West Virginia, ‘‘The Mountain State,’’ could just as easily have been called ‘‘The River State.’’ With 11 of its rivers equipped with locks and dams at some point in the state’s history, West Virginia holds the distinction of having had more locks and dams than any other state in the nation.
The rivers and streams of eight Eastern Panhandle counties flow into the Potomac River, which marks the border between West Virginia and Maryland. The rivers and streams of the remaining 47 counties find their way into the Ohio River as it flows along the state’s western boundary for 277 miles, more than a fourth of the river’s total length. The Ohio River for these 277 miles is included within the territory of West Virginia, with the state line running along the opposite shore.
Since early in the nation’s history the Ohio has been improved for navigation. These improvements include dikes, dredging, and clearing, and the construction of two systems of locks and dams. Twenty-one of the original system’s 53 locks and dams were located along the West Virginia section of the Ohio River. These wicket dams and single-lock structures were built by the federal government and operated for more than 40 years before being replaced by new high-lift dams with dual lock chambers. Since 1824, Congress has assigned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the responsibility of maintaining year-round navigation on America’s inland rivers. The Corps established nine feet as the depth to maintain for year-round navigation. Locks and dams, dredging, and the removal of obstacles to navigation ensure year-round nine-foot navigation depth, but do not provide flood protection.
West Virginia’s second greatest river is the Kanawha or Great Kanawha. Located completely within the boundaries of the state, the Kanawha flows 97 miles in a northwesterly direction from Gauley Bridge past the state capitol at Charleston to join the Ohio at Point Pleasant. Between 1875 and 1898, ten low-lift wicket dams with single-lock chambers were built on the river by the federal government. The first two units of this system were the first movable wicket dams completed in the United States, and when the system was completed, the Kanawha was the nation’s first river to be completely canalized with wicket dams. During the 1930s, three high-lift gated dams with dual lock chambers replaced the Kanawha’s first system of locks and dams. Two of these locks and dams, at Winfield and Marmet, have been replaced. Both were expanded to allow more barges to be passed through at the same time, saving thousands of dollars in shipping costs.
The Elk River had a single lock and dam, built approximately two miles above its junction with the Kanawha in 1848. This structure was removed in 1881. Beginning in 1855, eight locks and dams were built on the Coal River, another Kanawha tributary, and a single lock and dam was built on the Little Coal River. More than a half-million tons of cannel coal was shipped on the Coal River before and shortly after the Civil War. The system was abandoned in 1882.
In 1847, citizens of Parkersburg, Elizabeth, and Glenville organized the Little Kanawha Navigation Company with few improvements being accomplished until the Burning Springs oil boom began in 1860. After the Civil War, the company built four locks and dams on the Little Kanawha, providing a four-foot navigation depth from Parkersburg to Burning Springs. In 1891, the federal government built a fifth lock and dam near Burning Springs, providing slackwater navigation to Creston, 48 miles above the Ohio River. In 1905, the entire system was acquired by the federal government, which operated it until 1951 when it was turned over to the state of West Virginia.
The Guyandotte Navigation Company was incorporated by the state of Virginia in 1849 after a state engineer surveyed the valley and described its vast resources of timber and coal. Five locks and dams were built on the Guyandotte, providing slack water navigation 31 miles upriver from the town of Guyandotte and the Ohio River. Two additional locks and dams were built in 1853, extending navigation to Branchland. This system of poorly built stone-filled crib structures was abandoned after the Civil War.
The Big Sandy River marks the border between West Virginia and Kentucky from Fort Gay to the Ohio River. In 1874, the U.S. Congress authorized a survey of the Big Sandy, and its Tug and Levisa forks to determine the feasibility of building locks and dams. The result of the survey was that three locks and dams were built on the Big Sandy and one each on the Tug and Levisa. In 1947, operations at all the projects except Lock and Dam No. 1 on the Big Sandy were discontinued. Lock No. 1 was closed in 1952. Today the Big Sandy River is navigable for a distance of approximately nine miles. The backup pool of Green up Locks and Dam located 24 miles downstream on the Ohio River creates this nine miles of navigable water.
The Monongahela River is formed a mile south of Fairmont, where the West Fork and the Tygart Valley River merge. From here the river flows in a northeasterly direction for 128 miles until its junction with the Allegheny, forming the Ohio River at Pittsburgh. The West Fork was the first river west of the Allegheny Mountains to have navigation passes built into dams for the passage of boats. The West Fork had six dams built on it, but these structures were seriously damaged by flood waters in 1824 and abandoned shortly thereafter.
In 1838, the Monongahela Navigation Company of Pennsylvania built a series of seven locks and dams from Pittsburgh to the West Virginia border. The success of these structures led the neighboring citizens of Virginia to request their state to improve the upper Monongahela with locks and dams to stimulate economic growth. After the Civil War, the federal government acquired the navigation system on the Monongahela and built Lock and Dam Nos. 8 through 15, extending year-round navigation from Pittsburgh to three miles up the Tygart Valley River. During the 1950s and 1960s, seven old locks and dams were replaced with three high-lift gated dams with dual lock chambers on the river. There are other rivers in West Virginia that have been rivers of commerce but have not been improved by locks and dams. Among these are the Cheat River, Buckhannon River, New River, Greenbrier River, and Gauley River.
This Article was written by Gerald W. Sutphin
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.
Johnson, Leland R. The Headwaters District: A History of the Pittsburgh District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1979.