Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River

by Russell L. Whitlock
Excerpt from The Jenny Wiley Association Newsletter

    Most of our members have noticed the frequent mention of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy river in our news letters, for this stream played a major role in the story and life of Jenny Wiley.  For a majority of us, those who were born and reared in Eastern Kentucky, this body of water is of no great interest.  This is probably not the case for our numerous members in distant states, who might find some information and history on this stream to be of value in their research.

        The Big Sandy river extends from the town of Louisa, Kentucky in Lawrence county to Catlettsburg, Kentucky in Boyd county, and is only about 30 miles in length and is the shortest river in America.  The Big Sandy splits into two branches at Louisa and the Levisa Fork divides again about 10 miles above Piketon, sending into the mountains a small tributary known as the Russell Fork.

        Another split about 24 miles above Grundy, Virginia produces the Dismal Fork of Sandy.  At its widest point, the Big Sandy measures only about 100 yards  across, and the western branch, or Levisa Fork, grows progressively narrower as it winds its way into the rough mountains of eastern Kentucky.  The eastern branch, or Tug Fork, is even narrower than the Levisa, and the Russell and Dismal Forks are similar to the Tug.

       Beginning in 1837, the Big Sandy was found to be navigable to steam boats as far as Louisa, and within a few years these craft were venturing up the river as far as Paintsville, Prestonsburg, and finally into the city of Piketown, known today as Pikeville.  Distances between the above named points might be of some interest to those who are not familiar with the Big Sandy Valley area.  The distance from the mouth of the Big Sandy at Catlettsburg to the first fork at Louisa is approximately 35 miles, and from Louisa to Paintsville measures about the same distance.  From Paintsville to Prestonsburg totals approximately 15 miles, and the distance on to Piketon is about 35 miles.  Please bear in mind, the distances stated are only approximate, and the present day highway distances.  The river winds, twists and turns, and traveling by boat would be considerably further.

        I recently spoke with Mr. McAdoo Williamson, a descendant of Jane Wiley and Richard Williamson, who was reared on the upper reaches of the Levisa Fork, in the general area of Piketon.  McAdoo was able to provide me with much information concerning the river in that part of the state.  He indicated to me the distance from Catlettsburg to Piketon (Pikeville) is approximately 106 highway miles.   Since I am not familiar with the river above Piketon, I asked McAdoo to fill me in on that area.   He estimates the Levisa Fork branches into the Russell Fork about 10 miles above Piketon, and that the Levisa then extends about 81 miles, some 24 miles past the city of Grundy, Virginia, where it divides again, giving rise to the Dismal Fork of the Big Sandy.  From this point the Levisa Fork extends on into Virginia for a distance of some 40 miles or so to its head waters near Patterson, Virginia.  The mileage's provided by Mr. Williamson are highway miles, same as the mileage's I provided to Piketon.

        In the course of our conversation, Mr. Williamson told me of his father working for some time at one of the Piketon steamboat landings located on Cline street in Piketon.  McAdoo, who was born in 1919, can well remember steamer operations on the Big Sandy, which finally stopped in the early 1930's.  Most historians consider the coming of the railroad, which reached Piketon in about 1905, as being the main cause for the demise of steamboat service on the Sandy.

        McAdoo offers a differing view and it certainly makes sense to me.  The Big Sandy Valley was blessed with immense stands of virgin timber of all kinds.  Eventually speculators learned of the vast potential of the timber in this valley, and moved in companies to cut and transport the timber to other portions of the nation.  In the early days, the only means of transporting the cut logs was to float them down river to Catlettsburg on the Ohio.  Sometimes the logs were chained together in rafts and were taken down river by crews who then road back up river by steamboat.  At other times, in periods of high water, the logs which had been held back from the main channel by a boom, were simply released and allowed to float down stream alone, to be recaptured again at the mouth of the river.  These great messes of logs, floating down stream on the swift current, simply swept away everything before them, and in doing so they swept the river banks clean of small trees and ripped out snags and rocks which could damage the thin hulls of the river steam boats.  McAdoo feels that once the timbering industry had exhausted these great forests and moved on to greener pastures, without the vast runs of logs to keep its banks and channel clean, the river gradually became nearly impassable for the steamers, especially the larger ones.  On very rare occasions the Federal government brought in snag-boats and dredges to clean the river, but they did not venture very far upstream, and they proved to be too few and too late.  With competition from the newly completed C & O Rail Road, steam boating became unprofitable and the boats gradually faded away.

