West Virginia became a state in 1863 with 48 counties. Berkeley and Jefferson were added in 1866, and five new counties were created between 1866 and 1895. The state’s 24,282 square miles are enclosed by an irregular boundary of 1,170 miles. Fifty-two percent of the boundary follows rivers, 31 percent follows the crestlines of Allegheny mountain ranges, and 17 percent of the boundary is man-made straight lines. The geographic center of West Virginia is four miles west of Centralia in Braxton County.
West Virginia is bisected by the 39th degree north latitude and 80th degree west longitude. South and west of a line drawn from New Martinsville to Morgantown then southward along the eastern edge of the Allegheny Plateau the climate is one of mild winters and cool to hot summers. North and east of this line cold winters and hot to cool summers prevail. There are four seasons of near equal length. In mountain regions temperature and rainfall extremes are common; nevertheless, the mean annual temperature is between 50 and 55 degrees, and the average annual precipitation of about 45 inches is evenly distributed throughout the year. On average, Pickens, in southern Randolph County, receives about 70 inches, while Brandywine, 85 miles to the east, gets only about 30 inches of rainfall each year. Storm-produced floods have the most adverse effect on the state.
Physiographically, the state is located in the Appalachian Highlands. There are 40 peaks more than 4,000 feet above sea level. Spruce Knob in Pendleton County at 4,861 feet is the highest point in West Virginia, and Harpers Ferry at 247 feet is the lowest point. The average elevation is 1,500 feet. Topographically, the surface consists of long, narrow ranges, ridges, and hills interspersed with valleys whose sides rise steeply from narrow valley floors. About two-thirds of the land area has a slope greater than 20 percent, 18 percent is steeper than 40 percent, and about 11 percent is in slopes less than 10 percent.
Marking the eastern border of Jefferson County are the Blue Ridge Mountains, a high belt of igneous and metamorphic rock. West of the Blue Ridge is the Ridge and Valley Province, where long and narrow ridges capped with sandstone are separated by valleys cut 400 to 2,400 feet below the ridge tops into limestone and shale. Peaks of hard sandstone on the ridge tops are called knobs, such as Bald Knob (4,840 feet) and Panther Knob (4,508 feet). In the limestone are caves, underground streams such as Lost River in Hardy County, sinkholes, and mineral springs. The most notable of the springs is White Sulphur Springs in Greenbrier County.
The folded belt ends at the Allegheny Front, a bold southeast-facing escarpment that rises abruptly to over 4,000 feet. The Allegheny Front roughly marks the Eastern Continental Divide, diverting about 85 percent of the state’s drainage west to the Ohio River and the Gulf of Mexico, and 15 percent east to the Potomac River and the Atlantic Ocean.
West of the front, from Monroe and Greenbrier counties to the Pennsylvania border, are the Allegheny Mountains, a wedge-like region of mildly folded rock that has given rise to topographic belts with valleys as much as 1,000 feet deep and broad, plateau-like ridge tops. The rock mostly has strong resistance to erosion and forms pinnacles or cliffs. With elevations exceeding 4,500 feet, the Allegheny Mountains have some of the state’s most spectacular scenery.
The western two-thirds of West Virginia is part of the Allegheny Plateau. From the Allegheny Front the sedimentary rock slopes westward at about 20 feet per mile to an elevation of 1,000 feet along the Ohio River. Ridges, capped with sandstone, and valleys, carved into shale, are narrow, winding, and twisting. Gorges of 500 feet are not uncommon, and most spectacular is the 1,100-foot New River Gorge. The extreme dissection of the plateau has produced perhaps the most rugged human habitat region in America.
West Virginia is one of the best drained states in the nation. About half of the precipitation is removed by rapid stream runoff, and from the higher mountains and plateau as much as two-thirds becomes runoff. Most streams, with the possible exception of the Ohio River, are in a youthful stage of development. They have a V-shape profile, are down-cutting, occupy most of their valley floor, have rapids and falls, and are prone to flooding.
Rivers have always been important in the state’s domestic, industrial, and recreational development. Only three cities of more than 10,000 population, Beckley, Bluefield, and Martinsburg, are not located on a major stream. A system of 13 locks and dams provides 350 miles of navigation on the Ohio, Kanawha, and Monongahela rivers. The Coal, Little Kanawha, Guyandotte, Big Sandy, and Potomac rivers have been used for navigation. Other major rivers include the New, Gauley, Elk, Cheat, Greenbrier, and Bluestone.
