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The series, West Virginia Water Trails, explores waterways in southern West Virginia. Listen to hear stories from communities coming together, to create new economies - with waterways. It’s made possible in part by the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.

W.Va. Water Trails: A New Pride In The Tug Fork River

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The Tug Fork River, 2018

The Tug Fork River recently earned the designation of a West Virginia Water Trail by the Recreation Trail Advisory Committee within the West Virginia Department of Transportation. It’s called the Bloody Mingo Tug Fork Water Trail and visitors are invited to kayak, float or even fish. The “Mighty Tug,” as it’s been called, flows along Mingo County by towns such as Matewan and Williamson.

This is the second of a series called West Virginia Water Trails. Hear stories from people coming together across southern West Virginia, to create new economies and communities- with waterways. It’s made possible in part by the National Coal Heritage Area Authority. 

Tugging Tires on the Tug Fork 

It’s a warm summer day, and a crew of volunteers are on the Tug Fork River. Some, John Burchett, are pulling up tires from the bottom of the river and loading them onto a boat connected to an amphibious vehicle.

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Jessica Lilly
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John Burchett pulls a tire from the Tug Fork River.

“A lot of these tires have white walls on them,” Burchett said. “You don't see anybody driving around with white walls today. That's back in at least the ‘80s. Some of these tires have half the sidewall as a white wall. That's going back to the ‘40s and ‘50s. So these are really old tires.”

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Tires in the Tug Fork River in 2021.

How the tires got into the river is kind of a mystery, or at least a known secret.

“Back in the day before there was regulation, we think before there was really any enforcement of what little regulation there was, the small gas stations, service stations, sold ya some tires and then took your old ones out and threw them in a river,” Burchett said. “They either didn't know any better or maybe just didn't care enough. I don't know which it is. But yeah, it’s a shame that the sins of our grandfathers that’s what we're cleaning up today.”

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WVPB
Tug Fork River by Williamson, W.Va. in 2021

Tire clean up isn't easy. It’s intense physical labor that takes extensive collaboration between state agencies and volunteers. Along with volunteers, both the Kentucky and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection are working together. The Tug Fork borders both states.
It’s taken thousands of “mighty tugs” to pull more than 5,000 tires out of the water so far. There's even an annual volunteer event called Tire Tug of War on the Tug Fork.

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After tires are loaded onto boats, the are hooked to an amphibious vehicle and pulled to shore.

“It's a mess, but we're putting a dent in it,” Burchett said. “There's still thousands of tires in this river. Several thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of tires in this river.”

Burchett and other volunteers are hoping the work will continue to pay off, not just for the health of the river, but for the economic future of the region.

Things Have Changed 

Burchett grew up in Williamson in Mingo County. It’s one of the towns along the Tug Fork River. He remembers the boom times of the coal industry.

“We had a business district that was overflowing with business, with people, it was a struggle to get down the sidewalks,” he said. “Today the coal industry has dropped off tremendously. Our downtown is suffering. We have empty storefronts and not a lot of people on the streets.”

As the jobs disappeared, the population declined and schools consolidated. Burchett says the town lost more than an income.

“The Williamson Wolfpack played in the State Basketball Championships on a regular basis,” he said. “We lost a big part of our identity when we lost Williamson High school.”

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Williamson standout ball player Mark Cline has possession of the ball during the 1981 Sectional Championship game at the Logan Fieldhouse. WHS won 61-58 and defeated Logan 3 times that season.

One part of this area’s identity that wasn’t lost was its history. In particular, the infamous Hatfield and McCoy feud.

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The Williamson Wolfpack defeated Northfork, 66-60 at the Charleston Civic Center to win the 1983 state championship.

“The feud is over, but we still enjoy the history of it,” Burchett said.

In recent years, that history has helped to draw tourists to the Hatfield and McCoy ATV trail system. Burchett is hoping to expand what he calls the “outdoor adventure amusement park” with the Tug Fork River.

“You can spend a day on the trails and then spend a day in the water,” Burchett said. “It keeps our tourists here for an extra day, maybe. It gives them something to do. Gives them another reason to come. Maybe they come to the river and then discover the trail system and want to go ride the trails.”

