West Virginia
Historical Society

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January, 2000

The Role of the River in the Development of West Virginia Commerce

By Steve Kenwolf

In the beginning there were pre-historic settlements along the Ohio and all its tributaries. These inhabitants, and later the Shawnee, traveled the river in canoes in search of food and an easy transportation to points along the river. They lived in relative quiet until 1660 when Sieur De La Salle, looking for the Pacific, found his way to the banks of the Ohio river. With him and those who followed, came trade, conquest, and the desire for profit. At first there were only small bands of explorers and trappers. That started to change in 1729 when the British completed the first survey of the Ohio adjoining rivers and streams from Quebec to Louisiana. Both the French and the British governments took great interest in the Ohio River. Valley Both governments started to encourage the settlement to beef up there claims to the territory. War ensued, and the British ended up with a very lucrative piece of property.1

The economic value of the Ohio was recognized early on, and the pioneer way of life encouraged the exploitation of every available resource possible. One of these pioneers was Mary Ingles. Due to unfortunate circumstances, she found herself as an Indian captive when she was taken in a raid on her settlement. She was taken a great distance from her home and ended up on the borders of present day Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia where one of her tasks was to make salt for her captors. She did this until she liberated herself, and made the long arduous journey back to her home via the Ohio and Kanawha river valleys. For this, she earned the distinction of being the first white women to see these valleys, and also to be the first white person to harvest salt in these valleys.2

The story would end there if not for the fact that she possessed a great memory with which she recorded, and later retold, her story to include the paths she traveled, where she stopped, and what she saw. We owe a great deal of our first knowledge of these river valleys to her. With her story retold, interest in these valleys sparked and the salt industry was born. Joseph Ruffner started the first salt making operation on the Kanawha river when he set up shop at Malden West Virginia selling his salt called "Kanawha Red" to anyone who would buy.3 At first, his customers walked to his salt mill. As the industry grew and more operations opened up along the Kanawha and other rivers, canoes and tied rafts were used to send the salt to market.4

Gradually, the Ohio and Kanawha rivers grew to become major transportation routes on the path to westward expansion. Settlements at points west and south needed supplies and salt for meat preservation. To accommodate these needs, pioneers would pack canoes and rafts with supplies and salt; trading for butter, rope, farm products and oils. One such boat even had a distillery on board.5 Presumably, the owner's philosophy was that a friendly drink might make for a better sale, or at least a better price. The range of market increased along the Ohio and Monongahela rivers to the Allegheny and up to Lake Erie.6 This had the effect of making the Kanawha Salines "one of the most important salt manufacturing centers in the United States."7

The first boats, small rafts and dugout Poplar trees called "Jurques" were insufficient to handle the increased trade. They could only carry a few barrels of salt. Flatboats called "Bitter-heads" were invented to take their place. These were essentially large, square boats with flat bottoms that were pushed down the river with large poles or pulled by horse or mule. They varied in size from 50 fee long by 10 feet wide at the smallest to 160 feet long by 25 feet wide at the largest. Naturally, they were capable of carrying a great deal more than the first rafts, the average load being 2200 barrels. In those days barrels came in two sizes: small and large. A small barrel could hold 280 pounds of salt; a large barrel 350 pounds.8

Impressive as they were, the flatboats, and later Sternwheelers, required great quantities of wood in their construction. Thus, the second industry of West Virginia was born. Timber operations began to pop up at all points along the Ohio, Kanawha and other rivers. Lumber became a major export from West Virginia to both eastern and western markets. Many cutting operations sprung up on the Kanawha, Monongahela, South Branch, Lost River, and Cacapon rivers, all producing products for the lower Potomac or Ohio and Kentucky.9

George Washington noted the need to have better, more connected routes from these industries and their rivers to the Eastern markets. He was a great proponent of connecting the James and Kanawha rivers via the Ohio through river improvements and a canal system along the streams. At his request, the Virginia Legislature organized the construction of canal systems and started improvements to the James and Ohio rivers. The James River and Potomac Companies (later known as the James River and Kanawha Company, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Company) were formed, both systems using flatboats pulled by mule to transport their goods.10 The James River-Kanawha River waterway became the most important route between the Virginia seaboard and the west. The waterways were the only practical way to ship the vast quantities of salt and lumber needed over great distances. Naturally, flatboat and later steamboat manufacture became very important on the Kanawha and increased cut timber production even more,11

At about the same time, another great invention appeared on the scene. In 1787, James Rumsey of Shepherdstown designed and ran the first mechanical steamboat. The steamboat, or "sternwheeler," was unique in that it could travel up river under its own power and thus did not have to be discarded at its destination point. The invention thrilled those who saw it but was not considered economically viable until 1816. In 1816, the 403-ton Washington sailed from New Orleans to Louisville in 25 days, proving the viability and practicality of steamboat travel.12 Soon, Sternwheelers started being built up and down all the western rivers.

