West Virginia is known as “almost heaven”, as sang in the song called “Take Me Home, Country Roads” made famous by singer John Denver. West Virginia has its problems but despite these there are many reasons why people love West Virginia. One reason is the land. The state is so lovely that it has been called the Switzerland of America. West Virginia is also revered for its people. West Virginians pride themselves on being friendly, honest, and straightforward. There is also a proud past for this state. The state was born in the middle of the fire and fury of the Civil War. Many American celebrities called this place home. One of these luminaries was frontier trailblazer Daniel Boone. Others included Civil War general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, educator Booker T. Washington, and the novelist Pearl S. Buck. The Mountain State is a nickname given to WV. It’s people are called Mountaineers. Over the years West Virginians have worked to keep true to the stat’s bold motto: Montani Semper Liberi, which means Mountaineers Are Always Free.
West Virginia is sometimes considered to be the most western of the eastern states and sometimes the most eastern of the western states. Some people also refer to it as the most southern of the northern states and others claim it is the most northern of the southern states. West Virginia comes to mind instantly when geographers use the term “border state.” This state has an odd shape. It looks a little like a frog with its two hind legs in a full back kick. The parts that look like legs are the Northern and Eastern panhandles. There are no other states with two panhandles. The five states that border this border state are Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Rivers and mountain peaks form most of the boundary lines. This state is 24,231 square miles (or 62,758 square kilometers). It is the forty-first in size among the states. Its capital and largest city is Charleston.
Three land regions make up West Virginia. The first is the Appalachian Ridge and Valley. Here are the state’s tallest mountains, the Alleghenies. They rise majestically along the eastern border with Virginia. The state’s highest point, the 4,863 feet above sea level. (1,482 meters) Spruce Knob. The second region is the Appalachian Plateau. This region is west of the Alleghenies’ peaks. Here spreads a rugged land region. This plateau, which covers about eighty percent of the state’s area, holds most of the state’s population. In this region are West Virginia’s largest deposits of coal, oil, natural gas, and salt. The final region is the Blue Ridge. The lovely Blue Ridge Mountains stand at the eastern tip of the state’s Eastern Panhandle. They are part of the Appalachian chain. The fertile valley of the Shenandoah River runs through the Blue Ridge region and provides rich soil for apple and peach orchards.
Kanawha is the mightiest river in West Virginia. It starts at the meeting of the Gauley and New rivers and empties into the Ohio. Three rivers, The Elk, Coal, and Pocatalico, run into the Kanawha as it flows toward the Ohio. Other West Virginia tributaries of the Ohio in the western part of the state include Fishing Creek, Mill Creek, the Little Kanawha, the Guyandotte, and the Big Sandy. The Monogahela River and its branches are to the north. These are the Cheat, Tygart, and West Fork rivers. Flowing north into Pennsylvania, the Monongahela, along with the Allegheny River, forms the Ohio River at Pittsburgh. The Shenandoah, Back Creek, and Cacapon rivers flow north in the Eastern Panhandle into the Potomac River. In the southern part of the state are the scenic rivers the New River and the Greenbrier. There are no natural lakes in the Mountain State. Reservoirs, or artificial lakes, have been created by dams built along the state’s river systems. The two largest reservoirs are Summersville Lake and Sutton Lake, which are both located in the central part of the state.
Most of West Virginia was once, centuries ago, covered by magnificent forests. Forest fires and the work of loggers and pioneer farmers wiped out those once-towering woods. Now about four-fifths of the state has been covered by second-growth and later-growth trees. Evergreen forests of white pine, red spruce, and hemlock rise on the mountain slopes and on the riverbanks. The most common hardwood trees are cherry and oak.
West Virginia’s forests are inhabited by deer, black bears, gray and red foxes, raccoons, opossums, minks, and skunks. In the waterways walleye, bass, and trout are now common. West Virginia is a nesting ground for over three hundred species of birds.
The weather in West Virginia is gentle, with warm, humid summers and mild winters. Because the Eastern Panhandle is near the Atlantic Ocean it has a moderate coastal climate. West Virginia sometimes, however, is subject to extremes of weather. On August 4, 1930 the temperature got up to 112 degrees Fahrenheit (44 degrees Celsius) in Moorefield and on December 30, 1917 the temperature was negative 37 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 38 degrees Celsius) in Lewisburg.
