The West Virginia. Cyclopedia

Little Kanawha River

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Lower valley of the Little Kanawha River in Wirt County
Little Kanawha near Elizabeth
Swinging bridge near Burning Springs

The Little Kanawha River of West Virginia drains about 2,160 square miles of the northwestern and central Mountain State and is roughly circular, though elongated slighty in the east near its sources. The Pittsburgh Coal outcrops in the upper part of the basin and extends west as far downstream as Glenville, WV. West Virginia's early oil industry developed in the lower drainage of the river. Much of the lower drainage is in farmland.

Little Kanawha River

The Little Kanawha River rises in southern Upshur County in central West Virginia west of the Allegheny Mountains and flows west-by-northwest against minor folds of the Appalachian Mountains, crossing through Lewis, Braxton, Gilmer, and Calhoun counties until it reaches Elizabeth, in Wirt County, at which point it turn nearly north across Wood County to the Ohio River at Parkersburg, WV. The only significant cataract on the river is the Falls of Little Kanawha in Braxton County.


Topo Map (Mouth)


The principal tributaries of the Little Kanawha are Leading Creek, Cedar Creek, West Fork River, Hughes River, and North Fork. Many tributaries drain areas with limestone deposits that improve their fishing productivity. All major tributaries are popular fishing streams.

First Steamboats

The first steamboat on the Little Kanawha River to reach the town of Elizabeth was the Sciota Belle in 1842. The boat was built at Parkersburg and only made one voyage on the Little Kanawha when it was taken to the Muskingum River, in Ohio, to the owners for which it had been built. The second steamer to reach Elizabeth was the Lodi in 1847.

Early Improvements

The Little Kanawha drains the interior of central and northwestern West Virginia and had been recognized during its first European exploration as a stream of primary commercial value. In 1834, the Virginia General Assembly passed an act requiring the owners of dams on the river to construct locks from Parkersburg, on the Ohio River, to Bulltown, in Braxton County. In 1847 the assembly authorized improvements to navigation, incorporated as the Little Kanawha Navigation Company to improve the same.

It was not until the development of the oil industry along the river at Burning Springs in the 1860s that progress was made in improving navigation on the river. On Feb. 4, 1863, the General Assembly of the Reorganized Government of Virginia passed an act incorporating the Little Kanawha Navigation Company, which resulted in the completion of a number of locks and dams on the river.

Variant Names

Fishing Creek, Little Canawha River, Little Canhawa River, Little Conaway River, Little Cunnaway River, Little Kanahaway River, Little Kanahwa River, Little Kanahway River, Little Kanawah River, Little Kanhaway River, Little Kanhawey River, Little Kawahwa River, Little Kenawah, Little Kenhawa, Little Kenhaway, Little Kennaway River, Nau-mis-sip-pia, Newmissipi, O-mom-go-how-ce-pe, O-nim-go-how

The Little Kanawha was also known as "Old Greasy" in the mid-1800s when early developers of salt works routinely diverted oil into the river. According to folklorist James Gay Jones, of Glenville State College, natives also knew the stream as the "River of Evil Spirits" as a result of the frequency with which canoeists drowned in the river's whirlpools.