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First bubbling from a small hillside spring in the high mountains of northwest North Carolina, the New River starts its 320-mile journey northward across Virginia and into West Virginia. There it joins with the Gauley River to form the Kanawha River at Gauley Bridge.

At the West Virginia border the tail waters of Bluestone Lake soon slow the New River to a wide expanse of lazy water. The dam, just above the railroad town of Hinton, was built primarily for flood control and completed in 1949. Below the dam, as the elevation drops and hills push against its banks, the river moves faster as it approaches its famous gorge. Below a long stretch of shoals and the beautiful Sandstone Falls, the New starts to show its most rugged characteristics, plunging through shoals and rocks, creating eddies and large pools, and intermittent rapids. The water is calm enough, however, with rapids here and there, to permit canoeing from Hinton to Thurmond with a portage around Sandstone Falls. McCreery is another favorite place to launch canoes and float to Thurmond. Below Thurmond the river becomes a wilder ride, with some whitewater of class VI difficulty.

A major geologic feature is located at Quinnimont where an incised meander, typical of older rivers, makes a huge turn in the river. Grandview Park occupies the heights above. A rough and winding road crosses over the next big bend downstream, on its way from Prince to Thurmond. It provides at the top a wonderful panoramic view of the gorge.

The New was discovered by European Americans in the 17th century, perhaps as early as 1654 or by the later Batts and Fallam expedition, sent out in the summer of 1671 by Abraham Wood. It was known for at least 80 years as the Woods River.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coal was king in southern West Virginia. Numerous coal company towns lined the New River Gorge in Fayette and Raleigh counties. Thurmond, now an embarkation site for whitewater rafting, was then a railroad boom town, a major collecting and shipping point for coal trains from surrounding mines. Downstream is Sewell, named for explorer Stephen Sewell. A ferry once operated at Sewell, near present Babcock State Park. The last coke-making operation in the gorge closed in 1965 at Sewell.

The New River Gorge mines are now gone, but the mining history lives in the literature, surviving architecture, nearby museums, and in the memories of mine families. Fayette Station, a coal mining community that survives in name only, is the take-out point for many rafting trips. An 1889 iron truss bridge, rebuilt in 1998, carries vehicles across the New River here, in the shadow of the New River Gorge Bridge far above.

The coal and timber booms followed the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, which built its main line through the New River Gorge in 1873. The river’s potential had been known and studied from much earlier times. George Washington considered a canal for the lower New, and Chief Justice John Marshall boated the river in 1812 to assess its navigation potential. Captured in 1755 on the New River by Shawnees, Mary Draper Ingles was taken to the Ohio country where she made her heroic escape. She traveled along the New River in West Virginia on her return home.

The New River Gorge National River, a National Park Service unit in West Virginia, now conserves and protects 53 miles of the New River from Hinton to Ames.

This Article was written by W. Eugene Cox

Last Revised on October 21, 2010

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Sources

Cox, William E. Life on the New River. Philadelphia: Eastern National Park & Monument Association, 1984.

Hyde, Arnout Jr. New River: A Photographic Essay. Charleston: Cannon Graphics, 1991.

Cite This Article

Cox, W. Eugene "New River." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 21 October 2010. Web. 21 November 2017.

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