State in eastern central USA, bordered to the south and east by Virginia, to the north by Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and to the west by Ohio and Kentucky; area 62,359 sq km/24,078 sq mi; population (2010) 1,852,994; capital Charleston. West Virginia is hilly and rugged, hence its nickname, and has a mean altitude of 460 m/1,500 ft, the highest average altitude east of the Mississippi River. The service industry is the most significant contributor to the economy, and the state's industrial base is mining. Industrial products include coal, chemicals, and glass. Agricultural output includes dairy and meat products. Other major towns and cities include Huntington, Parkersburg, Morgantown, Wheeling, Weirton, Fairmont, Beckley, Martinsburg, and Clarksburg. West Virginia was composed from those Virginia counties that, unsympathetic to the plantation South, refused to join Virginia in its 1861 secession from the Union at the start of the American Civil War. West Virginia was admitted to the Union in 1863 as the 35th US state.
Physical Very little of the land in West Virginia is flat, and because its boundaries follow natural features, such as rivers or mountain ranges, it has a ragged outline, with two panhandles to the north and the east of the state. For the most part, the state is hilly, rugged, and heavily forested.
Along the eastern border is part of the Appalachian Ridge and Valley region, which contains the Allegheny Mountains, formed from sedimentary rock eroded into a series of long ridges and valleys extending northeast to southwest across a number of eastern states. Streams and rivers flow along the valleys, although a few cut across the ridges in the so-called water gaps, formed where weak rock has been worn away or by geological lifting and folding. The Allegheny Front to the west of the region marks the point where the sharp ridges meet the softer folds of the Appalachian Plateau, and appears in places as spectacularly high rugged escarpment. The Appalachian Plateau, consisting of flat-topped uplands and rounded hills, covers the rest of the state, with many steep slopes rising to a height of over 1,220 m/4,000 ft in the northeast. Spruce Knob, at 1,483 m/4,863 ft, is the state's highest point.
The Ohio River forms the state's western boundary and provides a route to the Mississippi River in Illinois and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico. The Kanawha River cuts through the Appalachian Plateau from east to west, through Charleston to join the Ohio. Other important rivers draining into the Ohio are the New River and its branches, the Little Kanawha, the Big Sandy, and the Guyandotte rivers. The Monongahela River, rising in the north of West Virginia and flowing into Pennsylvania, is actually one of the sources of the Ohio, which originates in Pittsburgh. In the eastern panhandle, the Shenandoah River flows north to join the Potomac in the Potomac Highlands to eventually issue into Chesapeake Bay. West Virginia has no large natural lakes, but has a number of reservoirs created by dams.
Around four-fifths of West Virginia is covered by forest, and the lonely mountain world of the Alleghenies can be appreciated in the Monongahela National Forest, where both the Potomac and the Monongahela rivers rise.
West Virginia has warm summers and moderately cold winters.
Features West Virginia's rugged mountain scenery, mineral springs, wildlife, and state forests make it a popular destination for campers, hunters, anglers, hikers, skiers, and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts. Several of the state's rivers, especially the Gauley, the Cheat, and the New rivers, attract white-water rafters, kayakers, and canoeists.
George Washington was a regular visitor to Berkeley Springs, a health resort town in Morgan County. Originally called Bath after the English resort, it was opened to the public in 1756. The area around Berkeley Springs is a state park. White Sulphur Springs to the south of the Monongahela Forest is another elegant spa whose warm springs were known to the American Indians.
Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, on the Maryland border of the eastern panhandle, has views from Jefferson Rock over the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. The town of Harpers Ferry itself was the scene of a bloody battle in 1859 between John Brown, an opponent of slavery who led a raid on the government arsenal, and the forces of Robert E Lee, which ended in Brown's hanging. The incident underlined the conflict between North and South, and helped precipitate the Civil War. A waxworks museum in Harpers Ferry and the Jefferson County Courthouse at Charlestown, where he was tried, tell Brown's story.
National forests and parklands near Harpers Ferry include the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. Bluestone National Scenic River, Gauley River National Recreation Area, and New River Gorge National River are in the south of the state. The New River Gorge Bridge near Fayetteville is one of the longest steel arch bridges in the world (518 m/1,700 ft).
Historical sites include Blennerhassett Island Historical Park, in the Ohio River near Parkersburg. The mansion was built by Harman Blennerhassett in 1800, who with Aaron Burr and others was suspected of planning an independent government for the southwestern states. The mansion has been reconstructed from its original foundations.
Charleston's West Virginia State Museum documents the state's history and the golden dome of its capitol is one of the finest in the USA. Jackson's Mill near Weston was the childhood home of General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. One of the nation's oldest and largest American Indian burial grounds is in Moundsville on the Ohio River. It is 21 m/69 ft high and 275 m/900 ft in circumference and was opened up in 1838. An inscribed stone was removed from its vault and is now displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank is a centre for the study of radio waves from space. Visitors can inspect the radio telescopes and view a film about the observatory's work.
