The West Virginia. Cyclopedia

Kanawha River

From West Virginia (WV) Cyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The New-Kanawha river is the largest and most important river in West Virginia. Its basin comprises about one-third of all West Virginia, part of western Virginia, and a small part of North Carolina. The lower river below the mouth of Gauley River is called the Kanawha; above the Gauley, it is called the New River.

Kanawha River

Looking up Kanawha River from Blaine Island to downtown Charleston, WV

The head of the Kanawaha River is formed by the junction of New River and Gauley River just above Kanawha Falls, near Gauley Bridge, WV, in Fayette County. The mouth of the Kanawha is located at a junction with Ohio River at Point Pleasant, WV, in Mason County.


Topo Map showing location of head of the Kanawha River.
Map of head, showing streets, highways and nearby features.
Topo Map of mouth of the Kanawha.
Map of mouth, showing streets, highways and nearby attractions.


The most important tributaries of the Kanawha River are the Elk River and Coal River.

The Great Kanhaway

Most Native America tribes seem to have indentified the New River and the Kanawha River as being one river, as did many early white explorers. Thomas Jefferson regarded the New and Kanawha Rivers as a single river, referring to it as "the Great Kanhaway" in his Notes on the State of Virginia, written in 1781, revised in 1782, in which he described the river as follows:

"The Great Kanhaway is a river of considerable note for the fertility of its lands, and still more, as leading towards the headwaters of James river. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether its great and numerous rapids will admit a navigation, but at an expence to which it will require ages to render its inhabitants equal. The great obstacles begin at what are called the great falls, 90 miles above the mouth, below which are only five or six rapids, and these passable, with some difficulty, even at low water. From the falls to the mouth of Greenbriar is 100 miles, and thence to the lead mines 120. It is 280 yards wide at its mouth."


The Kanawha River and New River shown as a single river, the Great Kenhaway River, on a map of 1791.

See also: Jefferson's Map (scroll to bottom of page)

First Steam Navigation on the Kanawha River

Kanawha River at Charleston, WV, chief city of the Kanawha Valley

In 1819, the steamboat Robert Thompson ascended the Kanawha River for the purpose of ascertaining whether it was navigational to Charleston. The voayage continued as far as Red House Shoals (map), in present-day Putnam County, where two days were spent in a vain effort to pass the rapids, and the boat returned to the Ohio; the officers reported to the Virginia Assembly the result of the experimental voyage, and that body in 1820, made the first appropriation for the improvement of the river. In 1820, the Albert Donnally, built for salt manufacturers on located along the Kanawha Salines, ascended to Charleston and the traffic by river thereafter steadily increased.

Improvements of the Kanawha River

London Locks and Dam on the Kanawha River at London, WV

The failure of the steamer Robert Thompson to ascend the river, and the success of the Andrew Donnally in reaching Charleston the following year, were events of so much importance, that the General Assembly of Virginia, at its next session in 1820-1821 provided for the improvement of the river, so that three feet of water could be secured all the year to the Kanawha Falls. Surveys were made and the work on a series of sluices and wing dams began at Red House Shoals, and at the mouth of Elk River, in 1825, under the direction of John Bosser, but these solutions were not sufficient.

Large shipments of coal after 1855 result in urgent demands for better navigation facilities. In 1860 steps were take to extend the old sluice and wing dam system, but they were suspended by the Civil War. Packets between Charleston and Gallipolis, which at first ran weekly and later triweekly, begain in 1845 a daily service which continued until after the Civil War.

Following the creation of West Virginia in 1863, the State took charge of the Kanawha River and created a Kanawha board to carry on this improvement and collect tolls as the James River and Kanawha Company had been doing. It was not until 1870 that work was begun on a regular system of locks and dams until action of Congress.

Ten Chanoine dams on the Kanawha River were completed in 1898, to provide for year-round water transportation on the Kanawha River from Boomer to Point Pleasant, a distance of 90 miles. This system was were replaced in the early-1930s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with four high lift dams with German roller gates. The system at Gallipolis was built on the Ohio River and Winfield, Marmet and London were built on the Kanawha. Starting in 1989, improvements were made to three of these locks and dams with the addition of lock chambers.

Name Origin

Tu-Endie-Wei, the "mingling of waters" at the confluence of the Kanawha and Ohio

Many sources on the Internet claim the Kanawha River was so named by white explorers, after the name of an Indian tribe that lived along the river in the 1700's, most failing to cite any source of this claim.

Possibly, these accounts are somehow connected with the Piscataway Indians, who lived on an island called "Conoy", that name said to a shortened form of "Kanawha," which was pronounced as "Kanaw". (See: Indians Left Their Mark in Naming Landmarks in Loudoun County)

Other sources claim the river's name, Kanawah, originated from the name given to the river by the Native American tribe, the Delaware, that meant "place of the white stones." The Shawnee are said to have called the river Keninskeha, meaning "river of evil spirits." Both Native American meanings seem more appropriate for the New River, a river with numerous whitewater rapids, than for the Kanawha. However, most Native America tribes seem to have indentified the New River and the Kanawha River as being one river, as did many early white explorers (see: The Great Kanhaway).

Further insight into the Native Americans' connection with the naming of the Kanawha River can be found here...

Variant Names for the Kanawha River

Barge being pushed along the Kanawha River at Charleston, WV

Big Connawas River, Big Kanawha River, Canawha, Canhawa River, Chinidashhichetha, Chinodahichetha River, Chinodashichetha, Chinondaista, Great Canawha River, Great Kanawha River, Great Kanhawa River, Great Kanhaway River, Great Kehhawa River, Great Kenhawa River, Great Kenhaway River, Great Konhaway River, Great Konhawayriver, Kanahaway River, Kanawa River, Kanawah River, Kanaway River, Kanawhy River, Kanhaway River, Kannawha River, Keanawha River, Kenhaway River, Keninsheka, Kinhaway River, Kunhaway River, Le-we-ke-o-mi, New River, Pi-que-me-ta-mi, Pique-me-ta-nei, Woods River