Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/April 1891/A Brief History of the Ohio River


By Prof. JOSEPH F. JAMES, M. Sc.

FAR up in one of the wildest regions of eastern North. America rise most of the streams which form the Ohio River. These streams are separated from the head-waters of the Potomac by a spur of the Appalachian Mountains only a few miles wide. This region, in Randolph County, West Virginia, was called, many years ago, and, for aught I can say to the contrary, may still be known as "Canaan." It is a wild, undeveloped tract of thousands of acres, with many deer and bears; surrounded by rugged mountains, abounding in leaping trout-streams, and full of laurel brakes impenetrable alike to man and beast. Within these precincts are the sources of one of the great rivers of the continent.

The picturesque birth of the Ohio River is a fitting prelude to its romantic history. Its physical history is almost that of the continent, for its birth dates back to a time when a large part of eastern North America rose for the last time above the surface of the sea. Centuries ago its valley was the home of the hairy mammoth and the lordly mastodon. In later times it saw the bison in countless herds reflected in its waters. The mound-builders have left some of their most wonderful works within the confines of its valley. Later still, its hills have re-echoed the shouts and battle-cries of Indian and of white; and now the hum of industry and the homes of civilized man fill its valley from end to end. "La belle rivière" it still remains, and to this it might add another epithet, "La méchante rivière" (or the wayward river), because of its astonishing variations in volume of water.

The Ohio River proper results from the union of two streams in the western portion of Pennsylvania. One of these—the Monongahela—rises in that "Canaan" already referred to, and is in its turn formed of two branches, the Cheat and the Tygart's Valley Rivers. These are formed again of minor streams, whose ultimate sources lie along the back-bone or high ridge which separates the sources of the rivers of the Atlantic coast from those of the Mississippi Valley. The Cheat is a wild and romantic stream, particularly at its head-waters, where it tumbles over and around rocks in the wild and reckless exuberance of youth. It abounds with trout, and furnishes scenery well worthy the attention of artist or student of nature.

The Monongahela itself has become somewhat celebrated of late years, because of certain terraces found along its banks, the history of which has been the source of considerable speculation. They are found in the vicinity of Morgantown, W. Va., and are composed of silt, clay, and loam, with a few animal and many plant remains scattered throughout their extent. They vary from 70 to 275 feet above low water in the river, but have an approximate elevation of from 1,045 to 1,065 feet above tide. Evidently produced by the action of water, they are yet too far removed from the present stream to have been formed by its agency, at least in its present condition. An explanation of their origin will be suggested later on in the course of this article.

The other branch, which unites with the Monongahela, is the Alleghany. This takes its rise in the northwestern part of Pennsylvania, enters New York State for a short distance, turns south again, and joins its sister stream at Pittsburg. It does not rise in a mountainous country, but in a region comparatively level; and there is every reason to believe at one time in its existence it was tributary to Lake Erie instead of to the Ohio. It is some four hundred miles long, and is navigable for small boats for two hundred and fifty miles from its mouth. It flows through the great oil and gas region of Pennsylvania, a region which gave to the world over 150,000,000 barrels of petroleum. It is from here, too, that has come the gaseous fuel which has changed Pittsburg from the smokiest city of the Nation into one of the cleanest. Pittsburg, besides being a great manufacturing center, is the starting-point for the great coal fleets that supply the cities of Cincinnati, Louisville, and hundreds of others with the fuel taken from the mines of Pennsylvania. Prom this point begins the Ohio River proper. We may glance now at its history, and trace briefly the vicissitudes through which it has passed from its birth to the present time.

The actual birth of the Ohio River dates from the close of the Carboniferous or Coal era, and the final elevation of the Appalachian chain of mountains. Previous to that time the country through which the river now flows lay upon the borders of the ocean, and in places was lost in the ocean itself. After the land was elevated above the sea-level, the drainage system of the valley was established, and the great river was born.

