Another Chapter in This Year’s Magical History Tour
Six years ago I discovered an island paradise on the Walhonding River. In a few years, it will no longer be an island. Nor will it be a paradise.
River islands come and go. They grow, shrink and move — depending on the current, river debris and shifting sand and silt. But this island paradise is different. It’s man-made. When Six Mile Dam is removed, it will become “man-unmade.”
I first camped on the island six years ago. I’d canoed past it for decades, never stopping to camp there. It didn’t make sense to camp on an island near a portage trail. I didn’t like the idea of loading the canoe in the morning, paddling across the river to the portage takeout, unloading the canoe, then carrying the boat and gear past the dam and reloading. It’s a relatively easy portage. However, because of a steep drop-off along the bank, landing and unloading a canoe can be an adventure — if not a disaster.
After I camped there and discovered how scenic and peaceful the island was, I decided it was worth the extra work. It quickly became one of my favorite river campsites.
I also discovered that that the island is an historic place. I found a canal lock in the middle of the island. Later I’d learn that it had been Lock 5 of the Walhonding Canal.
I’d suspected all along that the island was man-made. The channel between it and the mainland seemed unnaturally straight and deep.
In April 2018, I spent a weekend in Coshocton with some folks from the Ohio Canal Society. They had invited me to share my knowledge of the dam and island as part of their Spring Canal Tour. Actually, they knew more about it than I did.
Based on what I knew and what they were able to tell me — along with Mike Greenlee of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources — I now know how the island got there.
In the early 1900s, the dam was repurposed. Originally it was built to supply water for the canal, which had become obsolete. So the dam and six miles of canal were converted to feed water to a hydroelectric plant downstream at Roscoe Village. The original wood cribbing dam was covered in concrete and a water intake structure built on the south bank.
In the process of converting the dam, two levees were added on the north bank of the river. They did this to direct more flow toward the north section of the dam when flooding occurred. The levees were positioned like a funnel, gradually coming closer together on the downstream end.
In order to move even more of the flow toward the north end of the dam (which is on the inside of a bend in the river), a channel was dug between the levees. This created the island.
According to Greenlee, when the dam is removed, the channel between the island and the north bank will be dewatered. The man-made island will be reunited with the mainland.
The island might still be suitable for camping, but privacy will no longer be assured.
Greenlee also said the lock could be added to the National Register of Historic Places. If so, camping probably won’t be allowed.
I hate to see my island paradise lost. However, free-flowing streams are better for wildlife and the environment. If history is preserved in the process, all the better. Besides, there will be one less portage to deal with.