Being born in Pittsburgh and attending local schools there, followed up by four years at Bethany College, a return to Pittsburgh for law school, then 47 years of practicing law in Hancock, Brooke and Ohio Counties, qualifies me to say that I am familiar with the Ohio River, and many of its tributaries. Being a student of history has led me to the inevitable conclusion that the history of where I have lived is inextricably tied to the Ohio River system. Actually that is a pretty dumb statement. It shows that I might not be smarter than a fourth grader, who would certainly be capable of drawing such a conclusion.
As I look back over past columns, I have written about: French fort building in the region; George Washington making trips here; Settler-Indian conflicts such as the Yellow Creek Massacre; the Mason-Dixon Line; town histories; etc. Most all of it is tied, in one way or another to the Ohio River.
When I was a child there were probably over thirty blast furnaces and at least five major coking facilities between McKeesport-Clairton PA and Wheeling WV. Even to my young eyes, crossing it by bridge the water didn’t look very clean. Of course a number of these facilities were on the Monongahela River which really looked very dirty to me. So I was really surprised to hear members of my father’s and grandfather’s generation talk about spending their childhood summer days swimming in the river, or fishing in it and eating what they caught. Fortunately, by state and federal legislation the waters got cleaned up enough that they were more suitable for recreation than in the 1950’s and other prior industrialized decades. I remember my first time in a small boat on the Allegheny and Ohio in 1965. It was an enjoyable day that was repeated many times in the late 1960’s.
That’s not to say that I was always comfortable with environmental progress. For example during my career at Weirton Steel the plant had four discharges into the River system. Each of these was permitted by state and federal authorities under the NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) statute and regulations. As such whatever Weirton Steel was putting into the streams and rivers had to be measured, and if the quantity of pollutants in the waste water exceeded the permit limits, fines were imposed. Obviously, these requirements resulted in Weirton Steel AND every other facility along the waterway having to either spend large sums on environmental control or to close. I am not complaining here it made our drinking water safer, and healthier. However, at times people working on these goals in the mill found it frustrating that there were days when the water had to be cleaner when it left the mill than when it came out of the river for mill use.
Among the benefits our drinking water supply was made safer while at the same time air pollution controls, and the eventual decline of a metals manufacturing industry along the rivers of our region made our air less contaminated as well. Hopefully, short and long term we will recognize improvements to our health. It should be acknowledged that not all water pollution came from industry. There were plenty of small municipalities that lacked adequate sewage treatment facilities, or had their storm water systems connected to their sanitary sewage pipes in such a way that a big rainfall would flush the sanitary lines into the river. Surely some of us remember when the Mayor of New Cumberland was almost sent to jail for the town’s inability to comply with decrees requiring the construction of a sewage plant.
So where was I going with all of this? I intended to recognize that in many ways the three river system that spawned our region has been returned to an asset whereby although it still has a great deal of commercial traffic, it is a natural recreational facility, and inspires the construction of marvelous homes and other sites with river views. This is well exemplified by Palisades Drive in Weirton, and similar streets in New Cumberland, Toronto and Chester; not to mention locales like Williams Country Club.
However, living near the water, can also have fearful moments. We are all familiar with major floods which occasionally occur along the Ohio. This past week marked the thirty-first anniversary of flash flooding in and near Shadyside, Ohio that caused the deaths of twenty-six people. On June 14, 1990 nearly four inches of rain fell in an hour. The ground in the area was already saturated from several weeks of above average rainfall. The result was not a flood of the Ohio River but rather that Wegee and Pipe Creeks could not contain the wall of water created by the runoff from the steep hillsides through which they flowed. It was the largest loss of life in Ohio flooding in the past fifty years. Since that time, warning systems in the region, as well as storm forecasting has been improved. Hopefully, we will not see another storm create loss of life like the flooding of 1990. However, when one considers River flooding the region has endured severe flooding on many occasions.