All streams in the course of their existence go through several phases, which correspond to the features presented by the different parts of their course. The head-waters are swift and roaring torrents, leaping from ledge to ledge, or dashing round and over masses of rock in their wild mountain homes. Lower down the current slackens, some of the impetuosity is lost, but it still glides swiftly over its rocky bed. Still lower down the current becomes slower, the stream broadens out, and the bed loses its rocky and

PSM V38 D761 Differences of unglaciated and glaciated lands.jpg
Ideal view of an Old Unglaciated Country, showing the Form assumed by the Eminences when Erosion has proceeded to a great extent. (United States Geological Survey.) (Chamberlin.) A Country, in contrast with the adjacent Figure, in which the Drainage has been disturbed by Glacial Deposits, and the Streams are beginning to wear new Channels. (Chamberlin.)

rugged character; while as the mouth is approached the current becomes sluggish, broad bottoms appear, a greater width to the stream is apparent, and all signs point to the end of its career. As with the course of a river, so with its life. In early days, before the channel is well defined, it is a foaming torrent. Later on it smooths its bed and becomes more stable in position. As years and centuries pass away, the rougher places are leveled, and the stream then flows placidly in its course over its well-worn, often deeply excavated channel. The Ohio has reached this last stage in its history, for at only a single place in all its course from Pittsburg to its mouth does its channel show signs of a rocky character. The reason for this single exception will soon become clear.

An examination of the geological structure of the country through which the Ohio flows shows none but the extreme end of the valley to be of later age than the Carboniferous. Portions are, indeed, far older; but the area covered by these, though perhaps extensive enough to allow the development of some system of drainage, was never large enough to develop a stream of any great size. None of the tributaries of the river, either from the north or the south, flow through regions more recent than the Carboniferous, with the exception of the lower parts of the Ohio itself and of the Tennessee, which border on the Quaternary. The lowest formation in the valley is the Cincinnati, which is just touched at a single point, and only for a short distance, about twenty miles above the city.

It may be stated, then, that since the close of Carboniferous time the river has flowed mainly in the same channel. The vast antiquity of the river is thus easily established, and the existence of the wide valley, with its broad bottom lands, is readily accounted for. The story of the river during the long period of pre-glacial time would be simple. For ages its waters were probably poured directly into the Gulf of Mexico, an arm of which extended northward into the continent at least as far as the present site of Cairo, Illinois. In later time the Mississippi-Missouri began the formation of a delta, which, gradually extending, has left the Ohio a tributary merely of the mighty "Father of Waters." As ages passed away it smoothed its rocky bed, and cut deeper and deeper between the hills, until at last there came a time in the history of the earth which man has called the "Glacial period." It was an age of intense cold—when a mantle of ice and snow covered all the New England States, New York, part of Pennsylvania, of Ohio, of Indiana, and Illinois, and thence extended northwestward to Dakota and the Rocky Mountain region. When the period was at its height, and the maximum limit of the ice-sheet had been reached, the course of the Ohio River became seriously affected.

Profs. G. F. Wright and H. Carvill Lewis, Mr. Warren Upham and others, have shown that, at the period of the greatest extension of the ice, a portion of it crossed the Ohio River in the vicinity of Cincinnati, and extended southward for some miles into Kentucky. The course of the river as it now exists was blocked for a distance of probably fifty miles, or from near Point Pleasant, twenty miles above Cincinnati, to the mouth of the Big Miami, thirty miles below.

Investigations into the topography and surface geology of the region about Cincinnati reveal the existence of an ancient channel of the Ohio which divided into two branches.[1] One was on the eastern, the other on the western side of the city, and the two united just north of the city and continued to Hamilton, twenty-five miles. Here the old stream was joined by what is now the Big Miami, and the united rivers then turned southwestward and entered the present channel of the Ohio near Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

At the present time the Ohio passes by the city of Cincinnati and follows a channel cut between the hills at a more recent period than the greater portion of its bed. At the time of the existence of the old valley extending north from Cincinnati, a barrier of land extended across from Ohio to Kentucky and barred the way of the river to the west. This was cut down probably

PSM V38 D763 Ancient channel of the ohio river around cincinnati.jpg

at the time the country was occupied by the glaciers, and as a result we find in the present bed of the stream immense banks of coarse gravel alternately on the Kentucky and on the Ohio side for some miles below Cincinnati, while near the mouth of the Big Miami is another immense deposit which resulted from the melting of the glaciers as they retired northward up that valley.

