Teays River

ES 767 Quaternary Geology, Fall 2011

Wesley C. Smith


The Teays River was a preglacial river which drained a large portion of the east-central United States. The river met its end when Pre-Illinoisan (Early Pleistocene) ice sheets dammed the region, causing the formation of a large glacial lake, resulting in breached drainage divides and the formation of new drainage channels. These changes would eventually result in the creation of the modern Ohio River drainage system.

Geographic Setting

The Teays River was a preglacial river, comparable in size to its eventual successor, the Ohio River. The Teays River drained a large portion of the east-central U.S., including almost two thirds of Ohio (Hansen, 1995). The River's headwaters were located near Blowing Rock, North Carolina and subsequently flowed through Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. (Hansen, 1995).

Figure 1. Teays River Valley (From Teller, 1991)

The largest tributary to the Teays River was the Old Kentucky River (Teller 1991), which extended from southern Kentucky through Frankfort (where I currently reside), and subsequently flowed northeast, meeting other tributaries and eventually joining the Teays.

In Virginia and West Virginia, the Teays River flowed in the valleys of the modern New River and Kanawha River (Hansen, 1995). The river then flowed west to Scioto County, Ohio and to Ross County, Ohio near Chillicothe. The valley then disappears under glacial sediments but can be tracked using water well yields and other means (Hansen, 1995). A total of seven tills have been identified within the Teays River Valley (Andrews, 2004). In portions of Ohio, the buried valley is up to 2 miles wide and lies beneath 500 FT of glacial sediments (Hansen, 1995).

Figure 2. Google Earth image showing remnant of Teays River Valley in Southern Ohio (N-S oriented river is the present day Scioto River).

Teays River Origins

The origin of the Teays River is up for debate. Some believe that the Teays formed during the Tertiary (Hansen, 1995). This scenario dates the formation of the Teays to approximately five million years ago, when water flowing from the Appalachian Mountain region carved channels while flowing to lower elevations (Ohio Department of Natural Resources). Another possibility is that the westward flowing Teays was a result of even earlier Pleistocene glaciations (Figure 3), which rerouted an earlier drainage system flowing to the Great Lakes region (Gray, 1991; Andrews 2004; Dutch 1999).

Figure 3. Possible Pre-Teays Drainage (From Dutch, 1999)

Glaciation and the Teays River

Pre-Illinoisan (Early Pleistocene) glaciations brought an end to the Teays River (Hansen, 1987), although specific dates were poorly constrained prior to recent cosmogenic isotope dating of fluvial deposits (Andrews, 2004). Dating of sediments suggests that the glacial advance which blocked the Teays did so sometime between 1.3 and .78 million years ago (Andrews, 2004).

The advance of ice sheets eventually dammed the Teays resulting in the formation of glacial Lake Tight, which is named after William George Tight, professor of geology and botany at Denison University. Tight published an article entitled “Drainage modifications in south-eastern Ohio and adjacent parts of West Virginia and Kentucky” in 1903 (Hansen, 1987). The article gave evidence for the existence of a preglacial river that had origins in the Appalachians (Tight, 1903).

Figure 4. Glacial Lake Tight (From Hansen, 1987)

Lake Tight rose to an elevation of nearly 900 feet and created a number of lakes in tributary valleys (Hansen, 1995). The lake extended into portions of Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky and covered approximately 7000 square miles. Dating of the seasonal changes in preserved lake bottom sediments (known as the Minford Clay) indicate the lake was present for greater than 6500 years (Hansen 1995). These clays were analyzed by Bonnett et al and determined to have reversed polarity, indicating that if they were deposited in the Pleistocene, they were deposited during the Matuyama reversed polarity chron (Bonnett, 1991). This data suggests a glaciation and Lake Tight formation date between 0.79 and 1.6 million years ago (Bonnet, 1991).

The waters of Lake tight created new drainage as it breached drainage divides and created new drainage channels which were lower in elevation than the Teays (Hansen, 1995). This new drainage system named Deep stage would mark the beginning of the Ohio River system, although subsequent glaciations would be needed to carve the modern Ohio River (Hansen, 1995).

The Teays River gradually changed its course as glaciations dammed and filled trunk valleys several times, forcing rivers beyond the glacial margin to establish new channels (Teller, 1991). This likely happened in a step process as continental ice sheets invaded the Teays River watershed (Teller, 1991). The largest tributary – the Old Kentucky River – was diverted resulting in flow of these waters west to the Old Ohio River (see figure 1 for river locations) (Teller, 1991).

Figure 5. Modern Ohio, Kentucky and Licking Rivers near northern Kentucky (Musser, 2007).

Modern Remnants

Although the Teays River no longer exists it has resulted in many lasting impacts. Many people live atop the ancient Teays River Valley which is filled with glacial sediments. These sand and gravel sediments create a productive aquifer for municipal water supplies (Ohio Department of Natural Resources). In addition to providing a groundwater resource, the river also has an impact on the biology of the region. Shawnee State Forest contains isolated patches of several Appalachian plants far to the north of their native ranges. Their origins are believed to be from deposition as seeds were carried downstream from their original habitat prior to the glaciations (Ohio Department of Natural Resources). The river is also credited for isolating endangered species of cave beetles in Ohio, where they are the only known specimens north of the Ohio River. The beetles were likely stranded as the Teays river changed course (Ohio Department of Natural Resources). In addition, the Minford clay is mined in some areas as a raw material for making brick and ceramic products (Hansen, 1995).


Andrews, William M. Jr., 2004, Geologic Controls on Plio-Pleistocene Drainage Evolution of the Kentucky River in Central Kentucky, PhD Dissertation, University of Kentucky.

Bonnett, R.B., Noltimier, H.C., and Sanderson, D.D., 1991, Apaleomagnetic study of the early Pleistocene Minford Silt Member, Teays Formation, West Virginia, in Melhorn, W.N., and Kempton, K.P., eds., Geology and hydrogeology of the Teays-Mahoment Bedrock Valley System: Boulder, Colorado, Geological Society of America Special Paper 258.

Dutch, Steven, 1999, Pleistocene Glaciers and Geography, Accessed Online http://www.uwgb.edu/dutchs/earthsc202notes/glacgeog.htm.See glaciers.

Gray, H.H., 1991 Origin and history of the Teays drainage system: The view from midstream, in Melhorn, W.N., and Kempton, K.P., eds., Geology and hydrogeology of the Teays-Mahoment Bedrock Valley System: Boulder, Colorado, Geological Society of America Special Paper 258.

Hansen, Michael C., 1987, The Teays River, Ohio Geology Newsletter Summer 1987, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Geological Survey.

Hansen, Michael C., 1995, The Teays River, GeoFacts No. 10, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Geological Survey.

Musser, Karl, 2007, Ohio River Map, Accessed Online http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ohiorivermap.png.See ohio.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources: Ohio's Ancient Nile-The Teays River, Accessed Online http://www.dnr.state.oh.us/parks/magazinehome/magazine/sprsum04/teaysriver/tabid/364/Default.aspx.See ohio.

Teller, J.T., and Goldthwait, R.P., 1991, The Old Kentucky River; A major tributary to the Teays River, in Melhorn, W.N., and Kempton, K.P., eds., Geology and hydrogeology of the Teays-Mahoment Bedrock Valley System: Boulder, Colorado, Geological Society of America Special Paper 258.

Tight, W.G., 1903, Drainage modifications in southeastern Ohio and adjacent parts of West Virginia and Kentucky: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 13.

Page created to fulfill requirements of ES 767 Quaternary Geology.
Emporia State Univerity, Earth Science Department: See earth.
Webpage submitted on November 28, 2011