McDowell County: The West Virginia County Going Extinct

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Northfork, WV,Photo — Jimmy Emerson, DVM

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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.

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21 COMMENTS

  1. and that young democrat paid roughly $20 a vote to win the primary here Seems a shame that our dignity could be bought so cheaply

  2. What can be done is easy to answer,this damn federal n state n the EPA needs to go back 20 years on their regulations,in MSHA,we have to many inspectors having pissing contests to see who can write the most violations n at the most dollar size,the day of reckoning is coming for both the inspectors n the coal operators,all of us will be without a job n no one to blame but the government..

    • backwards is NEVER the answer. Coal is not the resource it use to be. Also with the modern coal extraction you need very few physical men to do the job. First, the local community need to look around and see what skillset is inside the community, (Huntable, Farmable land, historical building) focus on what is already there. Clean up the towns, if you want to attract a medium size employeer there need to be a reason. If the people look like they care about their homes that’s a good start. 2nd there will NEVER be another mployeers / industry in Southern WV like coal. — The truth be told if the citizens of Southern WV would work together think forward, use the modern technology, and use the renewable resources Southern WV has it could be turned around. — I speak from experience. I moved to Southern WV 10 years ago started a small B&B, just expanded to included permiculture farming, and plan to open a small farmers market in late 2015. It took a lot of work, but I started with very little money in my pocket. So I know it’s possible.

  3. As the atv and utvs become popular throughout the country we see counties in wv suffer. The Hatfield and McCoy trail system becomes more popular year after year but none of the funds paid by customers/riders goes back to the counties. There are hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to ride the trail system. This money should be put back into the counties instead of going into a general highways or DMV fund. Counties should hirer local residents to maintain the trails.
    Counties could also benefit from selling highway permits which would allow ATV riders to operate on paved highways (not interstates) through the small towns in which people will by gas , food ect. It all comes down to building the counties back up.

  4. Great article my friend. Things can change if the people there would change and use the technology available.

    But, it’s a generation of gamers and thrill seekers that want everything handed to them. I’m not sure that those left even want to help themselves.

    Koodos on the research and writing of this article. You did very good and I plan to return.

    Rob

  5. If the government would step in and allocate the funds necessary to burn clean, force the power companies to make the change, then force them to make payments, we could expand coal jobs. We bailed out the auto industries, banks, etc. so why not coal. I live here by choice, have a college education, a good paying job, and have no intention of leaving. My brothers that moved to NC for jobs and conveniences do not have the infrastructure we do. So we are not as bad as you think. If media would do positive articles it would help. At least we don’t have people sleeping in doorways like I saw in Washington and New York.

  6. I was there five years ago. Everywhere I looked there were dead buildings. There was a nice new building ln Northfork where the apartment where I lived use to be. It was over the post office and hardware that no longer is there. Sadly, the nice new building, if I remember correctly was a funeral home. We left Northfork July 1950 ahead of the big exit. We moved to Salem, Va. What I miss is the brilliant colors of the mountains in the Fall. I have never seen any place with Fall colors that match.

  7. To answer the question of what can be done is not a simple answer. The eventual decline of what was once a booming industry can be summed up, but again, not easily – not at this point anyway.

    One of the biggest contributors that exacerbated the overall problem, lies with those that had the power to invoke change but they just simply choose not to. There was no forward thinking, foresight, or reinvestment in the community in terms of infrastructure, education, new facilities, or additional industries to support the overall workforce. It is only natural that if there is no way to remain gainfully employed to sustain life for your family…YOU WILL LEAVE and head for somewhere that can support you.

    No new or emerging industries meant that the people really did – or was forced, whatever the case may have been – put all of the eggs in one basket, therefore, when the collapse came that was only the beginning of the imminent destruction. The absence of the reinvestment was just the shovel that piled the dirt onto an open grave.

