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Long before I arrived in the charming town of Paducah I had heard about the Wall-to-Wall Murals. Almost as soon as I would tell a curious passerby that I was heading for Paducah that would variably say the same thing, “Oh you have to see the flood wall murals!” I didn’t really know what a flood wall was and even if I did I wouldn’t have been prepared for the intriguing, beautiful murals I would find in this exciting Kentucky city.
One thing is certain about life along a major river: it will eventually flood. On February 2, 1937, heavy rains caused the Ohio River to reach a peak of 60.8 feet. Nearly all of Paducah was under water and the entire town was evacuated using military assistance. When the waters receded the town knew this could never happen again. From 1939-1949 a 3-mile concrete floodwall was constructed around downtown Paducah. At 14′ in height the US Army Corps of Engineers was certain another flood like the one in 1937 would never devastate Paducah again.
In 1995 the Paducah Floodwall Mural Advisory Board was created with the purpose of hiring a muralist to create a series of paintings along the otherwise drab concrete walls surrounding downtown. From the very beginning there was only one muralist the advisory board thought could handle such an intense project: Robert Dafford. Throughout Dafford’s career he has painted hundreds of murals, many of them along the Ohio River, depicting the history of the region. During his first visit to Paducah in the fall of 1995 he decided this would be the next project for his team of muralists; they began in the spring of 1996.
By 2001 the first twenty panels had been completed and by 2007 the final mural was added to the three-block stretch. Each panel depicts a moment in the history of Paducah including iconic locations, advances in technology, local culture, and devastating floods. Interpretive panels explain the scene depicted on the floodwall.
Today the Paducah Wall-to-Wall Mural is one of the most-visited attractions in Kentucky and one of the most iconic images along the Ohio River. Stretching along Water Street from Jefferson Street to Clark Street visitors can meander along the wide sidewalk day and night admiring the incredibly intricate details of the murals. Visitors can also stop by the Visitor Center on Broadway Street to purchase a copy of Paducah Wall to Wall: Portraits of Our Past. The book contains a brief history of the floodwall mural project and details of each panel.