Why the New & Kanawha River Have Different Names But are Same Waterway

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Photo: Kanawha Falls on the Kanawha River at Glen Ferris, West Virginia, courtesy of Ken Thomas
Photo: Kanawha Falls on the Kanawha River at Glen Ferris, West Virginia, courtesy of Ken Thomas

Like so many other parts of Appalachia, the State of West Virginia often feels like it simply doesn’t belong anywhere — the state is too north to be welcomed with opened arms by the folks down in Dixie and yet its geography has it too far south to be considered Yankee country.

Indeed, searching for the exact location where the North stops and the South begins is a very difficult job — even the Mason-Dixon Line is a terrible guide, as it places Maryland in the South… something that may have been true 170 years ago, but hardly today.

As one who has traveled extensively along the East Coast — logging countless thousands of miles from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Charlotte, North Carolina, via Interstates 77 and 79, I have always imagined the line of demarcation to be somewhere along US Route 19 north of Summersville, West Virginia.

Interestingly, it is about this same latitude that Appalachia’s great river, the New River, for no scientifically valid reason changes its name to the Kanawha River.

According to the US Department of Interior, “There is no sound logical scientific explanation or historical explanation to declare a separation between the Kanawha and New Rivers.”

On its path north toward the mountains of West Virginia, the New River has several tributaries that empty into its course, including the Little River (just before Claytor Dam), the Bluestone River, and the Greenbrier River; yet, after each of these, the New River, which is wider and has more volume, keeps its name.

However, at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, the New River meets the Gauley River. Like at other times before, the New River is wider and has more volume than the Gauley River, yet here, the two rivers form what is called the Kanawha River.

Long before the arrival of whites to North America, the Shawnee, the Cherokee, and the Iroquois all considered the Kanawha and New to be the same river. Even early explorers and politicians considered the rivers one in the same, including Thomas Jefferson.

So why have we for the past century and a half or so pretended as if this same river is actually two rivers?

West Virginia University professor Dr. Steve Kite may have an answer: “At Kanawha Falls, very close to Gauley Bridge, there is a physical barrier that physically separates the rivers. Early explorers and even today’s rafters cannot navigate this obstacle.

“Kanawha Falls, though unofficially, also represents a cultural barrier. The entire course of the West Virginia part of the New River is in Southern West Virginia. Southern West Virginia historically had strong ties to the confederacy, despite West Virginia splitting from Virginia to join the Union. Conversely, the Kanawha lies in an area that was more supportive of the Union. Many argue that West Virginia is the only state to be part of three different regions in the United States. Officially it is in the Mid Atlantic region. However, you could make a strong case that southern West Virginia is part of the South East and that Northern West Virginia is part of the North East. Physical, psychological, and cultural boundaries amongst West Virginia also extend to our greatest river. Hence, we have two names for the same river.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. Is it true that the “New” River is actually the second oldest river in the world? I went to public school in Blacksburg, VA and I remember my teacher telling us this.

    Thank you.

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