West Virginia is one of the few states in America in which a majority of the people live in rural communities. Nationwide, about one in every four Americans live in rural areas, but in West Virginia two of every three residents are rural dwellers. Small coal-mining towns are common in the state, and account for most of the large rural population.
Almost all Mountaineers today were born in the United States. Among the white population, English and German backgrounds are most common. Irish and Italian ancestors are also fairly common. Many West Virginias can trace their ancestry to the pioneers.
In the 1970s and 1980s new industries brought jobs and progress to West Virginia. For decades, West Virginia, especially the Appalachian region was one of the poorest areas in the U.S. Dependence on the sole industry of coal is central to the state’s long bout with poverty.
John Lederman, a German geographer was probably the first European person to see West Virginia soil. Between 1669 and 1670, he undertook three expeditions to the West for Governor William Berkeley of Virginia. In 1673, the wealthy Englishman James Needham led an expedition into the Appalachians. He hoped to open trade between Virginia and Cherokee nation to the south. Englishman Alexander Spotswood was a true adventurer in West Virginia’s early history. He led an expedition while serving as lieutenant governor of Virginia across the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1716.
Most of the western Virginia’s earliest settlers came from the colonies of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, not Virginia. In 1747 a young George Washington visited western Virginia for the first time. At the time he was working as an apprentice with a surveying company commissioned by Lord Fairfax, who was the largest landowner in Virginia. Washington bathed in the mineral waters of Berkeley Springs, and he was amazed by the beauty of the land around him. He came back time and time again.
About ten thousand white settlers lived in what later became the state of West Virginia by 1758. Almost all the pioneers operated farms in the Eastern Panhandle region. In the trans-Allegheny region frontier communities were few and far between. Western Virginia became a battle ground because Pennsylvania had claimed some of its territory and the French and their Indian allies coveted the territory as well. This fighting was part of the French and Indian War. Despite the proclamation issued in 1763 by King George III that forbid further settlement west of the Alleghenies the pioneers continued to come. From its beginning, western Virginia developed a separate identity from the older, eastern part of the colony. The settlers of western Virginia played an important role in the American victory over England.
Diseases were a far greater peril than Indians were on the western Virginia frontier. Many children were killed by measles, whooping cough, and diphtheria. There were few doctors to consult so the pioneer people treated sicknesses with medicines made from tree bark, roots, and herbs. Some of these remedies were taught to them by the Indians. Settlements continued to grow in western Virginia after the Revolutionary War.
Western Virginia’s first major industry was salt. West Virginia’s coal industry grew from salt making. To produce salt crystals brine had to be boiled for hours. Wood burned too quickly to be a dependable source of heat for commercial salt kettles. Because of this salt makers attempted to use coal and found it to be an excellent fuel.
In 1829 and 1850, the Virginians hosted a constitutional convention with hope of solving the problems between the east and west. The people from the west wanted to have more representation in the state legislature and also believed that all men should have the right to vote, whether you owned property or not. In 1829 at the first convention, it was the eastern plantation owners who refused the requests of the westerners and sent them back home without any satisfaction. It was at the 1850 convention when the powerful plantation owners made some compromises with the westerners easing some of the tension between the east and west. Eventually the westerners received more representation in the lower house and their request that all men would have the right to vote. Many delegates from western Virginia remained unhappy with the results. The explosive issue of slavery caused a major split between east and west.
West Virginia became a state during the turmoil of the dreadful Civil War. A convention met at the city of Richmond just five days after the bombardment of Fort Sumter. It was declared that the state of Virginia would secede from the American Union. The overwhelming majority of convention delegates from Virginia’s western regions, however, voted against secession. A delegate by the name of John S. Carlile and other westerners organized two conventions that met in Wheeling. The second convention declared that western Virginia would form a separate state. The will of the Wheeling convention was confirmed by a general election held on October 24, 1861. The capital of the newly formed state became Wheeling. The US Congress approved a bill that allowed West Virginia to enter the Union after a long debate. West Virginia became the nation’s thirty-fifth state when Abraham Lincoln signed a bill on June 20, 1863. This states first governor was Arthur I. Boreman.
