CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Unusually cold weather has been causing a phenomenon unusual to this area: ice chunks floating down the mighty Kanawha and Ohio rivers.
Longtime readers may recall one of the rare major river freezes that happened during the winter of 1976-1977, when both the Kanawha and Ohio rivers froze over. January 1977 was the coldest month in West Virginia history with a statewide average temperature of 16.9 degrees -- well below the 20th century average of 31.3 degrees -- according to National Climactic Data Center information dating back to 1895.
"Jan. 1, 1977 -- The Kanawha River froze from bank to bank," proclaimed the Saturday evening edition of the Charleston Daily Mail from that day. A photo of the frozen river with the Charleston skyline in the background accompanied the front-page story.
Though it's been rare for the Kanawha to freeze over in recent decades, Daily Mail archives indicate it used to be a common occurrence. On Dec. 29, 1976, readers wrote in to the Daily Mail to share tales of seeing pedestrians, ice-skaters, and horses and carriages on the frozen Kanawha throughout the 20th century.
Dave Tamplin, who was 82 at the time, said the Kanawha River froze from bank-to-bank as deep as 15 inches almost every year until 1930 in his hometown of Boomer in Fayette County.
"The men would drive teams of horses across the river at these times," Tamplin said. "Some of us were afraid to walk across when going to Montgomery, so the ferryman would cut a channel and ferry us across until 1909 when the bridge was built."
Ice houses in Charleston and Montgomery profited off the naturally-made ice. They would store as much as 300 tons of it until summer when it could be sold. Daily Mail readers said ice was known to be piled up on the banks of the Kanawha until the middle of July because it was sometimes two to four feet thick behind the old Lock 3 between Hansford and Riverside, which was replaced by the London Lock and Dam in 1939.
A woman from Glasgow told the Daily Mail the Kanawha River froze over in 1917. She recalled her brothers skating and sledding across the river all winter, and also remembered a team of horses with a wagon venturing over the river.
Charlie Carlson of Charleston remembered D.K. Williams skating from Buffalo to Pliny and back on the frozen Kanawha in 1918. National Climactic Data Center information indicated January 1918 was the second-coldest month in modern history in West Virginia with an average temperature of 19.7 degrees. Charleston's all-time record low temperature of minus 17 degrees was set Dec. 30, 1917. That same day, West Virginia's all-time low temperature of minus 37 degrees was recorded in Lewisburg.
Paul Withrow remembered walking across the river in St. Albans in the mid-1930s across form the old C & O coal tipple, and B.Y. Lett, former mayor of Winfield, remembered walking across the river in his town in the mid-1930's, as well.
Daily Mail archives indicate the last time the Kanawha River froze over in Charleston was Jan. 21, 1985. Temperatures dipped down to minus 15 at Yeager Airport the night before.
What would it take to freeze the Kanawha or Ohio rivers in the area? Doug Chambers, water quality specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey office in Charleston, says it's a complex question with many factors at play.
"You have issues not only of temperature but of flow rate, which can help break up some of the ice so it doesn't freeze all the way across," Chambers said. "And also here in the Kanawha we have quite a bit of barge traffic that keeps things broken up a lot of the time."