Southeast Ohio History Logo with four outlines of Ohio together at the point to create a compass with the words "Southeast Ohio History Center" in a circle around it.

Lake Tight and Pre Glacial SE Ohio

Starting a couple million years ago, what is now western Ohio and the northern portion of the Allegheny plateau in Ohio were over run and reshaped by the southward march of a series of continental glaciers. Those glaciers carved out what came to be called Lake Tight.


Southeast Ohio’s vast expanse of ridges and intervening valleys is partly the result of the ancient inland seas that laid down all of that sedimentary rock. Layer upon layer of sandstone and limestone, shale and clay, and organic deposits that became the coal, oil and gas were laid down over eons. Over hundreds of millions of years the organic deposits were converted to the fossil fuels we consume so eagerly today. The various layers of can be seen exposed on cliffs and roadside cuts throughout the region. 

But, most of southeast Ohio spent a good deal of its more recent history at the bottom of a giant lake – at its greatest extent a lake the size of Lake Erie.

Southeast Ohio is part of the Allegheny Peneplain, an extensive geologic feature that reaches from upstate New York and Pennsylvania, across the eastern half of Ohio, and down into West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and part of Tennessee.

Starting a couple million years ago, what is now western Ohio and the northern portion of the Allegheny plateau in Ohio were over run and reshaped by the southward march of a series of continental glaciers. Much of the Allegheny Plateau, including all of southeast Ohio remained unglaciated.

Prior to the onset of the glacial periods the Allegheny Plateau had been drained by the giant Teays River, the main stem of a pre-glacial river system in this region of North America. The headwaters of the Teays was near the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge, at the edge of the Piedmont Plateau in North Carolina and Virginia. The Teays River drained much of what became West Virginia flowing westward toward the Ohio country. 

Tributaries of the Teays River in the region that became southeast Ohio have familiar names such as Marietta River, Albany River, Hamden Creek, Barlow Creek, Portsmouth River, Logan River, Bremen Creek, Putnam Creek, Cambridge River, Groveport River, Newark River and Lancaster River. 

Two of the largest tributaries in Southeast Ohio, the Marietta River and the Albany River, flowed westward and joined near Keystone, little more than a crossroads in today’s Jackson County. These two streams continued westward as one and joined the Teays River near Beaver, Ohio in Pike County. The Teays then flowed northward toward Columbus and then tended westward toward Indiana and Illinois finally emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, which at the time extended northward to what is today southern Illinois. 

Pre-glacial drainage of the Allegheny Peneplain emptied into tributaries of the great Teays River which flowed in a northwesterly direction. Two the these tributaries, the Marietta River and the Albany River, flowed westward and joined the Teays near the border of today’s Jackson and Pike counties. The Teays flowed northwesterly toward Indiana and Illinois and eventually toward the Gulf of Mexico which reached much further north at the time. Map from Wikipedia.

During one of the major glacial advances the ice pushed debris southward creating a massive dam near today’s Chillicothe all blocking northward drainage. Water backed up into the valleys of today’s Southeast Ohio as well as northern Kentucky and western West Virginia. 

A major lake filled the valleys of this vast region. Lake Tight was named for the geologist, William G. Tight of Dennison University in Licking County, who first identified it. Lake Tight reached the size of Lake Erie but much deeper but with a maximum depth of approximately 900 feet. 

Lake Tight once covered most of southeast Ohio, western West Virginia, and northeastern Kentucky, at times to a depth of as much as 900 feet. At its greatest it was approximately the size of Lake Erie. Lake Tight was created by glacial advance that formed a massive earthen dam near today’s Chillicothe. Runoff backed up and filled valleys throughout an extensive region for nearly 200,000 years. The extent of the lake can be determined by soil studies that show silt deposits throughout the region described in the image. Map from Wikipedia.

Lake Tight covered an area of nearly 10,000 square miles. Runoff into the lake for nearly 200,000 years created sediments that have come to be known as the Minford silts, named for the town of that name in Scioto County where the silts were very evident. The distribution of Minford silts on the region’s soil maps is an indicator of the extent of the great Lake Tight.

Lake Tight stretched from Southeast Ohio into West Virginia and northern Kentucky. The higher elevations throughout the Lake Tight area are darker shaded and stood above the water level as islands. Map from Wikipedia.

The dam backing up the lake was eventually breached. When the lake finally overflowed, it created new drainage channels and rivers flowing south, in the opposite direction of the Teays River. These are the familiar streams we know today that flow into the Ohio River. Many of these glacially reversed streams follow pre-glacial river channels and some cut across watershed divides known as cols. These present themselves in today’s landscape near very narrow parts of some of our major stream valleys.

There are many geologic features in southeast Ohio that are results of the major glaciation periods in history even though the glaciers themselves never reached beyond the margins of southeast Ohio. The Plains, in Athens County is an extensive flat landscape approximately 100 feet about the floodplain of the Hocking River. The Plains is an extensive glacial outwash deposit which, when excavated, is found to be made up largely of gravel and sand – not bedrock. In some areas there are plant associations such as fens and bogs that are relic plant communities found in Canada and were displaced to this Appalachian region by the glaciation of Ohio.