Fayette County is located in south-central West Virginia, north of Beckley. Its land area is 668.7 square miles, and its 2010 population was 46,039. Named for the Marquis de Lafayette, Fayette County was formed by the General Assembly of Virginia on February 28, 1831. Its territory was carved from Kanawha, Nicholas, Greenbrier, and Logan counties. Parts of Fayette were taken to create Raleigh County in 1850 and Summers in 1871.
The county consists of a high plateau bordered on the east by Sewell Mountain and on the west by the Kanawha Valley. Flowing from southeast to northwest, the New River segments the county with its deep gorge, joining the Gauley to form the Kanawha River at Gauley Bridge.
The remains of prehistoric settlement have been located, notably between Armstrong and Loup creeks. Indian trails and campsites along New River and its tributaries yield information about movement of the natives. The Paint Creek valley was a thoroughfare for Shawnee raiders traveling to and from the eastern settlements, and it was along this stream that Mary Draper Ingles was carried from Virginia into captivity in Ohio in 1755. European settlement came in the late 18th century, largely along the rivers.
The county seat was first set in New Haven on the north side of New River, but was moved to the southside town of Vandalia (later Fayetteville) in 1837. In its first census, Fayette County in 1840 had 3,924 residents. On the eve of the Civil War, the county had 5,997 residents in 1860, 271 of whom were slaves. Residents divided on the issues severing the state and nation, and the ensuing warfare caused great destruction in the county. Robert E. Lee commanded in Fayette County in the fall of 1861. Strategically located Gauley Bridge saw repeated action, and the locally decisive Battle of Fayetteville was fought in fall 1862. The Confederate Thurmond’s Rangers were among the local units operating in the area.
The building of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway through the New River Gorge, completed on January 29, 1873, opened the rich New River coalfield and a new industrial era. Many mining towns were built in the gorge and on the plateau, bringing boom times. The population jumped from 6,647 in 1870 to 60,377 by 1920, but Fayette remained rural with no town exceeding 2,500 people. Fayette was the leading coal producing county in West Virginia from 1888 through 1903, when it yielded to McDowell County.
Building the railroads and working the mines intensified demand for labor. Southern and eastern Europeans and African-Americans from the southern states migrated into the county. Their cultural influence on the county remains. Christopher Payne of Montgomery was the first African-American elected to the state legislature, in 1896, followed in 1902 by James M. Ellis of Oak Hill. In 1942, Camp Washington-Carver opened as a state 4-H camp for African-Americans, the first of its kind in the nation.
Accompanying the rapid industrialization were disastrous mine explosions such as those at Red Ash (1900), Rush Run (1905), and Parral (1906), and protracted labor strikes in 1902 and 1912–13. The most devastating industrial disaster, one of the worst in the nation’s history, occurred during the building (1930–35) of the tunnel to harness the hydroelectric power of New River at Hawks Nest. More than 700 men, the majority of whom were black migrants, died of silicosis.
The development of towns depended upon geography and the economy. The mountainous eastern section of the county had no large towns; Fayetteville was the town center of the plateau south of New River until the growth of Oak Hill and Mount Hope in the 20th century. Towns in the western section of the county developed as Gauley Bridge and Montgomery grew on the banks of the Kanawha River. The northside plateau town of Ansted, incorporated in 1891, became prominent in the industrial period.
The C&O’s New River main line provided the county’s economic lifeline. Inhabitants of New River Gorge, now almost empty of residents, outnumbered those living on the plateau during the coal heyday. Thurmond, a town in the gorge, boomed as a coal-shipping rail center, and Sewell was once offered as a new site for the county seat. The unique town of Kaymoor sprang up, with Kaymoor Bottom located on the gorge floor and Kaymoor Top on the rim of the gorge. The Kaymoor mine was located on the mountainside in between.
With coal in decline after mid-century, towns disappeared and the population fell from its 1950 peak of 82,443. Road construction helped to move Fayette County away from the gorge and the railroad located there. Although the earlier James River & Kanawha Turnpike (1825), the Giles, Fayette & Kanawha Turnpike (1848), and later secondary roads served the county well, late 20th-century arteries linked Fayette to the expanding interstate highway system. The West Virginia Turnpike (Interstate 64-77) traverses western Fayette County. Busy U.S. 19 (Appalachian Corridor L) runs northeasterly through the county, crossing the spectacular New River Gorge bridge, the county’s chief landmark.
Fayette County’s rushing streams and rugged terrain, which once hindered development, are major assets in the tourist industry. Whitewater rafting on the New and Gauley rivers offers excitement to both beginning and experienced rafters. Rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, and fishing attract visitors, while the National Park Service expanded its operations at the New River Gorge National River. Older state parks such as Babcock and Hawks Nest remain popular.
Fayette County has had its share of colorful, powerful, and notable people. The Civil War years pitted Confederate William D. Thurmond against Unionist James C. Montgomery, and brought forth the financier, philanthropist, and county sheriff, Morris Harvey. Leaders in the industrial era included such powerful figures as Joseph L. Beury, John Nuttall, ‘‘King’’ Samuel Dixon, William H. McKell, George W. Imboden, William Nelson Page, and others. ‘‘Pistol’’ Nell Walker of Sewell, the longest serving female legislator (1940–62), gained fame by disarming a bank robber in the Winona National Bank. Mount Hope resident and double amputee Okey L. Patteson served as governor of West Virginia.
In addition to Fayetteville, the county’s leading towns are Montgomery, Oak Hill, Ansted, Mount Hope, and Gauley Bridge. The WVU Institute of Technology, a state-supported school established in 1895, is located at Montgomery.
This Article was written by Lou Athey
Fayette County Chamber of Commerce. History of Fayette County. Marceline, MO: Heritage House, 1993.
McKinney, Tim. Civil War in Fayette County. Charleston: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1988.
Cherniack, Martin. The Hawk's Nest Incident: America's Worst Industrial Disaster. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.