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In Matewan, W.Va., it's common to see ATVs and riders lining downtown during riding season.

Work on the Tug Fork Must Keep Going 

Volunteers like Burchett still have a lot of work to do. There are still thousands of tires to pull from the river.

The Tug Fork also remains on the latest West Virginia list of impaired waters.

“The entire length of the Tug Fork that touches West Virginia is impaired for fecal coliform,” Grace Williams, executive director of the Big Laurel Learning Center in Kermit said. “So usually you’re getting that from sewage runoff or impaired septic systems.”

Williams is also part of a group that will be trained in both Kentucky and West Virginia to test and monitor the water quality.

“I think it will be really key for our own knowledge,” she said. “I’ve kayaked the Tug Fork. I’ve kayaked the Guyandotte. So, I hope that by doing this I’ll learn first hand the results that we get.”

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Grace Williams at the 2022 Southern WV Fishing Expo in Williamson, W.Va.

The idea is to test the tributaries of the Tug to see which streams need the most help. The samples will be taken to a lab to be tested for e coli, fecal coliform, and heavy metals.

“Then we know that it’s gonna be repairing septic systems and repairing sewage lines,” Williams said. “That’s going to be the hard part is getting funding for that and getting people to do it. A lot of times land is hard to put in a septic tank if you’re really close to the river.”

Williams and the Friends of the Tug Fork River already have a plan. They are creating a watershed group. The group recently hosted a boarding to gather information. They plan to apply for 501c3 status.

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Pete Runyon works with volunteers and state employees to pull tires from the Tug Fork River.

“The idea is once we are a non-profit we will better be able to get grants,” Williams said. “I know that there is a lot of money that we hope to be able to use… that is going to need to be able to go through a 501c3.”

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Pete Runyon fishing on the Tug Fork in 2021.

Friends of the Tug Fork River is a group that connects on Facebook to organize events like the tire cleanup. Pete Runyon created the page five years ago.

“I didn't realize the impact it made on our community,” Runyon said. “Because after we did that and pulled out 2,323 tires, all the people started watching for things and jumping on board and helping us, because they saw us trying to make a positive change in our area.”

For Runyon, part of that change means more recreational fishing and non-motorized boating on the Tug Fork River.

“People instead of traveling away from here to kayak some of the other places or lakes, now we just go out our back door,” Runyon said. “You come here on a weekend, you'll see all kinds of kayaks on this river. You'll see people fishing almost daily.”

When visitors arrive, Runyon hopes they see a clean river.

“I want to be able to look back when I really can't get out here and do this anymore and say ‘You know what? This used to really look bad, but look at it now’,” Runyon said.

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Tug Fork floating, 2018

John Burchett has been working on these rivers for years. He's also on the West Virginia Flatwater Trails Commission which was created in 2020. It's charged with advising the state Department of Commerce while creating standard programs, research and support for the development of a state water trails system. And Burchett says the cleanup efforts are about more than building an economy. The float and fishing opportunities while doing work can also create a sense of place, belonging and new pride for the people in Williamson.

“We are trying to find ourselves, trying to figure out who we are, and tourism is something that we can latch on to right now, until we can move on and find different things for the community,” Burchett said.“It’s important that we start building back, and we're struggling. But every day, we make a little bit of progress forward. And that's the important thing is to move forward, everyday. If we don't, we're gonna be in trouble.”

Both John Burchett and Pete Runyon are helping other communities pursue West Virginia Water Trail status. In December they met with residents in McDowell County.

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Pete Runyon speaking to residents in Welch, W.Va.

Back in Mingo County they plan to keep pulling tires out of the Tug Fork River.

Anyone interested in learning how to test and monitor the water quality of streams and rivers is welcome to attend Volunteer Day on Saturday, April 9 in McDowell County. Williamson and a group of volunteers will meet at Panther State Forest from noon to 5 p.m.

Corrected: February 23, 2022 at 1:03 PM EST
A previous version of this article stated that Grace Williams and other Friends of the Tug Fork River applied for a 501c3 status. They haven't officially applied for the status but had the first board meeting to collect information. They expect to file soon.
Southern W.Va. Bureau Chief, Reporter/Producer, jlilly@wvpublic.org, 304-384-5981, @JessicaYLilly

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