By Curtis Curry
Pocahontas County, located in the mountains of eastern West Virginia, is known as the “Birthplace of Rivers.”
In its 942 square miles, eight rivers have their origin or “birth.” They begin their long journeys high in the mountains as a trickle to eventually end it in the Gulf of Mexico. These rivers are the Shavers Fork of Cheat, Cherry River, Cranberry River, Elk River, Gauley River, Greenbrier, Tygart River and The Williams River.
The Tygart River was named for David Tygart, an early settler in the Tygart Valley in the 1750s. It has one of the shortest journeys through Pocahontas County originating on Cheat Mountain near Snowshoe Mountain Resort and flows a few miles northwest before entering Randolph County near the community of Mingo. The Tygart where it leaves Pocahontas is barely six feet wide. As it flows north through the Tygart Valley, it gains volume to become a major river when it reaches Fairmont where it joins the West Fork River to become the Monongahela River. At this place the Tygart has flowed 135 miles from its humble beginnings in the mountains of Pocahontas County. A major contribution of the Tygart is the Tygart Lake near Grafton that supplies water resources and recreation to north central West Virginia.
The Tygart has also been known as the Tygart Valley River and the Muddy River.
The Gauley River was named by early French explorers. The French had claimed the Ohio River basin and its tributaries. They were fur traders and friends to the Indians. The Gauley originates on the western slopes of the Yew Mountain range near Sharp’s Knob and the Slaty Fork community. The North Fork of Gauley and the Middle Fork flow a few miles through Pocahontas and Randolph to join in Webster County to form the Gauley River. The South Fork joins them downstream to complete the Gauley.
Three more Pocahontas rivers join the Gauley on its way to merge with the New River from the south. The Williams, Cranberry and Cherry rivers flow into the Gauley. The Gauley makes a major contribution to central West Virginia with its Summersville Dam that provides water resources and recreation. The whitewater rafting below the dam is known worldwide and provides substantial revenue to the area and state.
The Gauley ends its 105 mile journey at Gauley Bridge where it merges with the New River to form the Kanawha River.
The Elk River was named for the herds of elk found in this area when early settlers arrived. It is one of the most unusual and interesting streams in Pocahontas County and in West Virginia. The Elk begins in the community of Slaty Fork where the Big Spring Fork flowing south from Cheat Mountain merges with the Old Field Fork flowing north from Red Lick Mountain.
The Big Springs Fork is fed by Cup Run and Hawthorne Run near Snowshoe. Two springs contributing to the Big Springs Fork are the Gatewood Springs near Linwood and a spring just above its joining with the Old Field Fork. It is an “interrupted” stream with its waters sinking and rising frequently on its journey to Old Field.
The Old Field Fork flows through Pleasant Valley and was named for fields thought to have been cleared by Indians. It is joined by the Slaty Fork just above its junction with Big Springs.
From Slaty Fork the Elk flows generally westward for several miles until its waters completely disappear. Records in Randolph County tell of a large hole that developed in 1896 and swallowed the entire river. In a few years the hole filled with rocks but the water still continued to sink through to an underground waterway. Nearby is a small tributary called “Black Hole Run” which may attest to the fact a hole once existed in the riverbed. William T. Price in his 1901 book Historical Sketches of Pocahontas County, West Virginia refers to a “Black Hole near Linwood” in his “natural curiosities” of the county. Perhaps he was referring to the hole in the Elk riverbed.
For the next five miles the riverbed is completely dry and has become known as “the dries” or “the dry bed of the Elk.” It is strange to walk across the dry rocks and know that somewhere below flows a large stream! In one place there is a large, nearly level area of exposed bedrock. Local residents were known to have square dances on what they called “Flat Rock.” In Randolph County below the dries the Elk rises to the surface in a stream of cold, clean water again filling the riverbed and providing good trout fishing. It continues its journey through Randolph and Webster counties on its way to join the Kanawha River in the capitol city of Charleston. By then, it has traveled 172 miles from the highlands of Pocahontas County.
Shavers Fork of Cheat River
The Shavers Fork of Cheat was named for Paul Shaver, an early settler, Indian fighter and revolutionary soldier who was killed by the Indians. The Shavers Fork begins near the highest point on Cheat Mountain at Thorny Flats (4,848 feet) in the Snowshoe Resort area. From its source, the Shaver’s waters flow its first 30 miles at an elevation above 3,000 feet making it the largest river at that elevation in eastern North America. Its upper region waters have been impounded to form Shaver’s Lake to provide water and recreation for the resort. It flows north through the site of the former logging town of Spruce and into Randolph and Tucker counties. After 88.5 miles it merges with the Black Fork River at Parsons, to form the Cheat River. The Cheat continues north for 78.3 miles to join the Monongahela River. During the warmer months the Shaver’s Fork provides an abundance of recreational opportunities including great trout fishing and adds to the scenic train rides from Elkins and Cass.
The Cherry River got its name from the abundance of wild cherry trees growing along its watershed. It is formed by the North Fork of Cherry and the South Fork of Cherry that join in Richwood, Nicholas County. Both the North and South Forks originate in Pocahontas County. The North Fork begins on the west slope of Kennison Mountain with the merging of Darnell Run and Little Branch. In its upper region the North Fork meanders lazily through a narrow valley before beginning a rapid descent toward Richwood. From there the Cherry rushes about 10 miles to empty into the Gauley River upstream from the Summersville Dam.
