History of the Floodwall

Since European settlers first started settling the area in the mid to late 1700s, numerous floods have wreaked havoc on towns and cities along the Ohio River Valley.  The City of Portsmouth, Ohio has had several disastrous floods since it was plated in 1803. Indeed, the city was born out of necessity, as the neighboring settlement of Alexandria, established just west of the Scioto River, was perennially ravaged by spring flooding.  Portsmouth, Ohio was always a river community, whose economy and sense of place was tied so intricately to the mighty Ohio River. And then 1937 happened. The 1937 Flood fundamentally was by all accounts a disaster of monstrous proportions. More than 165 billion tons of rain fell in the Midwest. In the Portsmouth area alone, it rained for twenty-two consecutive days. Beginning January 17th and ending the 25th, the rain continued non-stop. On January 22nd, water began pouring over the existing 62-foot floodwall. The river stage reached 74.23 feet on January 27th. It brought destruction to the region and losses in homes, businesses and even the loss of life. Monetary losses were set at nearly $16,245,000.  

The 1937 fundamentally changed how our community interacted and engaged with the Ohio River.  Attitudes toward the river in the aftermath of the flooding was bleak. The Ohio River became an existential threat; something to be mitigated and protected from rather than embraced.  The “It Can’t Happen Again” campaign rallied public support for the construction of new barriers and levees to protect the area from future flooding. The solution was to build an intricate series of levees separating the Ohio and Scioto River from the city.  An approximately 20 feet high wall was constructed between the main portion of the area’s riverfront and Front Street in downtown Portsmouth. The wall has stood mostly untested, save for perhaps less than a half dozen occurrences when the defenses floodgates have been raised.  The most notable of which was in early 1997 when winter flooding devastated portions of the region. Because of better river management and improved dams along the Ohio River, the Portsmouth flood defense has largely been left unchallenged. However, the wall has remained, and has come to define our community for better or worse.

The Murals Project

The stimulus for the entire mural project began in February 1992. Dr. Lou Chaboudy and his wife, Ava, were hosting a AAA motor coach tour that included Steubenville, Ohio. After enjoying the murals in Steubenville, they reflected, “Our own floodwall has protected us well, but it is an eyesore. It would be a great place for murals.” Other city leaders and officials visited Steubenville in June and agreed. Fund raisers were held in December 1992 and again in April 1993. Portsmouth Murals, Inc. (PMI) was formed as a nonprofit, all volunteer organization.

Muralist Robert Dafford was then commissioned to paint the first mural. The Carl Ackerman photographic collection was reviewed and photos depicting a view of Portsmouth in 1903, as seen from the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, were selected. The dedication ceremony of this first mural was in May 1993.

The Floodwall Mural Project was a carefully designed effort between PMI and Dafford. Hundreds of different ideas were suggested. Instead of painting a 19th century mural here and a 16th century mural there, they developed the concept of an historical timeline of the Portsmouth area. The first mural on the east end of the floodwall depicts the Mound Builders. Traveling east to west, the chronological history of the Ohio Valley comes alive – ending with a mural of the U.S. Grant Bridge in 2001.

All murals along this original section of the floodwall (along Front Street between Washington Street and Madison Street), chronicling the history of the area, are now complete. A large measure of the project’s success can be attributed to the volunteer work of Bob Cook. In October 1994, he became PMIʼs Executive Coordinator.

The Floodwall Mural Project is an ongoing endeavor of PMI. Financial support comes from individual and corporate contributions, public and foundation grants, fund-raising events and the sale of mural merchandise. These financial needs remain as there are on-going maintenance of the murals as well as additional mural projects which continue to develop. Since the dedication of the murals, four unique mural panels have been added along various sections of the floodwall and most recently, a five mural has been started which is currently being painted on the riverfront side of the floodwall near the Court Street Landing.

In late 2017, Portsmouth Murals Inc. began work on launching a fully integrated mobile murals tour application.  The application and supporting signage were funded with a $15,000 grant through the Appalachian Regional Commission.  Board members Butch Stall, Adam Phillips and Chris Lute have taken the lead on completing this project, along with the generous support of the entire murals board and community members Kyle Webb, Jaime Tuggle and the voice of the murals tour, Chip Maillet.