Traveling Through Appalachian Rivers By Canoes And Coal Barges


This week’s episode of Inside Appalachia is all about how we interact with water and our rivers. We’ll hear from people who make their living on the water — like Marvin L. Wooten, a longtime river boat captain. He started working in the riverboat industry in 1979. “I got two job offers the same day, and I took this job,” Wooten said. “My dad always said the river will always be there. So that’s what I’ve chosen to make my living at.”

And we’ll meet Neal Moore, who’s been canoeing for 17 months, on a journey that will cover 7,500 miles coast to coast. Moore hopes to wrap up his 22-month-long trip this December at the Statue of Liberty in New York. Recently, he made his way into Appalachia. “For many days, I’m in the canoe from from first light until last light,” Moore told Inside Appalachia producer Roxy Todd on a recent stop along the Kanawha River in Charleston, West Virginia.

“I sort of have to find my landlubber legs when I when I step onto a dock like this at times. But for the most part, I actually feel pretty strong,” Moore said.

In This Episode 

Coal Ash Spill Leaves Toxic Legacy in Tennessee

We depend on our rivers for survival, for recreation and for transportation. They’re also part of our economic system, but sometimes, those economic drivers are actually what cause pollution and make our rivers unsafe. That was the case in Kingston, Tennessee, in 2008. More than a billion gallons of coal ash flooded several homes and contaminated the Emory River. Coal ash is a by-product that builds up when power companies produce electricity from coal. Only recently have scientists realized the scope of the long-term health effects of the spill in Kingston.

The story was the focus of the first episode of a podcast called “Broken Ground,” which originally aired in 2019.

101-Year-Old Charlie Jones Talks About Economics And Environment

Back in 2019, Roxy Todd talked with some of the people at Amherst Madison about how they see the future of the river boat industry. While she expected to talk economics with them, the conversation took an unexpected turn.

One of those she spoke with was Charlie Jones, the former chairman of Amherst Madison, one of the river boat companies that has lasted through the downturn in coal production.

“If you look at all the companies that have tried to survive by doing the same thing, they haven’t been able to make it,” he said.

Jones said he blamed the Obama administration for the majority of the reduction in coal production, which he said hurt his industry.

“President Obama started this crusade shutting down coal mines,” Jones said, pointing to environmental regulations that put restrictions on the emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Still, even though he doesn’t agree with the way these regulations were rolled out, Jones said he believes we have to clean up our air. He doesn’t call himself an environmentalist, but a pragmatist.

“Are we concerned about the quality of our air? Well, let’s do something about it,” he said. “We’re not doing anything about it right now. I’d say there’s a big challenge ahead of us.”

He said he thinks the planet has a limit, and points out that in his lifetime, the population across the globe has exploded.

“I think you just got to be practical,” Jones added. “You can’t keep loading a planet up with people. Unless you do something with the toxicity they produce.”

Editor’s Note: We are sorry to report that Charlie Jones has passed away since this story first aired.


What’s in a Name?

Since this week we’re exploring stories about how people interact with our rivers, we wanted to dig a little deeper into a debate we’ve had here in our newsroom over the origins of the name of one of our rivers, and how to pronounce it. If you’ve ever been to Morgantown, West Virginia, you’ve probably driven over or near the Monongahela River.

How Do You Say ‘Monongahela’ River?

  • Mo-noun-GEE-ha-la
  • Monongah-EE-la
  • Monongah-A-la
  • Mon-on-ga-hEE-la

Listen to the show to hear why people pronounce it differently, and learn the roots behind the name.
We had help producing Inside Appalachia this week from the Southern Environmental Law Center and its podcast “Broken Ground.”


Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Blue Dot Sessions, Jake Schepps, and Dinosaur Burps. Caitlin Tan hosts this episode. Roxy Todd is our producer. Jade Artherhults is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby is our editor. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode.

You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.