History of the Watershed

History of the Watershed

Wetlands Sugar Hill

Sugar Hill, the present-day site of Baron DeTuBeuf’s failed settlement in southwest Virginia

Introduction and Early History

To get an idea of why The Wetlands exists on the UVa-Wise campus today, it’s important to look back at the legacy left behind on the landscape by previous activities. The foundation for that legacy was laid down in a time even before human activity: the time when the vast coalfields of the Cumberland Plateau were created. Formed during the Pennsylvanian Period around 300 million years ago, these coalfields originated from vast lowland swamps full of plant and animal life that ultimately died and settled into deposits of organic matter. Over time, these deposits were compressed and transformed into the highly-combustible coal deposits that form the basis of the central Appalachian economy today. The carbon that we release into the atmosphere when burning coal, in fact, was once bound up in the cells of the prehistoric organisms that populated those ancient swamps millions of years before the present day.

Before that coal was mined by the mountains’ human populations, Native Americans inhabited the larger Appalachian region until the encroachment of European settlers led to the  establishment of Russell County in 1786. Six years later, Baron Francois Pierre DeTuBeuf, a French nobleman, acquired 150,000 acres of the county and established St. Marie on the Clinch River at the present site of St. Paul, Virginia. That settlement was broken up in 1795 when the Baron was murdered, presumably with robbery as a motive since he had recently received 600 pounds of sterling from the state for improvements to the settlement. The property the Baron had mortgaged encompassed what is now UVa-Wise and the surrounding region.

In 1853, the Commonwealth foreclosed the mortgage and auctioned off the land with Hiram H. Kilgore becoming the new owner. As Wise County formed and settlement increased, Mr. Kilgore’s land was divided and sold many times. The site where The Wetlands now sits was sold to Milburn Gilliam, who farmed the land with his wife, Annie. With the farm not being as successful as he had hoped, Mr. Gilliam decided to sell the land to Wise County for the Poor Farm, selling part in 1889 and the rest of the land in 1901.

Wetlands Bower Sturgill

Bowers-Sturgill Hall on the UVa-Wise Campus


The Poor Farm

The Wise County Poor Farm was developed in the late 1850’s and served the county for nearly a hundred years. For a salary of about $800 per year, the overseer would live at the farm as he ran the operation. Debtors would sell everything they owned to try to pay their debts and would have to work the rest off at the farm. Some Poor Farm inhabitants were young and simply had no family to care for them. Working until they were 18 or 21, they would be paid $500 in property, a bed, some bedding, and usually a cow. On the side of the hill currently behind Martha Randolph Hall, portals were made to get house coal for the farmhouse, now Crocket Hall. This may have been the first mining done on site, but no records exist to tell precisely when these portals were made.

The Poor Farm property, along with some land sold to the county by Nicholas Horne, was sold in 1956 by the Board of Supervisors for Wise County for $1.00 to start the college. Two years earlier, Clinch Valley College was created to offer higher education to residents of Virginia’s mountains. Before then, there were no public colleges west of Radford, so higher education was simply out of reach for most local residents.

Commercial Mining

Commercial mining on the site began in the late 1890’s in the form of deep mining, which uses tunnels or shafts to access coal seams loacted deep underground, usually beneath deposits of sandstone or shale. This process was still going on in surrounding properties when the college was first established. By the time surface mining came along, the land was so well used one Paramont Mining employee stated, “It looked like they had used a spoon to extract the coal during the deep mining operation.”

Surface mining operations were conducted around the site of The Wetlands, starting before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 and continuing up to the 1980’s. In contrast to deep mining, surface mining simply removes the layers of rock that overlie coal seams, exposing the coal to the surface and dramatically altering the landscape. The legacy of these mining operations can still be seen around campus, not only in the orange AMD sediment coming into the Wetlands, but in reclaimed sites in the backside of the property.

Wetlands Grayson

The Larger Watershed

Surface mining has several unintended effects that can negatively impact local ecosystems. Most dramatically, the removal of vegetation for extracting coal removes the natural buffer that typically keeps sediment from running directly into local streams. Instead, sediment “sheets” more easily off of bare, exposed rock strata and steep hillsides (think of heavy rainfall on a parking lot), ultmately entering local streams and the rivers that they ultimately flow into.

Without the presence of wetlands to capture water containing this sediment, allowing it to settle out by slowing the stream’s flow, runoff from abandoned mines on the UVa-Wise campus would eventually reach the Guest River by way of Yellow Creek, a small stream that flows through downtown Wise. Much of the Guest River watershed is located in historically mined lands, and as a result suffers from a host of impacts on water quality. Allowing the wetlands to capture this sediment before it leaves campus therefore keeps the Guest River and its downstream destination, the Clinch River, a bit cleaner.

Why would this matter? The Clinch River is actually one of North America’s most biodiverse watersheds, harboring an incredible number of aquatic mussels and North America’s largest salamander, the Eastern Hellbender. All of these species are sensitive to degraded water quality – many even being listed as Threatened or Endangered – and without mitigation measures like the Wetlands, negative impacts on water quality would flow unimpeded into one of region’s natural treasures.

The Wetlands even has more immediate, local impacts directly on the UVa-Wise campus. Another side effect of surface mining is acid mine drainage (AMD), a process through which exposed rock strata leach acidic drainage containing contaminants such as iron and sulfur into local streams. Many streams in southwest Virginia run orange to red, for example, due to the presence of these exposed, “pyritic” rocks upstream. In addition to capturing sediment, the Wetlands is lined with limestone to help neutralize the acidity of AMD in campus streams and allows metals to settle out of the water along with sediment, adding another dimension to its purpose as a restoration tool.