September 29, 1861: Kanawha and Coal River Watersheds Flood

Kanawha Watershed

On September 29, 1861, one of the worst floods on record hit the Kanawha River watershed. The river crested nearly 17 feet above flood stage in Charleston and badly damaged the valley’s salt works.

It also affected an innovative system of dams and locks that’d been built in the 1850s to transport cannel coal on the Coal River. The refined oil from cannel coal was highly popular as a source of home-lighting fuel throughout the East.

The eight stone-filled timber-crib dams and locks had been built between 1855 and 1859. The 35 miles of slackwater navigation connected the Boone County community of Peytona with the Kanawha River at St. Albans, just west of Charleston.

During the first year, 400,000 bushels of cannel coal were barged out of the region. That amount doubled in 1860. But the start of the Civil War limited mining, and the September 1861 flood virtually destroyed the lock-and-dam system.

After the war, some repairs were made to it, but, by that time, kerosene had largely replaced cannel coal as a fuel for lighting, and the Coal River navigation system was eventually abandoned.