When we think of the big rivers now in West Virginia, the first ones that come to mind are the Ohio, the Potomac and the Great Kanawha. These streams are small compared to a great river in what was prehistoric West Virginia.
Between two and three million years ago, a great river flowed through southern West Virginia. In length and grandeur, it was just as majestic as the Nile. This prehistoric river flowed for nearly 1,000 miles from the heart of Appalachia to the Midwestern United States. In its course, the now mighty Mississippi was a tributary.
The Teays River (pronounced Taze) was a pre-glacial river that drained much of the Ohio River Valley. Its headwaters were the streams that drained the Appalachian Mountains. It originated near what is now Blowing Rock, N.C. This mighty river flowed almost due north across Virginia and West Virginia where its course is marked by the valleys of the modern New River (a misnomer because the New River is very old) and the Kanawha River. Just north of St. Albans, the Teays broke away from where the Kanawha flows and went due west to Wheelersburg, Ohio, and then northward to Chillicothe, Ohio. This valley segment of this ancient stream is clearly visible on satellite imagery.
The Teays River was destroyed nearly 2 million years ago by glacier activity. The edge of a glacier created a massive dam that blocked this great river in central Ohio and created a major lake that covered most of southern Ohio along with parts of Kentucky and West Virginia. Historians believe that this ancient lake was nearly as large as modern Lake Erie.
This lake was named Lake Tight in honor of the pioneering study of the Teays system by Denison University Professor William G. Tight. Lake Tight is estimated to have existed for about 6,500 years.
The waters of Lake Tight rose to an elevation to breach its blockage and create new drainage channels. This event marked the beginning of the modern Ohio River drainage system.
There is debate among scholars about the exact location where the Teays flowed in Indiana and Illinois. Most researchers agree that it emptied into a valley in southern Illinois that was a northward arm of the Gulf of Mexico.
The Teays River is long gone, but its ancient bed still affects life today. any communities and industries lying atop the empty Teays River channel tap into the sand and gravel that yield an abundance of fresh water for needed supplies.