Dog Creek Mill
Water flowing out of that rock wall is Dog Creek, the beginning of the only section of the New that’s officially Wild and Scenic.
I knew I shouldn’t do it.
It was a tight target, just about a kayak wide. A little to the right and I was going over a ledge into a hole if I didn’t get hung up on the rocks first. Left of that, a wave churned in what looked like the perfect boat-wrecking motion. Going left of the wave meant skipping across rocks, and maybe skipping into that big one at the end.
But there was a little slot, very near that wave, just big enough to fit a kayak through if a person could hit it at the right angle.
We all discussed it. We pointed and talked and hypothesized. George Santucci and Joe Murphy and Mike Horne and Mike Boone decided the reasonable thing to do was to skip the big drop altogether. They picked their way through the rocks and ledges that stretch across the river.
I’d paddled an identical boat through that spot 12 months earlier, but you never paddle the same river twice. The Brooks Falls I was looking at that day had less water than the Brooks Falls I’d crossed the summer before and that changed everything.
The line I took into the falls was too far to the left. Or maybe I swung too hard to the right just before I hit that wave. Or maybe I didn’t cut hard enough. Or maybe the hole in that little ridge of furious looking water simply wasn’t as big as I thought it was.
When I bobbed back to the surface, one Mike was tossing me a line from the rocks along the riverbank. The other Mike was helping George catch my kayak. Joe was kind enough to take pictures.
They came out a little blurry.
My first unintentional swim in the New River came four days before the end of the National Committee for the New River’s 2010 New River Expedition, roughly three weeks and 300 river miles from where we’d put our boats into the South Fork of the New in Boone, N.C.
People have been paddling the New for a long time. The “New River Atlas” tells of three brothers about to go off to college in 1901. Craving one last adventure together, they built a row boat and set off from their home near Crumpler, N.C., headed for Hinton, W.Va., 200 miles away.
A few years before “Deliverance” became a movie, four friends from Hinton were convinced a pair of dams were about to turn much of the New into more than 40,000 acres of lake. So they put their aluminum canoes in the South Fork near Idlewild, N.C., and paddled nearly 250 miles back home.
The National Committee for the New River’s Expeditions grew out of a trip organized by an outfitter and fishing guide named Shawn Hash. In 2008, Hash carried a commemorative wooden paddle from Boone to Hinton to mark the 10th anniversary of the New River’s being declared an American Heritage River. The trip was timed so the paddle arrived at river festivals along the way. To keep that schedule, kayaks and canoes were sometimes hauled along highways instead of paddled through rapids.
The next year, the National Committee organized the trip and it covered virtually every inch of the river between Boone and Gauley Bridge – about 345 river miles. Last summer’s trip skipped some sections, so the group logged only 243 river miles.
Getting into the New at different spots is like getting into different rivers. The Gorge is famous for whitewater, but the North Carolina’s section is calm. A canoe leaving Boone can float nearly 100 miles before getting to a rapid big enough to deserve a name. On the way, that canoe would pass an old mill where Dog Creek joins the South Fork, the beginning of the 26-mile section that both North Carolina and the federal government have declared Wild and Scenic. That designation ended the dam plan those men from Hinton were worried about.
The National Park Service has decided another piece of the New qualifies as Wild and Scenic – nearly 20 miles, from Glen Lyn, Va. to West Virginia’s Bluestone Lake. The designation would start near Shumate Falls, the first in a series of batteaux sluices cut by the Corps of Engineers in the 19th century. According to Dan Crawford, former lead interpreter at Explore Park’s batteaux site, these cargo boats that worked on the New from 1819 until 1936 were from 40 to 75 feet long. They could float in as little as 12 inches of water and carry as much as 12 tons of cargo. The cuts the Corps of Engineers made for those boats make lines of standing waves for kayakers to play in.
Eagles and ospreys patrol overhead. Hellbenders – muscular, toothy salamanders that can be 30 or more inches log – rest beneath river bottom ledges, waiting for night.
The Park Service said this section shouldn’t be designated Wild and Scenic because there’s not enough local support.
Soon after that 2009 report came out, community organizations and local and state elected officials said they’re all for the designation.
Nothing’s happened yet.
The brothers who paddled the New 110 years ago saw the river’s first hydroelectric dam under construction. Now there are seven dams. The one at Hawks Nest, just a few miles from the river’s end, reroutes the river into a three-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain so it can generate power for a chemical plant. The section of the river beyond the dam is called the Dries because the New virtually disappears until it flows back out of the mountain near Gauley Bridge. Sometimes, dam releases turn the Dries into raging whitewater, bigger and wilder than anything else on the New. They used to be like that all the time.
