April 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 2
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.
At the river’s edge Dave told us that “in mining days the river was always black, except in flood, when it was brown.” Now, high from spring runoff and rains, it looked a healthy greenish brown where it wasn’t just foamy. Here were the first serious rapids; they felt like hitting the bottom in a water-flume ride two or three times in succession and bouncing and rollicking through. They were never scary for more than a second or two.
Later that day we tied up at Kaymoor, then climbed a very steep, slippery slope to find a clearing containing two monumental rows of 120 coke ovens built into the hillside. They were as high as a man and had doors big enough so that the more intrepid among us could climb inside and examine their oft-baked hemispherical inside walls, all brick with a hole at the top. Coal would arrive by larry railcar here, five tons of it to be poured into the opening at the top of an oven. It cooked down to a purified solid over the course of four days. “It was dirty work,” Dave said. “But then, almost all the work around here was dirty and dangerous. That’s one reason they had all those union wars. Mother Jones didn’t like what she saw when she came through here.”
A short way up from the coke ovens we came to the Kaymoor One Tipple, a corrugated steel shed hung twenty feet above the ground and stretching across over five railroad sidings, whose rails still lay in the high, weedy grass. A rusted conveyor rose behind the tipple up the slope toward where Kaymoor’s mines once reached into the hill. Beside the tipple a capacious, roofless, big-windowed enginehouse stood looking like a bombed-out brick cathedral. I smelled a whiff of burning coal and asked Dave about it. “There are people burning coal for heat in houses back in the woods up there,” he said. “It’s about free. You can still scratch it right off the mountain.”
Back down on the river we headed through its narrowest, most turbulent stretch and climactic rapids. We tossed and careered, but nobody ever left a boat; however, after an oarlock had snapped in the rugged water, I was pleased to be the person who grabbed the floating oar a quarter-mile downstream.
On the last, calmer stretch of the water, we rounded a wide bend and came upon a glorious sight: two bridges appeared in the distance, one soaring high above the other. The lower one, which we glided under first, was a lovely wrought-iron truss bridge from 1889. The next one—maybe fifteen times as high—was its 1977 replacement, the longest single-arch steel bridge in the world, almost threadlike in its fineness and balletic in its graceful leap across the very top of the entire gorge.
For a moment as we neared them, the two bridges framed our view down the gorge, and they framed the history of the gorge too. The older span had been built when settlement was first pushing into these steep hillsides, the newer one after almost everyone had moved up and out again. During most of the years between, this verdant terrain was mostly naked of trees and littered with industry. Below the bridges the river flows almost without age; in fact, they say it is old by any standard, one of the oldest rivers on earth, older than most of the mountains around it and older than the last ice age, before which it flowed into the Gulf of Mexico around St. Louis. On this stretch of this river, civilization was like an eddy that comes and goes in a moment, leaving something new but remarkably like what had been there before.