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Falls of the Ohio

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The Corps of Engineers partners with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources in the management of the Falls of the Ohio National Wildlife Conservation Area.  The Interpretive Center at the Falls of the Ohio Indiana State Park includes an exhibit gallery, video presentation and an observation deck that overlooks the fossil beds.  Many interpretive programs, special events, guided hikes, etc. are offered throughout the year.  The Interpretive Center is located at 201 West Riverside Dr., Clarksville, IN 47129 and their phone number is: (812) 280-9970.

 
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The Falls of the Ohio Wildlife Conservation Area covers approximately 1400 acres of land and water, and is located in the Ohio River immediately downstream of the Pennsylvania Central Railroad Bridge and the upper tainter gates and dam of McAlpine Locks and Dam.  The Downstream boundary is the Kentucky and Indiana Railroad Bridge.  The metropolitan areas of Louisville, KY; Jeffersonville, Clarksville, and New Albany, IN surround the area.   The coral reef covers approximately 220 acres when the river is at normal pool elevation.  The Indiana boundary of the project was set at 5 feet above the Ordinary High Water mark (elevation 413).  The boundary on the KY side follows the existing Government boundary for the McAlpine Locks and Dam project.  The normal pool elevation of Cannelton dam is 383 feet above sea level or 30 feet below the ordinary high water elevation.

Designation of the Falls of the Ohio as a Wildlife Conservation Area was preceded by many years of public interest in formulating a means for protection and management of the resources there.  Although the Falls was designated a National Natural Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior in 1966, the action provided no protective measures.    Public Law 97-137 was passed in December 1981 designating the area as the Falls of the Ohio National Wildlife Conservation Area and placing responsibility for administration of the area with the Corps of Engineers in consultation with the Department of the Interior.   The purposes of the Falls of the Ohio National Wildlife Conservation Area are to: protect wildlife populations and habitats; conserve fish populations; ensure, to the maximum extent practicable and compatible with navigation on the Ohio River and operation of the McAlpine locks and dam, the necessary water quantity with in the wildlife conservation area; protect the fossilized coral reef as a unique paleontological feature; and provide opportunities for scientific research and interpretive and environmental uses and fish and wildlife oriented recreational uses.

The Falls of the Ohio is one of the largest naturally exposed Devonian Fossil Beds in the world.  The “Falls” is in fact not one waterfall, but a series of rapids, which prior to construction of the various locks and dams, dropped 26 feet in about 3 miles, forming a series of rapids, waterfalls, and chutes.  Now, the drop in elevation occurs entirely at the lock and dam structures.  The normal upper and lower water levels are 37 feet apart; the normal upper pool elevation is 420 feet above mean sea level and the lower pool is 383 feet above mean sea level.   The area has a rich cultural and natural history.  The area was used as a crossing point for animals, and as a hunting area for Native Americans.  More than 260 bird species have been sighted at the Falls, and a wide variety of other wildlife is present.  In the river’s natural state, boats could traverse the falls during periods of high water only, so the area became a stopping point while goods were unloaded and portaged, thus creating the towns of Louisville, Clarksville and Jeffersonville.  When there was enough water, boats could attempt to run one of three chutes, or passages through the Falls, but this required expertise and boats often wrecked during the attempt.  In 1830, the 1.9 mile privately owned and operated Portland Canal with a 3 flight lock at the lower end was finished.  By 1930, a new concrete and steel dam was built in conjunction with a hydroelectric plant project of the LG&E company.  The dam was constructed in an “L” shape, extending from the Indiana shore and gave the Falls area its present look.  See the webpage for McAlpine Locks and Dam for more history on the locks and dam