The Kanawha River is the largest and most important river in West Virginia. It drains about 1/3 of West Virginia, part of western Virginia, and a small portion of northwestern North Carolina.
The river can be divided into 2 sections. The headwaters are known as the New River. The lower section, below its juncture with the Gauley Rover, is called the Kanawha. The river becomes joined with the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, West Virginia. From that point it flows into the continental interior to join the Mississippi River system and find outlet into the Gulf of Mexico.
The lower portion of the river is navigable and is used for barge transport. A common sight near Charleston, West Virginia are the tugboats used to push the barges along the watercourse. The barges themselves are tied together into larger units. These resulting floating islands are huge, requiring great skill in navigation. The lower portion supports barge traffic for 97 miles of its length.
The upper reaches of the river are not navigable by large vessels. They are better suited to fishing, canoeing, white water rafting, and other recreational uses. The area drained by the upper section are among some of the most rugged and scenic in the region.
The river has a long history, being noted by Thomas Jefferson in his 1781 Notes on the State of Virginia. Long before that time the river was used as a pathway between the central Appalachians and the Ohio River system. The river was the route used by Shawnee raiders who captured Mary Draper Ingles and others during their attack on a settlement near Blacksburg, Virginia in 1755. Rivers were commonly utilized as roadways for travel by both foot and canoe.
The river was known by a variety of names, most being variant spellings of Kanawha, others being Native American names for the stream.
Early efforts to use the river for commerce were stymied by a series of shoals and falls. Over the years improvements were made in stages. The first steam ship navigated as far as Red House Shoals (near present Winfield, WV) as early as 1819. The goal was to see if the river was navigable to Charleston. Failing in the attempt, the Robert Thompson retreated to the Ohio River. Reporting back to the General Assembly, funds were secured for improvements.
In 1820 the steam boat Albert Donnally succeeded in the ascent to Charleston, opening the interior of the state to much desired commerce. By the 1840s the river was open to flatboat traffic of salt, coal, and timber.
Improvements to the river continued, resulting in a series of locks and dams to aid in making the river commercially accessible. The first locks and dams were completed in 1875, alleviating problems caused by both low water and flooding. The US Army Corps of Engineers assumed control of the system, rebuilding portions of the older facilities in the 1930s. As recently as 1989 the Corps of Engineers have updated and improved the facilities.
Other important tributaries of the Kanawha River are Coal River, Elk River, Pocatalico River, and various other creeks and streams.