About 80 percent of West Virginia is covered in regrowth forest, with the particular forest type influenced by altitude, prevailing wind, steepness of the slope, soil, north-south exposure to the sun, and wet-dry side of the mountain. In general, an oak-pine forest is dominant in the Eastern Panhandle, red spruce and northern hardwoods (sugar maple, beech, birch, and red oak) are dominant in the Allegheny Mountains, and the Allegheny Plateau is a region of mixed hardwoods—oaks, hickory, yellow poplar, black cherry, walnut, elm, and ash. Virginia pine is ubiquitous on old farmed areas. Dense stands of laurel and rhododendron are common undergrowth, and sycamore, dogwood, redbud, and locust are widespread.
All wildlife common to the Appalachian highlands are found in the state. Hunting and fishing are major outdoor activities.
Archeological findings show that substantial Indian populations were widespread in prehistoric times, but on the eve of European settlement there were few Indians residing in what is now West Virginia, probably due to disease, scarcity of game, and tribal warfare. Place names such as Kanawha, Logan, Mingo, and Ohio, and the Warrior Path and Seneca Trail, are remainders of the native presence.
The first colonials settled in Berkeley County in 1726. During the next 50 years the largest ethnic groups to settle were Germans, Scotch-Irish, and English. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coal mining attracted large numbers of immigrants to the state, especially African-Americans and East Europeans. West Virginia’s population peaked at 2,005,552 in 1950, and was estimated at 1,814,468 in 2008. It is a homogenous population. European Americans account for more than 93 percent and African-Americans 3.5 percent. Eighty percent of West Virginians were born in the state.
Population densities of 120 to 480 per square mile occur in contiguous counties in the Teays-New River Valley, the two panhandles, and the Monongahela River Valley. Densities of less than 30 per square mile occur in the central Ridge and Valley counties, and in the Little Kanawha river basin counties. Thirty-six percent of the West Virginia population is urban. There are 277 incorporated places, ranging from fewer than 100 in Thurmond, Brandonville, and Auburn to more than 50,000 in Charleston. The urbanized areas are concentrated along the Ohio, Kanawha, and Monongahela rivers.
Tourism is a major industry in West Virginia. It arises from a plethora of resources and attractions, including unique natural features, whitewater rafting, skiing, the cultural heritage of the southern coalfields and Northern Panhandle, hunting and fishing, mountain lodges and campgrounds, and outdoor dramas.
Soils and climate permit most mid-latitude agricultural practices, but rugged terrain is a severe limiting factor, especially in the Allegheny Plateau counties. The number of farms declined from 97,000 in 1910 to 20,800 in 2004, and land in farms declined from 10 million to 3.6 million acres. Farming rebounded by 2007. That year, there were 23,618 farms totaling 3,697,606 acres.
The Eastern Panhandle generates most of the market value of agricultural products, mostly from poultry. Pendleton and Hardy counties account for more than 70 percent of all poultry products. Cattle and calves are the second-leading agricultural commodity, and livestock farming makes hay the most common crop, produced on 692,000 of the state’s 942,000 acres of cropland.
West Virginia’s Allegheny Plateau is located in the heart of the Appalachian bituminous coalfield. The first reference to coal dates to an outcrop on the Coal River in 1742. Commercial coal mining began in 1818 to provide fuel for the salt evaporators in the Kanawha Valley. Since the 1870s, coal has been a centerpiece of the state’s economy.
To mine coal in the rugged, sparsely populated, and nearly inaccessible regions required railroads, coal towns, company stores, and imported laborers. For example, McDowell, a long-time leading coal producing county, had a population of 1,952 in 1870, 94,400 in 1940, and with the downward spiral of employment and production shifts the population declined to an estimated 22,707 in 2008. Statewide, coal employment peaked at 127,000 in 1950 and has since declined to fewer than 13,000. Coal production reached unprecedented levels late in the 20th century, with nearly 400 deep mines and more than 200 surface mines producing a record 182 million tons in 1997. Eighty-two percent of the coal is marketed outside the state. An economic recession in 2008 affected coal production, which had fallen to just over 144 million tons in 2009.
All major manufacturing groups are represented in West Virginia. Lumbering and printing are the most ubiquitous activities, but primary and fabricated metals, chemicals and allied products, machinery, petroleum related, and glass are major concentrations in the Ohio, Monongahela, and Kanawha river valleys. About 40 percent of the state’s total manufacturing employment is located in Kanawha, Hancock, Wood, and Cabell counties.
This Article was written by Howard G. Adkins
Last Revised on November 14, 2010
Fenneman, Nevin M. Physiography of Eastern U.S.. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1938.
Hill, Raymond, T. "The Physical Regions of West Virginia," in Howard G. Adkins, et al., eds, West Virginia and Appalachia: Selected Readings. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt Pub., 1977.
Lee, Chang & Raymond T. Hill. Land Slope in West Virginia. West Virginia Agriculture & Forestry 6, 1976.