Why the West Virginia / Kentucky Border is in the Wrong Place

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PHOTO: Aerial view of Williamson, West Virginia, USA. The border between West Virginia and Kentucky runs along the Tug Fork River, and the highway on the left is in the state of Kentucky. Courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers
PHOTO: Aerial view of Williamson, West Virginia, USA. The border between West Virginia and Kentucky runs along the Tug Fork River, and the highway on the left is in the state of Kentucky. Courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers

Short answer: Alcohol.

Long answer: Long before the counties of Mingo, West Virginia, and Pike, Kentucky, were even incorporated, their territories served as some of the most remote and inaccessible areas in all of Appalachia.

In the days following America’s Declaration of Independence, the Virginia General Assembly set out to legally define its borders as a sovereign state, including the many counties on its western flank.

State leaders determined to dissect the massive county that had been Fincastle into three separate parts: Montgomery (most all of Virginia’s present-day New River Valley and Southern West Virginia), Kentucky (All of present-day Kentucky) and Washington counties (present-day extreme Southwest Virginia).

In 1776, the Virginia General Assembly defined the boundaries between Kentucky and Montgomery counties to be the “main” branch of what would become known as the Big Sandy River, which runs from the mountains of modern-day Southwest Virginia to Huntington, West Virginia, where it dumps into the Ohio River.

However, in days prior to Google maps, aerial photography and USGS data, determining the “main branch” of any waterway was a task far easier said than done!

Eventually, Kentucky County would become the nation’s 15th state in June 1792, but a significantly large patch of the actual border between the two states was left undetermined — that’s because 29 miles upstream from the Ohio River, the Big Sandy splits into what seems like two nearly equal branches.

Folks in Virginia argued that the Levisa Fork was the larger branch, while Kentuckians maintained that the Tug Fork was the main branch.

In an effort to peacefully settle the ongoing dispute before the close of the century, the two Commonwealths agreed to allow the dispute to be settled through commissioners and surveyors who would meet at the confluence of the two forks and eyeball which of the two forks was the main branch of the Big Sandy River.

On the afternoon of October 13, 1799, commissioners met, but apparently spent little time actually studying the river — thanks to an abundance of booze.

As discussions continued through the evening, the men agreed that the Tug Fork was the larger tributary and thus the main branch. The representatives of both states agreed to sign formal documents the following morning.

Humorously enough, the following morning, the men awoke only to discover that the Levisa Fork was raging thanks to overnight flash flooding and had swollen to roughly twice the size of the Tug.

Unshaken, they moved forward in signing the document, defining the Tug River as the border between Virginia and Kentucky.

In June 1863, the State of West Virginia was born and by default, inherited the Kentucky boundary from Virginia.

Thus, Williamson, not Pikeville is its river boundary city.

Though the boundary has been in place for over two centuries now, the reality is that the men who drunkenly agreed to define the Tug as the border between the two states missed the mark.

By every measurement, the Levisa is bigger and more of the “main branch” than the Tug.

According to US Geological Survey information, the Levisa Fork discharges 85,500 cubic ft. of water per second at its maximum point, compared to the Tug’s 35,400 cubic ft. of water per second.  The Levisa is also approximately 164 miles long, five miles longer than the Tug and at its minimum discharge point, the Levisa has more than four times the amount of water than the Tug.

Amazing how a little bit of alcohol may very well have changed history as we know it.  Perhaps the Hatfield-McCoy feud would have taken a completely different turn – if it had even happened.  Could you imagine Pikeville, West Virginia?

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