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A history of local dams

December 5, 2008
By Bob Petras, For the Historical Society of Toronto

TORONTO - During the 19th century, Ohio Valley residents had a common saying about the waterway that was so vital to their welfare and economy - "The Ohio River was dry half of the time; the other half it was frozen."

The French called it La Belle Riviere and La Riviere Grande; the Native Americans, Kis-ke-ba-la-se-be and O-hee-yo. The 981-mile southwestwardly flowing river was beautiful and majestic - in any language - to all who viewed it in its pristine state, but the Ohio was equally as shallow, providing a natural channel of only 4 feet deep, a level limiting the westward expansion of settlers to only bateaux and flatboats.

Oared or hand-powered, the flatboat usually floated with the current while transporting settlers and their possessions to new territory. The owners of these crude watercraft did not intend to return upstream and usually dismantled them at the end of river voyages, the lumber used in construction of new homesteads.

A new era suddenly dawned in 1811 with the launching of the first steamboat, the New Orleans, on western waters near Pittsburgh. By 1835, more than 650 steamboats existed in the West, their presence accelerating the westward and industrial expansion along Ohio River territory and beyond.

Shifting sand and gravel bars, snags and rocks, and sunken trees called sawyers combined with low water levels during summer and ice during winter to make navigation along the big river difficult and often hazardous. Boating companies pressured the federal government to improve navigation conditions, and, thus, in 1824, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove snags and other obstructions from the Ohio while constructing dikes and wing dams to concentrate flow into the main channel.

The Corps constructed the first dam along the entire length of the Ohio just south of present-day Wellsmar, spanning from the Ohio shore to Brown's Island in 1828. Its purpose was to back water up to another dam that stretched from the northern tip of Brown's Island diagonally to the Ohio shore approximately to the site where the old Follansbee Steel pump house stands today. Later called the "dike" by local residents, its primary function was deflecting the higher water onto the then Virginia side where the channel bisected the river.

The U.S. Corps and local labor constructed the dams from sandstone quarried from Island Creek.

The Corps added a crescent-shaped wing dam less than a half-mile downstream on the Virginia shore to deflect flow back into the channel.

The "dike" still existed intact by the turn of the 20th century and was featured in a chapter of Walter M. Kestner's "The Era of Elegance."

"The most productive and popular angling site was at the dike, a wing dam as some called it, that extended from the bar below the mouth of Sloane's Run to the head of Brown's Island. On propitious occasions this dike would be lined with devotees of sport from the Ohio shore to the break in the wall which we called the 'riffle' near the island end of the dam," the book reads.

Up to this period, navigational problems still continued. During dry months, the river was so shallow in places it could be forded by people and horse-drawn wagons. River companies and shippers relied upon two rises or tides to navigate their goods, the fall rise occurring in late October through November, the spring rise running from February through April.

In 1910, Congress enacted the Rivers and Harbors Act to canalize the entire river with wooden wicket dams, including Dams 9 and 10, spawning across from Freeman's Landing and north Steubenville respectively. The Corps of Engineers eventually replaced these dams during the '50s with the present series of high-lift locks and dams, including New Cumberland and Pike Island.

(Bob Petras is a Toronto resident and member of the Historical Society of Toronto.)

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