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30th Anniversary of the Great 1985 West Virginia Flood

Posted: 11/04/2015
by Charlie Walbridge

The '85 Flood slammed the Cheat River Rafting Business

The 1985 flood had a big impact on the whitewater rafting business and affected everyone who paddled the river in canoes and kayaks. It struck near the end of the "Glory Days" of Cheat River Rafting, when outfitters were guiding roughly 40,000 people down the river each year. In1976 I joined the springtime frenzy as a part time guide, working in Philadelphia and driving out on weekends to help "the boys" at Mountain Streams and Trails run their trips.

Although the Cheat River is the largest undammed watershed east of the Mississippi it hadn't flooded in living memory. We talked with Albright residents and no one could remember a seeing the water wash across St. Joe Road. The river in the canyon was thickly vegetated, with rhododendron overhanging the river's edge. The flood took us all by surprise.

It was rainy in early November, and on the afternoon of November 3rd the Cheat was running a modest 2.5 feet at Albright. The rafting season had ended months before and operations were closed tightly for the winter. Then the rain picked up, especially in the headwaters. In the next 24 hours the Cheat rose steadily to almost 30 feet, washing over the Route 26 bridge. It took a big piece of the Town of Albright with it.

Mountain Streams and Trails lost their base building and gear barn on St. Joe Road along with much of their equipment, Their owner, Ralph McCarty, lived near Pittsburgh and by the time he knew there was a problem, it was too late. Their rented guide quarters at the corner of St. Joe Road and Route 26 was a handsome stone building that at one time housed a bank. It washed away too, leaving only a concrete slab. Weeks later Ralph's guides paddled down the Canyon to recover gear. There were life vests, wet suits, and tee shirts hanging from trees throughout the canyon and deflated rafts caught in giant riverside brush piles. They got what they could.

Cheat River Outfitters lost their two-story base building next to the Albright Bridge. Again, the water left only a concrete slab! Eric Neilson, the owner, lived in Kingwood and made many trips across the Rt. 26 bridge taking his equipment to high ground. Finally, as the waters lapped the underside of the bridge, his wife Peggy told him if he made one more trip across she'd divorce him, because she couldn't stand to watch! What he didn't save, he lost.

Appalachian Wildwater's base was north of the bridge next to the campground. It flooded, and their business office was hit hard. Imre Szylagyi, the owner, made several trips to his office by canoe to recover vital magnetic tapes that contained his entire mailing list. The half of his building nearest the river, where the office was located, later washed away. Afterwards he set up his offices in the old Rowlesburg school.

Grant Tichnell's Cheat Canyon Campground fared better, but the river still rose up to the eaves of the building housing the office, rec room, and shower house. Along the shore a row of riverside sycamores over four feet in diameter were never seen again. Several guides who lived in Albright described a wild scene with giant trees and houses washing quickly past. Propane tanks hissed loudly as they went by; once the gas caught fire and sent a pillar of flame overhead. Thankfully, there was no loss of life.

Morgan's gas station at the Rt. 26 Bridge, where paddlers often gassed up, was gone. When I arrived the following April, five month after the flood, the scene was grim. So many houses were missing, and the ground where they once stood was a muddy mess. Several battered outfitter school buses were still lying on their side near where the Quick Stop is located. Everything else looked really rough.

It was truly humbling to paddle through the Canyon and see what had been done to it. The riverbanks were scoured for 20 feet above the old high water mark. You could see where the river had piled up 10-20 feet higher on the outside of sharp turns as it roared downstream! House sized rocks rolled, blocking old chutes and creating new ones. There were several landslides, one of which uncovered a set of high cliffs. Riverside rhododendron groves and overhanging trees were simply gone.

Many rapids changed a little, and several changed a lot! At Coliseum Rapid the river filled in the old route and carved out a new one where a high water channel had been. A straightforward boulder garden became a tricky double ledge drop with a large offset holes. A small loss of boat control had serious consequences! At a rapid called "Cue Ball" the river created a fabulous surfing wave. Most kayakers now eat their lunch here so they can watch their friends strut their stuff.

"Big Nasty" Rapid became infamous! What had been a straightforward bouncy wave train developed a giant, ill-tempered crashing wave that could flip the largest rafts. On "Black Saturday", the first high water day of the 1986 rafting season, it caught guides by surprise, overturning rafts by the dozen. All you could see were overturned rafts and bobbing heads for a half-mile downstream! Guides quickly tightened up their procedures and later trips were run with less excitement, but it still scares people today!

Over the 1986 Cheat Season outfitters slowly pieced their businesses back together. But the rafting business itself was changing. Flooding didn't hurt the Cheat River outfitting business directly, but over the next decade rafting guests got older, and more women and kids came on trips. People wanted to raft when it was warm, and when water conditions were more predictable. Numbers on the wild, adventurous Cheat Canyon, with it's cool spring season and rapidly changing water levels, declined sharply.

During this same time outfitters on the New River in southern West Virginia continued to grow. Self-bailing rafts allowed them handle high water levels and they stopped traveling to the Cheat to run their spring rafting trips. They upgraded their facilities to include high-end lodging, restaurants, and lots of other activities. This was very different from what Albright offered in the '70's and '80's!

Today the Cheat Canyon remains West Virginia's best kept secret: a challenging trip through one of the wildest gorges in the East. Most of the flood damage is healed, and the water, thanks to the work of Friends of the Cheat and the West Virginia DEP, is cleaner than ever. Try it!