The only thing “new” about West Virginia’s New River Gorge is its national park status: In 2021, the New River Gorge became our latest national park, but in geologic terms, the New River is anything but new. Dating back to the days of the supercontinent Pangaea, it is one of the oldest rivers in the world and one of the few waterways in North America that runs north.
A lot can happen when a river keeps its course for over 300 million years. The New River’s unusual north–south orientation serves as a corridor for animal migration, fueling a biodiversity hot spot that is home to an impressive array of endemic species, many of them endangered.
Millions of years of fluvial erosion have also carved a deep gorge lined by long tracts of bituminous coal and steep cliffs of quartzite sandstone. In the late 1800s, dozens of coal mines and company towns were built along the New’s raging river canyon, accessible only by railroad. Today their vine-covered ruins are being reclaimed by the regenerating forest, and the ecological impacts of mining and deforestation on the New River’s watershed are slowly healing.
A mere 30 kilometers from the New, however, deep scars blasted into the landscape by modern mountaintop removal mining operations may prove more or less permanent, even on geologic timescales.
New River, Old Course
“The New River might be the most inappropriately named river on Earth,” said Nathaniel Hitt, a fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Kearneysville, W.Va.
The New was born when the North American and African plates collided to form the supercontinent Pangaea. The impact uplifted the Appalachian Mountains to Himalayan heights, and a mighty river named the Teays formed to drain the western slopes of the range. From its headwaters in what is now western North Carolina, the Teays flowed north through the Virginias before turning west into the Ohio River Basin, eventually draining into a vast inland sea.
Today the New River begins in the same headwaters carved by the Teays and follows roughly the same northward path. “These headwaters and this basin have remained in their current configurations for over 300 million years of evolutionary time,” Hitt said.
Around 60 million years ago, the diagonally trending ridges of the Appalachians went through a period of uplift, but the highly erosive Teays kept cutting into the mountains faster than the uplift rate. Thus, the river’s south-to-north course runs counter to the west-to-east flow of most Appalachian waterways, carving a formidable 400-meter-deep river canyon directly through the Appalachian Plateau.
The 580-kilometer-long New River carves the longest and deepest canyon in the Appalachian Mountains; the new 295-square-kilometer national park and preserve is headquartered along an 85-kilometer stretch of the river near Fayetteville, W.Va.
A Speciation Superhighway
Downstream—to the north—the New joins the Gauley to form the Kanawha River. Just downstream from this confluence, the wide and turbulent Kanawha Falls present a natural barrier to migration, leading to many aquatic species above and below the falls being genetically distinct from one another.
For instance, “when you look at the fish of the New River, you’re seeing how evolution plays out over long geologic timescales,” Hitt said. “The New River highlights the potential of deep evolutionary time to produce uniquely adapted species.” The New River Basin is home to seven endemic species of fish—fish that are found nowhere else on Earth. These fish are uniquely adapted to thrive in turbulent white water and have lived through several major extinction events and an ice age that froze the northern reaches of their habitat.
The New’s deep canyons also function as a biogeographical corridor for terrestrial animals, facilitating north–south movement in a landscape where most valleys run east–west. The New River Gorge’s unusual orientation “lies at the core of one of the largest intact temperate forests in the world,” said Douglas Manning, a terrestrial ecologist at the national park. “The gorge has a lot of niche habitats for different organisms to occupy,” supporting a diverse assemblage of plants, mammals, birds, and aquatic species.
Whereas the New River allows for north–south migration, its steep and rugged topography presents a significant barrier to east–west movement. Historically, even humans have found the New a formidable obstacle. The turbulent waters are not safe for most river-based transportation, and steep cliffs can impede navigation on foot or horseback.
Although people have been living in southern West Virginia for at least 11,000 years, the main travel routes of early Indigenous communities “were not through the gorge, because it’s so circuitous and dangerous to travel along the river,” said Dave Fuerst, cultural resource program manager for the park. “They were using routes that went around the gorge, following ridges and stream drainages.” Communities thrived in the ecologically rich area, however, and today more than 400 archaeological sites are documented along the New, Gauley, and Bluestone Rivers, connected by an elaborate network of footpaths.