Culture Most inhabitants of West Virginia were born in the USA. They are of German, Irish, English, and American Indian origins, and many are the descendants of the immigrants who came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to work in the coal mines.
Almost two-thirds of West Virginians live in the rural areas, and many of their festivities reflect their agricultural heritage. In May there is the Strawberry Festival in Buckhannon, the Allegheny Mountain Wool Fair in Mingo, and the Woodchopping Festival in Webster County. Nature is celebrated at the Alpine Festival in Davis in March, the Wild Flower Pilgrimage at Blackwater Falls State Park in May, the Black Walnut Festival in Spencer in October, and the Mountain State Forest Festival in Elkins in October.
The Vandalia Gathering in Charleston in May celebrates the time when land speculators attempted to establish a new colony called Vandalia, to include most of what is now West Virginia west of the Alleghenies, along with parts of Pennsylvania and Kentucky. There are plays about West Virginia history at Grandview Park throughout June until Labor Day. Industrial history is marked by the Oil and Gas Festival in Sistersville in September.
The most popular event of the year is Bridge Day in October, when the New River Gorge Bridge near Fayetteville is closed and bungee jumpers, parachutists, and abseilers descend 267 m/876 ft off the bridge. This one-day event attracts some 200,000 people every year.
There are various arts and crafts festivals, including the Mountain State Art and Craft Fair in Ripley in July, and the Appalachian Arts and Crafts Festival in Beckley in late August. Water activities are celebrated at the Sternwheel Regatta in Charleston in late August to early September. There is a folk festival at Glenville in June. Winter is marked by the Winter Festival of Lights at Wheeling from November to January, and Christmas is celebrated with an 18th-century Christmas Market at Pricketts Fork in December.
GovernmentWest Virginia's state constitution West Virginia adopted its first constitution when it joined the Union in 1863. It is now governed by its second constitution, adopted in 1872, which has been amended more than 50 times. Constitutional amendments can be suggested by either house of the state legislature and must be approved by a two-thirds majority of both houses and then a majority of voters. It can also be amended by a constitutional convention.
Structure of state government The legislature consists of a Senate, with 34 members elected from 17 districts for four-year terms, and a House of Delegates, with 100 members elected for two-year terms. It is a citizens' legislature which meets in session for 60 days between January and April. Many legislators hold full-time jobs.
The state sends three representatives and two senators to the US Congress, and has five electoral votes in presidential elections. The Democratic party dominates state politics, but voters have favoured the Republican candidate in recent US presidential elections.
The governor is elected to a four-year term and may serve any number of terms but not more than two in succession. Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin took the governorship in November 2010. Heads of most administrative departments are appointed by the governor, and other top state officials are elected to a four-year term. The president of the Senate is the de facto lieutenant governor, as the office does not exist in the state's constitution.
Each of the 55 counties in West Virginia elects a circuit clerk and a county clerk, and all counties elect three county commissioners, apart from Jefferson, which elects five. These officials serve six-year terms. According to a 1936 constitutional amendment, cities with populations of over 2,000 have the right to home rule, which means creating or changing their own charters. Ten cities have taken up this opportunity.
The Supreme Court of Appeals is the highest court and the only appellate court in West Virginia. It comprises the chief justice and four associate justices, who are elected by voters to 12-year terms. Circuit courts are the main trial courts; there are 31 judicial circuits. There are also family courts, magistrates' courts, and municipal courts.
Economy Service industries taken as a whole provide the major part of West Virginia's income. Tourism is a major source of revenue, particularly winter sports.
The state's industrial base is mining, particularly coal mining, although jobs have been lost through increasing use of machinery and falling demand. Most of the coal is found in a broad belt underlying the south and central counties. Sand for glassmaking is found in the north-central counties. Huntington, Parkersburg, and other cities have large glassware manufacturing plants and potteries, and the Charleston area is a manufacturing centre for chemicals and metal products. Glassblowing is one of the state's traditional activities. Natural gas and petroleum sand are found in the west. Non-fuel minerals include brine and rock salt from the Kanawha and Ohio valleys, which are also important locations for the chemical industry, and other important minerals are limestone, crushed stone, Portland cement, clay, sandstone, and shale.
Farmland covers about a quarter of West Virginia, and leading agricultural products are broilers (chickens reared for meat), cattle and calves, turkeys, dairy products, and eggs.
HistoryOriginal inhabitants There were nomadic American Indian hunters in West Virginia as long as 14,000 years ago. Between around 1000 BC and AD 1700 woodland Indians are known to have lived in the area and these included Moundbuilders, who constructed vast numbers of burial grounds in the Ohio and Kanawha valleys, the largest and most famous of which is at Moundsville on the Ohio. By the time the white explorers and fur trappers arrived in the 1670s, the American Indian population was in decline, large numbers of people having been killed in tribal wars or epidemics.
