Paducah, Kentucky, sits on the southern bank of the convergence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, the waters smoothly mingling along downtown’s northern edge. River transport, barge traffic, and maritime industries helped build the city’s robust economy, but the rivers can be a harsh gift: from time to time they flood. Really, really flood.
Because the rivers are the reason for Paducah’s location, sited and platted by William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, their economic boon to the area has always overridden the flood cost. Flooding is, after all, just a fact of life along any river. But after the third major flood in 1937, one that inundated ninety percent of the town and had people using row boats to buy supplies from second-story shop windows for a couple of weeks, the US Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) stepped in and built Paducah’s flood wall.
Constructed between 1939 and 1949, the concrete portion of the wall is 3.0 miles long; the earthen levee is another 9.2 miles. The wall downtown (concrete) is fourteen feet high, three feet higher than the crest of the devastating 1937 event. Many downtown buildings have signs or plaques showing that high water mark.
Since July of 1949, the city of Paducah has held 100 percent of the responsibility for operating the wall (using USACE guidelines) and for paying for it, currently a half-million-dollar-per-year task. For the extraordinary success of keeping eight square miles of Paducah and 8.9 square miles of McCracken County safe and dry when the Ohio and Tennessee convergence flows higher than forty-nine feet (flood stage), the Paducah flood wall has been called the Corps’ “poster child” for river flood management. In 2011 the Corps said the wall protected $1.2 billion in assets. Now that’s a beast.
It’s a good thing the wall works so well, as there have been major floods in 1950, 1975, 1997, 2005, and in 2011, a 300-year flood cresting at 60.6 feet that would have topped the 1937 event by several feet. In the spring of 2015, the river rose to 54.3 feet. The source for so much water rushing past Paducah covers forty percent of the continental United States via the watersheds of the Missouri River, the Mississippi River, and the Ohio River, along with the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers which drain the southern Appalachians. When they flood, Paducah also gets “backwater,” waters that have nowhere to go but back up those rivers and spread out to surrounding areas. What was Clark thinking? Location, location, location, yes, but managing everyone else’s water is the downside.
The quarter-mile stretch of wall at the foot of Broadway, downtown’s main artery, was doing a beautiful job of keeping water out of the town’s businesses, but boy, was it utilitarian. Cold cement, gray, bleak—nothing to look at at all. So a group of inspired citizens hired muralist Robert Dafford of Lafayette, Louisiana, to dress up the wall on the city’s side. His colorful soft-styled murals, created over most of a decade from the mid-1990’s through the mid-2000’s, depict highlights of Paducah’s history from Native American years through the “Atomic Age.”
Each mural is explained by a bronze plaque that also names that section’s sponsor(s), which makes the plaques themselves a Cliff’s Notes version of Paducah’s current economy and civic pride. The plaques are lit at night, creating a three-block panorama that is a favorite for evening walks.
Exposure to the elements requires occasional touch-ups and repairs for fading, peeling, and cracking, so although the murals are complete, visitors might come across a muralist plying his trade now and then.
The flood wall murals now contribute to and anchor a downtown that has developed a strong tourist bent focused on beauty in the arts such as quilting and music as well as area history on display in several small museums. A large, open-air, free parking lot at the corner of Broadway and Second Street plus plenty of free on-street parking provides immediate access to these attractions and several restaurants in this pedestrian-friendly downtown.
And the wall, being a wall, has another side with a different kind of beauty. The city created two parks on the river side (which is still plain and gray and would be foreboding if the rivers could think about it), both accessible by car and foot. There are two boat ramps, parking places, a viewing platform that doubles as a dock when a paddle wheeler comes to town, and shady trees. The picnic tables, benches, and steps are ideal for places to sit and watch the barges go by, contemplating time and the river, Paducah’s history, and how beautiful a beast of a wall can be.
See More Paducah Flood Wall Mural Photos Here