There are three Coal Rivers: Coal River, the Big Coal, and the Little Coal.
The Big Coal and Little Coal begin at their headwaters in Raleigh County and wind through Boone County and Lincoln County. Then at Alum Creek in Kanawha County, the rivers join come together to form the mainstem Coal River, which flows all the way to the Kanawha River in St. Albans.
The Coal River watershed covers an area of 890 square miles in primarily Boone, Lincoln, Kanawha, and Raleigh Counties. The three rivers total approximated 100 miles in length. The elevation of the watershed spans from 3,196 feet at Pilot Knob down to a low of 564 feet at the mouth of Coal River in St. Albans.
History of the Rivers
Originally named Walhondecepe by the Delaware Indians, the Big Coal, Little Coal, and Coal Rivers were renamed in the 18th century by explorer John Peter Salley for the coal deposits found along its banks.
Since humans first arrived in the region the three rivers that make up the Coal River watershed have served as a vital transportation link to the Kanawaha River. The Indians used the rivers as favorite hunting and fishing sites. Early settlers in the region discovered that outcrops of cannel coal along the Big Coal River could be utilized as an excellent source of heat and light. The abundant timber reserves found in the region also could be transported to the Kanawha Valley during floods and sold to the growing urban area.
The availability of large seams of cannel coal, which could be used to produce a very desirable coal oil, brought investors to the region in the mid 1800's. Cannel coal oil burned very brightly with little smoke and was used to replace whale oil for lighting.
The Coal Rivers thus became the primary transport corridor for the newly discovered coal deposits. In 1851, the Coal River Navigation Company constructed a 34-mile lock and dam system to allow boats to navigate up the rivers (Coal, Steamboats, Timber and Trains, Bill Dean 2008).
The system operated successfully from 1855 through 1861. In 1860 over 850,000 bushels of coal were shipped out of the Boone County coal field. The outbreak of the Civil War stopped operations of the system, but in 1867 a new company returned the locks and dams to service until 1881. The locks and dams operated for 16 years. The system is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in addition to a series of log booms built after the locks and the dams were washed away. The log booms helped to channel cut timber into sawmill locations along the Coal River near St. Albans, WV.
The Coal River from St. Albans to Tornado remains designated as a U.S. navigable waterway.
Beginning around 1800, flax mills and gristmills were built and operated along the river, yielding fiber for the production of textiles in addition to staples such as flour and cornmeal.
After failed attempts by others, the Coal River and Western Railway Company established scheduled rail service along the river at the dawn of the 20th century. This finally provided a reliable source of transportation for the coal and timber industries, sparking an economic boom in the region.
Coal Rivers Today
Since the first settlers came to the region, coal has played a major role in shaping the landscape of the Coal River watershed. Most of the rivers flow through Boone County, the largest coal-producing county in West Virginia. While the area is still actively mined, changes in federal environmental legislation in the 1970’s dramatically improved conditions in the Coal Rivers. Fish are now returning to streams that once flowed black from mining discharges and choked full of litter.
Still, there is much work to be done. Out of the watershed’s 580 named streams, 127 are listed as “impaired” by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection for having elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria, iron, selenium, manganese, aluminum, and pH.
The two main issues impacting the Coal Rivers’ water quality are sedimentation and fecal coliform. Sedimentation occurs when land that was disturbed through mining, road construction, or other forms of land clearing, washes into the streams and creeks. These sediments are laden with metals and other dissolved solids, which alter the chemistry of the water and destroy fish habitat.
The major threat to human health, however, is fecal coliform bacteria, caused by improper sewage treatment. Out of 64,000 people living within the Coal River watershed, the West Virginia DEP estimates that over 32,000 are not connected to a central sewage treatment. With a septic system failure rate of 70% within the first ten years of installation, raw sewage enters the streams and rivers at an alarming rate.
The Coal River Group works tirelessly to address these issues facing the rivers. Through partnerships with the West Virginia DEP, the Group is undertaking a river restoration project on the Little Coal to address sedimentation and is continuing efforts to repair failing sewers and septic systems throughout the watershed.