Monday, September 7, 2009
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 Rievere 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 four feet at best and an average depth of only two feet, levels 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 generally 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 he 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 series of dams at Louisville, Kentucky, the second parallel to present-day Wellsmar, spanning from the Ohio shore to Brown's Island in 1836. 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.
Prior to the construction of these dams, the channel weaved along the right bank, or Ohio side. The construction of the Brown's Island dams raised consternation amongst Jefferson County citizens about loss of shipping revenue, so much, in fact, they petitioned state congress during 1836 but to no avail.
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 Corps and local labor constructed the dams from sandstone quarried from Island Creek.
"The dams at Brown's Island," wrote Reuben Gold Thwaites in Early Western Travels, "the shoalest point on the Ohio have been so eminently successful as fully to establish the efficiency of the plan. Several other works of a similar nature are proposed...When all improvements are completed, it is believed the navigation of the beautiful Ohio will answer every purpose of commerce and the traveller."
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."
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.
Sometimes, even rises failed navigation at Brown's Island. On March 15, 1888, three steam tows--the Eagle, Ed Roberts and Sam Clarke--collided while trying to cross the dike and spilled 40,000 bushels of coal into the Ohio River.
In 1910, Congress enacted the Rivers and Harbors Act to canalize the entire river with wooden wicket dams, including Dams Nine and Ten, spanning across from Freeman's Landing to New Cumberland and Steubenville to present-day Weirton. The Corps of Engineers eventually replaced these dams during the early 60s with the present series of high-lift locks and dams, including New Cumberland and Pike Island.
First picture: Remnants of the "dike" including square sandstone blocks still remain today.
Second picture: The Ed Roberts involved in the cleanup operation of 40,000 bushels of coal spilled at the head of Brown's Island.
Third picture: An old navigation map showing the locations of the three Brown's Island dams.
Fourth Picture. The right bank of the Upper Ohio's first dam, just south of Wellsmar.