The area's rivers are used by many for recreational activities such as fishing and boating, but they also serve as a place where barges travel, carrying billions of dollars worth of coal and other materials each year.
In fact, according to officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Huntington District, 245 million tons of bulk commodities valued at $29.6 billion were moved on the Ohio River system in 2010.
"In the Parkersburg-Marietta area - miles 171 to 185 on the Ohio River - including the Little Kanawha, there were 490,000 tons shipped in between those mile points (in 2010) and the amount received between those mile points was 1.6 million tons," said Lin Prescott, an economist in the Corps' navigation center.
Prescott noted that in 2010, coal made up 58 percent of the commodities shipped on the Ohio River system, while aggregates like limestone were the next most frequently shipped commodity.
Jeff Spear, president of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, pointed out that barge work is not easy.
"Some of these tows that come through Marietta...they're longer than anything that floats on the ocean," he said. "Those guys are really talented."
By the numbers
2,600 miles - the amount of commercially navigable waterways within the Ohio River system.
245 million tons - the amount of bulk commodities moved on the Ohio River system in 2010 (58 percent was coal).
$29.6 billion - the value of the commodities moved on the Ohio River system in 2010.
Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Huntington District.
Spear noted that barge traffic really started picking up around the time of the Civil War, mostly due to the rise of the coal market.
"Most of the south relied on northern coal for heating so the towing industry was huge in the late 1800s," he said. "Traditionally, anything that was bulk could go by barge and it's still that way."
Although there are dangers that go along with barge transport, it does have many benefits, according to officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Prescott said a barge puts out 19.3 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per million ton mile, as compared to the 29.6 tons put out by a train and 71.6 tons put out by a truck.
He added that a barge carries an average of 1,750 tons of material but a single truck or rail car is not able to haul nearly that much.
"You would need 16 rail cars to haul that one barge worth or 70 trucks on the road," he said.
Prescott said there is also less fuel required to move commodities by barge versus moving them by train or truck.
"A barge will move the commodity 576 ton miles on one gallon. For rail, it's 413 and for truck it goes to 155," he said.
Prescott said the large amount of coal moved on the river can be attributed mostly to the fact that American Electric Power is a big user of the river system.
Headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., AEP River Operations has offices in seven locations, including Lakin, W.Va., less than 50 miles southwest of Parkersburg.
"As far as coal goes, we move in excess of 30 million tons a year for the parent company," said Mark Stoppel, director of sales and logistics for AEP River Operations. "We haul different types of coal to different plants AEP operates and coal for other utility companies and we haul coal that goes to the New Orleans area for export."
Stoppel said the company operates 3,250 barges. Aside from coal, the barges also haul 75 million tons of other products annually, including grain, steel, fertilizers, alloys and road salt. He said they travel nearly all of the nation's river systems.
"On the Ohio River, a typical tow of barges is 15 barges and it's pushed by boat. That boat will have anywhere from as few as nine to as many as 12 crew," Stoppel explained. "Generally the crews are out for a four-week time period and they have a four-week time period off. When they're on the boat, most of the crew works two six-hour shifts."
Price Inland Terminal, located in Belpre, is another company that has barges on the river.
Since 1969, the company has specialized in the loading, unloading and handling of building materials, as well as waterway transportation, according to its operations manager, Rudy Pennock.
In 2002, it merged with The Shelly Company and began operating its own barges. Today, it operates with 21 barges, four tow boats, a portable unloading rig, three docks and a barge loading facility.
"Our barges transport around 750,000 tons per year of sand and gravel from Shelly Materials Inc. owned quarries in Reedsville and Portland, Ohio, to customers on the Ohio, Kanawha and Monongahela Rivers," Pennock said. "The sand and gravel barged from the quarries are typically used in construction projects."
He added that there is a variety of agricultural, industrial and aggregate products loaded and unloaded at Price Inland, including sand and gravel, steel beams, limestone, coal and fertilizer.
Pennock said the company has 22 employees, most of whom work on or around barges every day.
"When a tow is being transported on the river, there will be a crew of three employees - one boat pilot and two deckhands," he said.
He noted that a normal tow consists of 15 barges and between 1,600 and 1,800 tons of material per barge. For a full tow, he said, the average speed is five to six miles an hour, with the industry standard calling for a barge to travel 100 miles in a 24 hour time period.