Growing Up Out Proctor: Floods
Most large and small creeks in West Virginia are subject to floods after heavy rains. Flood levels can be reached in several hours or less, but not in minutes as can happen in western canyons. Because much of West Virginia’s level ground is on flood plains and often used for houses and other structures, creek floods are a significant risk to property and human life. Often heavy rains and sudden floods happen at night when people are asleep, increasing the risk. Small stream floods tend to abate about as quickly as the form.
Proctor Creek is no exception and typically about every year it transforms from an idyllic placid stream to a torrent. Because I rode along the creek on the school bus to and from New Martinsville every school day for six years and often in cars, I got to see the changes in the creek on an almost daily basis. Big holes formed and disappeared, the path of the creek altered, big trees fell, rocks and logs moved around – a lot can happen in a few hours of creek flooding. Many people are fascinated by moving water and I was no exception in watching Proctor Creek. Likely this experience resulted in my later interest in white water rafting on the great rivers of the West.
Floods on big rivers with enormous drainage basins, such as the Ohio River, are entirely different from creek floods. Though a system of dams built for flood control and barge navigation has reduced the frequency and intensity of Ohio River floods, significant flooding still occurs every few years. Lowlands are inundated and the main street of New Martinsville can be under five or six feet of water. Unlike creek floods, big river floods take many days and even weeks to crest and a similar time to recede.
Forecasting of crest levels has gotten much better over the years so people along the river have time to clear out their basements, or if necessary the first floors of their homes and businesses. In the past, houses along the river often were built on artificial mounds of dirt or with the basement at ground level to deal with the floods. Remarkably, I remember little complaining about the floods or appeals for disaster relief. Periodic floods were simply accepted as part of living there.
Because the road between home and New Martinsville followed about six miles of the Ohio River, many times I saw the rise and fall of the great river. Because of the immense amount of water and slow rise and fall of the crest, it was a totally different experience than watching small creek floods. We might see trees moving down Proctor Creek during floods, but on the big river we might see entire buildings, boats, oil drums, rafts of trash from upstream cities, and even an occasional barge separated from a mooring moving with the current. And there were many square miles of backwater.
Uncle Yonce and Aunt Pearl’s house in Proctor was one of the houses built on a flood plain with the basement at ground level and two floors on top of that to deal with flooding.
Other houses and two small churches in Proctor were built similarly, including the church shown below. About a hundred yards away from Uncle Yonce’s house, there was a slightly lower flood plain of about five acres that would be inundated during floods. We could see huge carp finning their way in from the main channel to gorge in the shallow, calm, food-rich backwater. This low area had a depression in it so when the flood receded, countless carp, bullheads, channel cats, buffalo fish, and even huge goldfish were trapped. When the water evaporated during the summer, the fish were concentrated and easy to catch by hand.
This was a lot of fun and occasionally we used some of the channel cats and bullheads to stock our small farm pond.