August 1, Sunday: Today started out overcast and cool; we were hoping for a sunny day to do the New River Gorge. However, the sun was trying mightily to come out, and by gum (and chew it as old Mr. Bennett used to say) it made it by about 1:00.
We drove north from Beckley to the New River Gorge Bridge, an engineering marvel. It is the longest single arch bridge and the second highest in North America. The span is 3030.5’ long and the arch is 1700’ long. The rise of the arch (from where it’s anchored on the mountain side) is 360’ and it rises 876’ from the river. The rise from the river is higher than 2 Statues of Liberty on top of the Washington Monument. It really is impressive. The bridge took over 4 years to build, was completed in 1977, used 44 million pounds of steel, and cost $37 million to build.
The river itself is another story. The New starts in Blowing Rock, NC, and flows north to meet the Gauley where they join to form the Kanawha River that flows into the Ohio. It is one of the oldest rivers in North America. 65 million years ago the New was a longer river, called the Teays by geologists, and flowed through central Ohio and westward into the Mississippi. About 10,000 years ago the last glacial ice buried most of the Teays and diverted water of the New into the Ohio and Kanawha. The New River was there before the Appalachians were formed, and they are considered the oldest mountains in N.A.
After we looked around the visitor center, we took the scenic drive down into the gorge so we could see the bridge from below. If you’ve followed any of our other travels, you know that scenic drives attract us and we usually have some kind of adventure or other. On the Cheyenne trip we did two of them; one we both agreed to turn around rather than continue, and on the other one we agreed that we really needed a car because the road was so narrow the rear wheels of the truck just (and I mean just) fit on the little wooden bridges that crossed the creek. The Fayette Station Road was at least paved, but it was so narrow that it was only one way for most of the trip. This 100 year-old winding road takes you down into the gorge. Until 1977, it was the main road from one side of the gorge to the other.
Until the C&O railroad was completed in 1873 along the New River, the gorge was inaccessible. The railroad linked Newport News to Cincinnati and towns west. After the railroad was built, many small mining and lumbering towns sprang up along the river. By the early 1900s, thousands of people lived in the gorge, and most of them were miners. By 1905, thirteen towns had sprung up between Fayette Station Road and Thurmond 15 miles upstream, or about one town per mile.
Here are some coal statistics: before 1930, 500 million tons of coal had been mined – all one shovelful at a time. In 1927, 28% of the nation’s coal came from West Virginia, more than was produced in PA. In the 1920s, a single miner could mine about 10 tons of coal in a day, mostly working on hands and knees or lying on his side.
So we started down into the gorge. The road was windy with many hairpin turns. You know the New is a favorite of white water rafters, so we saw a number of buses (school bus type) coming down to pick up the rafters. The hairpins were so tight the buses couldn’t make the turn. They went part way around, backed up, and then made the rest of the turn. A couple of times, Larry was so close to the edge of the road on my side that I closed by eyes and leaned into the center of the truck. I’m not a good traveler on narrow mountain roads. But Larry is a good driver, and we never went over the edge.
At the bottom we crossed the old bridge that before 1977 was the only way to cross the river at this point. It’s an interesting one lane bridge that is “paved” with two by fours placed on edge. And boy does it shake when the buses cross it. We drove on down the road a little bit and pulled off at a spot where we could sit on rocks by the river and eat our picnic lunch. We sat and watched a lot of rafters float down and take the rapids. They told us the trains still run along the river, and they weren’t kidding. During the short time we were there, at least 4 trains came along mostly made up of empty coal cars.
After about an hour enjoying the river, we drove up the other side and headed back to Beckley. We started to take some of the little back roads, but decided we needed to get on our way. But we definitely have to come back and see the areas and old towns along the river that we didn’t have time for this trip. And there are about 2 more visitor centers along the gorge that we need to see.