Repeated enough, hearsay can morph into what would seem fact, despite evidence. The New River is a good case-in-point. “The New River and the Nile are the only rivers that flow north.” I heard this often as a child growing up in West Virginia.
The New River is in many ways remarkable. It crosses through a mountain range, rather than descending out of one. It’s also one of the oldest rivers in the world, though, despite that, it was ironically named “New,” likely because it flowed away from the settled coastlands.
But it is NOT one of only a few rivers that flow north—not by a longshot.
As it was sometimes taught in schools in southern West Virginia, the New River and Nile River were among the few rivers, or were the only rivers, that flowed northward.
How did this tale become common currency in West Virginia classrooms?
I heard it repeated often as a student, and I don’t mean to disparage teachers, as this concerns a matter of human nature, but a glance at any map, even a map of West Virginia, provides plenty of evidence otherwise. The New River is not one of the only rivers that flow north.
Many rivers in West Virginia flow north—the New, Cheat, West Fork, Tygart Valley, Buckhannon, and Monongahela. The Youghiogheny River, which begins in West Virginia but quickly leaves the state from Maryland and Pennsylvania, also flows north.
In addition to the Nile, there are plenty of examples of northward flowing rivers worldwide. In North America alone, there’s the Red, the Bighorn, the Little Bighorn, the Oswego, the Genesee.
Now that the Internet provides us all a means to discover facts to which teachers a quarter-century ago had no access, the fiction that the New River is one of the only northward-flowing rivers can be laid to rest.
How did rumor of the river’s remarkable status enter the classroom. I’ve spoken to park rangers employed by the New River Gorge National River and to other educators and historians, and two possibilities have come to light.
First, because both the New and Nile may be among the oldest river systems on Earth, it’s possible residents of southern West Virginia, and perhaps much of West Virginia, confused the matter, as both the New and Nile also flow north.
Second, some people consider the direction North as being upward, though all rivers necessarily flow downward. So it’s possible that the origin of this alternative fact may lie somewhere in the idea that the river flows uphill, which would indeed be remarkable.
Do you have any alternate ideas about how such rumor became lore? Did you hear this rumor as a child as well? Please use the form below to share!