The consequences of the stoppage of the current of the river are plainly seen. The glaciers creeping down from the north would naturally follow the old channel of the river and prevent its egress to the north, so it was probably during the on-coming of the glaciers that the river began the task of cutting a new channel for itself the one it now occupies; but when the ice reached and crossed the channel and entered Kentucky, this partly

PSM V38 D764 Effect of the glacial dam at cincinnati.jpg

Map showing the Effect of the Glacial Dam at Cincinnati (Claypole). (From Transactions of Edinurgh Geological Society.)

made new way was likewise obstructed. As a result the water rose higher and higher, backing farther and farther up its valley, until its estimated depth varied from three hundred to six hundred feet. The investigation of this matter was made the subject of a special paper by Prof. E. W. Claypole, and from his pamphlet we glean some interesting facts.

Lake Ohio, as this body of water produced by the ice-dam was called, extended four hundred miles up the valley and was in places two hundred miles broad. Its waters covered the present site of Pittsburg to a depth of three hundred feet. Backing up the Monongahela River, it carved the terraces already mentioned, so that these represent the shores of this ancient lake in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Its northern boundary was formed partly by the ice wall itself and partly by the irregular outline of the high land it could not overflow. A few isolated patches projected as islands above its surface. On the south, long fiords existed in place of the former tributaries, and from the lower end of one of these was the probable outlet for the water. This, however, is still a mooted question, and though it is probable that much found its way through a low pass in the water-shed between the valleys of the Licking and the Kentucky Rivers, it is also likely that a part followed the foot of the ice and reached the Ohio Valley again some thirty or forty miles below the present site of Cincinnati.

How long Lake Ohio was in existence it is, of course, impossible to say. Various facts, however, indicate a life of many hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. So long as the dam existed, Lake Ohio held its own; but, when the ice began its retreat, the fate of the lake was sealed. As year after year the foundations of the dam were weakened, the pressure of the water was with greater and greater difficulty withstood. The heat of summer sapped its strength, but this was again renewed by the winter's cold; but, when the cold of winter was insufficient to supply the waste of summer, the end was really at hand. As Prof. Claypole says: "Possibly the change was gradual and the dam and the lake went gently down together. Possibly, but not probably, this was the case. Far more likely is it that the melting was rapid and that it sapped the strength of the dam faster than it lowered the water. This will be more probable when we consider the immense area to be drained. The catastrophe was then inevitable—the dam broke, and all the accumulated water of Lake Ohio was poured through the gap. Days and even weeks must have passed before it was all gone; but at last its bed was dry. The upper Ohio Valley was free from water, and Lake Ohio had passed away."[2]

This conflict of ice and water must have been frequently repeated, for the cold of winter would have repaired the damage of the summer; so that year after year, for how long one can not tell, the conflict was renewed. Says Prof. Claypole: "This period of conflict between the ice and the river must have "been a terrible time for the lower Ohio Valley and its inhabitants. At times the river was dry, and at others bank-full and overflowing. The frost of winter by lessening the supply, and the ice-tongue by forming a dam, combined to hold back the water. The sun of summer, by melting the dam, and the pressure of the accumulated water, by bursting it, combined to let off at once the whole of the retained store. Terrible floods of water and ice, laden with stones, gravel, and sand, must have poured down the river, and have swept everything away in their path—trees, animals, and man, if present. . . . To the human dwellers in the Ohio Valley—for we have reason to believe that the valley was in that day tenanted by man—these floods must have proved disastrous in the extreme. It is scarcely likely that they were often forecast. The whole population of the bottom lands must have been repeatedly swept away; and it is far from being unlikely that in these and other similar catastrophes in different parts of the world, which characterized certain stages in the Glacial era, will be found the far-off basis on which rest those traditions of a flood that are found among almost all savage nations, especially in the north temperate zone."

So there finally came a time when the Ohio Valley was no longer blocked by ice. But, when this time came, the débris from the melting glaciers had filled up the previously northward trending channel, while the long-continued floods had cut a new channel along the southern border of the ice as far as the mouth of the Big Miami. Thus was its ancient bed deserted forever, and was left to be occupied by insignificant streams, or else remained high and dry above the reach of any flood of future years.

