Floodwall Murals, Portsmouth
This southern Ohio city’s dozens of downtown murals depict scenes from local history reaching back centuries.
Like many cities along the Ohio River hit by the flood of 1937, Portsmouth built large floodwalls to protect the community against rising waters. The measure worked in preventing two later floods, but it came with one glaring problem: the uniformly 20-foot-high barriers cut off views of the river.
“The wall was like a prison wall,” says Robert Dafford, a professional muralist, who was hired to beautify the stark gray structures. In 1992, a local committee approached Dafford, who had been painting historical murals since the 1970s, about giving the town a fresh perspective along the riverfront.
“A big part of the point of the project was to paint back scenery — views of the river — but base the whole mural project on [the town’s] history,” explains Dafford, who lives in Louisiana.
After meeting with historians to discuss local history and selecting about 100 subjects, the artist began work on the first 60 images.
“It took me 10 summers, because I had a lot of work in other places,” Dafford recalls, adding that he received help from Portsmouth artists Herb Roe and Michael Doherty. “But I would go and work there every summer.”
Each segment of the wall — most 40-feet wide — celebrates Portsmouth’s history stretching back more than 2,000 years, including illustrations of earthen mounds built by Hopewell natives, scenes depicting the commerce along the Ohio & Erie Canal and images of famous locals (Roy Rogers waves from one part of the wall as he sits atop his rearing horse). The time it took to create each painting varied on subject matter, but Dafford estimates an average of three weeks. Once he completed his first decade of work on the project, he decided to keep going.
“After we finished the original half a mile — 60 paintings — we turned the corner,” he says, adding that he painted five more, with each taking two to three summers.
Dafford says he’ll be working on the project again this summer. To him, the Floodwall Murals are a vital part of celebrating our nation’s history.
“We [Americans] don’t have much of a tradition of painting our history on a big scale,” says Dafford. “That was just a big old need that I saw, so I set out trying to help people see their ancestry and their history and how we got to be who we are.”
342 Second St., Portsmouth 45662, ohiorivertourism.org