River water levels during those three notorious floods are noted on the Parkersburg floodwall near Gate No. 10 at Point Park.

 

 

We can read them better in the close-up photograph below.

 

 

These devastating floods finally inspired the city’s fathers to initiate the construction of a floodwall to protect Parkersburg—in 1946 when funds were available after the high cost of World War II.  Under the supervision of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, builders began its construction in March of 1946 and completed the workin April of 1950.

 

 

The wall generally runs west from the Fifth Street Bridge on the Little Kanawha River.

 

 

Then the fortress turns north at "the Point" and reaches almost to the city limits of Vienna.  The Federal Government footed most of the bill of almost seven million dollars.

 

 

The City of Parkersburg, which currently maintains the wall and operates its fourteen gates, acquired the right of ways to this flood projection project from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers at a cost of $300,000.  Parkersburg's debt amounted to $330,000, less than the cost of the damage in a single flood.

 

 

The wall runs along the outside (river sides) of the old B & O Railroad tracks, along the Ohio and Little Kanawha Rivers.

 

 

Now CSX runs its locomotives along the old B. & O. Railroad right-of-way.

 

 

The Parkersburg floodwall gates open in the wall in all instances except at Floodgate No. 8.

 
 

There the flood gate, illustrated in the photographs above, is located underneath the railroad tracks and the floodwall.  Its builders managed to pour 10,400 feet of concrete walls and 9,600 feet of earthen levee.

 
 

The northern most section of the earthen runs up the Ohio River, past the Parkersburg oil well above, makes a sharp bend, then parallels 34th Street, and terminates at Floodwall Opening no. 1 on Murdoch Avenue.

 
 

The contractors used 63,000 cubic yards of concrete, 8,840,246 pounds of reinforcing steel, and 600,100 cubic yards of earth to complete the project.

 
 

Gate Opening No. 2  beyond 34th Street can be closed to prevent the inundation of downtown Parkersburg with Ohio River water rushing in from the north.  Notice the bend in the wall—which follows the Ohio River south.

 
 

Floodwall Opening No. 1 is 45 feed wide and 13.7 feet high.  The floodwall brandishes an average height of 21.5 feet with a maximum of 30 feet.   The average height of the earthen levee above normal ground level is 22 feet with a maximum also of 30 feet.

 

 

These heights would protect Parkersburg against any of the flood levels listed on the chart above.  In fact, if a flood of the 1913 level would occur again, the floodwall would still have three feet to spare before being overflowed.   I extracted this list from a nice brochure provided by the Parkersburg Wood County Convention & Visitors Bureau, whose Web site may be visited at www.greaterparkersburg.com.

 

 

This little piece of local Parkersburg history, which can be picked up at Parkersburg's Blennerhassett Museum on the corner of 2nd and Juliana Streets or the little wooden building near the number 10 Gate at Point Park, contains even more interesting details.

 

 

A few are included in the exceprt that follows:

 

“Thirteen gate openings [and one permanently closed] are provided through the wall and levee for highways, railroad tracks and pedestrian access

 

 

“During high water, the gate openings are closed by hand using wooden or aluminum logs.

 

 

“The logs, which are stored in a nearby log house, are inserted into a track at the top of the opening and then stacked on top of one another, except for Gate 8 at 12th Street which is a steel gate that is lowered and raised by chains powered by an electric motor

 

 

“The gate on First Street near the intersection of Ann Street has been permanently secured and offers an opportunity to see a closed gate [illustrated in the my photograph below].

 

 

“The No. 10 Gate at Point Park was last closed in June 1998.”

 

 

For information on Blennerhassett Island and its history, click the picture above.  Several more pages with Parkersburg history and pictures may be selected by clicking the early twentieth-century bird's eye view of Parkersburg, West Virginia—without its floodwall—below:

 

 

*Monongah is the site of the worst industrial accident in United States history.

 

 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 This page was last modified on Wednesday, January 20, 2016