Of historical note, one person who built a fleet of Sternwheelers to run salt up the Charleston- Cincinnati line was Dr. John P. Hale, the great-grandson of Mary Ingles. Fleet Sternwheelers like his allowed for tremendously increased shipping capacity. Sternwheelers pushed between two and five modified flatboats called "rowboats" at one time, each carrying 8000 to 15000 barrels of salt. This increased cargo capacity required even more improvements on the rivers and encouraged new roads and towns to be built to meet these improvements.13

Matters were further helped along in 1824 when the Supreme Court ruled that all navigable waters would be managed by the federal government. This alleviated the river companies, and state governments, of the time and cost of maintaining the rivers, and also standardized the channel quality and water levels on the waterways. Costs dropped, profits soared and the grand era of steam travel was born. The boat building and stern wheel shipping industry brought great prosperity to new and old river towns such as Cedar Grove where Sternwheelers for service on the Kanawha were built.14

These Sternwheelers had great range; with Charleston at the hub of the coal, timber, salt, gas, and manufacturing industries. In 1831, port calls to Cincinnati, Nashville, Frankfurt, Pittsburgh, Richmond, and New Orleans occurred daily or weekly, each trip varying from less than a week to four weeks depending on the route. Sternwheelers carried people, mail, industrial goods, and supplies, all in great quantity. Salt alone was on the order of 20,000 to 40,000 bushels a month!15 Six pulp mills were built and operated until the early thirties, and 500 glass factories at one time or another operated in West Virginia with some still operating today.16 The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers lock and dam system, built in 1875, insured West Virginia's economic vitality through the turn of the century.

Around the turn of the century, railroads began to replace the rivers for the shipping of coal and timber products from West Virginia. The salt production that remained was still primarily shipped by towboat. The Ohio and other rivers lost importance until World War I pressed every available method of transportation into service. At the same time, the beleaguered canal company system fell apart and ended George Washington's dream. From the beginning the canal companies were plagued with cost over-runs, questionable accounting, and environmental concerns. With the coming of the rail and truck shipping industries, the canals fell out of favor and went out of service.17

After World War I river traffic declined again. Most Sternwheelers were either converted to towboats for coal or were replaced with new diesel towboats. Regular steamboat passenger service ended in 1936 when the Liberty sank in the Kanawha. The only remaining sternwheeler running the river was the Avalon which ran from Winfield to Montgomery haphazardly until 1961.18 The great era of steam travel was over.

World War I had a lasting effect on the rivers and industries of West Virginia. A transformation occurred creating West Virginia's economic landscape today. World War I brought a new need for lumber and created the chemical industry. The existence of a large underground salt bed, ranging from West Virginia to the Great Lakes, plus the existence of the rivers for mixing, cooling, and transportation spawned a great chemical industry in West Virginia. Towns like Nitro and the DuPont plants in Belle began production of compounds and chemicals for weapons. New locks and dams were built in 1939 at Winfield, Marmet, and London, West Virginia to handle the load and speed transportation to the Ohio. Lumber reached an all time high and still continues to be a major industry in West Virginia today. In the 1920s, the Monongahela river claimed the second highest volume of freight in the world next to the Rhine in Germany.19 Steel and chemicals traveled the Ohio in great quantities, peaking in 1965, when the Ohio river basin claimed 20% of the GNP.20

Today the numbers have dropped due to many factors including: environmental concerns, changes in supply and demand, cheaper overseas suppliers, and more efficiency in using what is being harvested. For instance, in 1979, the timber industry harvested 180 million board feet of lumber. In 1909, West Virginia exceeded the lumber production of any other state, producing 1.5 billion board feet. But in 1974, only 464 million board feet were produced.21 Although this is still a significant quantity of wood, this downward trend is also present in the coal and other industries throughout the state. Sawmills have declined by half, the number of coal miners has dropped considerably, and only about two dozen glass manufacturers still exist today.

Does this mean the eventual demise of West Virginia's economy? Or at least the end of the importance of West Virginia's rivers in the state's economic development? It is difficult to predict the future, but probably not. The present leadership of the state has taken steps to prevent that from occurring. The present state trend is a shift from heavy manufacturing to high technology. Weekly one can see Governor Cecil Underwood on TV highlighting the newest automotive, computer, or information technology company that has agreed to move to the state. Next week there will probably be more. But what about the rivers? At present, coal, salt, and chemicals are still sent down the Kanawha and the Ohio daily. These two rivers will have a good industrial base for many years to come. For the others though, a new direction is indicated.

