The Gauley River and its gorge have been a barrier as well as a corridor for human activity. The area was used for fishing and hunting by Native Americans for 10,000 years and was populated by Europeans in the late 1700s.
The confluence of the Gauley and Meadow rivers was the site of an 1861 Civil War battle. Union troops forced Confederate forces from their position overlooking the Gauley. The site is part of Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park.
In the late 1800s railroads and lumber companies came to the gorge to harvest its vast supply of timber. Industrial pollution drained directly into the Gauley River, earning it the nickname "the River of Ink." This pollution killed fish and prevented people from swimming and enjoying the river's water.
In 1922, the West Virginia State Wildlife League was successful in cleaning up the Gauley River, forcing the industrial plants along the Gauley's tributaries to dispose of waste properly.