West Virginia State History
The state of West Virginia, as one might infer from its name, was originally the western portion of Virginia. The mountainous region of the state attracted lumberers, miners, and small-scale farmers (with more Scots-Irish immigration than other parts of the country). Unlike the eastern and southern parts of the state, West Virginia was ill-suited to plantation farming. The lack of personal investment in the institution of slavery, coupled with a nationwide influx of anti-slavery German immigrants in the 1850s, meant that West Virginians weren't on board with seceding from the Union. When the state at large sided with the Confederacy, the people of West Virginia formed their own government loyal to the United States. The 40 western counties that rejected secession were declared a separate state by presidential decree in 1863. This makes West Virginia the only state to be formed out of another state.
West Virginia also played a major role during the war. Harper's Ferry, the site of John Brown's famous raid, is in West Virginia. The raid is partly credited with precipitating the Civil War. Harper's Ferry saw numerous battles over the course of the war. It changed hands numerous times between Confederate and Union forces.
Otherwise, the history of West Virginia (as distinct from Virginia) largely begins with coal. Coal is the state mineral for good reason, as the state's coal production had a massive impact on the industrialization of the U.S. in the late 1800s. West Virginia coal fueled much of the railroad development in the country both literally and figuratively. The rail networks in West Virginia (to get the coal to other markets) were a major part of the country's overall rail systems. The access to cheap, fast coal would direct the nation's energy infrastructure as well.
One of the more peculiar stories of the West Virginia railroad is Virginian Railway designed by William Nelson Page. Page originally proposed a small project to connect two other major railroads. When the major railroads refused to cooperate, Page enlisted the help of millionaire Henry Rogers to bankroll a more ambitious line. In secret they colluded to create a high volume, direct line from deep in West Virginia to the East Coast. This privately financed line became incredibly successful.
West Virginia was important on the other side of the industrialization issue as well. West Virginia was a major seat of union organization in the U.S., and the state's miners' strikes drew national attention. The working conditions in mines and factories were one of the most significant political issues of the early 1900s.
In the past few decades, the state has faced significant changes as coal use continues to decline nationwide. The state has put a larger emphasis on its nature tourism and conservation, attracting attention to its unique cave formations and the Appalachian climate. More than a million acres have been set aside in 37 state parks and recreation areas and in 9 state forests and 2 national forests.
For the potential visitor, major points of interest include Harpers Ferry and New River Gorge National River, The Greenbrier and Berkeley Springs resorts, the scenic railroad at Cass, and the historic homes in the Eastern Panhandle.
West Virginia Culture and Interesting Facts
The Greenbrier luxury resort is perhaps the state's most famous destination. This grand resort, built shortly before the Civil War, has been visited by 26 presidents. Even before the hotel was built, the nearby springs were a popular stop due to their alleged medicinal properties. The Greenbrier is still a functioning resort with over 700 rooms and museum space documenting their presidential and congressional visitors. The hotel is now best known for its more secret ties to Congress; as the Cold War escalated, the federal government secretly commissioned a massive secure bunker underneath the hotel. In the case of a nuclear attack, members of government could hide under the resort with supplies to last several decades. The existence of the bunker was exposed in the 1990s, and ever since it has been decommissioned as a bunker and turned into a museum/data storage center.
The New River
The New River is one of West Virginia's most interesting places. The name possibly comes from it being overlooked in early survey maps—and then discovered, hence "new"—or from a forgotten native name. Whatever led us to call it the New River, geological studies have led experts to conclude that it might actually be the second oldest river on Earth (after the Finke River in Australia). The south-north flowing river is even older than many of the mountains around it. In the here and now the New River is a popular spot for rafting and other recreation—the bridge that spans the river is one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere, making it popular for BASE jumping. It is also a major destination for hiking and biking.
Harpers Ferry is a small historic town in West Virginia. Despite its very small size—the town has less than 300 people—it's one of the most well-known towns in the United States. Harpers Ferry (then called Harper's Ferry, after founder Robert Harper) was the site of several huge events in Civil War history. The most famous of all was abolitionist John Brown's raid on the town armory, where he intended to seize weapons and arm the local enslaved population. John Brown's raid is sometimes credited as starting the Civil War, since it drove him the deep divide between the North and South over the issue of slavery. Harpers Ferry was also the site of eight Civil War battles, and was an important strategic asset for both the Union and the Confederacy. Today it houses many important and interesting historic buildings.
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