Public Television to Air 'Great Kanawha' Documentary on June 24
16 June 2012
By Rick Steelhammer
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- From its years as an American Indian trade
route to its present role as one of the nation's busiest inland
waterways, the Kanawha River has been crucial to the development
of both the 100-mile stretch of West Virginia it flows through and
a nation engaging the Industrial Revolution.
Covering a millennium or two of river history in an hourlong
program is no easy feat, but documentary film producer Gary
Simmons and writer Gerald Sutphin have made the process a delight
in "The Great Kanawha: An American Story," which premieres at 8:30
p.m. June 24 on West Virginia Public Television.
Historical films and photographs of human activity, both in the
river and along its shores, help keep viewers engaged in the
program, presented in high-definition format. Interviews with
experts on a variety of river themes were deep enough to add
substance to the story, but not so broad as to cause eyes to glaze
and minds to wander.
Interview subjects range from John Reynolds, a member of the
family that operated the Majestic,
the last showboat to ply the waters of the Kanawha, to James
Alexander Thom, author of "Follow the River," the novel based on
Mary Draper Ingles' epic 18th century trek along the Ohio and
Kanawha rivers to escape Indian captivity.
Thom's wife, Claudia Dark Rain Thom, who is of Shawnee descent,
talks about American Indian history along the Kanawha, before and
after contact was made with European traders and settlers.
Centuries before the arrival of colonists, American Indians were
using the Kanawha as a trade route, connecting what is now the
American Midwest with the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Among others providing commentary is Emory Kemp, director of the
industrial archaeology program at WVU, who discusses the Kanawha
Valley's salt industry, including the fact that salt brine
drilling techniques developed here were incorporated in the
oil-drilling boom that followed. Kemp also explained early 19th
century plans to build a canal system linking Richmond with the
Ohio River via the Kanawha, and the evolution of the river's lock
and dam navigation system.
Retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist Robert
Maslowski provides insights on prehistoric American Indian life
along the Kanawha, while Marshall political science professor Jean
Edward Smith discusses George Washington's surveying expeditions
and land acquisitions in the Kanawha Valley.
Douglas Wood, an aquatic ecologist for the state DEP and a living
history interpreter, shares insights on water quality and fish and
wildlife changes along the Kanawha since the era of European
settlement. Known by early 20th century rivermen as "Old Greasy"
due to unchecked industrial pollution, the river's water quality
and aquatic life are rebounding thanks to discharge regulations
and municipal sewer systems.
Charles Jones, president of Amherst Industries, talks about the
river's importance as a 21st century waterway, and reminisces
about building his first Kanawha River sternwheeler -- a johnboat
powered by a washing machine motor.
Historic photos of riverboats, river towns, river people and the
old wooden lock and dam system once employed on the Kanawha help
make "The Great Kanawha" a visual treat.
"Gerry Sutphin guided the theme of the program, and I did the
trench work of shooting, directing and editing," said Simmons.
"The Great Kanawha" is the first documentary to be released by the
West Virginia Documentary Consortium Inc., a nonprofit
organization devoted to films portraying West Virginia history and
"We have another one-hour documentary completed, which deals with
West Virginia in the 1950s, but so far, we haven't been able to
raise the funding needed to buy the rights to the music we want to
accompany it," Simmons said.
A second West Virginia river documentary is in production, this
one covering the Elk River. "Right now, we're getting some really
gorgeous footage of the various sections of the river," Simmons
said. "We'd like to do a series of programs on the major rivers of
the state. I think people need to know how important they are, and
how blessed we are to have them."
For information on the West Virginia Documentary Consortium and to
see a preview of "Elk River Odyssey," the documentary now in
production, visit http://www.wvdocumentary.org.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or