Mason County Memories… River Improvements


By Chris Rizer - Mason County Memories



The 1937 Gallipolis Locks & Dam is pictured here.

The 1937 Gallipolis Locks & Dam is pictured here.


Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress’ Historic American Engineering Record collection

We tend to take for granted today the ingenious system of locks and dams that maintain the water levels and pools of the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers, provide us with protection from severe floods, and help keep the rivers ice-free year-round. At one time, 11 of West Virginia’s rivers were equipped with locks and dams, the most of any state in the nation.

Prior to 1820, there were navigational hazards along the entire length of both of our rivers. Letart’s Islands, Letart’s Falls, Roush’s Bar, Wolf’s Bar, Eight Mile Island, Six Mile Island, Gallipolis Island, Raccoon Island, numerous unnamed gravel shoals and bars, unseen snags and logs that could holes in wooden boats, and ice gorges were all threats to travel and shipping, and that’s in Mason County alone.

Early travelers described their journey through these obstacles, with Letart’s Falls featuring most prominently. Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, wrote in 1803 that “this rapid is the most considerable in the whole course of the Ohio, except the rapids as they are called opposite to Louisville in Kentucky…” It wasn’t until after the successful downriver trip of the steamboat New Orleans in 1811, from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, and the navigation of the Albert Donnally up the Kanawha to Charleston in 1820, that serious consideration was given to improving both rivers.

Work, however, was expensive and slow. The State of Virginia began work on the Kanawha River in 1820 when they blasted a chute through the Red House Shoals, and in 1824, Congress set the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the same task, making improvements to navigation and flood control two of their primary missions.

Finally, in 1850, the Department of War commissioned a professional survey of the entire drainage basin of both the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, one of the largest surveys ever undertaken at the time. This was done by Charles Ellet, Jr., the same engineer who built the Wheeling Suspension Bridge. His recommendation, the “canalization” of the largest river system in the United States and 4th longest river system in the world, was nearly a century ahead of its time. Ellet knew, as we do today, that through the construction of flood reservoirs and dams, we could effectively transform even the largest river into a series of enormous lakes, the level of which we could control by storing or releasing at water at various points.

The first test of this idea began in 1874 with the appropriation of $250,000 by Congress and took almost 30 years and an additional $4,000,000 ($136 million today) to accomplish. These funds built ten wicket dams between here and Montgomery, with Locks 10 and 11 in Mason County, ensuring a nine-foot depth all the way to the Kanawha Falls. Wicket dams were made up of moveable sections spanning the length of the river which could be raised to pool water during low levels, lowered to allow the river to run free during flood stages, and even create waves and rises to overcome extreme low levels in the Ohio River. (For example, if the

Ohio was low, water could be released from the upper Kanawha pools, the lower dams could be opened wide, and the coal fleet could ride that wave all the water to Cincinnati.)

Between 1910 and 1929, the same system was installed on the Ohio River using 51 wicket dams and lock systems. Locks 24 (Racine), 25 (Camp Conley), and 26 (Apple Grove) were the ones in our stretch of river, and if you know where to look, you can still find remnants of two of these. The powerhouse of Lock 24 survives, in Lock 24 Campground near Racine, and both the lockhouse and powerhouse of Lock 25 still stand at the foot of Dam 25 Road on private property.

The wicket dams are still there, too, sort of. When the process of modernizing the dam system began in the 1930s, the old dams were simply demolished to a certain depth, leaving portions of the foundations in place as long as they weren’t hazards to navigation. The first two dams in the new system were the Gallipolis “super dam” and Winfield Dam, both completed in 1937. These dams, as well as the others later built in our area, are high-lift dams roller dams, sometimes including tainter gates to help better control water levels.

The last of these new dams, the Olmsted Locks & Dam that replaced wicket dams #52 and #53, was only just completed in 2018.

Information from the Weekly Register, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Ellet’s Report to the War Department.

The 1937 Gallipolis Locks & Dam is pictured here.
https://www.mydailyregister.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/24/2022/04/web1_gallipolis-dam-MCM.jpgThe 1937 Gallipolis Locks & Dam is pictured here. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress’ Historic American Engineering Record collection

By Chris Rizer

Mason County Memories

Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at [email protected]

Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at [email protected]