History of Upper Falls, West Virginia

Upper Falls was discovered in 1742 by John Peter Salling during an expedition along the Coal River. Salling and four companions each received a governor’s commission from the state of Virginia to explore the territory east of the Mississippi River, in return for 10,000-acre land grants. It was this group that also discovered coal along the banks of the Coal River.

It was not until after the Revolutionary War that European settlers began moving into the area. Even then, the few who survived the attacks of the native peoples usually fled to safer destinations. But by around 1800, a gristmill was established by Joseph Thomas at Upper Falls, which continued in operation until the 1930s.

Beginning about 1830, timber harvested from the region was floated on the Coal River to Saint Albans. At the same time, great quantities of marketable cannel coal were found on the upper Coal River. However, only at periods of high water could logs and shallow wooden boats loaded with coal be drifted over the Upper Falls and Lower Falls and on down the river.

A system of wooden-crib locks and dams designed to make Coal River navigable was constructed in the 1850s to transport cannel coal, bituminous coal, coal oil and timber to market. This began the era of two-way commercial steamboat traffic on the river. The Upper Falls was the site of Upper Falls Lock and Dam and Edward Kenna, who also developed a sawmill at Upper Falls around 1850, was lockmaster; his son, John Edward Kenna, served as United States Senator from West Virginia. Damage caused by ongoing flooding and the outbreak of the Civil War suspended steam tug navigation of Coal River. Traffic resumed after the war, but ended permanently in 1881.

From 1858, at least ten failed attempts were made to build a rail line up the Coal River. Finally, under the direction of General Cornelius Clarkson Watts, a Confederate veteran, construction of the Coal River and Western Railway began in 1902 and was completed in 1904. The lasting economic boom brought by the railroad to the region saw the bustling Upper Falls Station offer daily service for both passengers and freight. Timber extraction ended in the 1920s, but the rail line through Upper Falls, now owned by CSX Transportation, still transports massive amounts of bituminous coal to global markets.

There was a rapid influx of people to the area during and soon after World War II and many came to live in Upper Falls. They found employment in the defense and chemical manufacturing industries in the Kanawha Valley and benefited from economic prosperity as a result. Today, Upper Falls is a residential suburb and recreation destination of the Charleston metropolitan area.

Text is published under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License, courtesy of Dr. William H. Dean, Ph.D. From Coal, Steamboats, Timber and Trains: The Early Industrial History of St. Albans, West Virginia & The Coal River, 1850-1925. Published in 2007 by Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Inc., Charleston, West Virginia. ISBN 978-1-57510-134-7. Library of Congress Control Number 2007933044.

Image is courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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