Soon after Jamestown was founded in 1607, the settlers learned from the Indians about a river beyond mountains to the west. The natives called it the Conoy and said it was named for a small tribe that once dwelt along its upper reaches. They told the settlers that it flowed up from the south, turned northwest where it ran through a pass in the western mountains, and continued on to ‘‘the South Seas.’’
The river was variously called the Conoy, Conoise, Cohnawa, and finally the Kanawha. Eventually merging with the Ohio and Mississippi, the Kanawha forms one continuous stream that does indeed continue to the southern sea. The name New River applies to the waterway from where it rises in the mountains of North Carolina until it reaches its confluence with the Gauley River at Gauley Bridge. From there on it becomes the Kanawha or Great Kanawha River and continues northwest on a meandering course of 97 miles to the Ohio at Point Pleasant. The Kanawha has a fall of 108 feet over its entire length, including a drop of more than 20 feet at Kanawha Falls, only a mile below its head.
To the pioneers the river was like a westward highway. Early travelers from the east first reached the Kanawha at the mouth of Kellys Creek, where Cedar Grove is now located. They had come over a roundabout pack horse trail in order to miss the New River gorge. By 1775, the Morris family was located there and had established a boat yard. They provided settlers going west with flatboats, rafts, and dugout canoes. By floating down the Kanawha and Ohio, travelers could reach the Mississippi at present Cairo, Illinois, if they made it through without being ambushed by Indians or river pirates.
Before the first lock system was completed in 1898, the river had 10 separate rapids or shoals between Charleston and Point Pleasant. They were all well-known to river men but still caused numerous wrecks, often resulting in the loss of lives and cargoes. Johnson Shoals at Scary Creek and Red House Shoals between present Red House and Winfield were the most treacherous.
Before 1820, steamboats were not reliable enough to negotiate the shoals in the Kanawha. For about 15 years keel boats regularly traveled to Charleston with limited cargoes and passengers. The standard keel boat was some 40 feet long and about eight feet wide, and bringing one upstream required a crew of about 10 rugged men. These boatmen owned the river, and most settlers avoided them.
The colorful era of steamboats on the Kanawha is well recorded. The boats were the economic backbone of the valley, and they contributed to the social and cultural life of the area. The plush packet boats, showboats, and excursion boats provided an outlet from the rough conditions associated with the salt works and coalfields.
The navigational improvement of the river has been ongoing since the first steamboat tried to get up over Red House Shoals in 1819. That year the Virginia legislature passed an act for navigation improvements which included cutting chutes through the river’s shoals, building wing dams, and removing snags. It was not until 1898 that dependable steamboat schedules could be maintained. Ten locks and dams had been constructed by then, which provided a six-foot depth the length of the river. In 1936, three new locks and roller type dams replaced the old system. They raised the water stage to nine feet, and they were high enough to stop most of the floods caused by backwater when the Ohio River flooded. Finally after a series of dams were installed on the tributaries, high water on the river ceased to be a problem. The Great Kanawha had been tamed, the dams providing deeper water where that was needed for navigation while also preventing disastrous rises.
Pollution has been one of the most serious problems to deal with concerning the Kanawha River. Industrial and municipal waste had been dumped into the river since salt was manufactured at Malden. As industry increased and communities became larger, pollution of the river became a major problem. Finally with public support and education, followed by legislation and law enforcement, the river is no longer a health hazard and can once again be used for recreational purposes. The Kanawha River remains the lifeblood of the valley as it has been since the time of the Indians.
This Article was written by Bill Wintz
Last Revised on October 07, 2010
Johnson, Leland R. Men, Mountains, and Rivers. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1977.
Sutphin, Gerald W. & Richard A. Andre. Sternwheelers on the Great Kanawha River. Charleston: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1991.
Wintz, William D. Annals of the Great Kanawha. Charleston: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1993.