Mon River Has Seen Changes in Use, Appearance

Morgantown Dominion Post
20 August 2012

“THE RIVER WAS A big item in our lives.”

Thus began an essay by Arthur Paul Jones, who was born in 1874 and lived near the village of Little Falls, not far from the Monongahela River in Monongalia County.

His truism applies today. The river runs through our lives in big ways and small. We drink from it, some fish from it, increasingly we enjoy wildlife that is attracted to it since the Environmental Protection Agency mandated way back in the 1970s that the stream be cleaned up.

Lately, we argue about it and whether another government agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, should close the locks and dams on it to recreational boating.

This is the current issue. Jones writes about “our” river before locks and dams.

The 75-acre farm on which his family lived included “fertile river bottom fields.”

Trips across the river were accomplished by his uncle Rzin Jones, who operated a ferry.

“When the river was at low stage, we would ‘ford’ the stream just above the ferry where the water was shallow on the riffles just below the mouth of Tom’s Run.”

We can only imagine how the river looked then.

There are pictures of the river at Morgantown during the severe droughts. People “walked” across the river, jumping from stone to stone.

Jones recalls of the pre-dam days that the Mon was “a beautiful stream, and in summer it was our pleasure resort.

“We children waded in the clear soft water, gathering colored and rounded stones, and mussel shells.

“We boys learned to swim without being cumbered by bathing suits.”

Jones’ father, a skilled carpenter, built skiffs for crossing the river.

In winter, before the heating caused by acid mine drainage, ice was a constant menace.

Sometimes a channel had to be cut through the ice to enable the skiff to cross. Sometimes the skiff would be frozen tight in ice several inches thick “and had to be cut loose in zero weather.”

Timber was cut and transported down the river as rafts, requiring “considerable skill” in crafting the rafts and in maneuvering them.

The logs, or “sticks,” “were laid parallel in the water and fastened together by bows made of hickory and pins made of ash.”

Oars were made of plank, and one or two men at each oar “walked across the timber” and kept the raft in safe channels.

The timber business “brought in considerable money to the community and so was welcomed by the people.”

Morgantown poet Oscar DuBois, who lived to 109 before succumbing in 1989, had a different view of the river when, in 1901, he came up it on a steamboat to work in a glass factory here.

“At the towns along the river like New Geneva, Monongahela, Bel Vernon and Pt. Marion, the arrival of the boat was a big thing. People would come over to the quay and watch what they were putting on and taking off and then they would go home.”

At night he recalled seeing the fires of coke ovens along the river because the coal industry was already established and, in decades to come, would alter the use of the river in profound ways.

One of these is the locks and dams built in large part to accommodate coal barges.

NORMAN JULIAN is a columnist at large for The Dominion Post. His column appears Monday. You can contact him at