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Todd Hanson

Todd Hanson

The Great Kanawha River has been the heartbeat of the beautiful valley it has carved from ancient time.

The valley insured the early settlers with everything essential to sustain life. Its flow provided natural passage through the rugged wilderness. Her still waters and fertile bottom land created a grand refuge for all manner of wildlife and flora.

The abundance of furbearers, fish and game provided food, clothing and trade goods. The vast forests afforded building material while clearing a rich agricultural opportunity. As the Kanawha Valley transformed from a frontier settlement into one of the nation’s industrial giants, one thing remained constant: dependence on the river.

The Kanawha River flows 97 miles northwest from the confluence of the New and Gauley rivers in Fayette County, through Kanawha Putnam, and Mason Counties, where it empties into the Ohio River at Point Pleasant.

This stream has, from the beginning, spurred the exploitation of the region’s vast natural resources. It is directly responsible for the development of the nation’s leading salt, coal and chemical industries.

The economic value of the Kanawha River is priceless when considering its centuries-old contribution to the state and the overall prosperity of the nation.

The inland waterways played a key role in the nation’s economic growth, spreading trade all along their routes and triggering the development of outlying areas surrounding the river valleys. A central water route was envisioned by such men as George Washington.

The founding fathers of this country wished to create a navigable river system connecting Tidewater Virginia with the Ohio River, thus the Mississippi River to the southern Gulf. The overall network of tributaries could connect the farthest western territories.

The James River Co. was formed by the state of Virginia in 1785 to develop a water route from Richmond over the Allegheny Mountains to the Ohio River. The state-owned company was reorganized as a stock company in 1835 and named the James River and Kanawha Co.

For the most part, work was concentrated along the James River, although the Kanawha was partially cleared and select areas were dredged. Crude wing dams were used to submerge dangerous shoals. This ambitious endeavor was eventually abandoned with the advent of the railroad.

The earliest rivercraft were log rafts and dugout canoes. By the turn of the 19th century the upper Kanawha Valley salt manufacturers employed flatboats to carry their goods to western markets. These rectangular shaped vessels varied in size and were designed for one-way travel downstream.

Once the crew reached their destination the boat would be sold for the lumber. These “salt boats” required a crew of strong men to navigate the unpredictable river on a treacherous journey that could take months to complete.

During this time, keel boats also were traveling the Kanawha. Unlike the boxy flatboats, the keelboat was a cigar-shaped vessel that could navigate upstream. The crews would row deeper waters, using long poles to push in shallows, and ropes to pull and drag the craft over shoals. These vessels offered limited cargo and passenger capacity but could be navigated upstream fighting the current strictly by hand.

The Kanawha River was somewhat navigable from its mouth at Point Pleasant to the Falls in Fayette County. However, during the first half of the 19th century, fluctuating water levels and many obstructions prevented safe passage.

In 1819 the steamboat Robert Thompson came up the Kanawha to determine whether it would be passable to Charleston. Although her attempts failed at Red House Shoals, reports to Virginia lawmakers prompted a bill that provided funds for improvements.

The sidewheeler Eliza, built expressly for Messrs. Andrew Donnally and Isaac Noyes of Charleston for their Kanawha River and Wheeling salt trade, was credited with being the first steamboat to successfully reach Charleston in 1823.

The following year, Donnally, with partner A.M. Henderson, had another steamboat built becoming the first Charleston-Cincinnati packet trade. River travel became so vital that newspapers all along the route reported regularly on river conditions with boat arrival and departures.

Between 1875 and 1898, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a series of ten locks and dams ensuring year-round navigation. By the time this project was finished, more than a million tons of coal was being transported annually by wooden barges.

Simultaneously, the locks and dams allowed business travel to be combined with a luxurious social life aboard grand passenger vessels. Regular commuter services eventually faded to faster modes of transportation, yet coal, chemical and petroleum products steadily increased river traffic.

The current roller gate locks and dams located at Winfield, Marmet and London replaced the wicket types, bringing the Kanawha up to the nine-foot navigational level of the Ohio River. These facilities have recently undergone expansions to increase capacity and efficiency.

The river transportation industry has met monumental challenges over the years and continues to be one of the nation’s greatest assets.

Todd A. Hanson is a sixth-generation native of Campbell’s Creek, the home port of Amherst Madison’s Kanawha River towboat fleet. He is the author of “Campbell’s Creek — A Portrait of a Coal Mining Community.” His articles and photographs have appeared in Wonderful West Virginia, Goldenseal, the West Virginia Encyclopedia and elsewhere.