The State of West Virginia

AT A GLANCE

Name: West Virginia was once part of Virginia, which was named for England’s Queen Elizabeth I. She was known as the Virgin Queen because she never married.
Nickname: Mountain State
Capital: Charleston
Size: 24,231 sq. mi. (62,759 sq km)
Population: 1,844,128 (2015 est)
Statehood: West Virginia became the 35th state on June 20, 1863.
Electoral votes: 5 (2016)
U.S. representatives: 3 (until 2016)
State tree: sugar maple
State flower: big rhododendron
State animal: black bear
Highest point: Spruce Knob, 4,861 ft. (1,482 m)

West Virginia map

THE PLACE

West Virginia is an eastern state that does not border the Atlantic Ocean. West Virginia is irregularly shaped because most of its borders follow natural features such as rivers and mountains. A narrow strip of land called the Northern Panhandle runs northward between Ohio and Pennsylvania, while the Eastern Panhandle runs northeastward between Maryland and Virginia.

West Virginia is known as the Mountain State because so little of its land is flat. In fact, West Virginia is one of the most rugged states in the East. The Appalachian Mountains cover all of the eastern and central parts of West Virginia, which was once the mountainous western half of Virginia. The Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains run through eastern West Virginia.

The western third of West Virginia is made up of rolling hills and narrow valleys. West Virginia’s western river valleys have the most fertile soil in the state, as well as deposits of natural gas and petroleum. The Ohio River flows along the state’s western boundary with Ohio.

West Virginia’s summers are warm; the valleys are typically warmer than the mountainous areas. Rainfall is plentiful throughout the state and sometimes causes flash floods that damage homes and property in lower valleys. The mountains sometimes get as much as 100 inches (250 cm) of snow in a year.

Facts and Firsts

  • West Virginia has an average altitude of 1,500 feet (457 m), the highest average altitude east of the Mississippi.
  • Forests cover almost 80 percent of West Virginia.
  • West Virginia is home to the world’s largest sycamore tree, on the Back Fork of the Elk River in Webster Springs.
  • West Virginia is the only state that became independent by declaration of the president of the United States.
  • West Virginia was the first state to implement a sales tax on the goods it sold and traded. The tax went into effect June 1, 1921.
  • West Virginia has the oldest population in the United States. The state’s median age is nearly 39.

THE PAST

Around 14,000 years ago, various groups of Native Americans hunted large animals such as bear and deer in the West Virginia area. In later times, native peoples such as the Woodland built large earthen burial mounds. By the 1700s, when European settlers reached West Virginia, disease and warfare had killed many of the Native Americans there.

The first European settlers who came to present-day West Virginia were searching for new farmland, but in 1742, explorers discovered the area’s large coal beds, and settlers began moving to the land to mine the coal. During the Revolutionary War, Native American tribes frequently raided these white settlements. After the American Revolution and the War of 1812, manufacturing expanded as West Virginians began to produce items they had formerly bought from England, such as iron.

In 1788, the Virginia Colony, which included West Virginia, became a state. In the decades that followed, present-day West Virginia became increasingly unlike eastern Virginia. While the eastern region was dominated by large cotton plantations that relied on slave labor, western Virginia was made up of small family farms. The eastern plantation owners controlled the state’s government and promoted policies
that hurt the western farmers.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861 and Virginia decided to withdraw from the Union, residents of western Virginia called for an official separation.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared West Virginia a separate, official state. West Virginia remained in the Union, although some natives, such as Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, stayed loyal to the South.

After the Civil War, West Virginia’s mining industry exploded, and the state became a leading producer of coal, oil, and natural gas. Manufacturers made chemicals, glass, iron, and steel from these resources. In the early 1900s, the coal mining industry experienced labor problems as poorly paid workers fought with mine owners to form unions for better wages West Virginia’s manufacturers produced supplies for World War II during the 1940s, but after the war, the mining industry again declined. Factories stopped using coal for power and new mining techniques reduced the need for workers.

These trends combined to put many of West Virginia’s miners out of work. West Virginia’s population decreased as workers left the state to look for jobs. The decline continued until the 1970s, when government programs aided West Virginia’s economy, and an international oil shortage helped the coal industry. The gains of the 1970s were reversed in the 1980s, however, when coal prices fell and unemployment rose. The 1990s brought some improvement, as the timber and tourism industries became more profitable and federal projects created jobs in the state.

THE PRESENT

Today, most of West Virginia’s revenue comes from the service industry, which includes schools, restaurants, hotels, and retail trade. In the past, West Virginia’s economy was heavily dependent on mining. Because of downturns in the coal industry, many West Virginians lost their jobs, and the state received little tax revenue. Since the 1960s, the federal government has provided assistance to West Virginia to improve health services, schools, and transportation.

West Virginia has started to expand some industries and encourage new business growth. Manufacturing plants in cities along the Ohio River use coal to make iron and steel. Factories in the Kanawha and Ohio River Valleys produce chemicals, and both DuPont and General Electric have large plants in the western Ohio Valley. Other factories use West Virginia’s deposits of sand and gravel to make glassware and pottery.

Agriculture is an important economic activity, and about a quarter of the state is farmland. Broilers, or young chickens, are West Virginia’s most important agricultural product. To further balance its economy, West Virginia has encouraged the development of tourism, and the state’s lakes, forests, mountains, and historic towns have become popular with visitors.

Born in West Virginia

  • George Brett, athlete
  • Pearl S. Buck, author
  • Homer Hickam Jr., engineer and author
  • Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Confederate general (was Virginia at that time)
  • John S. Knight, publisher
  • Don Knotts, actor
  • Dwight Whitney Morrow, banker and diplomat
  • Mary Lou Retton, gymnast
  • Walter Reuther, labor leader
  • Eleanor Steber, opera singer
  • Lewis L. Strauss, naval officer and scientist
  • Cyrus Vance, secretary of state
  • Jerry West, basketball player and coach
  • Charles “Chuck” Yeager, test pilot and air force general