It rained so much the night before the last leg of last summer’s trip that when we paddled into the Dries, it was like paddling a river bed. Boulders the size of branch banks, worn smooth as skipping stones, hid miniature coves with tiny sand beaches sheltered from rapids that are shadows of shadows of what they’d be without that dam.
When the trip ended at Gauley Bridge, Mike Horne said spending time on the river is the only way to appreciate its power. He’s talking about more than the current. Horne liked to drift behind the group to get time alone with the river.
“In those places where there’s no other sound except the water and the mountains and the environment around you and you just have that moment to feel the river and feel the experience,” he says, “those are true spiritual moments.”
Want to float the new?
Armed with a grant from the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge big enough to pay for most of his gas, some of his food and an occasional camping spot, writer and public radio reporter Tim Thornton spent about four weeks of last summer traveling the New River with the National Committee for the New River’s 2010 New River Expedition to make a radio documentary about the trip. The NCNR is planning another expedition this summer. Paddlers are welcome to join for a day or the duration of the July float. For information: ncnr.org.
Lost Towns of the New River
It’s easier to find Sewell on a map than in real life.
I’m looking at it right now. On a Park Service map of the New River Gorge, Sewell is a black dot on the river’s edge across from the Cunard boat landing. To get there, you have to beach your boat river right and head back into the trees. Cross the railroad track. Follow the snaking path through the head-high, bee-covered blossoms, then head back up river. Before long, you’ll see them. Stacks of rocks that used to be foundations for houses and shops and all the buildings that used to make up a village.
Welcome to Sewell.
People go into the New River Gorge now mostly for fun of one sort or another. But when the 19th century was steaming into the 20th, and for a good many years after that, people came here to get coal. Towns dotted the riverside every mile or so through the gorge.
Sewell. Quinnimont. Glade. Kaymoor. Tiny towns with train tracks for main streets. The only way in or out was by train. Or boat. Or a long hike through steep woods.
There are still people who remember the days when a boy could climb onto a train with a dollar, pay for the ride to another town along the river, see a movie, buy a tin roof – you likely call it a sundae – and ride the train back home.
Some of those towns are like Sewell now, stacks of rocks poking up from the forest floor, bits of rails among the leaves, a row of slowly decaying coke furnaces down by what’s now CSX’s rail line.
Other towns have fared a little better. All four of Thurmond’s registered voters turned out for the last presidential election – a rear guard of residents clinging to a hillside above what used to be the most profitable town on the C&O line.
Capt. W. D. Thurmond came to own 73 acres on the New River’s banks in 1873. They were payment for a surveying job. That was also the year the C&O completed its mainline through the gorge.
More than a decade would pass before the first coal came out of the gorge. That’s when Thurmond really began to bustle. But Thurmond wasn’t a coal town. It was a railroad town. It’s where engines and cars were serviced. The Hotel Thurmond was built in 1891, the same year as the depot. In 1910, Thurmond was the biggest money-making depot in the C&O Railway’s network. It moved 75,000 passengers and more freight – mostly coal and timber – than Cincinnati and Richmond combined. The town had two hotels, two banks, a movie house, restaurants, stores, offices and a population of about 500.
Capt. Thurmond was a devout Baptist, so when his town was incorporated in 1903, its charter outlawed drinking and gambling within the town limits.
That created a business opportunity for the Dunglen Hotel, just across the river from Thurmond. The Dunglen was technically in the town of Glen Jean. It was miles from the rest of Glen Jean, but extending the town limits to surround the hotel ensured that it wouldn’t become part of Thurmond and fall under the town’s dry, anti-gambling charter. So the Dunglen helped Thurmond earn its nickname, “The Dodge City of the East.”
The Dunglen was renowned for providing all sorts of entertainment Capt. Thurmond wouldn’t approve of, and it’s famous for hosting a poker game that lasted more than 13 years.
Thurmond’s boom ran for decades. But the Dunglen burned in 1930. The National Bank of Thurmond failed a year later. Other fires claimed more buildings. The railroad changed from steam locomotives to diesels in 1958 and Thurmond’s main reason to exist evaporated. The railroad’s offices closed in 1984, the post office in 1995.
But Thurmond is not completely dead. The restored train depot is a visitors center manned by the National Park Service. Displays upstairs tell the town’s history. What’s left of downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places and the subject of a walking tour. It stood in for Matewan in the John Sayles movie of the same name.
And the first whitewater rafting operation in the gorge? It started just across the river, where the Dunglen Hotel used to stand.