October 1908: The Month the Ohio River Began Drying

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Ohio River: Oct. 15, 1908

The sight is nothing short of spectacular: A crinkled postcard of what appears to be a dried riverbed with the words, “Ohio River: Bridgeport, Ohio, Oct. 15th, 1908”. Typically this image is displayed online with some type of annotation declaring that the Ohio River had actually dried up in this image.

Though it is not true that the Ohio River has ever “dried up” in modern history, in the autumn of 1908, the river did reach unbelievably low water levels — so much so that it is still being talked about more than a century later.

So what’s the truth of this highly debated and much shared photograph?

For starters, it is important for individuals to know that the image is not even of the entire Ohio River, but was taken from Wheeling Island, West Virginia, looking west toward the State of Ohio.  The main stem of the river flows to the east of Wheeling Island, while the water to the westside of the island is little more than a football field in width.

Secondly, water is still visibly flowing in the image, though it is clearly and dramatically much lower than what is seen at typical levels.

Nevertheless, the photograph is quite impressive and reveals a fascinating sight.

In October 1908, after one of the driest string of months in American history, the Ohio River dropped to two inches below zero (meaning two inches below navigable water depth).

A week following the above photograph, on October 23, 1908, the Henderson Daily Gleaner reported that boys were playing baseball every day in the middle of the riverbed.

“The river at this point has received very little thought for the past few weeks, by reason of the fact that the stage has gotten so low that all business has ceased and it is almost hazardous for even small gasoline boats to run,” the paper reported, adding, “Only a short time ago the Jewell was compelled to stop and only the Nisbet can find enough water to run through. In Green River, it is the same. The river at Spottsville being lined on both sides with boats and barges waiting for enough water to carry them through the locks.”

As bad as the 1908 drought was, however, according to the September 26, 1908, edition of The Akron Beacon Journal, the drought paled in comparison to one that had occurred a couple generations earlier.

“This season has certainly been dry, and the drought, especially during the past few weeks, has been a very serious one, but still the memory of the oldest inhabitants runs back to a year when there was a worse one… [The drought in the summer of 1845]: There was no rain from the last of March until the tenth of June, when there fell a little rain for one day, but no more until the second of July, when there probably fell a half inch, for it made the roads a little muddy. From this time no rain fell until early in September.

“The long continued drought reduced the streams of water to mere rills, and many springs and wells, heretofore unfailing, became dry or nearly so. The grass crop entirely failed, and through many counties the pasture lands were so dry that, in walking across them, the dust would rise as in the highways. So dry was the grass that fires, when accidentally kindled, would run over them as over a stubble field and great caution was required to prevent damage from them. The crop of oats and corn was nearly destroyed.  Many fields of wheat so perished that no attempt was made to harvest them.  The health of the inhabitants was not materially affected, although much sickness was expected.  Grasshoppers were multiplied exceedingly in many places and destroyed every green thing that the drought had spared, even to the thistles and elder tops by the roadside.

“The late frosts and cold drying winds of the spring months cut off nearly all the fruit, and what few apples remained were defective at the core.

“So great was the scarcity of food for the domestic animals that early in the autumn droves of cattle were sent into the valley of the Scioto to pass the winter.  Many stocks of dairy cows were broken up and dispersed, selling for only four or five dollars a head, as the cost of wintering would be more than their worth in the spring.

“That was certainly a drought that was a drought, and to read of it makes us think that this year of our Lord 1908 has not been so bad after all.”

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