I had a trifecta: a grand steel arch bridge, great rock formations, and the oldest river on the continent. Last Wednesday, March 21, on returning from a trip to Washington, D.C. I explored parts of the New River Gorge in West Virginia. I started the tour with the threat of thunderstorms at Grandview, where I revisited the horseshoe bend in the New River. Then I drove Route 82 down into the gorge and back up. It was a great day along a National River.
The New River Gorge bridge spans 3,030 feet across the river, is supported by a steel arch, 1700 feet long, and rises 876 feet above the river.
The bridge and the arch is three times the length of America’s other great steel arch bridge, The Eads Bridge.
When it opened in 1977 is cut 45 minutes from the trip across the gorge on a one-way road that zigzags down into the gorge, across and old bridge, and back up. For a tourist it is a great drive, down and up through switchbacks that reveal the rock formations that make up the valley wall. I have been drawn to rock formations in Missouri for the last ten years.
And finally, there is the river, running at the bottom of a deep gorge, so deep that the sun plays games late in the day.
So what does the New River have to do with the Mississippi. After all I have devoted this blog to all-Mississippi all the time.
Millions of years ago the New River, known to geologists as the Ancient River Teays, flowed across the Appalachian plateau. A hundred million years ago the New River ran north into Ohio, across central Indiana and Illinois to join with the Mississippi, when it occupied the modern Illinois River. Geologists call it the Ancient River Teays and some claim it ran clear to the Gulf of Mexico, and if you understand that the Mississippi was really a river of much lesser importance at the time, it did. The Teays was the master river of the eastern half of the continent.
Before the first glaciers pushed down from the north, the pre-glacial upper Ohio flowed north to an eastward-draining master stream and hence to the Atlantic. A much shorter lower Ohio emptied into the Mississippi Embayment. The Ancient River Teays carried waters from the Appalachians to its confluence with the preglacial Mississippi in central Illinois. Pre-Illinoian ice pushed down into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and filled the downstream portion of the Teays Valley with drift, obliterating it. The remnant of the ancient river ponded against the ice in Ohio, spilled over, flowed along the glacial margin, and connected the pre-glacial upper Ohio with the lower Ohio River.[i]
Although geologists today accept that the Teays flowed across Ohio, Indians, Illinois to the Mississippi/Illinois, that has not always been so. Not until 1983 did the Geological Society of America accept observational research and actual research that had been going on for 150 years.
The river was there before the mountains were there. It flowed across the Appalachian Plateau, a peneplain, and established its course, before the mountains were mountains. As the plateau slowly uplifted and tilted to the west, the Teays flowed down a steeper grade and eroded the land along its already established course. The horseshoe bend you see at Grandview once meandered across a much flatter plain.
[i] Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Geological Survey, “The Teays River,” http://www.ohiodnr.com/geosurvey/geo_fact/geo_f10.htm; Flint, 236; Thomson, 21-23.