It wasn’t until the completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railway in 1873 that people were able to travel the length of the gorge efficiently. Even then, east–west travel across the gorge remained harrowing until 1977, when the New River Gorge Bridge was completed just east of Fayetteville, shortening the cross-gorge travel time from over an hour to less than a minute. This impressive 923-meter-long steel arched span soars 267 meters above the New, making it one of the highest vehicular bridges in the world.
Coal Mining in My Mitochondria
The rock layers exposed by the New River span over 350 million years. Historically, the most sought-after layers in the gorge were bituminous coal, a relatively soft black coal that burns readily, producing little smoke. These layers date to the Pennsylvanian subperiod of the Carboniferous, when vast swamps covered large regions of the globe, producing thick layers of peat that eventually formed coal.
The downward cutting of the New River did a lot of the work to expose bituminous coal seams along the gorge. After the C&O railroad was finished, dozens of coal mines sprang up along the New. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, miners hacked millions of tons of coal from the walls of the gorge. The work was brutal, and the pay was around 45 cents a ton. Strong miners could earn $2.00 a day.
For a time, New River coal was one of the most abundant on the market, fueling everything from steel mills to power plants. More than 60 coal towns were built along the New River to support the mines. Some of these towns boasted hundreds of buildings and were home to thousands of people.
My family history runs deep in these New River mining towns: The town of Caperton was named for one of my relatives, my maternal great-grandmother was born in Fire Creek, and my paternal grandparents lived and worked in Ames, where New River Gorge Bridge pylons now stand on the east side of the gorge. When my dad was 2 years old, the family moved to Fayetteville, on the west side of the gorge, where my uncle still lives in the family home.
I spent the summers of my childhood exploring the woods and creeks around the gorge, hunting for salamanders and seashell fossils from a long-gone ocean that predates the Appalachians. Every time I visit the New, I feel like a salmon returning to its home stream; I imagine my great-grandmother’s mitochondria in my cells vibrating in tune with one of the world’s oldest rivers. I’ve hiked all over the New River Gorge, visiting the overgrown sites and ruins of Ames, Kaymoor, and Nuttallburg, but I have not yet made it farther upriver to Caperton or Fire Creek. Someday an anadromous upriver backpacking trip awaits (although I have no plans to spawn).
Making the Leap from Coal Mining to BASE Jumping
All of the mines and coal towns in the New River Gorge were abandoned by the 1960s, and today the still-inaccessible ghost towns are fading into the rapidly regenerating forest.
“The New River Gorge faces a lot of legacy impacts from all sorts of land use history in the gorge,” Manning said. Vast areas of forest were stripped of trees to fuel the coal towns’ woodstoves and coke ovens, and timber operations in the gorge continued for decades after mining operations ceased.
“If you look at photos from around the turn of the century and the Great Depression, [you will see that] the forest here was stripped bare,” said Eve West, chief of interpretation at the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. And now, “this is considered to be the most botanically diverse river system in the central and southern Appalachians. There’s not a lot of virgin forest here, so that’s all come from regrowth in the past 50 years. This place bounces back fast.”
Regrowth and resiliency are proving to be a hallmark of this landscape and for its people. Two generations removed from the dark and dangerous coal mines, I find myself drawn upward, to the New River’s second most famous rock: Nuttall sandstone, a hard, quartz-rich variety that erodes into vertical cliffs with thin cracks perfect for rock climbing.
More than 1,400 traditional and sport climbing routes snake up the walls of the gorge, making it one of the premiere climbing localities in the eastern United States. I cut my teeth on these rocks in more ways than one; in 2008, fresh out of graduate school with a newly minted master’s degree in science journalism, one of my very first assignments was to cover the New River Rendezvous, an annual 3-day rock climbing festival in the gorge, for Climbing magazine.