    Additionally, and while there are many factors involved that sent this county into a downward spiral none more than the corruption within the county and in the state. The same ole boys club was elected time and time and time and over and over and over again. They were responsible for bringing in new industry, to influence change, to guide future generations on the path of industrial and business growth. Instead they did nothing of the such. In fact, if they did anything at all, they did the exact opposite and when they finally did abdicate their political throne they took with them everything that every man died working for. They were responsible for suppressing if not killing the dreams of the men who worked in the dog holes risking life and limb. That is the real tragedy in all of this.

    David, I agree with you. The regulations that have been placed on the one industry that supports an entire region are – for the lack of a better term – out of control and to what end? I left when I was very young, I started my life in a different part of the country. I had to, and I was bitter about it for a long-time because 1) I left family and had to start from nothing and 2) After being away and knowing what it could have been made me dislike those “politicians” even more.

    Finally, and in closing, can this decay and utter collapse be reversed? Sure it can. Are there resources that can make this reality? Absolutely. Is there interest in doing it? Not sure. One thing is for sure, the damage is done but not at the point of no return, nonetheless, the return most likely will not come in the form of coal and whatever the industry is that replaces it will not change things as quickly as we would like. It took 30, or 40 or 60 years to get to where it is…times that by 2 to see change. So it won’t be in your lifetime, or mine, or even perhaps the lives of our children…but that is OK as long as there is progress there is hope and that is the point of this. Those before lived for the moment and not for the next 3 or 4 or 5 generations.

    Those are my thoughts. What are yours?

    ~Jimmy Long

  8. There is not a greater example of Yellow Dog Democrats and blind support of labor unions in the US than McDowell Co and there are election results since 1930 to support this statement. This loyal devotion has gained them a population loss of 80%, no 4 lane highway, no 2 or 4 year college, and essentially no advancement in a diversified economy that reflects the 21st century. While it is easy to blame others and ignore the impacts that productivity brings to manual labor dependent industries, the stark reality is that the citizens of McDowell Co. have had the opportunity to change their leaders and their destiny and have failed year after year by accepting the status quo! The people who remain, deserve better, and should demand new leadership in every organization countywide and accept that a fresh perspective can only enhance the county’s future, it can’t get any worse!

  9. I was born in McDowell Co. in 1953 and grew up in the town of Anawalt, so I was there during those “booming years” the article refers to. I recently went home for a visit and it was impossible to explain to my wife what a vibrant community it once was. Seeing it was one of the saddest experiences of my life. When I think of all the coal companies who made their fortunes off the backs, lives, and souls of the miners and then took those fortunes and ran–leaving those proud, hardworking people in poverty and despair-my sadness turns to anger!

  10. I agree with 99 percent of these comments and this applies to most of wva. It is so sad. But until the folks that are left stand up nothing will change.The politics haven’t changed a bit since I left 35 years ago. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Do something different …

  11. People that live here are given the wrong image and expectation; we are not normal if we make good grades and don’t do drugs. Residents don’t want to have an image like that so they move.

  12. I was born in Detroit and my parents relocated back to McDowell county when I was young because they wanted me to grow up with the values and sense of community they grew up with. I left WV in my early 20’s after graduating college to get a job as many people have to do. My parents and brother remained. Over the years I’ve witnessed the businesses closing and neighborhoods deteriorating The decline of the coal industry has been devastating, flooding has greatly worsened the problems and many of the small towns were just unable to bounce back, and opiates have become very problematic in the area. It’s heart breaking to visit and see the state of things there. I currently live in Winston Salem and my husband is from Boston. He made the statement that we don’t have real projects in Winston and the first time I took him to WV he said “now this is real projects and poverty.” It saddens me that it’s a statement that can’t be denied. Yes, the trails have brought in tourists but there needs to be incentives for businesses to want to come there, the politicians seem lacking in providing this. Without new business there can be no economic growth. It’s rumored that Walmart will be closing and if that be the case it’s a first for me. It’s Walmart… if it can’t sustain business there then I don’t know who can. I don’t know the answer but certainly the good ole boy network remaining in positions of authority isn’t working. To wonder why people stay is easy, “it’s home” is the answer you’ll be given by most. Despite all of the economic problems the mountains provide a majestic backdrop that few of us are fortunate enough to be able to wake up to everyday. Four-wheeling, mud boggin’, swimming holes… friendly people who don’t mind helping a neighbor in need. These are the things I miss most. I believe a lot of people there want things to be better but simply don’t know where to begin.