After the Civil War the state of Virginia asked West Virginia to reunite with it and form one state as it had been before. West Virginia refused. When Virginia lost hope of regaining her old western region they presented West Virginia with a shocking bill. Virginia claimed that West Virginia owed millions of dollars as its share of the state debt incurred before the Civil War. The question of state debt went to court and bounced about the legal system for forty-five years. Eventually it was settled with West Virginia paying $12.4 million. In 1877 a special election was held that allowed the people to select a town to be their permanent state capital. The people chose Charleston, and the state capital was officially moved there in 1885.
After the Civil War an industrial expansion swept West Virginia that was led by railroads. Henry Gassaway Davis and his son-in-law Stephen Elkins were two of West Virginia’s richest industrialists. Oil and natural gas production increased by the early 1900s in West Virginia.
Quickly coal became the leading industry in this state. The coal industry brought a small army of miners and their families to the Mountain State. King Coal was a cruel monarch for miners and their families. Wages in the coal industry were low. Most miners were paid based on how much coal they blasted out of the shaft and shoveled onto hopper cars. Despite efforts by mine owners to discourage union activity labor unions developed.
In the 1930s, The Great Depression caused industries throughout the United States and the world to shut down many of their facilities. In the United States 1/4 of all workers became unemployed almost overnight. West Virginia's unemployment rate was ever higher than the national average. President Franklin Roosevelt aided West Virginia by creating several new projects focusing on putting jobs back in West Virginia to help ease the unemployment situation.
With the help of The Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), many of the unemployed men in West Virginia would attain gainful employment working in the forests, building fire-watch stations, and cutting hiking trails in various locations in West Virginia. The CCC would also help with their housing during this trying time for the newly employed workers. They would build 52 camps throughout West Virginia to house the workers. Fera (The Federal Emergency Relief Administration) employed sixty thousand West Virginians to build new roads and highways. In total, FERA would spend over $51 million in West Virginia.
Although most areas of the US enjoyed a period of prosperity during the 1950s, West Virginia’s economy underwent a time of painful adjustment. The coal industry was again crucial to the state’s prospects. Two setbacks affected the people working in the coal industry. The first was the decline of coal use as industries and households switched to other sources of fuel. The second was the automated machinery that was able to produce rivers of coal with very few laborers. Although steel and glass making expanded in the postwar period they were not able to absorb all the workers who were no longer needed by the coal industry. The great West Virginia exodus began in the years following World War II. To look for work thousands of West Virginians left their home state and went North to the industrial cities in search of employment. Those that left were generally the smartest and youngest. Those that remained were often the elderly that collected some sort of public aid. The mass exodus reduced the Mountain State’s population by 7% in the 1950s.
In West Virginia now new industries have rose up to replace the state’s reliance on coal. The basis of West Virginia’s chemical industry is the great salt deposits which were discovered along the Ohio River. In the 1970s the chemical industry provided 27,000 people with jobs in this state. During the same time period the glassmaking industry employed as many as 14,000 people here.
An essential part of the well-being of modern West Virginia is cooperation between the state government and private enterprise. West Virginia is governed by its second constitution. It was written in 1872 and has been amended more than 50 times.
The most expensive single item in the state budget is maintaining the public school system. West Virginia’s law requires that all children from ages seven to fifteen attend school. There are about 19 accredited universities and colleges in the mountain state. One of the most influential educators in American history, Booker T. Washington, called West Virginia home.
More than 50% of the jobs open to West Virginians are in service industries. Approximately 22% of the state’s workers are employed in wholesale or retail trade. Another 21% is employed by the government.
There are approximately 4,000 miles (6,437 kilometers) of railroad track and 35,000 miles (56,326 kilometers) of roads. In 1955 the West Virginia Turnpike was completed. It runs through the heart of the state. It is hailed as a marvel of engineering. A dramatic increase in tourism has resulted from improved roads throughout the state.
”America the Beautiful: West Virginia” by R. Conrad Stein