The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has helped to transform the face of West Virginia, converting free-flowing rivers into managed waterways for purposes of flood control and transportation. It is likely that the majority of West Virginians see the work of the Corps of Engineers every day, in the hundreds of miles of tamed and transformed streams, the floodwalls that protect cities and towns, and the lakes that attract boaters and fishermen.
The Corps of Engineers has been active in West Virginia since before the creation of the state, modifying rivers to accommodate navigation. The army was assigned this civilian work because in the early 19th century its West Point-educated engineers represented a large majority of the young nation’s formally trained engineers. In 1824, Congress directed the Corps of Engineers to improve navigation on the Ohio River by removing obstructions and clearing a navigable channel. To manage this mission, the chief of engineers directed that offices be established throughout the Ohio River basin.
After 1888, division offices were established to manage the increasing navigation demands within major river basins, including the Ohio River basin. District offices were created under the division offices to manage smaller river basins, such as the Great Kanawha and the Little Kanawha basins. Since about the turn of the 20th century, West Virginia has been included as a part of the Corps’ Civil Works Program. The Huntington and Pittsburgh districts, which are part of the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, have jurisdiction over most of the state. The Eastern Panhandle falls within the Baltimore District, which is part of the North Atlantic Division.
The Civil Works Program dealt principally with navigation improvements until the great floods of the late 1920s and the 1930s prompted Congress to direct the Corps of Engineers to develop flood-control projects. Since then, there have been ten flood-control reservoirs built in West Virginia and ten local protection projects. The flood-control dams include those at Tygart Lake, Bluestone Lake, Sutton Lake, and most recently, Stonewall Jackson Lake. Local protection projects include floodwalls around cities such as Huntington, Parkersburg, and Point Pleasant. Other such projects include emergency stream bank protection at Warwood and the snagging and clearing of Polk Creek near Weston.
The Corps of Engineers operates 13 locks and dam complexes on the Ohio, Great Kanawha, and Monongahela rivers. The entire length of the Ohio is now managed for navigation purposes, as is nearly all of the Great Kanawha and Monongahela rivers. The lower parts of the Big Sandy, Little Kanawha, and Elk are navigable, as well. Cargo originating on West Virginia rivers may travel throughout the Mississippi River and its tributaries and to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Corps’ civil works responsibilities also include emergency disaster recovery assistance. Examples include involvement in recovery operations after the 1967 Silver Bridge collapse at Point Pleasant and the 1972 coal dam failure at Buffalo Creek in Logan County. As the nation’s primary water resource management agency the Corps oversees the regulatory permit programs for protection of the nation’s navigable waters. The Corps of Engineers has a further, indirect role in the reshaping of West Virginia’s landscape as an agency in the permitting of surface mining. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act requires a permit for the filling of streams, including filling done in the course of mining, and the Corps is responsible for issuing these permits.
This Article was written by Gerald W. Sutphin
Last Revised on November 05, 2010
Johnson, Leland R. Men, Mountains, and Rivers. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1977.
Johnson, Leland R. The Ohio River Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: The History of a Central Command. Cincinnati: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Ohio River Division, 1992.
Water Resources Development in West Virginia, 1981. Cincinnati: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Ohio River Division, 1981.