    • I’m from Mcdowell county (currently living in Buchanon county, VA, just minutes away from Mcdowell), and that’s exactly how I feel, I want things to be better, but I have no idea where to start. I have thought about trying to leave, get a good job, etc. but the reality is that I don’t WANT to leave, this is my home, where my family is..

      Even if I could leave, What job could I get? I didn’t even graduate high school, much less go to college. Actually, the reason why I dropped out, was because my mom took me to North Carolina to try and get a good job and have a better life, but when we went out there, no one would even hire either of us there, and we missed home greatly, so we came back. Maybe we didn’t go to the right place, but it seems even moving doesn’t help, if you don’t have a higher education.

      It’s not just Mcdowell that’s in this shape, It’s counties all around here in WV, VA, and KY, all the counties that relied heavily on Coal mining, all in the same dire situation.
      Lord knows I wish I could help make a difference, help make this place a good place to live, but I’m only one young man that’s already unhealthy, what can I do?

      It’s hard to see any hope, especially in my family’s current situation, but I’m trying hard not to give up. I don’t want to get on welfare for the rest of my life, I want to get a job, but I have been searching for over a year now, to no avail, and now the money we had saved up to live on till we found something is gone, now I can’t get out if I wanted to..

      Lord it’s killing me to see, not only my family, but many families here, in this situation. All I can say is that I pray for things to get better for us all. Anyways, sorry for all that, had to get it off my chest..

  13. The problem is the mindset that all Appalachia is good for is mining coal. It isn’t the EPA regs or the government that’s killing the mining industry employment…it’s technology. At the turn of the 19th century there were over half a million coal miners in the US. Now there are less than 90,000 and they mine more coal per tonnage than they did then. Same thing with railroad jobs. They got rid of caboose and used technology and wiped out half the work force needed. NOT A THING to do with EPA. Mountain Top Removal requires a whole lot less miners, than underground mining. So the boom of coal is NEVER coming back. Western coal is easier and cheaper to get at and that’s a competition market problem not a government problem. So what do we do?….Appalachia was once the bread basket of the lowland south. Long before logging and coal interests bought our lands we grew food. Our farms were small but they had apple orchards and wineries in every community. They grew buck wheat and broom straw and corn and beans, all sorts of farm products. Even hemp for rope. We used to send 60,000 pigs a day into Asheville for market for the lowland south. They grew cotton we grew food. With technology today like the internet you can reach the world, if they will invest in the infrastructure to do it. Diversify our economy and stop putting all our eggs in a coal bucket! That’s the answer.

    • Well-said! Neither should the local EDA put all our eggs in an ATV. What did former Senator Byrd do for McDowell county?

  14. This is a great article and you did a very good job in stating it. Of all the comments, Denise made perfect sense to me. This is a county that gave our family a start – most of our Riffe ancestors were born in McDowell county. for that reason it is of interest to me. Did you look into where the people went? I know that our families moved around the area and likely were in Logan county. In 1953 my Dad took us to Greenbrier county to live and that is where the technology comes to mind for me. The jobs for this growing technology held better opportunities in other places. So this would tell me that at least some of the people leaving the southern area sought work within the state first maybe. Of course when that wasn’t possible, they moved to other states. But of course I think that pure patriotism took a lot of people out of not only McDowell county, but the whole of WV. The military afforded young people jobs and opportunities that would otherwise not be found. Once seeing these opportunities in other states, many people did not return to WV for that reason. I have been gone from WV since the 70’s and when I return I too see a lot of apathy where there once was hope of growth. People can’t live on the feelings of beauty and memories, they must have a way to earn a living and flourish not just be there and stagnate. I hope someone comes up with an idea to revitalize the area someday.

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