Since the 1990s, floodwalls along the Ohio River, ranging from 14 to 25 feet high, have been transformed from faceless monoliths into artists’ canvases, thanks to gifted muralists both professional and homegrown. Indeed, the stretch of the Ohio River that borders Ohio possesses the greatest concentration of floodwall murals in the nation: eight towns on both sides of the river feature more than 5,000 linear feet of breathtaking paintings depicting local history.
The vibrant colors impel you to imagine yourself in the midst of a past event, some scenes so vividly three-dimensional you feel you could literally walk into them. The murals also reveal the many national figures who have called towns along the Ohio River home, among them singing cowboy Roy Rogers rearing up on his trusty horse Trigger (Rogers was a schoolboy in Portsmouth, Ohio), trailblazer Daniel Boone (who ran a trading post in Point Pleasant, West Virginia), and jazz singer and actress Rosemary Clooney (who grew up in Maysville, Kentucky).
The murals also restore vistas of the Ohio River that the floodwalls block. “I’ve tried to make the feeling of ‘wallness’ go away,” explains Robert Dafford, the Louisiana-based muralist who began painting the 2,100-foot-long floodwall in Portsmouth 18 years ago. “When I first visited Portsmouth in 1992, the massive blank gray concrete floodwall made downtown feel hemmed in, almost as if it were in prison,” he recalls. So, using clever perspective techniques to create an illusion of great depth, Dafford painted some panels to look like Greek columns through which people now “see” the river and hills beyond.
The following is a quick guide to the floodwall murals along Ohio’s border. Much of the trip follows the Ohio River Scenic Byway from East Liverpool to Cincinnati (primarily along Ohio St. Rte. 7 and U.S. Rte. 52). Note: The entire route from the Pennsylvania to the Indiana border is 462 miles, much of it two lanes, so allow at least a three-day weekend.
Additional attraction: Many of the murals are works in progress, so don’t be surprised if you see scaffolding, drop cloths and artists at work.
The 270 feet of Wellsville floodwall murals don’t run parallel to the Ohio River, but instead cross Wells Street near the intersection of routes 45 and 7. Thanks to Hannoverton, Ohio, muralist Gina Hampson, only their shape suggests they are floodwalls. Hampson meticulously painted much of the concrete surface to look like red bricks. The panels — a project of the Wellsville Revitalization Committee since 2005 — depict Wellsville landmarks and historical events, such as the Valentine’s Day 1861 afternoon when President-elect Abraham Lincoln visited Wellsville by train on his way to his first inauguration in Washington. The Wellsville floodwall murals project has expanded to include individual portraits of local notables, such as in the depiction of a Wellsville Revitalization Committee picnic, including the artist painting the Committee members’ names on a sign.
Point Pleasant, West Virginia
Historically, flooding in Point Pleasant has involved the Kanawha River as much as the Ohio River, so the floodwalls flank both bodies of water. Instead of individual panels showing many aspects of local history, artist Robert Dafford’s murals turn a select few events into extravaganzas. Each 100- to 250-foot stretch has a single monumental scene depicting a battle or other historically important event. One shows 19-year-old George Washington surveying in the wilderness and
arriving at “this Pleasant Point” to meet with Benjamin Franklin and some land speculators who had formed the Great Ohio Company, intending to found a colony called Vandalia that would have encompassed most of today’s West Virginia and Kentucky. Before this mural, who knew that on the eve of the American Revolution plans were afoot for a fourteenth colony with Point Pleasant as its capital?
More gems from Dafford’s team (including his main associates of the 1990s, Benny Graeff and Herb Roe) adorn the floodwalls in Catlettsburg. Note the image of the 1937 Ohio River “superflood” that prompted many riverside cities to start building concrete floodwalls in the first place, and the clever way a pumping station is incorporated into a long panel showing the unloading of a barge in 1910.
Inspired by the murals at Catlettsburg, Ashland artist Denise Spaulding and several other local talents painted a short sequence of murals showing Ashland’s role in World War II. On the floodwall bordering a nearby parking lot, there are also several isolated murals painted with quilts and images from local history.