        I had never considered this very valid point until I spoke with Mr. Williamson.  I can see tremendous changes in the river and its banks during the last 40 or so years.  It just does not look the same as it did when I was a boy growing up and swimming in it every day.  In many sections, large trees now grow right on the waters edge and hang outward into the channel.  I am inclined to agree with Mr. Williamsons views on this point.

        There is one final point I need to address before moving on. I know someone is going to ask, "But how did they know which one of those logs belonged to whom when they recaptured them at Catlettsburg?"  It was easy!  Each log was marked with a brass or copper tag which displayed a certain number.  The numbers indicated the owner of the log, and they were paid accordingly.

        Steamboat navigation on the Big Sandy and its tributaries is not well documented between 1837 and the beginning of the War Between The States, but the onset of that conflict brought a dramatic increase in river traffic.  Confederate General Humphrey Marshall received one message that the Federal troops were sending six steamers per day into Piketon, transferring supplies from larger boats on the Ohio at Catlettsburg.  The Federal steamer Red Buck, piloted by Captain James Welch, was captured by Confederate forces at the mouth of Johns Creek, about one mile below the present day community of Auxier [KY], when Captain Welch stopped to visit friends and have dinner.  Push boats were used to transport supplies as well as were the steamers, and a large group were involved in the Battle of Wireman Shoals about two miles above Auxier.  This battle occurred when the boats were stopped for the night at the home of crew member James Y. Browns father-in-law, Mr. Patrick Vauhan, where they were set upon by Confederate forces.

        Judge Archibald Borders of Lawrence County, Kentucky was the son of Catherine Elizabeth Sellards, sister to Jenny Wiley, and was a well known business man and steamboat operator on the Big Sandy.  His vessel, the Sandy Valley, was known to be one of the finest to operate on the river.  Colonel James A. Garfield, in command of Union troops at Piketon, commandeered Sandy Valley, in February of 1862 when Judge Borders refused to release her for his use to carry supplies to Piketon.  The Big Sandy and its tributaries were all at flood state and two steamers were reported to be riding at anchor n the city streets of Piketon when Colonel Garfield took command of Judge Boarders boat.  Both the Judge and Captain Hiram Davis, the boats Master, were afraid Sandy Valley would be wrecked in the raging torrents of muddy water which poured out of the mountains and tore their way, rolling, boiling and swirling down the valley toward the broad Ohio.  Neither man had reckoned with the abilities of Colonel Garfield, a former canal boat pilot, who took the wheel of Sandy Valley, and stayed at that post for most of the 48 hour trip to Piketon.
The state of flood on the Levisa Fork was so great that at one point Garfield was unable to determine where the channel was located.  Back water from the river filled even the corn fields located along the river banks and he completely missed the channel, miring the boat deep in the mud and shallow back-water of one of those fields.  Launching the ships dingy, Garfield personally led a crew of men in rowing to the other side of the swollen river with a stout line, secured it to a tree and then returned.  Using this line, they were able to slowly winch Sandy Valley back into the main channel.  The boat suffered no damage, and the rest of the trip to Piketon was completed without major incident.  Garfield became a near folk hero to both his troops and the citizens of Piketon, who by this time were approaching a state of near starvation.  When the flood subsided, Sandy Valley was returned to her worried owner, the War Between The States was finally won, and Colonel Garfield went on to become President of the United States.

        While in command of troops in this area, Colonel Garfield established a headquarters situated on the bank of the Levisa Fork at Prestonsburg in Floyd county.  This house still existed when I was in my late teens, and I had the privilege of visiting it at one time.  We always spoke of it as "The old Garfield place."  Unfortunately, it was allowed to fall into disrepair, and was demolished several years ago.  I am now unsure of the exact date, but I expect it was in the late 60's or early 70's.  The Garfield place was a landmark which should have been preserved for future generations.

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