Origin of name "Polemic Run" may arguably remain a W.Va. mystery

Origin of name
Polemic Run Road leads off the US-19 expressway near Birch River, West Virginia. (Photo courtesy David Sibray)

BIRCH RIVER, W.Va. — Each day, more than 10,000 motorists pass the turn-offs onto Polemic Run Road in central West Virginia, but few leave the US-19 expressway and wander into the wooded hills to the west. Those who do gain access to a world few others see.


The one-lane road mounts steeply up Barnett Hill, as it has for more than 100 years, then descends the tumbling run past cemeteries and old churches and through dark groves of hemlock. If your car handles well on the backroads, the hour's journey off the beaten path in southern Braxton County is well worth the trip, no matter the season.

1893 may be earliest official mapping.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the run and road is the name "Polemic" itself. What is "Polemic?" And why is the stream named that?

The word "polemic" isn't used much today, but sure was in the 1800s, particularly among settlers who liked to debate — a popular form of entertainment in the hills, especially where religion and politics were concerned.


, though not in the feuding or squabbling sense. It's a rhetorical argument. Polemic people might be regarded as contrary and contentious. The word was first used in the 1630s and came from the Greek "polemikós" meaning "of war" or "for war."

The mystery of Polemic Run concerns how this reasonably rare word came to describe a creek. What would have made a creek argumentative? Not more than 50 miles southward, there is a Contrary Creek. Still, in that case, the name is somewhat more apparent: its lower section runs contrary to other nearby streams that feed into Keeney's Creek, a tributary of the New River near Winona.

Little about the descent or direction of Polemic Run as it drops toward the Little Birch River seems contrary or contentious. The first reference found to the stream is from the U.S. Geologic Survey map of 1893 and a survey report published in 1917, which only mentioned the run as a tributary of the Little Birch River.

A 1910 map shows a paralleling route.

A 1910 map shows two nearly parallel routes ascending south of Little Birch River — one following the run and the other ascending a ridge to the west, mounting in switchbacks.


Could it be that early road builders argued over which route would be best to build southward? The road that followed the creek may have been the more challenging to traverse, notably during high water in spring, while the high road might have been less muddy. Mud was an essential consideration in spring when wagon roads became nearly impassable, especially after the snowmelt.

Thus far, without any input from knowledgeable locals, the origin of the name may remain obscured by time, the route insignificant despite its exceptional notoriety due to its association with the U.S. 19 expressway off of which it leads.

An excursion off U.S. 19 and onto Polemic Run Road may be a welcome diversion for motorists traveling between Sutton, West Virginia, and Summersville, West Virginia. Beginning on U.S. 19, approximately one mile north of the village of Birch River, follow Polemic Run Road (rural route 19/3) about 1.5 miles to the summit of Barnett Hill. At the junction of Crooked Road on the left, Polemic Run Road becomes rural route 38. Continue approximately 3.7 miles to the end of Polemic Run Road at a bridge over Little Birch River. Turn right after crossing the bridge and follow Route 28 about 2.8 miles upstream along the Little Birch River to the U.S. 19 expressway.

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