A grassroots project of Ohio artists, students and hometown volunteers, the 500-foot-long Ironton floodwall was the first to have murals painted facing the Ohio River itself, visible to riverside picnickers and passing riverboats. Gary Tillis, now retired but once the art coordinator of Ohio University Southern in Ironton, supervised the work from 1990 to 2004, completed with the help of art students who painted backgrounds. The Detroit, Toledo & Ironton locomotive, the sternwheel paddleboat The Ironton and the Waterloo Wonders basketball team were the handiwork of local Proctorville billboard artist Tom Swick.
Tillis and his assistant Patty Shively picked up brushes themselves in 2002 when The Military Order of the Purple Heart (Chapter 765) contracted them to paint a panel memorializing fallen Lawrence County veterans.
The Portsmouth floodwall murals — the longest in the country — have become a major tourist attraction. All day and evening people stroll along Front Street, gazing at the 2,100 feet of paintings and speaking in hushed tones as if they were in an art museum instead of outdoors. Some panels have even taken on special meaning for certain groups, according to Bill Howley, project director of the Ohio River Border Initiative, a joint project of the Ohio Arts Council and the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, which is designed to support artists and arts organizations along the Ohio/West Virginia border.
“The Portsmouth Motorcycle Club was one of the first motorcycle clubs in the country, and one panel shows the early club,” Howley explains. “One day, just as I was looking at that panel, five or six people on Harleys pulled up before it and sat quietly viewing it. Turns out that seeing that painting has become a kind of pilgrimage for cross-county motorcyclists.”
Walk through the floodwall gate to the river side of the wall to behold the line of painted white stars signed by notable Americans having some connection to Portsmouth, including lyric soprano Kathleen Battle.
Also find isolated stretches of floodwalls such as those flanking Second Street entering downtown, one with a tribute to the Portsmouth Labor Union painted primarily by Brett Chigoy, with Dafford’s help. Chigoy, Roe and Dafford create one new panel every year for Portsmouth.
Another Dafford creation, most of the Maysville paintings face the town. But look for two panels on the river side of the wall dedicated to local singer Rosemary Clooney. Downtown, note where scenes are strategically placed at the ends of perpendicular streets to render the wall itself invisible by opening a painted vista of the river or a historical event.
The murals on the 1,000-foot floodwall face the Ohio River and are just a 15-minute walk from downtown Cincinnati across the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge.
“Jason Brake was the main artist and foreman in Covington,” Dafford says. Among the paintings is a powerful three-dimensional scene of fireworks over Cincinnati, with a child viewing them between painted stone columns.
The Covington murals have inspired development, encouraging several cafes to open at Madison Landing at the far western edge, inviting walkers and shoppers to the riverfront.
The entire Ohio River Scenic Byway runs 967 miles through three states (Ohio, Indiana and Illinois); the 462 miles in Ohio from East Liverpool to Cincinnati is the longest section. Route itineraries can be found at ohioriverscenicbyway.com
. Additional information from the National Scenic Byways Program is at byways.org/explore/byways/2286
Steubenville, Ohio, is also known for its murals — indeed, the city was Portsmouth’s inspiration for the floodwall murals. Steubenville’s 25 murals are on the sides of buildings throughout the town, many painted by noted Washington State muralist Eric Grohe in the 1990s. (Grohe’s work in Steubenville and other Ohio cities is at ericgrohemurals.com/projects.html.) Last year, Steubenville began restoring its murals.
When leaving Maysville, Kentucky, to drive north across the Ohio River, keep alert just after you cross the Simon Kenton Bridge into Aberdeen, Ohio. Directly ahead, painted on a concrete highway wall, are two panels of a mural depicting the bridge and the Ohio River in fall colors. No, it’s not a floodwall. But the paintings created in 2008 by students of the Ripley-Union-Lewis-Huntington School District, grades 7–12, attest to the power of inspiring public art on concrete canvases. More information about the student service project appears at learnandserveohio.org/news/lso_news_rulhstudents_090507.htm.
Robert Dafford’s own Web site (robertdaffordmurals.com) shows panels from his murals in Point Pleasant, Portsmouth and Covington, plus other cities and countries.