The Scioto River today is a scenic attraction for residents and visitors in Columbus.
It poses little impediment, as it is crossed by several bridges, and it offers a place to pause amid the activity of the city.
But the river looks considerably different today from what it did only a few years ago.
The Scioto, once an unstable and unpredictable river, had been prone to flooding on a regular basis. Since the early settlement of the area in 1798, it had seen extensive flooding 11 times by the turn of the 20th century. Efforts to impede flooding via levees and dams had varying success.
Then in 1913, the city sustained the worst flooding in its history.
The Great Flood of 1913 put much of the near west side of the city under water and killed at least 94 people.
In the wake of that flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came to Columbus, assessed the river and offered recommendations that included widening the Scioto to twice its previous width, building a retaining wall on the east bank and adding a 60-foot levee on the west side of the river. All of these projects were completed as a new civic center began to rise along the river.
In recent years, the construction of new dams and other river projects upstream has made it possible to remake the downtown riverfront. The river has been returned to its original size, and the recovered land on its banks has been converted to parks. The resulting development is known as the Scioto Mile.
The Scioto River of 200 years ago was a far-less tranquil and predictable body of water. As the river was joined by the Olentangy at the forks of the Scioto, the course of the river changed from time to time, producing islands in the stream.
There were three major islands between the confluence area and what is now the Main Street bridge. One was a long sandbar about 20 feet wide and 3 feet high that stretched from Broad Street to Main Street. On this sandbar, evening parties of varied regularity and hilarity were held by local residents.
A second island was a bit up the Olentangy and was called British Island. English Army prisoners from the Battle of the Thames in the War of 1812 were held on the island for a brief time. Some of them trying to escape were met with militia gunfire.
A third island was near what is now North Bank Park and the Arena District. It was called Willow Island and occasionally Bloody Island. The origin of the latter name had a story of its own in an early history:
“On a certain occasion about 1840, a ball took place at the Neil House, and among the wild and mercilessly bewitching maidens there present was Miss Lizzie H---, a frolic loving romp, who was simultaneously solicited to dance by two young gentlemen, one from Logan County, the other from Richland. Miss H--- gave her preference to one of the suitors, no matter which, and jokingly told the other he could ‘settle it’ with his rival.
“The suggestion was taken in dead earnest, a duel arranged, seconds chosen, and the Willow Island, then a retired spot, selected as the scene where offended honor was to be propitiated with blood. The murderous intentions of the quarrelers having become known, quite a number of persons assembled on the river’s bank to see them fight it out.
“Everything being made ready, shots were exchanged two or three times, but without effect. The seconds were sensible men, and had been careful to put no bullets in the pistols.
“Finally, some boys who had been out hunting came along with loaded rifles, whereupon one of the duelists proposed to ‘stop this nonsense’ take the weapons of the hunters and settle the affair at once. But this proposition did not suit the other antagonist, and so the affair, after some further parleying, ended, and the willowy sandbar in the Scioto which formed the scene of this melodramatic episode bore thenceforward the name of Bloody Island.”
All three of the islands are gone now, they and their stories washed away by flooding and river improvements.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.