Water is the building block of life. So it follows that man followed the water from his earliest existence – for travels, for food, for commerce.
In the 1700s, man followed trails made by larger animals, usually near streams or across ridge tops. Man still follows the water when possible.
The Guyandotte River, contained within six counties of West Virginia, drains all 507.3 square miles of Wyoming County. It also snakes across portions of Raleigh, Mingo, Logan, Lincoln and Cabell counties.
Historians do not agree from where the name Guyandotte came, but do agree the river was a huge factor in the early industrial success of the area, including the logging industry of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.
Some believe the river was named for a French trader, Henry Guyan, who established a trading camp at the mouth of the river in 1750. Others believe it was based on the Wyandotte Native American tribe, which reportedly hunted in the mountains of Wyoming County. Still others say it was based on an Indian word that translated to “the narrow bottom river.”
The river has also been known as the Guyan River, Guyan Dott, Guyan Dot, Big Laurel Fork, Arbuckles River, among several other names.
A tributary of the Ohio River, the Guyandotte River is 167.2 miles long, according to Brian Morgan, resource manager of the R.D. Bailey Lake project.
The Ohio empties into the Mississippi River, which then flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
“It joins the Ohio, in the old town of Guyandotte, which is now part of (east) Huntington,” according to David “Bugs” Stover, historian, author and well-known storyteller.
“Before the railroad made it to Wyoming County in the very early 20th century, goods were transported down the Guyandotte River,” Stover noted.
“Our main artery for transportation was the Guyandotte River valley.
“Wyoming County’s timber was exported by way of splash dams along the Guyandotte to the Ohio River. The splash dams were active in the 1840s until about 1918.
“For much of our history as a county and before, we depended on the Guyandotte River for much of our travel and almost all of our out-of-county commerce,” Stover emphasized.
Because of the vast timber resources and coal deposits along the river, the state planned a series of locks and dams to make navigating easier. It was before West Virginia became a state, thus the state of Virginia approved the construction. However, according to historians, the dams were poorly built and placed. Flooding destroyed the dams that were constructed.
In 1878, according to historians, the U.S. Congress provided funding to have any dam remnants removed and the river dredged regularly for two decades.
Without the locks and dams, small water crafts had to be used to carry the goods out of the area to market.
The Guyandotte has five tributaries and three major watersheds, including Mud River, Island Creek and Clear Fork.
In West Virginia, there are seven river drainage bases. The Guyandotte River is one of the six which drains westward.
The Guyandotte River begins just a few feet, maybe 30, across the Wyoming County line, in Raleigh County, at Amigo, a small community that straddles the border between the two counties, according to Stover.
At an elevation of 3,400 feet, the river begins from Flat Top Mountain and Guyandotte Mountain, where Devils Fork, Stonecoal and Winding Gulf creeks come together, Stover said.
“Guyandotte River lies entirely within the Appalachian Physiographic Province,” Morgan said, “which is characterized by narrow, V-shaped valleys with steep, rugged mountains walls.
“The topography of the basin becomes less rugged as it approaches the Ohio River where the valleys are wide and mountains tend to be more rolling,” Morgan added.
Repeated flooding on the river prompted construction of the R.D. Bailey Lake, built by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which was dedicated in 1980. The lake and dam project has saved millions of dollars in flooding devastation.