The South Fork flows through the glades for about four miles while dropping in elevation by less than 50 feet. Along the way it gathers volume from several small streams feeding into the spongy soil of the glades. The glades are a favorite place for the black bear and visitors may often see them on or near the boardwalk winding through two of the open glades and bog forest.
After exiting the glades the South Fork begins a steeper descent and now has the appearance of a typical mountain trout stream. For the next 16 miles the Cranberry River is not accessible by motorized vehicles. Nine miles from its beginning the South Fork merges with the North Fork of Cranberry. The North Fork flows only two miles from its origin near the Highland Scenic Highway. The Cranberry River now begins its journey to join the Gauley River some 24 miles west. It enters the Gauley near Craigsville upstream from the Cherry River and downstream from the Williams River.
The Cranberry River and adjoining Cranberry Wilderness area provide hiking, camping and some of the best trout fishing in the eastern United States.
Williams River is named for William “Swago Bill” Ewing, a Revolutionary soldier who lived on Swago Run and owned property on the headwaters of the river. The Williams is formed near Spruce Flats on Days Mountain near Marlinton with the merger of Beaver Dam Run and Downey Run. It begins its 33 mile journey to the Gauley River by winding lazily through high meadows before disappearing into the forest near Mountain Lick Run. For the next several miles the Williams flows beneath a canopy of shade trees and over a constantly dropping rocky stream bed. Fallen trees frequently cross the stream providing cover for fish and deep pools downstream from them. This part of the river is favored by anglers preferring native brook trout and stream reared brown trout. Fishing pressure is normally light in this segment of the river.
Below the falls is a low water bridge. In the early spring and fall, the Department of Natural Resources frequently stock the segment between this bridge and the highway #17 bridge. This area is heavily fished with worn paths along the river. It includes the popular Day Run Campground and other campsites along this stretch.
The Williams takes on a different personality below the highway #17 bridge. It flows lazily through a broad valley with high dirt banks and scattered deep pools. It is a difficult area to access and fishing pressure is light. Fishermen might expect to catch trout and some warm water fish such as rock bass and small mouth bass. They might also encounter curious beaver that favor the slow moving water.
At the lower end of this broad valley, the river has the appearance of a long lake with high dirt banks, a muddy bottom and murky water. The Indians called this segment the “stillwater” and it is known today as the “deadwater.” It is a popular fishing area but must be fished from the banks or by boat. There is a special platform for handicapped fishermen near the Highland Scenic Highway bridge. During the timbering years of the early 1900s, a splash dam was built at the lower end of the deadwater to gather logs before they were released to float down to the Gauley River and a sawmill at Camden on Gauley.
Below the deadwater the Williams returns to a rocky bed with swift water and shallow pools. During the next mile it is joined by Sugar Creek off Black Mountain and Tea Creek flowing from the Gauley Mountain slopes. These two tributaries increase the volume and width of the Williams.
About four miles from Tea Creek the Williams exits Pocahontas County and enters Webster County. Two miles within this area is limited to catch and release fishing. It provides some of the best trout fishing in West Virginia with rushing water, huge rocks and deep pools. The Williams ends its journey at Cowen where it joins the Gauley River.
The Greenbrier River is the largest and longest river flowing through Pocahontas County. It was named by early settlers for a thorny vine found growing along its banks. It originates in the mountains of northeast Pocahontas County, flows south through most of the county, and exits in the southwest into Greenbrier County. The Greenbrier is the longest “free flowing” river left in the eastern United States.
The East Fork of the Greenbrier and West Fork both begin above 3,300 feet in the northernmost mountains of Pocahontas County. They merge near the community of Durbin as the largest river in the county. The early pioneers recognized the value of the Greenbrier and many settlements arose along its banks. It provided water resources, food and transportation.
When commercial timber harvesting came to West Virginia, the river became the mode of transportation for getting logs to sawmills. Great “log drives” were part of the Greenbrier’s history and have been immortalized in several books including Riders of the Flood by W.E. Blackhurst.
Today the Greenbrier provides unlimited recreational opportunities for residents and visitors. Anglers may try their skills on trout in the upper region or cast for a variety of warm water fish in the middle and lower region. There are numerous access areas for launching of boats, canoes, kayaks, tubes and other floating devices. In the warmer months the river is filled in some areas with swimmers and waders.
The Greenbrier River Trail, a West Virginia state park, parallels the river for 77 miles beginning at the logging town of Cass and extending south to Caldwell in Greenbrier County. It crosses 35 bridges and passes through two tunnels. It is available to bicyclers, hikers and horsemen but no motorized vehicles are allowed. It gives access to some of the most scenic and historic areas of the county. (See www.greenbrierrivertrail.com)
A popular event in Marlinton in April combines the Greenbrier River and the Greenbrier River Trail in a mini-triathlon. It begins with a three mile run on the trail, a four mile paddle down the river, and closes with a 10 mile bike ride on the trail. There are individual and team awards. This race draws hundreds of participants and hundreds more to watch. It is a great family event.
The Greenbrier goes on to join the New River after traveling 173 miles from its source in Pocahontas County.
The eight rivers of Pocahontas County make a significant contribution to the county but also to the economy of much of the rest of West Virginia. They are truly the irreplaceable treasures of the county and state.
Guard them well.