The Tug Fork River was recently given the designation a West Virginia Flatwater Trail by the West Virginia Department of Transportation’s Recreation Trail Advisory Committee. It’s called the Bloody Mingo Tug Fork Water Trail and visitors are invited to kayak, swim, or even fish. The Mighty Tug, as it’s known, flows along Mingo County past towns like Matewan and Williamson.
This is the second in a series called West Virginia Water Trails. Hear stories of people coming together in southern West Virginia to create new economies and communities—with waterways. This is made possible in part by the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.
Tug tires on the tug fork
It’s a warm summer day and a group of volunteers are out on the Tug Fork River. Some, John Burchett, haul tires up from the bottom of the river and load them onto a boat connected to an amphibious vehicle.
“A lot of these tires have white walls,” Burchett said. “Today you don’t see anyone driving around with white walls. That’s at least the 80’s. Some of these tires have half of the sidewall as a white wall. This goes back to the 40’s and 50’s. So these are really old tyres.”
How the tires got into the river is a mystery, or at least a known secret.
“The day before regulation, we think before there was really any enforcement of what little regulation there was, the little gas stations, gas stations, would sell you some tires and then take out your old ones and dump them in a river,” Burchett said. “They either didn’t know any better or just didn’t care enough. I do not know what it is. But yes, it’s a shame that our grandfathers’ sins are what we’re cleaning up today.”
Tire cleaning is not easy. It is intense physical work that requires extensive collaboration between government agencies and volunteers. In addition to volunteers, the environmental protection agencies of Kentucky and West Virginia work together. The Tug Fork borders both states.
Previously, thousands of “mighty tugboats” were needed to pull more than 5,000 tires out of the water. There’s even an annual volunteer event called the Tire Tug of Warm on the Tug Fork.
“It’s a mess, but we’re putting a dent in it,” Burchett said. “There are still thousands of tires in this river. Several thousand, maybe hundreds of thousands of tires in that river.”
Burchett and other volunteers hope the work continues to pay off, not only for the health of the river but also for the region’s economic future.
things have changed
Burchett grew up in Williamson, Mingo County. It is 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 crowded with shops, with people, it was a struggle to get down the sidewalks,” he said. “Today the coal industry collapsed enormously. Our downtown is suffering. We have empty shop fronts and not many people on the streets.”
As jobs disappeared, the population declined and schools consolidated. Burchett says the city has lost more than one income.
“The Williamson Wolfpack was a regular at the state basketball championships,” he said. “We lost a big part of our identity when we lost Williamson High School.”
Part of the area’s identity that hasn’t been lost was its history. Especially the infamous ones Dispute between Hatfield and McCoy.
“The feud is over, but we’re still enjoying their story,” Burchett said.
In recent years, this history has helped attract tourists Hatfield and McCoy ATV Trail System. Burchett hopes to expand what he calls the “outdoor adventure amusement park.” Tug Fork River.
“You can spend a day on the trails and then spend a day in the water,” Burchett said. “That might keep our tourists here for a day longer. It gives them something to do. Give them another reason to come. Maybe they get to the river and then they discover the trail system and want to ride the trails.”
work on that tractor fork gotta keep going
Volunteers like Burchett still have work to do. There are still thousands of tires that need to be pulled out of the river.
The tug fork stays tuned too latest West Virginia list of damaged water bodies.
“The entire length of the tug fork touching West Virginia is compromised for fecal coliform bacteria,” said Grace Williams, executive director of the Big Laurel Learning Center in Kermit said. “So you usually get that from sewage drains or damaged sewage treatment plants.”
Williams is also part of a group set to train in both Kentucky and West Virginia Test and monitor water quality.
“I think it’s really going to be key to our own knowledge,” she said. “I went kayaking with the Tug Fork. I went kayaking with the Guyandotte. So I hope this will give me a first-hand experience of the results we are getting.”
The idea is to test the tributaries of the tug to see which streams need the most help. Samples are taken to a lab to be tested for E-Coli, fecal coliforms and heavy metals.
“That’s when we know it’s going to be about sewer system and sewer line repairs,” Williams said. “That’s going to be the hard part, getting money for it and getting people to do it. It’s often difficult to put land in a septic tank when you’re really close to the river.”
Williams and the Friends of the Tug Fork River already have a plan. They create a watershed group. The group recently applied for 501c3 status.
“The idea is that once we’re a nonprofit organization, we’re going to be better able to get grants,” Williams said. “I know there’s a lot of money that we’re hoping we can use … that has to be able to go through a 501c3.”
Friends of the Tug Fork River is a group that connects on Facebook to organize events like tire cleaning. Pete Runyon created the site five years ago.
“I didn’t realize the impact it was having on our community,” Runyon said. “Because after we did that and pulled out 2,323 tires, people all started looking out for things and jumping on board and helping us because they saw how we were trying to make a positive difference in our area.”
For Runyon, part of this change means more recreational fishing and non-motorized boating on the Tug Fork River.
“Rather than traveling away from here to kayak other places or lakes, we just go out our back door now,” Runyon said. “If you come here on a weekend you will see all types of kayaks on this river. You will see people fishing almost every day.”
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, and be like, ‘You know what? It used to look really bad, but check it out now,’” Runyon said.
John Burchett has worked on these rivers for years. He’s on the too West Virginia Flatwater Trails Commission which was established in 2020. It is tasked with advising the State Department of Commerce while creating standard programs, research, and support for the development of a state waterway system. And Burchett says the cleanup is about more than building an economy. The on-the-job swimming and fishing opportunities can also create a sense of home, belonging, and renewed pride for the people of Williamson.
“We’re trying to find ourselves, trying to figure out who we are, and tourism is something we can hold on to now until we can move on and find other things for the community,” Burchett said. “It’s important, we’re starting to rebuild and we’re fighting. But every day we make a small step forward. And that’s the most important thing to move forward every day. If we don’t do that, we’ll get in trouble.”
Both John Burchett and Pete Runyon help other communities achieve West Virginia Flatwater Trail status. In December, they met with McDowell County residents.
Back in Mingo County, they plan to continue pulling tires from the Tug Fork River.
Anyone interested in learning it Test and monitor water quality of Streams and Rivers is invited to attend McDowell County Volunteer Day on Saturday, April 9th. Williamson and a group of volunteers meet at Panther State Forest from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m