New River Geological History

    Presently, the New River’s headwaters are at the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge province near Blowing Rock, North Carolina. It terminates at its junction with the Gauley River in West Virginia. These rivers flow together as the Kanawha River, which joins the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The Ohio River is a tributary of the Mississippi River, which eventually discharges into the Gulf of Mexico.

    The New River may be one of the oldest rivers in North America. It may have been in its present course for at least 65 million years. In the geologic past, the New River was a much longer stream. Geologists have named it the Teays. It flowed through present-day central Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois before emptying into the Mississippi River. The last advance of Pleistocene continental glacial ice buried most of this river. At that time, the waters of the New were diverted into rivers (the present-day Ohio & Kanawha Rivers) created by the glaciers.

    The New River flows directly across the Appalachian Plateau, not around or from it as most other streams of this region do. The river had to exist before the mountains formed as it has carved through more than 10,000 ft. (about two miles) of their strata.

    Today, most streams in the central Appalachians, southeast of the Appalachian Plateau, drain eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. Yet, evidence from Paleozoic rocks indicates that the sediments that constitute them were deposited by streams flowing to the northwest. How was the direction of stream flow reversed after the end of the late Paleozoic mountain-building? The concept of plate tectonics gives clues to the answer. The pulling apart of the North American Plate and the African Plate that occurred during the Mesozoic offers an explanation. When plates diverge, the crust near their margins usually subsides. This subsidence may explain how streams can reverse their direction of flow. The New River is the only river that still drains westward in this region. It cuts across three topographic/physiographic provinces of the Appalachians. It could be the oldest river system in North America with origins at the end of the Paleozoic Era.


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