the New River starts in North Carolina, flows through Virginia west of the Blue Ridge, then crosses into West Virginia
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Streamer
The New River starts near Blowing Rock in North Carolina, then drops 900 feet in elevation as it crosses Virginia from the North Carolina border to West Virginia. At its confluence with the Gauley River, the New River ends and the Kanawha River starts. Just downstream of the confluence is Kanawha Falls, a 15' high barrier to both shipping and fish migration. Other rapids on the New River limited its suitability for transporting goods downstream to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
rapids made it difficult to ship agricultural products via the New River to New Orleans
Source: "The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Directory, Containing an Illustrated History and Description of the Road," Running the Rapids of the New River (p.396)
The New River is often described as the "second oldest river" in the world, after the Nile. That claim is based on the assumption that the New River cuts completely through the Appalachian Mountains, so the river must have been powerful enough to retain its ancient direction as the mountains were uplifted over 200 million years ago.
However, as noted by the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey, the New River headwaters are high in the Appalachians but not completely east of them. The age of the river could range between 3 million-320 million years, based on five different ways to measure:1
eight other rivers have headwaters in the Appalachians and flow west, cutting though the ancient uplifted bedrock
Source: West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey
The oldest river in the world is often reported to be the Nile, but that river channel dates back only 30 million years based on the age of sediments in its delta. The Finke River in Australia could be 350-400 million years old, with the river flowing in its current channel for the last 100 million years. The Meuse in France could date back 320-340 million years as well.2
Many of the arguments used to describe the New River as "second oldest" could be applied easily to the French Broad River in North Carolina and the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. They also cut through Appalachian Mountain ridges, but the age of the rocks in those ridges is not equivalent to the age of the river channel.
Erosion since the Alleghenian Orogeny has removed thousands of feet of rock, and the river could have wandered in many directions during the downcutting process. The ridges through which the New River now runs may have been exhumed by erosion just a few million years ago. An ancient ancestor of the New River could have flowed in another direction before cutting into those ridges as they were initially exposed, prior to getting locked into the current channel. Until a reliable technique emerges for dating river channels worldwide, all claims that the New River is the world's second oldest are speculative.3
Today's New River follows the path of the ancient Teays River. The Teays River flowed north of what is now Indianapolis, then westward to intercept the Mississippi River somewhere north of modern St. Louis near Springfield, Illinois.
the route of the Teays River was identified in 1946
Source: Ohio Journal of Science, The Teays River (Karl Ver Steeg, Volume 46 Number 6, November, 1946)
During the last glaciation, a thick ice sheet covered the northern part of the Teays River, blocking its flow and filling the northern part of the river valley with glacial silt. Runoff from the southern edge of that ice sheet carved the channel of the modern Ohio River. The Teays River was truncated, ending at what is now called Point Pleasant in West Virginia. The ice sheet made dating the age of the river more difficult, because it removed the oldest sediments which had been deposited in the delta at the mouth of the original channel.
Upstream from the Ohio River through the area not covered by glacial ice, the old Teays River channel is called the Kanawha River. That name is applied for just a brief distance above the major falls to the beginning of the Kanawha River, where the New River and the Gauley River flow together.4
beyond the Ohio River, the old Teays River channel is largely buried under glacial silt
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Geological and Geophysical Study of the Preglacial Teays Valley in West-Central Ohio (Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 1460-E, Figure 16)
There is much speculation but no clear evidence explaining why New River ended up as the name.
