West Virginia’s natural resources may be broken down into several groups, including geological formations such as coal, oil, natural gas, and other such resources; the state’s soils; its plants and animals; and its water. These resources were exploited only lightly by the Indians who preceded white settlers in the region. The natives hunted, fished, and collected roots, fruits, and other wild foods. Their most destructive practice was to set forest fires to maintain grassy openings to provide places for living and fields for growing maize and pumpkins. Indians also used fire in the hunting of buffalo, elk, and deer, which were killed for meat and skins.
It was said that prior to the arrival of Europeans a squirrel could have crossed the present state through the treetops and never touched the ground. The magnificent virgin forests were broken only by the Indian clearings and other openings made by natural fires, a few ‘‘bald’’ mountaintops, and bogs. White hunters and trappers of the late 1700s and early 1800s quickly depleted the buffalo, elk, wolf, mountain lion, and furbearers (beaver, river otter, and fisher). Indians also trapped extensively for furs as trade with Europeans increased. Next came the settlers, who built cabins and cleared the rich valleys for farms, then the loggers.
The forests of the Eastern Panhandle and the Ohio Valley were cut with ax and crosscut saw during the mid-1800s, and the high mountains of the interior of the state followed a few decades later. Simultaneously, industrialists began to mine coal and drill for oil and gas. Significant oil production began after the Civil War and peaked at about 16 million barrels in 1901. Serious natural gas production began in 1906 and remained strong through the 20th century. The oil and gas industry employed 15,000 West Virginians at the turn of the 21st century.
Salt, which was made within the boundaries of the present state by both the Indians and early settlers, was among the first minerals commercialized in Western Virginia. Salt was being produced from springs and wells in the upper Kanawha Valley by the early 19th century. This salt brine later became the basis for many of West Virginia’s chemical plants. Early drilling for salt brine frequently produced oil that flowed away to pollute rivers, or natural gas that was burned off as a waste product. The development of new markets and new technologies soon made these resources valuable, as well. Wirt County’s 1860 Rathbone well was second only to the Drake well of Pennsylvania among the nation’s earliest oil wells. Western West Virginia is still dotted with hundreds of gas wells and associated iron and plastic distribution pipes.
Iron ore was discovered and made into pig iron at numerous furnaces in both panhandles and in present north-central West Virginia from the late 1700s until the mid-1800s. These furnaces used charcoal and limestone, as well as iron ore. Coke, which is made from coal, later replaced charcoal in the making of iron and steel. In the late 1800s, businessmen envisioned a major industrial center in the New River Valley using locally abundant coal and timber, limestone from the Greenbrier Valley, and iron ore from neighboring Virginia. The ruins of the iron furnace at Quinnimont, Fayette County, bear witness to this vision for New River, while the mines at nearby Kaymoor once shipped coal and coke to iron furnaces at Low Moor, Virginia. Huge quantities of timber and coal were shipped from New River from the 1870s onward. The forests and the coal resources of southern West Virginia were being exploited by the late 1800s and early 1900s, when railroads fought for rights of way along the Coal, Guyandotte, Tug, and Big Sandy rivers.
Coal has remained king since the late 1870s. Generally, the coals from West Virginia’s southern coalfields are low in sulfur and pollute less and are now in great demand because of air quality standards. Automated longwall mining machines and other modern equipment allow efficient recovery of coal underground. Modern explosives and huge machinery permit large surface mines, including mountaintop removal mines.
Cold, high-quality water from some deep mines in the southern coalfields is used to raise trout in aquaculture operations. Other old mines contribute only acid mine drainage, which promises to be a problem for a long time to come.
Sand and gravel are extracted from the islands and riverbed of the Ohio River, but in much less quantities than earlier. Limestone and sandstone quarries still mine large quantities of stone for road construction and for cement, glass, and other uses.
Geological formations are the basis of our soils and dictate the topography of our state. Massive layers of hard sandstones cap many ridges and break down to form a landscape of deep narrow valleys with steep slopes. Limestone soils are more common in the Greenbrier Valley, Monroe County, and the Eastern Panhandle, where they produce the lush grass supporting a long-standing livestock industry. Soils of the mid-and upper Ohio River Valley are derived from calcareous shales and clays.
West Virginia’s water resources include the headwaters of the Potomac and Ohio rivers. Most of our streams and rivers are high-quality waterways that are fishable, swimmable, and drinkable. With water shortages in much of the nation, the protection of West Virginia’s abundant water resources had become an item of public discussion by the turn of the 21st century. Pollution is evident from coal mining, highways, poultry and other agricultural operations, timbering, manufacturing, and home sewage. Twentieth-century changes brought hundreds of farm ponds, dozens of small flood-control and water-supply reservoirs, and more than a dozen large lakes, all affecting West Virginia’s water resources. The Ohio, Kanawha, and Monongahela rivers were transformed from free-flowing streams to a series of locks and dams creating one pool after another for the entire length of these streams.
Springs are a major water resource in West Virginia. Many of these, such as Berkeley Springs, White Sulphur Springs, Webster Springs, and Dunmore Springs, were once developed into resorts with bathing facilities to improve health. Today, our springs provide high-quality bottled water and aquaculture sites.
The best oil, gas, and coal have already been used. Greater effort and expense will be needed to retrieve the remaining reserves. However, renewable resources, such as soils, water, plants, and animals need wise use and stewardship to continue providing a high quality of life for West Virginians.
Written by William N. Grafton