Kanawha River forms at the junction of New River and Gauley River, near the Gauley Bridge in West Virginia. It is West Virginia’s largest river, flowing through most of its land, and some parts of western Virginia and North Carolina. The Kanawha joins the Ohio River at Point Pleasant in Mason County.
It’s unclear how the river got its name. Some sources attribute it to the white explorers who named it after the Indians who lived along the river. Another possibility was that it was named after the island where the Piscataway Indians lived — “Conoy,” which may be a shortened form of “Kanawha,” pronounced as “Kanaw.” There are also stories that the river was given its name by the Native Americans — Kanawah, which meant place of the white stones. The Shawnee tribe, however, has a different name for the river: Keninskeha, which meant river of evil spirits. Again, there’s an uncertainty about this story, as both names describe the New River more than the Kanawha. Though there’s a reason for the confusion: in colonial times, both the New River and Kanawha are marked in the maps as the “Great Kanhaway.”
“The Great Kanhaway is a river of considerable note for the fertility of its lands, and still more, as leading towards the headwaters of James river. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether its great and numerous rapids will admit a navigation, but at an expence to which it will require ages to render its inhabitants equal. The great obstacles begin at what are called the great falls, 90 miles above the mouth, below which are only five or six rapids, and these passable, with some difficulty, even at low water. From the falls to the mouth of Greenbriar is 100 miles, and thence to the lead mines 120. It is 280 yards wide at its mouth.”
— Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia
The Kanawha was instrumental in West Virginia’s statehood. It was in this very river that the capitol was transfered between Wheeling and Charleston in its many moves throughout the years. Today, the West Virginia State Capitol Building in Charleston faces the Kanawha River, as do the Executive Mansion.
The river is now part of the City of Charleston’s master plan, in revitalizing the city with its riverfront project. The project aims to promote Charleston as a destination city for living and working and to promote Charleston’s recreational and economic potential by utilizing its natural resources. The city hopes that improving the landscape in both sides of the Kanawha will welcome investors that would boost Charleston’s economy and further enhance the quality of living in the city, through the influx of new businesses and establishments in the riverfront.