The origins of the Muskingum watershed systems of sixteen dams stem from the floods of March 1913, Ohio’s worst recorded natural disaster. Between March 23 and March 27, two storms passing over the state dropped about eight inches of rain, producing a flood over most of the Muskingum basin and much of the rest of Ohio. The city of Zanesville was heavily damaged, and eleven lives were lost in the Muskingum drainage area. The need for flood control measures to prevent a repetition of the 1913 floods, further spurred by the 1932 floods, led to the formation of the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD). The MWCD applied to the Public Works Administration for funding and was initially awarded $22,590,000 to construct 14 dams and reservoirs. The Official Plan, prepared cooperatively by the MWCD and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and approved in 1934, called for construction of 15 dams, four on Walhonding system, four on the Tuscarawas River system, four on the Stillwater Creek, and two on Wills Creek (Dillon Reservoir, on the Licking River, was authorized in 1938 and completed in 1960).
The Muskingum River watershed is the largest within the state of Ohio, covering 8,051 square miles over all or part of twenty-seven counties. The Muskingum River system consists of the Muskingum River itself, which is joined by the Tuscarawas and Walhonding rivers at Coshocton, and four major sub-drainages, the Tuscarawas, Walhonding, Wills Creek, and Licking rivers. The Muskingum River flows southward from Coshocton to join the Ohio River at Marietta, a juncture that has been marked by flooding and many endeavors to stem the water collected in the northern reaches of the state.
With its impediments to navigation, the Muskingum River had always challenged civic planners and engineers. Schemes to create a canal system linking the Great Lakes and the Ohio River (Ohio-Erie Canal), as well as construction of a slack water lock and dam at Marietta were among the major nineteenth century achievements to open a pathway for the state’s industrial and agricultural products. Though flooding was a reality of life in the basin, major attention to the problem was not given until early in the twentieth century.
The concept of flood risk reduction by means of a system of dams and levees for eastern Ohio was championed as early as the mid-nineteenth century by civilian engineer, Charles Ellet Jr., but not realized until the flooding of the Miami River in western Ohio in 1913. As Dayton, Ohio recovered from the flood, rigorous flood control measures were imposed by the newly formed Miami Conservancy District, which was followed by the formation of the Upper Scioto Drainage and Conservancy District in 1915. The Miami River project resulted in five hydraulic fill dams, created by blasting sediments and gravel into water retention berms or “dry dams.” The system relied upon the standard infrastructure of levees to buttress the dam sites, an approach that remained unchallenged for the next decade.
In 1935, the Muskingum Basin’s unique climate and geography drew in moist air from the Gulf of Mississippi toward a stationary front, fueling a storm with severe consequences. In the aftermath, a conventional response would have meant raising levees a few feet, or straightening sections of the river, to include retention areas. This approach was not feasible for a number of reasons, mainly because the Ohio and its tributaries such as the Muskingum River had hilly topography and narrow cut river channels with limited flood plains.
At a time when dams in western states and some southeastern states were touted for navigational and hydroelectric benefits, both the Miami, and later Muskingum projects transformed flood control in the eastern United States. Using the Miami Conservation District as a model, east/central Ohio began eyeing a similar institutional approach for taming the sometimes violent Muskingum River and its tributaries. The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD) formed in 1933 and submitted a draft plan to reduce flooding in the basin to the Public Works Administration (PWA). The initial plan called for fourteen flood control reservoirs. In 1933, even before it was freed from its single focus on navigation by the Flood Control Act of 1936, the Corps was given a grant of $22,090,000 by the PWA to construct the Muskingum system. The great floods of 1935-36 compelled swift action to implement the Facilities.
Construction was initiated under the direction of the Huntington District of the Corps, but soon shifted to Zanesville, where the Corps established a new district for more immediate and efficient oversight of the Facilities. All architectural design work, as well as soils analysis and site planning took place at Zanesville. The MWCD approved plans on 6 October 1934, with work commencing first on Charles Mill and Lake Tappan in January 1935. Facilities were built in three drainages that poured into the Muskingum River. The Walhonding River and its tributaries included dams at Mohawk, Pleasant Hill, Charles Mill, and Mohicanville. Dams were built at Bolivar, Atwood, Leesville, Beach City, Tappan, Clendening, Dover, and Piedmont on the Tuscarawas River; while Wills Creek and Senecaville dammed smaller streams east of Zanesville. Bolivar, Dover, Mohawk, and Mohicanville Dams all only impound water in times of high water and are referred to as “dry dams,” the other ten dams continuously impound water creating reservoirs behind them.
The Corps was assigned design and construction responsibilities, and relocation of roads and infrastructure, while the MWCD obtained right of ways and real estate purchases. Construction was aided by a large pool of unemployed men organized by the PWA. All dams, but Dover, were the rolled earth type, a continuous embankment of compacted impenetrable material with control mechanisms for passing water. Dover Dam was constructed as a concrete gravity dam which is designed to hold back water by using only the weight of the concrete or stone masonry and its resistance against the foundation to oppose the horizontal pressure of water pushing against it. Completed in 1938, the Muskingum Project was initially turned over to the MWCD, but soon reverted to Corps operation for the management of flowage easements and reservoirs, an arrangement that continues today, with the MWCD retaining ownership over most of the landholdings.
Today, the original fourteen Muskingum River Basin dams and associated building components create an evocative physical record of Depression-era flood risk management and technology, and of the period architecture that finessed industrial design with twentieth-century modernism. Collectively, their pyramidal embankments, highly-stylized intake/outlet works, and focused administrative areas project an unmistakable signature of regional water management history.