Settlers The first white settlement may have been at Shepherdstown in 1717, and Germans from Pennsylvania settled there in 1727, calling it New Mecklenburg. Morgan Morgan, who came from Delaware, arrived at Bunker Hill in 1731 and founded Mill Creek, and German and Irish settlers followed. Many farmers settled in the eastern panhandle and the valleys of the Monongahela and the Greenbrier rivers.
In the early years, the settlers' activities threatened the American Indians' livelihood by taking over their hunting grounds, and the settlers were often attacked and their settlements destroyed. During the French and Indian War, the French and the Indians defeated troops led by George Washington and General Edward Braddock in the region.
In 1763 King George III of England issued a proclamation forbidding settlement to the west of the Alleghenies, unless treaties had been made with the American Indians. The Cherokee and Iroquois made treaties giving up their claim to lands as far as the Ohio, but the Shawnee, believing their land rights to have been ignored, attacked the settlers. Lord Dunsmore's War ensued in 1774, in which the American Indians were defeated.
Secession In the early 19th century, serious differences emerged between eastern and western Virginia. The east was largely a tobacco-farming area run on slave labour, and the planters were in charge of the government of the state. The west was an area of small, self-sufficient family farms. Western Virginians began to protest at the eastern monopoly over rates of taxation, voting, and the legislature, many of them demanding separation. The slavery question further divided the west from the east, and was taken to extremes with John Brown's seizure of the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859. At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the Virginia Secession Committee voted to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. Western Virginians opposed secession and were finally granted independence from the east, becoming the 35th state on 20 June 1863.
The Civil War Although West Virginia was a northern state, its position on the border between North and South meant that there were divided loyalties in and around the state, and an estimated 632 Civil War battles and skirmishes took place there. Union armies captured the Kanawha and Monongahela valleys at the beginning of the war and gained control of most of the state at the Battle of Droop Mountain in 1864.
There was bitterness after the war, especially when subsequent Republican administrations took away the rights of over 15,000 West Virginians who had supported the Confederacy. Democratic victories in 1870 brought back these rights, but families had been divided by the war and feuds developed. Depending on the political party in power, the state's capital alternated between Wheeling and Charleston, finally settling on Charleston in 1885.
Coal and industry Coal deposits lie under around two-thirds of West Virginia's land and it was first discovered (at Coal River) in 1742, but coal was not fully exploited until the late 19th century, along with timber, oil, natural gas, and other minerals. Railways into most parts of the state meant that new industries could develop, and by 1900 coal had become the state's leading industry.
Chemicals, glass, and iron were also important and rich silica sands, natural gas, and limestone allowed the development of a glass- and bottle-making industry, with nearly every town in the state having its own glass plant and bottle factory.
The state's rapid industrial expansion attracted thousands of Europeans, including skilled glass workers from Belgium and black Americans from the Southern states. The manufacturing industry was boosted by the demands of World War I. Miners struggled for better working conditions and higher wages in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and were finally unionized in 1902 by Mary Harris Jones (‘Mother Jones’) of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).
Often violent clashes between miners and the bosses continued into and beyond the 1920s. Miners' strikes between 1912 and 1921 required the intervention of state and federal troops to quell the violence. Eventually, in 1933, the National Industrial Recovery Act established the right of unions to bargain collectively, established minimum wages, shorter hours, and improved working conditions.
The Great Depression and the later 20th century The Great Depression of the 1930s brought hard times to West Virginia, but with the USA's entry into World War II in 1941, mining and manufacturing boomed again in support of the war effort. During the 1950s coal production declined, due to the introduction of new energy resources and machines that replaced workers, but in the 1960s the economy once again improved, thanks to presidents Kennedy and Johnson's economic programmes. The 1970s international oil shortage was also of benefit to West Virginia's coal industry.
High unemployment in the 1980s led to a decline in population, although by 1990 coal production was increasing again, and by the early 21st century West Virginia mined around half the coal exported from the USA. The state's timber industries expanded and tourism increased. New jobs were created through federal projects, such as highway construction, water management, and especially the installation of an FBI fingerprinting centre at Clarksburg in 1999.
Famous peoplesport Mary Lou Retton (1968– ), Olympic gymnast
the arts Pearl S Buck (1892–1973), novelist; Eleanor Steber (1916–1990), soprano; Phyllis Curtin (1921– ), soprano
science George Herbig (1920–2013), astronomer; Chuck Yeager (1923– ), test pilot and aviator
society and education Martin R Delany (1812–1885), journalist and black American activist; Walter Reuther (1907–1970), labour leader
economics John F Nash (1928– ), Nobel Prize-winning mathematician
politics and law Whitney Morrow (1873–1931), banker and diplomat; Lewis L Strauss (1896–1974), public official and scientist; Cyrus Vance (1917–2002), politician.
West Virginia – flag
Related Credo Articles
State in the Appalachian Mountain region, E central USA. The capital is Charleston . The land is mountainous and rugged. West Virginia has two...
The state is one of the most mountainous in the country; sometimes it is called the little Switzerland of America, and I once heard an...
A state in the E central USA. It consists of the Appalachian Plateau and a ridge and valley region (the Great Appalachian Valley) in the E....