Story and photos by David Sibray
Many West Virginia rivers have gained national notoriety as travel destinations in recent years, largely as a result of restored post-industrial water quality and because of increased interstate access, but the Guyandotte of the southern coalfields lingers in relative obscurity. And that’s why I like it. From source to mouth, it travels some of the least known countryside in the Mountain State.
Though I don’t hope to detail much of the wonder of its 166 miles here, I’d like to touch on a few highlights, particularly those that regard its prehistory and the return of native peoples to the area. Visitors should be aware that developed tourist destinations are few and far between, but home-style eateries and neighborly folks are plentiful.
Any introduction to the valley would have to include the matter of its naming, the origins of which may never be known. According to most sources, “Guyandotte” may be derived from Wyandot or Wendat, a group of Huron whose name may mean “island people” or “dwellers on a peninsula.” However, the Huron lived among the Great Lakes, far from here. Some historians have recently speculated that the name may be a corruption of the name of a French painter named Guyan who visited the area around the mouth of the river on the Ohio River at the present town of Guyandotte, now a suburb of Huntington. This latter naming makes more sense to me, though I’ve yet to see the proof.
The river coincidentally sources in the highland on and near Great Flat Top Mountain in Raleigh County, along which there is a Guyan Ridge. The source of the name of the ridge is also a mystery, as far as I know, and I know the history of that country quite well. On the Cabin Fork of the Guyandotte near Mullens, Twin Falls State Park provides visitors an ideal locale from which to explore this upper section of the valley. Even without venturing off the park, visitors will find much to do.
Many of the native inhabitants of the valley — some say all of its inhabitants — left the area just before permanent European settlement, but by 1760 at least some had returned with Boling Baker and his wife, Aracoma, a supposed daughter of Shawnee chief Cornstalk, and settled an island in the river at present-day Logan. Aracoma’s Tale is retold on summer evenings in the amphitheater at Chief Logan State Park near Logan, one of the region’s chief public parks and an ideal year-round destination for hiking and camping vacations. I suspect that many natives have remained deep in the forest of the Guyandotte valley, which contains some of the most rugged land in all West Virginia.
At least two well-known prehistoric sites remain in the valley to attest to long years of pre-European habitation. Along the Clear Fork of the Guyandotte near Oceana a series of “petroglyphs” were discovered by settlers and for decades have attracted the attention of scholars. In the 1970s an amateur archaeologist speculated that the carvings had been etched by Irish monastics, setting off a firestorm of wild theories that still smolders, though scholars quickly dismissed the theory as well as its proponent.
However, at Salt Rock, about 20 miles upstream of the mouth of the river, a truly fantastic archaeological site remains — the Salt Rock Petroglyphs. Here a series of carvings of strange creatures and even a human figure cover several large boulders. Despite their authenticity and the pleas of the archaeological community, the state has not moved to protect the site.
Throughout the region visitors will come across aboriginal names such as Oceana, Logan, Mingo, Lacoma, and Wyoming. Though they honor the region’s prehistory, it’s worth noting that none have authentic antecedents. The orator and chief Logan never lived in Logan County nor did Oceana, the youngest daughter of Mingo chief Cornstalk, ever set foot in Wyoming County. However, in the 1850s attorney Thomas Dunn English, author of the songs “Sweet Alice” and “Ben Bolt,” was practicing law in the region and frequently toured its hollows, propounding that residents adopt native names as a means of attracting investment. Investment would come soon anyway in the form of coal mining, and though his efforts may not have had much economic impact, the names have done much to inspire a romantic interest in the land.
Soon after the Civil War coal operators began to establish mines in the area, and by 1900 even the most remote corners of the valley were teeming with miners and merchants. Despite its former isolation, it filled with towns in the midst of which elaborate masonry buildings were raised. Along the river at Mullens, Pineville, Gilbert, and Logan visitors may now walk streets that seem more appropriate to the industrialized Northeast than to mountainous West Virginia. As coal mining dwindles, they promise to seem even more strangely placed, though entrepreneurs are searching for ways to rescue what they can and are banking on their ability to attract visitors in future. Many are providing lodge accommodations to serve off-road vehicle enthusiasts exploring ATV trails near Logan, Gilbert, and Pineville. For now, however, the valley remains the domain known to only a few.
Getting There: The valley of the Guyandotte may most easily be reached by highway from the W.Va. 16 expressway at Beckley and from the U.S. 19 expressway at Logan. The lower reach of the river may best be reached from I-64 at Barboursville.