The River’s The Thing: West Virginia Whitewater Rafting’s 50th Anniversary

This year marks the 50th anniversary of commercial whitewater rafting in West Virginia. What began as a dream among three brothers from Pennsylvania grew into a key component of West Virginia’s tourism industry. Fifty years on, West Virginia sees a steady influx of visitors looking to challenge some of the best whitewater in the United States. These days, the rafting outfitter experience goes well beyond whitewater rafting, but it’s the river’s natural beauty and mystique of the area that compels people from all over to make the trip to Southern West Virginia. When they get here, they find that, in addition to rafting and outdoor adventure, there’s so much to see and do.

Commercial Rafting Comes to the New River
In 1968, Wildwater Unlimited opened its doors in Thurmond, starting an industry that would expand to 21 companies and see over 250,000 people raft the rivers of West Virginia at its peak. Starting out with a family loan to buy a couple of pickup trucks and army surplus rafts, Jon Dragan, along with his brothers Tom and Chris and his future wife Melanie, took 80 people down the New River in their first year of business.

The Early Days
Three years later the next outfitter, Mountain River Tours, opened for business, with several more to follow in the mid-1970’s. The industry appealed to the American idea of the rugged individualist and back-to-nature ethos taking hold in the country (think Jeremiah Johnson). Before the advent of ‘man trips’ and ‘glamping’, whitewater rafting in West Virginia was all about roughing it; lodging and amenities were fully secondary to the experience itself. The rafting was the thing.

This interview with Brian Campbell, who founded The Rivermen rafting company with his family sums it up best: “Our first campground was out at Concho which overlooks Thurmond,” added Campbell. “We didn’t have running water, we had a well and we took showers underneath a hose.”

Boom Goes The Industry
By 1977 the New River Gorge Bridge was completed making getting to the area easierthan ever before. Due to the burgeoning interest in the area as a tourist destination and in no small part to the work of the outfitters and Senator Nick J. Rahall, the New River was declared a National River in 1978 by the National Park Service. The park was created “for the purpose of conserving and interpreting outstanding natural, scenic, and historic values and objects in and around the New River Gorge and preserving as a free-flowing stream an important segment of the New River in West Virginia for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

With the floodgates opened, the West Virginia white water industry saw continuous growth into the mid-1990’s across the state, with the majority occurring on the New and Gauley rivers. There were over 20 outfitters on these two rivers alone, each with a distinctive personality and culture that provided something for everyone. These amazing rivers attracted people not only from surrounding states, but from all over the world.

The Rafting Industry Today
Today’s rafting outfitter landscape is markedly different from both the humble origins of the industry and the boom days of the 1990’s. Many of the storied outfitters are no more, consolidated into the resort outfitters that exist today or gone by the wayside. The six outfitters that remain on the New and Gauley offer a variety of rafting experiences from the full-service, all-inclusive resorts with dining, lodging, zip lines, mountain biking to the smaller boutique outfitters that hearken back to the early days.

Ready to experience West Virginia whitewater? Find an outfitter here!

As the world continues to evolve, as more daily diversions come online, the next 50 years of rafting in West Virginia may prove more vital than ever. Though the industry has changed over the years, rafting West Virginia whitewater still delivers the same thrills and that same connection with the outdoors as it ever did. No matter which rafting outfitter you choose, you’re sure to enjoy yourself because, just as in the early years of the West Virginia rafting industry, the river’s the thing.