The Cheat River drains about 1,420 square miles in northern West Virginia. It flows free, untamed, and without dams from its headwaters to Cheat Lake, a few miles above the river’s mouth. From its sources in the Allegheny Mountains of Pocahontas and Randolph counties, it runs about 156 miles. It drops from 4,600 feet at the beginnings of Shavers Fork to 780 feet just across the Mason-Dixon Line at Point Marion in Pennsylvania. There the Cheat joins the Monongahela River as its principal tributary. The five forks—the Blackwater River and Dry, Laurel, Glady, and Shavers forks—are arranged like a human hand with its wrist at Parsons, where the main Cheat officially begins.
George Washington visited in 1784 and wrote: ‘‘Cheat at the Mouth is about 125 yards wide—the Monongahela near dble that—the colour of the two waters is very differt [sic ], that of Cheat is dark, the other is clear.’’ Roots of laurel and hardwood leaves tint the water, hiding sharp rocks and treacherous currents. This led to drownings which some say caused settlers who began to live along its banks before the American Revolution to say the river ‘‘cheated’’ people of their lives. Others think it was named for the cheat grass that sprang up in newly cleared lands, or for an early French settler, or from a word of Indian origins.
The earliest white settlement was made in 1772 near Kingwood by a religious group, the Dunkards. Forks of Cheat Baptist Church was organized at Stewartstown in 1775, near the river’s mouth. In the early 19th century, an iron industry along the lower reaches of the river supported 3,000 people at Cheat Neck and Ices Ferry, near Morgantown. Nearby iron ore beds fed crude furnaces made of sandstone. Wooden barges and flatboats were used to float the iron down the ten navigable miles of the Cheat, then to the Monongahela and the Ohio. The industry was crucial to American success in the War of 1812. Cannonballs made along the Cheat were used in the Battle of New Orleans.
George Washington projected the Cheat and Potomac rivers as links, along with canals, in a water route across the Alleghenies to connect the Atlantic Seaboard with the Ohio River. Over 30 years, he made five trips to the ‘‘western waters.’’ In 1870, the Cheat River was declared a public highway, although by then the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had replaced waterways as the main means of transportation through the region.
Coal and timber were extracted from the watershed, polluting the river and setting the stage for record flooding. A private dam to generate electricity, completed in 1926 near the state line, created a lake and suburban community for Morgantown. By the 1950s, fish had all but disappeared in lower Cheat. By the mid-1990s, the Cheat was considered the eighth most endangered river in the United States. Preservationists began to treat it more kindly. By century’s end, fish had returned. Whitewater rafting has become a chief industry, ironically making the Cheat’s wild and raucous character into one of its greatest attractions.
This Article was written by Norman Julian
Last Revised on June 28, 2012
Comstock, Jim, ed. West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia vol. 5. Richwood: Jim Comstock, 1976.
Core, Earl L. The Monongalia Story 5 vols. Parsons: McClain, 1974-84.
Brooks, A. B. West Virginia Geographical Survey. Morgantown: Acme Pub., 1910.