River boats on the Little Kanawha

If you think that American river boats only navigated great rivers like the Mississippi, come to the Fair at the Crossroads at Kump Center August 31st to see models of the river boats that once traveled up and down the Little Kanawha in Gilmer County.

From 1823 until 1940 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told river runners in Gilmer County that the Little Kanawha was “non-navigable,” sternwheelers carried passengers and pushed barges up and down the river. Of course, river maintenance was always a struggle because droughts, floods, and ice jams often sabotaged the process, but locks and dams made travel possible.

“The Gainer 1” was a sternwheeler owned by Blair Gainer 1920-1931. It carried 65 passengers between Gilmer Station, (end point for B&O Railroad) leaving at 6:00 a.m., arriving in Glenville by 11:00, and returning at 1:00 p.m. Passengers paid $2.00 to travel each way. The original river boat was made in Creston; the model was made by Bo Shuman and given to his niece, Margaret Moss who served as the librarian at Gilmer County Historical Society in the late 1990s.

Mr. Shuman also gave his niece a model of “The Flora B” and a matching barge painted red, white and blue. Sternwheelers like “Flora B” pushed 100 foot barges on the Little Kanawha and carried freight such as coal, lumber, pipe casing, salt, and even the US mail.

In addition to these little river boats, Jim Bailey of the Gilmer County Historical in Glenville, sent foam-board montages with historic photographs and descriptions of life on the river for display at Kump Center.

The timber business always used water transportation. Logs were piled up to wait for high water. Each log was branded with the mark of its owner and shoved into a stream when the water was high. Booms built at the mouth of Little Kanawha tributaries caught logs. Operators got 25 cents for each log. Building the rafts and running the river was dangerous work, but saw mills sprang up in the 1830s, and milling timber into railroad ties was a major industry by 1860.

The wharf at Glenville served students from the Normal School starting in 1872. For $2.50 students could travel with their trunks and have them delivered to their dorm rooms. Church goers often traveled on the river to Job’s Temple. Some families lived on shanty boats and nearly froze to death during the West Virginia winters.