Portsmouth's Floodwall Murals

Explore the history depicted in Portsmouth’s famous floodwall murals. This tour covers some 2,000 years of history at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers, from the ancient Adena and Hopewell to the workers at Williams Shoe factory in downtown Portsmouth. Explore in more detail some of the history depicted in Robert Dafford’s epic Portsmouth Floodwall Murals.

The history of human settlement at the Mouth of the Scioto has always been shaped by the rise and fall of flood waters. Over the millennia it is clear that settlements and towns have come and gone at the confluence, their fates frequently sealed by the high waters of the Scioto and the Ohio. The Shawnee and the Americans would abandoned their first settlements on the West Side of the Mouth for higher ground on the East, and ultimately Portsmouth emerged triumphant after its founding in 1803. The two rivers wiped out Lower Shawnee Town and Alexandria and gave birth to Portsmouth.

Portsmouth’s higher ground was never that much higher than the first settlements on the West Side and she too has experienced massive flooding on occasion throughout the nineteenth century and early twentieth. In time, the people of Portsmouth would seek protection behind an ever-increasing massive floodwall and levy system. The first flood wall of Portsmouth may have been too short to keep out the flood waters of 1937, but when the walls were raised and the levies extended in the 1940s, Portsmouth became a walled city, the view of the river blocked, the residences and factories dry. Aesthetically, the flood walls came to be recognized universally as an eyesore and perhaps, worse, as some had concluded, an obstruction to the economic redevelopment of the city.

In the 1990s as residents of the city struggled with the global forces of deindustrialization that had shut down factories throughout the Scioto and Ohio valleys, community leaders launched an ambitious historical murals project. Some 2,000 years of history would come to be painted on 2000 feet of flood wall, helping generate much needed tourism as well as a sense of community and identity for a great and historic city, a place that had seen the rise and fall of Native American civilizations, including the Adena, Ohio Hopewell, and Fort Ancient Cultures, and the rise and fall of the American steel, shoe, and nuclear industries.

The narrative arc of the murals would also point to the revival and economic redevelopment of the city, as seen in the rise of Shawnee State University and the Southern Ohio Medical Center.

Robert Dafford, the artist hired to complete the murals, once explained the significance of the project by pointing to its transformative effect on the residents of Portsmouth. The flood defenses, what Dafford compared to “a medieval prison wall,” had become “a piece of art that has something to do with the people who live there. It’s their art. It’s their history. It’s their ancestry. And it changes their feeling about where they live.” For visitors to Portsmouth, the murals help orient them to the history of the city and the larger Scioto Valley; it leaves them with a new appreciation for the significance of this old river town.

Explore the history depicted on Portsmouth’s Floodwall Murals. Start your visit at the Scioto County Welcome Center, where one can study historical exhibits and see Robert Dafford’s portrait of Ava and Dr. Louis Chaboudy, the local couple who are credited with having had the inspiration for the murals. Then take a walking tour of the murals themselves, before taking Scioto Historical's driving tour of local sites depicted in Dafford’s epic paintings.

Visit Alexandria Point Park, which overlooks the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers, and consider the history of the Alexandria Stone, the last remaining, chiseled sandstone block salvaged from the abandoned ruins of the first American settlement at the Mouth of the Scioto.

Cross the Scioto and drive out to the West Side and tour the Shawnee Forest, stopping to view Roosevelt Lake and Spillway Bridge across Turkey Creek. Take a day hike on the Roosevelt Lake Overlook Trail or visit the Shawnee State Park Nature Center and learn about the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps. This federal jobs program from the 1930s included two special camps of segregated, all African-American and World War I veterans. Learn about the CCC and the origins of Roosevelt Lake and Shawnee State Park.

Return to Portsmouth and visit the grave of Bessie Tomlin, who lost her life in the epic Flood of 1937 and contemplate the history of the Civil War Memorial in Greenlawn Cemetery’s Soldier’s Circle. Walk the grounds of Mound Park, which preserves one of the two horseshoe-shaped mounds that once stood at the center of a massive complex of earthworks at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers. Explore historic sites associated with the Portsmouth shoe industry, including the old factory locations of Mitchellace, Williams Manufacturing, and Excelsior Shoes.

Visit the Southern Ohio Museum & Cultural Center on the Esplanade, where you can see images from the Carl Ackerman Collection, whose historical photos were the basis of many of Robert Dafford's flood wall murals. Lastly, after viewing selections from the museum's Clarence Carter Collection, end your tour at the Portsmouth Post Office on Gay Street, where you can view the original murals of Carter, a native son and the city’s first muralist who went onto international acclaim.

Sources:

Philip Eil, "Interview with Robert Dafford, Point Pleasant West Virginia (4 August 2010)," Shawnee State University's Digital History Lab, Clark Memorial Library, Portsmouth, Ohio.

Robert L. Morton, “Portsmouth Murals - A Tourist Attraction - How It All Began - Part One,” AAA Today Vol. 11, No. 4 (Winter 1996): 4-7.

Robert L. Morton, “The Floodwall Murals: How it All Began - Part Two,” AAA Today Vol. 12, No. 2 (Summer 1996): 4-7.

http://www.portsmouthohiomurals.com/

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