God Bless America
One of my favorite places is Guyandotte, West Virginia, where I sold books at the Civil War Reenactment. An odd little place at first sight, I thought. I didn’t see anything typical like paper mill smoke stacks and railroads; not much commerce either. When I met the town historian I asked her if there was work here. She smirked and said, “For those who want it, yes.” I thought that was a pretty honest answer.
Guyandotte’s location at the junction of the Ohio and Guyandotte River made it important in the 1800s in the timber industry. The Guyandotte River, running 166 miles through the Allegheny Plateau, is a tributary of the Ohio River.
The site that interested me most was the narrow road that passed through an imposing fortification of some sort. I drove through it on my route to and from the battlefield. Was this an old fort? Concrete? And what are all those ........
“Yes. It’s a narrow gate. It’s where the wall closes. The shed beside it you saw? It has the doors in it.” This is a massive flood wall that completely circles the city. When the gates close, the town is completely shut off from everything outside, including hospital and emergency services. It is also shut off from the rapidly rising water of the Ohio and Guyandotte Rivers. In January, 1937, the river crested at 69.45 feet. It was the Depression Era and the President was already seeking benefits of his New Deal and WPA. Flood control was at the forefront.
The flood walls of Huntington, which the Corps of Engineers decided to build in three sections, are built in Huntington, Guyandotte and Westmoreland. I suppose for all the people in the Huntington area the flood wall is only of interest when they need it. They are used to its imposing size and structure. I, on the other hand, had never seen anything like it and I was full of questions.
“How often do you have to do this?” I asked the historian.
“In my lifetime, I remember three times,” she said. I guess her age to be close to mine, so maybe every twenty years. She explained to me that the concrete wall I was looking at was only a small piece of the wall. It went a mile below the surface at a 45 degree angle so the water could displace gradually rather than push against an upright wall. I climbed onto a utility box and looked over the wall. A long, long way below me, down a sloping embankment, lay a slow moving, clear, peaceful Ohio River, silently flowing through ferns and wildflowers. I could only imagine it raging out of its mossy banks, pouring over the trees on the embankments, tearing away soil and vegetation, peeling away everything to reach that concrete. I imagined the sewage- polluted water with furniture and shingles and garbage racing past me as I peered over this wall. “Wow,” I said. “God Bless America.”