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Lower Ohio and Kanawha Valleys

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The far southwestern section of West Virginia contains some of the state's earliest documented sites of human occupation, largely along the fertile Ohio and Kanawha river lowlands. American settlers followed the examples these prehistoric inhabitants had set centuries earlier by putting down stakes where they had and by establishing their own agricultural economy.

Near Point Pleasant, where the two rivers meet, George Washington obtained huge tracts of land totaling over 20,000 acres. He received them in fulfillment of a long-standing promise Virginia's governor had made to grant land to soldiers who served voluntarily in the colonial military. Washington surveyed the area in the fall of 1770, but he was hardly in the vanguard, witness the November 17 entry in his diary: “The people from Virginia and elsewhere, are exploring and Marking all the Lands that are valuable not only on Redstone and other waters of Monongahela but along down the Ohio as low as the little Kanawha, and by next Summer I suppose will get to the great Kanawha, at least.”

In 1775, after an earlier attempt ended in failure, Washington attempted to “seat” a 10,990-acre tract on the south side of the Kanawha, upstream from Point Pleasant. At the time, the tract was within the bounds of Virginia's no longer extant Fincastle County, and on April 2, 1776, James Cleveland, whom Washington had sent to manage the project, appeared before the county court to testify, for tax purposes, on the improvements he had made. According to the records, he and his workers had built some thirteen houses. The largest were a “dwelling house 44 × 16 ft, 2 rooms below & 2 above, a passage 12 ft wide,” and a building “intended for a barn 46 × 16 with stables on the broad side.” Unfortunately, this early settlement soon disappeared from the written record, and no traces of it remain on site. The Revolution and subsequent events left Washington no time to tend it. He may well have recalled the abortive settlement when he related, several years before his death: “… from the experience of many years, I have found distant property in land more pregnant of perplexities than profit.”

The Ohio River became the boundary not just between western Virginia and the Northwest Territory; once Virginia ceded its claims to lands north of the river after the Revolution, it became the boundary between slave and free states, as much a Mason-Dixon line as the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland. As settlement developed on both sides of the watery dividing line, commentators began to observe differences between the Virginia and Ohio shores: witness Zadok Cramer, writing in the August 1814 issue of the Western Gleaner:

There was a plain contrast between the different sides of the river, arising from slavery being forbid on one, and tolerated on the other.… There is nothing more true than that it takes many cottages to make a palace. On the Virginia side there were some good houses at remote distances from each other, but accompanied by the negro quarters. On the other side neat cottages and comfortable cabins were to be seen at every little remove along the river.… We several times stopped at the dwellings of the Virginia planters, in order to procure some necessary supplies, but were compelled to retire in disappointment; on the other side we scarcely ever went amiss.

So much for fabled southern hospitality!

Even as late as 1842, according to a noted English visitor, the area remained largely underdeveloped. Charles Dickens reported on his trip down the Ohio from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati in his American Notes:

Occasionally, we stop for a few minutes, maybe to take in wood, maybe for passengers, at some small town or village (I ought to say city, every place is a city here); but the banks are for the most part deep solitudes.… For miles, and miles, and miles, these solitudes are unbroken by any sign of human life or trace of human footstep.… At lengthened intervals a log-cabin, with its little space of cleared land about it, nestles under a rising ground, and sends its thread of blue smoke curling up into the sky. It stands in the corner of the poor field of wheat, which is full of great unsightly stumps, like earthy butchers'-blocks. Sometimes the ground is only just now cleared: the felled trees lying yet upon the soil: and the log-house only this morning begun. As we pass this clearing, the settler leans upon his axe or hammer, and looks wistfully at the people from the world.

That pastoral existence changed abruptly after the city of Huntington was established in 1871 as the western terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. With rail transportation now augmenting the rivers, the economy soon moved from an agricultural base to one dependent on industry. Huntington grew large and rich by tapping its coal and timber-laden hinterlands, first along the upper stretches of the Guyandotte River and then farther afield along the Big Sandy and Tug Fork rivers, which form the boundary between West Virginia and Kentucky. From 1930 until 1950 Huntington was West Virginia's largest city. It remains the region's urban center and contains some of its most important architectural resources. Huge industrial and chemical plants alongside the Ohio and Kanawha rivers dominate their immediate landscapes, as do mammoth power plants that constantly emit white fumes. Still, here and there the countryside and its buildings are reminiscent of earlier times.

Writing Credits

S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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