FACT CHECK: Is the New River one of few rivers that flow north?

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FACT CHECK: Is the New River one of few rivers that flow north?
The New, flowing northward, drops over Sandstone Falls. Photo courtesy Ed Rehbein.

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va.—Repeated enough, hearsay can morph into what would seem fact, despite the evidence. The New River is a good case in point. "The New River and the Nile are the only rivers that flow north." Many students heard this often as a child growing up near the New in southern West Virginia.

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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 it was ironically named "New," likely because it flowed away from the settled coastlands whence early explorers came.

West Virginia's principal rivers are included in this map provided courtesy of Geology.com
Several West Virginia rivers flow north.

But the New River is NOT one of only a few rivers that flow north—not by a long shot.

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. But a glance at a map of rivers of the world immediately disproves this lore.

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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. Still, 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 NewCheatWest ForkTygart ValleyBuckhannon, 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, there are the Red, the Bighorn, the Little Bighorn, the Oswego, the Genesee.

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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.

Conley Hill rises beyond the mouth of the New River at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia.
Conley Hill rises beyond the mouth of the New River at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia.

How did rumors of the river's remarkable status enter the classroom? Park rangers employed by the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve and other educators and historians cite two possibilities.

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 the origin of this alternative fact may lie somewhere in the idea that the river flows uphill, which would be remarkable.

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