Public Television to Air 'Great Kanawha' Documentary on June 24

Charleston Gazette
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 culture.

"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

Reach Rick Steelhammer at or 304-348-5169.