I’ve always been fascinated by the river, river boats and the age of steam in West Virginia. It doesn’t hurt that one of my closest friends, JD Pauley, owns the sternwheeler, Hobby III, so I’ve spent an undo amount of time watching the wheel throw water in the air and imagining life 100 years ago.
Yesterday, Jerry Sutphin gave a presentation at the Archives and History Library in the West Virginia Culture Center on The Great Kanawha River and River Transportation in West Virginia. When JD emailed me about the lecture, I immediately knew I was going. I was particularly interested since my new book River Townwill be available on August 12. River Town is a collection of short stories set in West Virginia, on the river, in 1890 when the river was the center of everything. One story in the book features a riverboat captain and his steamboat, the Miss Jayne Marie.
Sutphin explained that any river west of the Appalachian mountain chain is considered to be a western river. When that term came into use, there were only the original 13 colonies in the United States. For settlers heading west, rivers were the natural highways and the easiest way to get natural resources back to the cities. That commerce to bring salt, coal and timber out of the mountains spurred the development of steam boats and barges carrying everything from apothecaries to zoos and everything in between.
The only problem with riverine commerce was the rivers were seasonal; you couldn’t rely on them to be deep enough to run on year round. In 1884, the federal government began a lock and dam system that maintained the river level at nine feet deep, deep enough for any river boat.
The Great Kanawha River is the only river totally within the boundaries of West Virginia. It is 99 miles long with only 91 miles of that navigable. In spite of its diminutive nature, the commerce that has floated through those locks, and still does, is almost unimaginable. Salt, coal, oil and gas and timber have all moved down the river, through those locks and off to markets around the world.
Originally, there were 10 locks on the river. Eleven were planned, numbered and mapped out, but only 10 were built. In a fit of government logic, #1 was planned for a section of the river above Montgomery, but it was never constructed. Many people are confused about how many locks were on the Kanawha since #11 was built near Point Pleasant. People naturally assume there were 11 locks, according to Sutphin. Later, that number was reduced to three larger dams and two of those were expanded in a third series of changes in the last 20 years.
I kept listening to Sutphin’s lecture, hoping I didn’t hear anything that would make me think “Oh No! I got that wrong” but that moment never came. River Town isn’t a historical work. Rather, it is a collection of fictional stories about the river. Hopefully, though, readers will escape to a time on the river when river boats were king and the only way to get anywhere was by booking passage. And then they will see the river as I see it from the back of a sternwheeler.