Along Route 19 in Wild, Wonderful West Virginia lies the New River Gorge National River. Crossing the bridge that spans the gorge takes less than a minute, giving no hint to travelers of the immense history, geology and technology encompassed in this valley. However, a stop at the Visitors Center offers a unique view of the world’s second largest single-span steel arch bridge, a museum of local history, boardwalk trails and overlooks of the Gorge. Designation in 1978 as a National River by the National Park Service insured the protection of 53 miles of this historic watershed.
The geology of New River Gorge is fascinating. The New River is actually one of the oldest rivers in the world and the oldest river in the Western Hemisphere. It is one of the few rivers that flows northward. With an average depth of 1,000 feet, the New River Gorge is home to an amazingly diverse selection of plants and animals. The historical geology of the river also created vast coal deposits beneath the rugged terrain.
Largely inaccessible, the gorge remained undeveloped for centuries. Native Americans found the resources of the river and its forests to be invaluable to their way of life, but left little imprint.
Efforts to promote pioneer settlement included land grants to veterans of the American Revolution, a wagon route from Virginia and boat or ferry transport across the river. The first settlement within the Gorge was Bowyers Ferry in 1798. It would be almost three-quarters of a century before the area was significantly impacted by economic development.
A railroad line began to impact the New River Gorge by providing transport for coal and timber. The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) opened a rail line from Virginia to Ohio in 1873. Investors quickly opened mining operations, and workers flocked to New River for employment. Company towns sprang up ensuring that workers were housed and fed – while returning their pay to the ‘Company’ in rent, food and clothing until the last mine closed in the 1962. The Gorge now hosts only ghost towns where thousands of miners once lived and worked. Kaymoor One was one of the largest and most productive coal mines in the gorge, producing 16,904,321 tons of coal from 1900 to 1962 – one shovel at a time!
The New River Gorge Canyon Rim Visitor Center hosts a small museum, as well as trails and a boardwalk offering view of the Gorge and the New River Gorge bridge – the second highest bridge in the US at 876 feet above the Canyon floor. Opened in 1977, it shortened the 45 minute journey down one side of the canyon and up the other into a 45-second trip.