With great catastrophe comes great ingenuity. And public artwork. At least, that’s what happened in Paducah, a small city at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers in western Kentucky. After the fearsome flood of 1937, the Army Corps of Engineers built towering concrete floodwalls to protect the city. And fifty years later, Robert Dafford covered those walls with beautiful murals.
Paducah was my last stop on a three-month road trip across the Southeastern United States. I was slightly rejuvenated after spending three days camping in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, but ultimately, I was weary from constant travel. But I instantly perked up as soon as I saw the Paducah Wall to Wall Murals.
They were gorgeous, historical, and provided me with a great story to tell. Can you imagine how excited I felt?
The Great Flood of 1937
In early January 1937, heavy rainfall and winter storms producing sleet moved across the Midwest. The Ohio River water level began to rise, but riverfront communities were used to moderate floods. Most of the small towns and cities along the river were already protected by earthen levees.
Or so they thought.
On February 2, 1937, the water level crested in Paducah at 60.8 feet. Water spilled over the levees like a weir dam and flooded downtown. Twenty-seven thousand people evacuated their homes and businesses, seeking higher grounds in McCracken County to escape the water. It took weeks for the water levels to recede in downtown Paducah.
People returned to unsafe homes and decimated businesses. Utilities like telephone cables and power lines were destroyed. Hundreds of millions of dollars in damages – billions when adjusted for inflation – left the city on the verge of collapse during the Great Depression.
A petition immediately made its way to Congress asking for a plan to prevent this from ever happening again.
Building a Flood Wall
A few weeks after the flood level peeked in Paducah, a petition arrived in Washington, D.C., asking Congress to develop a flood control plan for the Ohio River. Congress passed the torch to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who wasted no time protecting the communities.
In 1938, the Corps of Engineers surveyed the communities along the Ohio River. They developed a plan to build flood control reservoirs to control the water level and concrete floodwalls to protect towns. From 1939 until 1949, the Corps of Engineers built a 3-mile-long concrete floodwall in Paducah. At 14-feet in height, the floodwall would prevent future floods from decimating Paducah again.
Painting the Floodwall Murals
Fort fifty years, the floodwalls protected downtown Paducah. But the tall, dull concrete walls prevented anyone walking through downtown from enjoying a view of the Ohio River. Although the floodwalls gave local homeowners and business owners peace of mind, the ugly walls were an eyesore.
In 1995, residents created the Paducah Floodwall Mural Advisory Board. The idea was to hire a muralist to paint scenes on the concrete walls and give downtown visitors something beautiful to see. The advisory board hired muralist Robert Dafford.
Dafford has dedicated his life to painting over 500 murals across the United States, Canada, France, and England. A native of Lafayette, Louisiana, he is most popularly known for painting murals on floodwalls along the Ohio River including Paducah, Portsmouth, and Covington.
Work began on the Paducah murals in 1996. Painstakingly climbing up and down scaffolding for months at a time, it took Dafford eleven years to finish one of his most ambitious projects. Finally, in 2007, the murals were complete, and Paducah welcomed the world to experience the attraction.
Visiting the Paducah Wall to Wall Murals
The murals stretch three blocks from the Carson Center to Jefferson Street. A wide sidewalk makes it easy to walk along the murals. Each mural depicts a moment in Paducah’s history, from the early pioneering days to the steamboat era and the atomic age.
Use the public parking lot at the end of Broadway Street to easily access the murals. It takes about 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other and see all the murals. Visitors can also explore the murals at night with spotlights that keep the artwork on display twenty-four hours a day.