The city of Louisville stands upon a deserted portion of the Ohio River channel also. It is in front of this city that the celebrated Falls of the Ohio are found. Here the river rushes over a rocky bottom, of itself indicative of a new channel, while on either side are wide stretches of sand or gravel, or low-lying plains through which the river formerly flowed. A late writer in one of the scientific magazines[3] states that evidence points to the fact that in pre-glacial times the Ohio River divided above the city, one branch flowing on the north and another on the south of an island, the two uniting again below the city. Well-borings show the rock in some places to be one hundred and fifty feet or more below the present surface, and what are now insignificant streams were once large enough to carve valleys half a mile wide and many feet in depth. Where was once the island, are now the falls. The ancient channels are filled with débris, and the new channel is a shallow rock cut, excavated since the close of the great Ice age.

A physical history of the Ohio River would not be complete without a mention of the great variation in volume it presents, and some mention of the probable causes. Nothing is definitely known of its fluctuations during the prehistoric period, or indeed previous to 1832. It is true there are traditions of great floods in the river as far back as 1774. In 1787 there was a flood which some authors state reached one hundred and twelve feet. In 1792 there was another, reaching the height of sixty feet. The flood of 1832, of which there is authentic record, attained a height of sixty-four feet three inches. There were, up to 1883, twelve floods which reached or exceeded fifty feet. In that year (1883) the water reached a height of sixty-six feet four inches; and this was exceeded the following year by a volume of water which marked upon the gauge at the Cincinnati Water-Works seventy-one feet, three fourths of an inch. During the year 1890 the water twice reached a depth exceeding fifty feet.

Contrast these great floods with the extreme low water sometimes experienced. Five times during fifty years has the water sunk so low as to leave but three feet in the channel. The lowest ever known was in September, 1881, when the records show that twenty-three inches of water were found where three years later there were seventy-one feet. In October, 1887, it was also very low, there then being but two feet eight inches in the channel. At that time the river in front of Cincinnati showed its hidden dangers as scarcely ever before. A boy four feet high might have waded across without wetting his suspender-buttons. "Ugly-looking black bowlders, long, narrow, jagged reefs of moss-and slime-covered rocks and hillocks of gravel uplift their heads three, four, and five feet above the surface of the stream, all along the channel between the railroad and suspension bridges, while the big bar at the mouth of the Licking thrusts itself sheer across the river to within a hundred feet of the Ohio edge, at the foot of Walnut Street. One pebbled and coal-strewn reef, between Walnut and Vine Streets, is exposed for over two hundred feet, and it can be reached by wading from either shore. A sunken barge, which for years has been concealed from sight by the waters, is now wholly exposed, and its skeleton is visible from keel to gunwales, and stem to stern."[4]

The cause of such fluctuations is not far to seek. The destruction of forests about the head-waters of the tributaries, large and small, prevents the conservation of the water which falls in a rainy season. It rushes in torrents down the denuded hills and mountains, and is gone in a few days. A smaller amount of rain than the average, and the river becomes abnormally low. Abundant precipitation, on the other hand, combined with such conditions as cause heavy snows to be melted suddenly, together with the absence of forests which tend to absorb moisture and to give it out but slowly, produce disastrous floods, such as have so frequently occurred. That there is any effectual remedy for the floods can scarcely be maintained; that their violence can be mitigated, the adherents of reforesting devoutly believe; and that the great dearth of water can be largely prevented by allowing the hills to become clothed again with forests, and the springs give out their stores perennially instead of drying up in seasons of drought, all must admit. But the problems of a great river are not worked out in a few years, any more than its own history has been. Time is necessary for all things. We firmly believe that man will in the end find a cure for the evils of drought and flood to which the mighty Ohio has been subject since civilized man has planted himself upon her hilly shores.

  1. See a paper by the writer in the Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History, vol. xi, pp. 96-101.
  2. Lake Age in Ohio, p. 16.
  3. John Bryson, in American Geologist, March, 1890.
  4. Local paper, October 27, 1887.