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The Guyandotte River is formed by the junction of Winding Gulf and Stonecoal creeks in Raleigh County and flows in a northwesterly direction to its confluence with the Ohio River at Huntington. Much of the land the Guyandotte flows through is extremely rugged, but as it nears the Ohio the slopes become more moderate and the ridges not as high. The Guyandotte has a total length of 167 miles and has five tributaries, the largest of these being the Mud River. The river’s name is reputedly based on a Shawnee word, although some historians contend that it was named for a French trader, Henry Guyan.

In 1848, Virginia State Engineer Joseph H. Gill surveyed the Guyandotte from its mouth to Gilbert Creek, about 22 miles above Logan Court House (now Logan) and, describing the immense timber resources and coal deposits he saw there, recommended the state build a series of locks and dams to make the river navigable. Acting on his report, Virginia incorporated the Guyandotte Navigation Company and agreed to purchase three-fifths of the company’s stock once private interests had purchased the other two-fifths.

Construction began, but the Guyandotte River dams were improperly placed and poorly built. Moreover, the company failed to secure clear title to some of the land it used, resulting in litigation. Construction was suspended, floods breached the dams, and the company went bankrupt. A successor company took over and briefly operated the system, but the poorly constructed dams required expensive repairs after every flood. A major flood in 1861 destroyed the project forever.

Nonetheless, with few roads through the rugged region, the Guyandotte remained an important transportation artery. Without locks and dams, large steamboats couldn’t navigate the river. But the timber industry used it to float logs to market, and farmers used crude rafts to carry their produce downstream. Pushboats, along with a few small steamers, carried a steady stream of manufactured goods and other commodities upstream.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, logging was by far the principal industry along the Guyandotte. When a heavy rain caused the river to rise, intrepid raftsmen would set out on a wild downriver ride, guiding ‘‘fleets’’ of logs down to the mouth of the river at the village of Guyandotte. The rafters collected their pay, spent some (or maybe all) of it in Guyandotte, then walked back upriver to their homes.

When Congress ordered a survey of the Guyandotte in 1874, it found $400,000 worth of timber and farm produce moving downstream each year, matched by 300 tons of merchandise shipped upriver. In 1878, Congress provided money to have the remnants of the old dams cleared away, and for the next 20 years the river was regularly dredged. However, the coming of the railroad wrote an end to the era of Guyandotte River commerce. The rails reached Logan in 1904, and coal mining soon became the major business in the Guyandotte watershed.

The same kind of flooding that once signaled the beginning of wild log-raft rides down the river meant devastation for those who followed the railroad and settled in the valleys of the Guyandotte basin. Though usually of short duration, often lasting less than 24 hours, the floods generally happened quickly, with little or no warning.

On March 12, 1963, the river at Logan reached a record 34.98 feet, more than 11 feet above flood stage. On March 7, 1967, the river crested at 31.65 feet, more than eight feet above flood stage. Complaints from residents finally prompted construction of a flood-control dam and reservoir near Justice. Dedicated in 1980, R. D. Bailey Lake was named for a circuit judge in Mingo and Wyoming counties who presided over a number of the criminal cases evolving from the bloody Mine Wars of the 1920s.

This Article was written by James E. Casto

Last Revised on March 30, 2020


Johnson, Leland R. Men, Mountains, and Rivers. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1977.

Cite This Article

Casto, James E. "Guyandotte River." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 30 March 2020. Web. 24 July 2024.


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