Follow Appalachian Magazine on Facebook: Facebook.com/AppalachianMagazine
By Jeremy T.K. Farley
The year is 1950 and the world’s population is estimated to be right at 2.5-billion individuals. Among this staggering number of earthlings are more than 98,000 residents of McDowell County, West Virginia.
Fueled by a roaring coal industry and the early days of what would become known as the “Baby Boom Period,” West Virginia’s southernmost county has seen its population climb from 1,535 individuals in 1860 to nearly one-hundred thousand residents in less than a single century.
Home to dozens of communities built around a single industry, coal mining, “Mack Dowell County,” as my late-grandfather always referred to it, was the epicenter for commerce throughout the nation’s coalfield regions – making U.S. Route 52 one of the busiest roadways in America.
As the nation’s thirst for raw materials grew more insatiable, all of which required energy in the form of burning coal to produce, towns sprang up almost overnight throughout nearly all of southern West Virginia; names of these communities include places such as McDowell County’s “Coalwood,” as well as neighboring places such as “Coaldale,” “Coal City” and “Coalton.”
Coined by local newspapermen as “The Free State of McDowell,” due to its less than above-board politics, the county served as the Mountain State’s third most populated locality at the mid-point of the twentieth century.
As the abundance of easy to access coal grew scarcer in “The County,” or simply became unprofitable for out of state corporations to continue operating, so vanished the jobs of this once bustling community.
Just as quick as Mack Dowell rose to prominence, so was its great falling.
Fast-forward a decade and we find a young Roman Catholic senator from Massachusetts bitterly fighting for the 1960 Democratic Presidential nomination.
Knowing that the road to the White House ran along U.S. Route 52 in McDowell County, West Virginia, young John F. Kennedy stumped in the area throughout much of the early days of 1960.
1960’s census results revealed that the community had lost nearly 28% of its residents and was down to only 71,359 people.
In the days ahead, Kennedy would state, “I don’t think any American can be satisfied to find in McDowell County, in West Virginia, 20 or 25 percent of the people of that county out of work, not for 6 weeks or 12 weeks, but for a year, 2, 3, or 4 years.”
Sadly, President Kennedy never lived to see what would ultimately become of this once proud county.
Today, in April 2016, the world population has rocketed from 2.5-billion to more than 7-billion in just 65 years. McDowell County, on the other hand, has seen its total population fall from nearly 100,000 to an estimated 20,876.
Though the planet has picked up an additional 4.5-billion people, a growth so rapid world leaders are now beginning to scratch their heads and ask, “Where are we going to put everybody?” West Virginia’s southernmost county still hasn’t seen the first uptick in total residents – having lost more than 78% of its original inhabitant count since 1950.
Why? Answer: There simply are no jobs.
One commenter on our site stated the following: “Most people that have an education simply move out of the state, most move for jobs, cheaper housing, and better schools. What you are left with is a majority of people with some education, but not enough, or little work experience… It’s simple, if you live there, be prepared to make less money, or go a year or two between jobs. If you don’t want to do that, then move.”
There are few things sadder than driving down historic U.S. Route 52, now known as the “Coal Heritage Highway” and seeing shambles – the ruins of Cadillac dealerships, home places and even museums – now just tattered buildings which more closely resemble a scene out of a World War III movie.
Perhaps even more sobering, McDowell County is just one of many West Virginia localities feeling the pain of a dying coal industry, coupled with an out of control drug pandemic. According to the Federal government, 13.2% of the county’s residents are out of work – a number that is expected to continue to grow as coal companies continue filing for bankruptcy. In neighboring Mingo County, roughly 15% of the workforce is unemployed, a number only beaten by Calhoun County, West Virginia, where the locality’s unemployment rate is at 17.3%.
The ATV trail system has breathed new life into this once comatose area, but the reality is that it’s going to take a lot more than a few hundred weekend four-wheelers to get this economy back to what can even be described as “on life support.” This is an undeniable fact. But what?
What can be done to get this economy moving? This is a question everyone is asking these days, but no one seems to have an answer.
Click LIKE to share this article with your friends on Facebook!