The Ohio River begins at Pittsburgh, with the union of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. From there the Ohio travels 981 miles to Cairo, Illinois, where it joins the Mississippi. The Ohio drainage basin totals 204,000 square miles, including most of West Virginia. For 277 miles the Ohio River forms the western border of our state.
Native Americans had a variety of names for the Ohio. The French called it La Belle Rivière, ‘‘the beautiful river.’’ From the beginning of western expansion, the Ohio was a major route to the West, and it remains an important transportation corridor today. The Ohio Valley has much historical and archeological significance, having provided food, habitat, and transport for native people for 15,000 years before the arrival of settlers of European descent. As recently as 2,000 years ago, people of the Hopewell culture lived and traded in the Ohio watershed, and evidence of their complex society can be found in burial mounds throughout the area. When the French explorer La Salle traveled through the region in the late 1660s, it was home to tribes of Shawnee, Erie, Omaha, Miami, and Susquehannock. Indians fiercely resisted the settlement of the Ohio Valley in the late 18th century, and the threat was not resolved until the 1790s.
Operating from their stronghold in Canada, the French asserted rights to the Ohio watershed, basing their claims in large part on the exploration of LaSalle. Increasingly their presence was challenged by the westward expansion of British Americans. The French surrendered their North American territories, including the Ohio Valley, to the British in 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War. Two decades later, the British ceded the region to the United States as a result of the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Point Pleasant, between Virginia colonial militia and Ohio Valley Indians, was fought on the banks of the Ohio in present West Virginia in 1774, just prior to the Revolution. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 put the entire Mississippi watershed in American hands, opening unrestricted access to the Gulf of Mexico and increasing the importance of the Ohio as a transportation route.
Early travel on the river was by keelboats and flatboats or by canoes of all sizes. Beginning in 1811 and continuing into the 1900s, steamboats traveled both ways along the river, and federal efforts were made to remove obstacles such as snags and sandbars. The problem of seasonal low water was more difficult. In dry seasons it was sometimes possible to wade across the Ohio River on foot and impossible to travel continuously by boat. The Lewis and Clark Expedition spent long days pulling and carrying boats through the low water of the upper Ohio in the fall of 1803, a common occurrence at the time.
Flooding was also a serious problem. The worst floods in recorded history were in 1936 and 1937. Following a winter thaw on March 19, 1936, the river crested at Wheeling at a record 55.2 feet, nearly 20 feet above flood stage. On January 28, 1937, the river crested in Huntington at 69.45 feet, more than 19 feet above flood stage. Other known floods of the Ohio River occurred in 1774, 1847, 1884, 1898, 1907, 1913, 1942, 1943, and 1948.
The Ohio now varies in width from 1,000 to 1,600 feet, and the average depth ranges from 10 to 20 feet, with many deeper places. The depth and width have been increased by a series of 19 locks and dams, seven along West Virginia’s border. These provide a minimum nine-foot navigation channel for the river’s entire length. Large floods (especially those of 1847, 1884, 1913, and 1937) brought the construction of floodwalls and levees on the Ohio, and flood-control dams on the tributaries.
All of West Virginia except the Eastern Panhandle and a small part of Monroe County lies within the Ohio River watershed. The principal tributaries in West Virginia are the Little Kanawha, the Kanawha and its tributaries (including the Elk, Gauley, Greenbrier, and New rivers), the Guyandotte, and the Big Sandy River and the Tug Fork of Big Sandy. The principal West Virginia cities on the Ohio are Weirton, Wheeling, Moundsville, New Martinsville, Paden City, Sistersville, St. Marys, Parkersburg, Ravenswood, Point Pleasant, and Huntington.
As a transportation route, the Ohio has contributed to the growth and prosperity of the region. Fueled by the abundance of coal found in all the adjoining states, heavy industries such as steel and metal alloys found a home in the upper Ohio Valley. The production of electricity from coal is also a major industry. After World War II, growth along the river was a direct result of cheap and easy barge transportation for the industrial products manufactured in the river cities. Today, the primary shipping consists of bulk natural resources such as coal, sand and gravel, and petrochemical products.
Geologically, the Ohio River is quite young. Although the continental ice that covered much of northern Ohio and Pennsylvania more than 10,000 years ago never reached present West Virginia, the Ohio Valley was at the southern edge of the glaciation that lasted throughout the Pleistocene Epoch. Glacial ice blocked the ancient Teays River, which once continued the course of the present Kanawha River westward across southern West Virginia and Ohio, forcing the water of the Teays into a new channel, thus forming the Ohio River. The steep bluffs along stretches of the Ohio likely were carved by glacial meltwater.
Hardwood forests that sustained a rich flora formerly lined the river and created habitat for a large diversity of fauna. The Ohio River supported an abundance of fish and mussels before the onset of pollution that resulted from the numerous industrial plants along its shoreline and on its tributaries. During the mid-20th century, fishermen typically could catch only catfish and carp. Gamefish such as largemouth bass, striped bass, and sauger are once more abundant, however, as a result of pollution control and management by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and other agencies.
There are 32 islands in the Ohio River in West Virginia, many of them included in the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The Ohio River is a major migration corridor for many species of waterfowl, and the islands support an abundance of wildlife, including bald eagles, osprey, cormorants, beaver, muskrats, raccoons, and white-tailed deer.
This Article was written by Jane C. Michael
Last Revised on October 22, 2010
Banta, R. E. The Ohio. New York: Rinehart, 1949.