The first Europeans to document the existence of the New River were fur traders Thomas Batts (Batte) and Robert Fallam. They named it "Woods River" after the Abraham Wood.
by 1755, it was clear that the Wood or New River stretched from south of the Virginia-North Carolina to the Ohio River
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the British and French dominions in North America (John Mitchell, 1755)
Some claim that they did not initially recognize the river and wrote "new river" on their map, but that story could be as much entertainment as fact.5
in 1755, the river flowing from North Carolina through Virginia to the Ohio River was labeled the Conhaway (later spelled Kanawha)
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the British and French settlements in North America
in 1785, "Wood River" was still used to describe what is known today as the New River
Source: Library of Congress, The United States of North America, with the British & Spanish territories according to the treaty of 1784
The steady flow of the New River and topographic relief offered mechanical energy to power the textile mills that moved from Massachusetts and other northeastern states to the southern states, taking advantage of cheap labor in the region after the Civil War. Col. Fields J. McMillian built a mill on Wilson Creek in 1884, spurring development of the town known as Mouth of Wilson. In 1901, Colonel Francis Fries built a 39' high dam across the New River to provide mechanical energy to the Washington Mills, which converted cotton into cloth until closing in 1989.6
the Town of Fries (pronounced "freeze") was started in 1901 when Col. Fries built a 39' high dam across the New River to power the Washington Mills
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
the Norfolk and Western Railroad built a line up the New River from Pulaski to service mines and mills, and much of that roadbed is now New River Trail State Park
Source: Library of Congress, Railway mail map of Virginia (by Earl P. Hopkins, 1910)
In 1912, the Appalachian Power Company built two hydropower dams at Byllesby and Buck in Carroll County to produce electricity for local factories, mines, homes, and the coal fields around Bluefield, WV. The natural island at Buck Dam was used to channel the river flow into a 1,000-foot long concrete spillway. Demand was sufficiently high to justify constructing over 400 miles of transmission lines. Appalachian Power still uses Byllesby Dam to generate up to 21.6MW of hydropower, while Buck can generate 8.5MW.7
50' high Byllesby Dam under construction
Source: Library of Virginia, Byllesby Dam Photograph Collection
Appalachian Power Company built two hydropower dams across the New River in Carroll County in 1912, creating the Fowler's Ferry reservoir between Byllesby Dam and Buck Dam downstream
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The claim that the New River is the "second oldest" in the world was highlighted when the Appalachian Power Co. proposed to build a pumped-storage project on the New River near Mouth of Wilson in Grayson County. The Blue Ridge Project would have generated 1800MW of electricity.
Appalachian Power planned to construct two reservoirs, comparable to what the company built on the Roanoke River to create Smith Mountain/Leesville lakes. Water from the lower reservoir would be pumped back upstream, using electricity generated at "baseload" plants at times of low demand, to generate electricity at times of peak demand. The water level in the lower lake would change by up to 40 feet, as water flowed in or was pumped back upstream. The upper reservoir water level would fluctuate by up to 12 feet, a limit imposed by the Federal Power Commission in its Federal permit to preserve recreational uses.
The two Blue Ridge Project dams would have been in Virginia. Eight reversible turbines generating 200MW each were planned for the upper dam. Two conventional turbines capable of generating 100MW each were planned for the lower dam, where water would be released to flow down the New River to the Byllesby and Buck dams and ultimately West Virginia.
The people to be displaced, when 70 miles of the river would be flooded by the Blue Ridge Project, were almost all in North Carolina.
Wood/New River, at the time Mary Draper Ingles was captured in 1755
(note Little River, near modern-day Radford, is placed upstream of Peak Creek - which flows into modern Claytor Lake; Sinking Creek is completely omitted
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements
just upstream of I-81, dams block the natural flow on the New River (left) and its Little River tributary (right)
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Bridges and Culverts
the New River was named originally after Abraham Wood, who sent explorers from his fur-trading facility on the Appomattox River (Fort Henry) across the Blue Ridge
Source: Library of Congress, A general topography of North America and the West Indies (by Thomas Jefferys, 1768)
in 1763, Emanuel Bowen mapped the Wood River flowing north, where it was also known as the Great Conway (Kanawha) River
Source: Library of Congress, An accurate map of North America. Describing and distinguishing the British, Spanish and French dominions on this great continent; according to the definitive treaty concluded at Paris 10th Feby. 1763
the New River in 1859, upstream of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the state of Virginia
boundaries of the New River watershed in Virginia
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online