The future of West Virginia's rivers may arise out of their past. In 1874, to showcase their brand new Sternwheeler, the owners of the City of Portsmouth held a "river excursion" on the Ohio. Billed as a "delightful afternoon of sightseeing" it attracted great attention from the locals and was quite a success. 22 River excursions have run down both the Ohio and Kanawha ever since and continue today with the Sternwheelers P. A. Denny and West Virginia Belle. In the same tradition, today's Sternwheel Regatta started in a 1971 race. The race was to commemorate the 1907 contest of strength between the D. T. Lane, a top of the line Sternwheeler, and the James Rumsey, a brand new diesel driven towboat. The James Rumsey was the first boat of its class, and with its triumph over the D. T. Lane, signaled the end for the sternwheel steamboat. The 1971 celebration was such a success, week long Sternwheel Regatta celebrations can be found from Pennsylvania and Ohio down to Kentucky today. These regattas bring tourism to the rivers.

In addition to the regattas, there are other new tourist activities coming to the rivers. The old James River and C&ampO canal companies may be defunct, but the canals themselves still exist. The state, under Governor Underwood, has devised a plan to revive the canals and include them as part of the statewide trail system. This system will link with most of the state's rivers and incorporate activities for canoeing, kayaking, rafting, hiking, biking, and horseback riding. The governor's plan is to turn West Virginia into the "Colorado of the East". A good plan it is, too. The trail business is big business and very competitive. The predicted revenue from a future trail being promoted in Doddridge County is expected to bring in almost $5 million in combined revenue for the town of West Union alone. The proposed Hatfield-McCoy trail in southern West Virginia is expected to bring 3254 jobs and 600,000 visitors annually who would leave $106 million in their wake. Existing West Virginia efforts, are already attracting notice nationwide. Shape magazine, in its April, 1998 issue, listed Fayetteville as the number three "top ten adventure towns" in the country.23 What's so appealing about Fayetteville? For starters, it is the New River Gorge and Bridge. In this issue, Fayetteville was noted for its rock climbing, rafting kayaking, and Bridge Day activities. Rafting trips are also available on other rivers such as the Potomac, Blackwater, Tygart, and Gauley Rivers. Some of these rivers are so popular one must reserve a space a year in advance for trips during the height of the rafting season. With all of this attention to the recreational uses of the state's rivers one can hope for, and expect, many happy, splashing years of recreational enjoyment and economic contribution to the state.

As can be seen, the rivers have played a great deal in West Virginia's history and economy. In pre-historic times the rivers supported trade. In the last century they nurtured the salt, coal, timber, glass, steel, and manufacturing industries. In this century they have done much the same with the addition of the chemical industry. Recently, they have started to support what will hopefully be a grand tourism industry. With this new industry, West Virginia's economic future will hopefully be very bright throughout the next century.

When one lives by a river, it is often easy to take for granted and forget just how important that river is to the region it resides. Lest it be forgotten, the presence of a river often determines the development of a people, a nation and whole civilizations. Where would West Virginia be without its rivers? Where would Egypt be without the Nile? Where would all of humanity be without the Tigris and Euphrates?


1. Reid, Robert L. Always a River (Indiana University Press, 1991), 131-32.

2. Sutphin, Gerald W. Sternwheelers on the Great Kanawha (Charleston: Pictorial Histories, 1991), 2.

3. Rice, Otis K. The Allegheny Frontier (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970), 310.

4. Sutphin, 3.

5. Rice, Allegheny, 164.

6. Reid, 139.

7. Rice, Allegheny, 311.

8. FMC, The Salt Industry in the Kanawha Valley (Charleston: FMC, 1960), 11.

9. Rice, Allegheny, 318.

10. Rice, Allegheny, 331.

11. FMC, 14.

12. Rice, Allegheny, 319-20.

13. FMC, 12.

14. Reid, 139.

15. Sutphin, 8, 4.

16. WV Development Office, "West Virginia Glass," pamphlet.

17. FMC, 26; Bones, James T. and Glover, Ralph P. Jr., The Timber Industries of West Virginia (Upper Darby Pa.: USDA Forest Service, 1977), 5; Rice, Allegheny, 339.

18. Sutphin, 48, 68, 172.

19. Rice, Otis K. and Brown, Stephen W., West Virginia, A History (2nd Ed) (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 184.

20. Reid, 131.

21. Bones, 3.

22. Sutphin, 68.

23. "Making West Virginia the Colorado of the East Coast," Charleston Daily Mail, March 13, 1998; "Trendy Town," Charleston Gazette, March; Reid, 131-32.

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