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Sleepy Coal River Was Once Very Awake

By Phil Ruby

In Saint Albans, WV, beside the Gateway Shopping Center, a tributary flows into the Kanawha River. That tributary is the Coal River. Driving up Strawberry Road, which runs into Coal River Road on the far side, or up Pennsylvania Avenue on the St. Albans side, one can see the Coal weaving in and out between houses, woods and fields. There seems to be nothing special about the river. In most places, its banks are not accessible, and its depth is not suitable for boating; only a small canoe or kayak could traverse its waters. This lazy, sleepy little stream belies its rich, exciting history.

The Coal River, which begins near Alum Creek, WV at the confluence of the Big and Little Coal Rivers, was once the central artery of travel, commerce, and industries along its winding route. The river also gave rise to some recreational and entertainment spots.


The Coal River, which was originally named Walhondecepe by the Delaware Indians, was renamed in the 18th century by explorer John Peter Salley because of the coal deposits along its banks.
In the 19th century, coal mining in Southern West Virginia led to the building of locks and dams along the river, making it a navigable waterway for barges to move coal down to the Kanawha. Grist mills, flax mills, and sawmills sprung up along the banks of the Coal, providing fibers for textiles, flour and corn meal, and lumber for housing which developed along the river.
Hydropower was provided by the dams, and many other businesses, including local watering holes, and taverns were also scattered up and down the river. Unfortunately, the wooden locks and dams were continually being washed out by flooding, and the river was eventually deemed unsafe or impractical for transportation.
In the early 20th century, the Coal River and Western Railway began rail service along the river, which proved to be more reliable, and therefore profitable for the businesses up and down the river. The locks and dams were abandoned.

There was once a beach house near [at] Tornado [Upper Falls], along the river, where dances and parties were held. At times, nationally known big bands would appear to entertain guests.

There are many historical sites along the Coal and Big Coal Rivers; 8 foundations of Locks and Dams built in the mid 1850s;
Three pedestrian Bridges spanning the river (built in the early 1900s); 26 Log boom foundations (still visible) built in the late 1800s; 3 foundations for early (1860s) grist, flax, & carding mills; Two potential sites (underwater) for sunken river boats or barges circa (1850s); 15 historic structures located on the banks that were built prior to 1870s;
Many Railroad related sites dating back to the early 1870s

The Coal River Group

There is an organization dedicated to the preservation of the history of the Coal River, as well as revive tourism and recreation along the waterway. The Coal River Group, headed by its president, Bill Currey, is undertaking many projects and activities to meet those goals, which include:

Walhonde Trail Development
Tour De Coal – an annual float trip down the river
River Trip Planning
River Clean-up/Grant applications
Coal River Photo Contest
Education outreach
View Shed acquisition program
Engineering and administrative support activities
Fish habitat studies
Boone County coordinator
Coal River Institute Project-Planning/Historic preservation
River Boat Acquisition/Restoration project
River Monitoring

Anyone who is interested in any of these projects, the Coal River, or this organization may contact Vice President Kris Radford at: Also, check out the Coal River Group’s web site:

Information for this article was taken from:

A new book called Coal River by Michael Shnayerson was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review January 20th 2008.

Editors Note: The name "Tornado" was deprecated and should be "Upper Falls"; there is an interesting piece of history attached to this name issue. See the following references: Wikipedia entry -,_West_Virginia, and