Going Back On The Water

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You don’t naturally associate white-water rafting with stepping back into the past, but I discovered you can do both at once. That is, you can float down the New River through a lovely unsullied West Virginia gorge, bounce through furious rapids, and all the while make stops at the shore to see beneath the trees the ruins of a populous industrial civilization that once crowded the riverbanks. I did it, guided by an outfit called Class VI River Runners, which has begun offering two-day historical rafting trips.

After the group I was with began by putting on wet suits and nylon jackets (on a cool, drizzly spring morning), life jackets, and helmets at Class VI headquarters, we were driven down into the gorge in an old school bus. We all felt as rubberized as the Michelin-tire man, but we also felt warm. Getting to our launching place turned out to be the first adventure of an adventurous two days; we rattled down a long, winding dirt road barely wider than the bus itself with almost vertical junglelike slopes above and below, freshets coursing underneath as we rounded nerve-racking hairpins beyond number. I asked a young local woman if she had ever been on a ride like this. She nodded. “This is what every bus ride in West Virginia is like.” Indeed, the driver, an eighty-year-old veteran of the vanished local coal mines named Chetty, kept superb command, and we were never in the slightest actual danger.

Our destination was Thayer, once a thriving mining town and now a remote river’s-edge clearing with a scattering of trailers and little board-and-batten houses. History was very short on the New River. It began in 1873 when the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad was laid through the gorge alongside the river, and coal mines began burrowing into the slopes above; it was pretty much over by the 1960s, when the last of the coal seams were running out and the remaining mines were shutting down. Now the area is the New River Gorge National River, a property of the National Park Service.

Before heading out onto the water, we met the owner of the boat landing, Truman Dent, a soft-spoken Thayer resident who began working in the mines as a seventeen-year-old in 1937 and kept at it for forty years. He showed us his original carbide mine lamp and an auger he once used to bore holes into a wall of coal way underground.

One of us asked him why he had gone to work in the mines. “There wasn’t any other work around that I knew of, or if there was, it was worse,” he said. And why did he start so young? “I wanted to buy my girl friend a watch for Christmas.” As he spoke, a gleaming silver train whooshed by on the tracks behind the clearing: the Amtrak Cardinal, en route from Washington to Chicago. It seemed an intrusion from another world.

We got into the rafts—big, bouncy inflated-rubber boats—and pushed off onto the water, six people and one guide in each craft. Out on the river we found ourselves in a different universe, a seemingly timeless one. About fifty yards to either side of us, incandescent light green hard-wood-forest hills rose high above amid mist and glistening clouds, and swallows darted about on the quiet surface of the water.

At first we were floating on a moving lake. Then on a choppy lake with whitecaps. Then the whitecaps poured down into a new lake a couple of feet lower. Then we were back in calm water to load at the site of the hundred-room Dunglen Hotel, which had stood at the water’s edge for the first three decades of this century.

After stopping for a lunch of hot soup and sandwiches, we got off the river at Thurmond, once the busiest settlement in the gorge, now a ghost town with perhaps two dozen people living in houses tucked back in the woods above it. We walked up a coal-slag embankment to a row of three buildings, two brick and one stone, along the tracks, and a scattering of others behind them. The stone building bore the words NATIONAL BANK OF THURMOND ; the building next to it had an old sign indicating it was the hotel. It all looked almost like a movie set, and in fact, it was used as the set for the town of Matewan in the 1987 movie of that name.

Thurmond grew up at the end of the nineteenth century to become the most important town on the C&O line. Now there was nobody in town except for four men working on the restoration of the old wooden depot for the Park Service. Dave Arnold, our tour leader, said: “Thurmond is something to see right now, because in twenty years, if the Park Service has its way and the Lord preserves Senator Byrd, this will all be refurbished and attracting visitors. It will be populated again.”

Next to the depot a bridge led over to the other side of the river, back to where the Dunglen had once stood. The side we were on had always been dry; the other had been wet. It was once so riotous that a preacher avowed that “the only difference between Thurmond and hell is that a river runs through Thurmond.”

Back out on the water all was greenery again. Now we hit our roughest water of the day. The whitecaps grew so big you couldn’t time them to rock up on top of them, so they’d crash into your raft.

Cunard, the day’s last stop, was named for the steamship line, which, we were told, once got all its “New River smokeless” coal from its town at this spot. The next morning, before going downstream, we paddled across the river to visit Sewell, where, deep in the woods, we found the overgrown traces of a substantial coal town—a foundation here, the superintendent’s house there, a handsome, roofless enginehouse for a narrow-gauge railroad.