I have not yet rafted the raging rapids of the highly technical New River. Even after braving 22 glorious days rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, I am still intimidated by the New’s legendary hydraulics.
I have even less desire to try the gorge’s other adrenaline-fueled sport: BASE (buildings, antennas, spans, and Earth) jumping from the New River Gorge Bridge into the river, 267 meters below. Watching dozens of people eagerly leap from the dizzying span on Bridge Day is enough of a rush for me.
The New River’s potential as an adventurer’s paradise is still expanding, with new mountain biking and hiking trails added every year. In 2019, around 1.3 million people recreated at the New, and tourism now drives Fayetteville’s once-faltering economy. “The New River Gorge is a fascinating place—geologically, ecologically, and historically—in a majestic setting,” Hitt said. “I hope people will be inspired by this elevated [national park] designation to come visit.”
We All Live Downstream
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve encompasses almost 295 square kilometers of land around the river corridor, but the New River’s entire watershed is more than 18,000 square kilometers. “One of the ongoing challenges is that we can protect and manage the gorge itself, but we don’t own the headwaters upstream,” where the river is “undoubtedly” still affected by ongoing mining, Manning said.
The New River’s upstream watershed includes mountaintop removal mining, in which the tops of entire mountains are removed to access buried coal seams, and the overburden is pushed into a neighboring valley, destroying thousands of kilometers of mountain streams. Across southern West Virginia, 1.5 million acres of land have been affected by mountaintop removal mining operations, which have buried more than 3,200 kilometers of streams in rubble, a tactic called valley fill.
As groundwater trickles through the jumbled subsurface of a valley fill, it picks up minerals, metals, and salts from the debris, increasing the salt and mineral content of the water downstream. A 2014 study by Hitt and colleagues in Freshwater Science found “fewer species, lower abundances, and less biomass” downstream from mining operations.
Trees seem to be the key in kick-starting the healing process. “We’ve found that restoring trees to the postmining landscape helps restore the hydrologic function” within a matter of years to decades, said Chris Barton, a forest hydrologist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Trees pull a lot of water out of the groundwater system, keeping it from mobilizing minerals, salts, and pollutants.
“As the forest regrows, we’re seeing a return to the natural hydrology of these sites, along with improvements in the water quality that [are] needed to support aquatic life,” Barton said.
One reforestation project, at a former mountaintop removal mine that was replanted in 2009, went from looking like “the surface of the Moon” to a lush green forest in less than a decade, Barton said. Last year, Barton observed minnows in the stream he and his team created out of the moonscape of rubble.
Even with restoration and reforestation, the scars left on the landscape by mountaintop removal mining are permanent, Barton said. “Reforesting helps hide the scars, but they’re still there. I do wonder about how erosion over geologic timescales will work on those valleys filled with loose, unconsolidated rock,” he said. “It seems likely they will erode much faster than the mountains themselves” and may result in deep gorges and holes in the landscape.
In terms of pollution, the legacy of mining in Appalachia will linger essentially forever, said Margaret Palmer, a restoration ecologist at the University of Maryland. “Replanting offers the best hope for restoring stream biodiversity, but no matter what you do, it’s crystal clear that mining poisons streams and that mined land will continue to release toxins into the ecosystem in perpetuity.”
With a 300-million-year history, the New is no stranger to perpetuity. The river’s deeply entrenched course is likely to stay that way for eons longer, perhaps until the North American continent is reconfigured into a new landmass in a few hundred million years. The New’s steady presence may prove crucial to plant and animal species as climate change progresses, Manning said, because species are projected to migrate north in response to warming temperatures.
“The New represents one of the most direct avenues for species migration in the Appalachian Mountains,” he said. “In the future, I can see the New River Gorge harboring species on their northward migration. I think we’ll see how important and resilient the forests of the Appalachians really are, as landscapes and climate continue to change.”
Mary Caperton Morton (@theblondecoyote), Science Writer
Living in Geologic Time is a series of personal accounts that highlight the past, present, and future of famous landmarks on geologic timescales.