History of the Piney Creek Watershed

The history of the drainage area of the Piney Creek is largely one of transition from wilderness to habitation and from habitation to mixed rural, suburban, and urban habitation. These patterns have been influenced largely by the relatively gentle relief of the watershed when compared to adjacent mountainous areas, to its position along a natural east-west passage across the local Appalachian Mountains, and to the presence of coal-bearing strata throughout the region.

Prior to the late 1800s, the drainage of the Piney Creek was a virtual wilderness, opened here and there by a few industrious farmers. The area was shaded almost entirely by a vast forest of Eastern White Pine, for which the Piney Creek was named. According to archeological evidence, small Native American communities existed throughout the region, though no habitations were present at the time of European exploration and settlement.

A handful of bridle paths, formerly Native American trails, traversed the watershed area before and during its early settlement. Foremost among these was the Bluestone Road, which circumvented the rugged New River Gorge to the north and east. By his own admission, the Bluestone and other lesser trails led Alfred Beckley to establish present-day Beckley, then Beckleyville, in the 1830s in an attempt to develop the region. Beckley wrote on many occasions that increasing commerce would route through the region over the mountain passage formed by the drainage of the New and Kanawha rivers. He established Beckleyville on the Bluestone Road at its junction with the Logan Road, a trail branching westward toward the Coal River.

By the 1860s, Beckley’s attempt to develop the region had attracted many settlers, and a cluster of stores, taverns, and homesteads collected along the road at Beckleyville. Over the next five years, however, the Civil War decimated the region. The passage of Union and Confederate troops virtually annihilated the roads, and many residents, including Beckley, relocated, at least temporarily, to more settled regions. Only 3,673 residents were counted within the territory of Raleigh County in 1870, and the larger part resided in the valley areas to the west, rather than in the forested tablelands of the Piney territory. Still, Beckleyville had survived the war and showed much promise. In 1872, a minister described the community in the Pittsburgh Christian Advocate as “a pretty little village of thirty houses nestled amid tall pines on a plot of table land…”

Within a matter of a handful of years, however, the region’s isolation and pastoral character would begin to erode. In 1873 the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Railway was completed through the New River Gorge, and the forest that once shaded its drainage was quickly harvested and hauled to the rail line. Small, narrow-gauge railroads were built in the tablelands of the Piney drainage. The timber industry attracted new residents, and the cleared lands were opened to agricultural development.

Beginning with the completion of the Piney Creek Branch of the C&O in 1901, life along the Piney and its tributaries was wholly transformed. Railways allowed for the efficient transportation of coal, and dozens of mines sprang into operation throughout the region. Thousands of new residents, including many recently emigrated Europeans, arrived to help mine and work in supportive industries. By the 1940s the population of Raleigh County swelled to more than 91,000 residents, according to estimates provided by the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce (BRCCC). Many residents had located in the drainage of the Piney Creek at Beckley and in the mining communities to its southwest, notably Raleigh, Mabscott, MacArthur, Crab Orchard, and Sophia. Smaller, unincorporated mining communities sprang up wherever mine operators found it useful to house residents.

In the 1950s, the mechanization of the mining process led to a slow-but-unrelenting decline in mining employment. Many small mining communities located along the Piney and its tributaries were vacated or abandoned, and their inhabitants willingly or unwillingly moved out of the area and off properties owned by the coal-mining companies. Many sparsely populated unincorporated towns survive along Piney Creek, such as Sullivan, Whitby, Jonben, and Fireco. Beckley and land areas outside the mineable coal areas, notably at Beaver, Shady Spring, and Coal City, quickly began to swell with displaced residents, and by 1980 Beckley had reached its peak population at 20,492, according to the US Census Bureau.

The passage of commerce that Alfred Beckley predicted would lead to the region’s prosperity has continued to prove itself through the last century, despite the fluctuation in population across the watershed. By way of example, the C&O was followed in the 1920s by state and federal highways and in the 1980s by interstate highways such as I-77 and I-64. Despite such interstate-commerce access, the area population continues to dwindle and many populated areas beyond Beckley have been reforested. Beckley’s 2008 population was estimated at 16,832, significantly lower than its population of 19,397 in 1950.

The above narrative was excerpted from the 2012 Piney Creek Watershed Plan, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.