A four-year project completed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1950, the Parkersburg floodwall is one of dozens of flood control projects initiated in West Virginia throughout the 1930s and 1940s to stem chronic seasonal disasters in key areas across the state. Still a key component in protecting the city today, the half-century old floodwall was in the limelight as recently as February 2018, when it failed to qualify for Corps of Engineers maintenance funding. Most of the wall’s 10,400 linear feet are publicly accessible by a frontage road between the wall and the river, affording views of both the Little Kanawha and Ohio Rivers.
Like many cities in West Virginia, Parkersburg is no stranger to intense flooding. Its pedigree of historic inundations includes devastating deluges in 1884, 1913, and 1937, when finally the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) began a broad slate of projects to curb catastrophic seasonal flooding throughout the Ohio Valley, Appalachia, and neighboring regions. Huntington, West Virginia, home to a slew of war industry plants during World War II, took priority and received a floodwall and other improvements not unlike those that would eventually protect Parkersburg.
As resources became available after war’s end, the USACE began its extensive works at the confluence of the Little Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, protecting the city from the likeliest areas of flooding with 2 miles of concrete wall, 1.8 miles of earth levee, and 1,900 feet of diversion channel. The system has 6 pump stations and 14 gated openings for vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Excavations, concrete pouring, and other construction took almost exactly four years, from March 1946 to April 1950, but when complete it protected the heart of Parkersburg from a maximum flood height matching that of the record 1913 flood: 58.9 feet. The total cost was $6,953,000. Of this amount, $300,000 was furnished locally, with the remainder being provided by federal sources.
Since the installation of the wall, damage from flooding has been significantly reduced. As early as 1979, the USACE estimates the project as having prevented $18,748,000 in damages (though a caption earlier in the report estimates $15 million). Data gathered since bears out the importance of the bulwark: a 2010 Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Council report shows eleven floods between 1966 and 2010, only one of which (floodwaters resulting from 2004’s Hurricane Ike) resulted in any significant damage.
In 2015, the city of Parkersburg was informed by the USACE that the state of the wall was “unacceptable” and would not be eligible for Corps of Engineers maintenance funds due to inspection shortcomings. In the intervening years, the city has worked to meet these requirements: assembling the gate at Murdoch Street, which had never previously been installed due to the resulting obstruction of traffic, and commissioning an inspection of underwater pipes and conduit, which was still underway as of early 2018.