By C.V. Moore
KANAWHA FALLS —
When the state recently decided to rehab the old Kanawha Falls bridge in Fayette County — with plans to close it down for a period of time in the process — a group of transportation officials came to the community to talk to locals about the project.
“I told them, ‘I think it’s terrible you’re going to lock us out,’” says Miriam Kirby. “I showed them the pictures of my dad and then they said that maybe they could just get us a ferry.”
The men were teasing, of course, but for Kirby, that possibility wasn’t as far-fetched as it sounded. Her father ran a ferry across the Kanawha River before the Great Depression.
Now approaching 80 years old, Kirby has lived in the tiny community of Kanawha Falls longer than any living person.
The walls and cabinets of her home are filled with memorabilia and collectibles — buttons, kitchen ware, dolls and other historic oddities.
She sits in her dining room, one of those indefatigable keepers of local history, surrounded by scrapbooks and photos.
There are checks from the old Bank of Gauley Bridge, made out to companies like Standard Oil by her father’s ferry business, tax records from 1940 and a poster from a circus caravan that passed through the area in 1870.
There’s the old ferry’s rate schedule — 5 cents per person, 15 cents for a horse and rider, 10 cents for cattle.
And there are photos of the old ferry house in Glen Ferris, where Kirby was born, of the wooden ferry itself, with its stars and bars proudly waving, and of her father, Harry Clark Sr.
Kirby is so familiar with her community that she can count up the population by closing her eyes and running through each household in her head. She knows exactly how many houses remain from the years before 1940, when she moved to Kanawha Falls (13), how many have since burned (10), been torn down (7) and built (15).
“He was somebody who could do anything,” says Kirby of her father, who at other points in his life owned sawmills, ran a restaurant called the “Hole in Walls,” worked in the steel industry, invested in property and served on the county’s executive committee.
In 1923, Harry Clark Sr. went into the ferry business with his brother, Edgar, a carpenter who carved the cross at the Methodist Church in Glen Ferris.
“When it was running, he made good money,” says Kirby.
At the time, the road bed of the Midland Trail (U.S. 60) in the Upper Kanawha Valley was being shifted from higher up on the hillside to its current location on the valley floor. That meant that travelers had to cross the river near Glen Ferris by ferry to reach Charleston via the Kanawha’s east bank.
Another major thoroughfare from Fayetteville to the valley wound up and over Cotton Hill mountain to meet the Kanawha.
The ferry had been in operation since as early as 1804, founded by the settler Joseph Hough. A man named William Riggs owned and operated it before and after the Civil War.
In the 1920s, the Clark Brothers ran two boats — one of which held up to six cars — across the 700-foot wide river. At the peak of their business, 800 cars crossed their decks in one day.
It was hard work that included bailing out the boats when they leaked or when it rained heavily, watching over them as the river rose and fell, chopping heavy ice along the banks in winter and maneuvering around debris during crossings.
The family lived at the ferry house in Glen Ferris until 1940, when they moved to a farm house across the river in Kanawha Falls. Typically, such a structure would also have housed travelers, but the 15 Clark children — of which Miriam is the youngest — kept every room filled.
“There was a little building around the ferry,” says Kirby. “The men would go down there and play cards. When my mother wanted my dad, she’d throw a plate down onto the tin roof of that building and that would bring him right quick.”
In 1927, tragedy struck when a car carrying Raleigh County Coal Co. bookkeeper Henry Starr, his wife and two children, went over the side of the ferry, killing all but the young son.
The opening of the Cotton Hill and Honey Creek bridge across the New River in 1928 hurt the ferry business, which dropped to about a half-dozen trips a day.
It was part of a new road from Beckwith to Chimney Corner, which eliminated the need to cross over Cotton Hill to reach the valley. One historian called the road the “death knell” of the ferry financially.
When the ferry closed on April 14, 1929, it was declared to have “no valuation at all,” and was in fact losing about $6,000 a year.
The very next day, a toll bridge — the same Kanawha Falls Bridge that crosses the river today — opened to the public.
But it didn’t happen without a fight from the Clark Brothers, who happened to own land on the north side of the river that the state needed to build the bridge.
The state demanded that the Clarks sell the land, which they refused to do. The dispute went to court, and many years later Miriam Kirby found transcripts of the proceedings in an archive. Her father, she said, did not mince words about the matter.
“If he had talked like that in court today, they would have put him in jail,” she says. “He told them it wasn’t none of their business why he didn’t want to sell the land. My dad was kind of an outspoken person.”
The two parties eventually came to a compromise. Harry Clark went to work as a rigger at the Alloy Plant, and the new toll bridge became the area’s principle river crossing.
A family could buy a monthly pass for the bridge for $4.50, or travelers could pay by the trip.
When suitors came to Kanawha Falls to court Miriam, they paid 25 cents each way. Once, an unfortunate boyfriend tried to sneak back without paying the toll.
“But when they got halfway across, a bell would ring in the toll house and Ira Thomas would come out to take the money. That night he came out and shot in the air and it scared that man half to death,” says Miriam.
The upcoming restoration of the Kanawha Falls Bridge will be the third in its lifespan. Miriam remembers another temporary closure in 1968. She had just had a baby and instead of taking a long alternative route, she lifted up the chain blocking the bridge and drove across it in defiance.
Then, as now, Miriam doesn’t have the option of an alternative ferry route across the Kanawha. But she does have the memories that were passed down from her father of the time when boats still served as a lifeline for travelers in the Kanawha Valley. And thanks to her knack for scrapbooking, now we do, too.
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