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West Virginia, born of irreparable regional differences in the mother state of Virginia, soon developed a strong regionalism of its own. West Virginia’s regions are based ultimately in geography and geology. Areas having good soil and workable terrain, including much of the Eastern Panhandle and major river valleys, became agricultural areas and remain so today. The state’s rich natural resource base determined the regional character of other areas, including the southern coalfields.

The layout of the state’s rivers, providing early travel routes and bottomland for settlement, helped to establish regional distinctions. The Ohio River, while offering a broad valley suitable for both farms and cities, also furnished transportation to the South and Midwest. Not surprisingly, the valley and adjoining areas developed economic and political affinities away from eastern Virginia. The same combination of terrain and transportation later favored industrial development. The Ohio Valley became in the 20th century West Virginia’s main industrial corridor, with chemical, steel, glass, manufacturing, and powergeneration plants scattered from Hancock County to Wayne County. The Kanawha and Monongahela valleys developed as industrial centers as well, for similar reasons.

West Virginia has two broad physiological provinces, the Ridge and Valley, including most of the Eastern Panhandle and the string of counties to the southwest of the panhandle along the Virginia state line, and the Allegheny Plateau, which includes the rest of the state.

These broad regions interacted with people from the time of early settlement. The flat-floored valleys and limestone soils of the Ridge and Valley region were sought by German, Scotch-Irish, and English settlers for agricultural use, and these settlers developed trade centers to support their efforts. The valleys of the Eastern Panhandle and the adjoining Virginia-border counties continue to be the state’s premier farm region. By contrast, a similar level of farming intensity did not develop on the meandering narrow valleys and steep ridges of the Allegheny Plateau. It was coal that had the decisive influence on the rugged plateau.

Coal underlies about two-thirds of West Virginia in distinct northern and southern coalfields, and is the state’s most valuable natural resource. It is located almost entirely within the Allegheny Plateau, and is a broadly unifying factor in the plateau region. In the southern coalfields the coal companies attracted European immigrants and blacks from the American South to augment a rural and agrarian native white population that was too small to provide the necessary labor force for mining. Railroads were constructed into and across the region to haul coal, and coal company towns were built to house miners and provide the essentials of life. Everywhere in the southern counties one is aware of the influence coal has had on the region. Coal did not produce such pronounced regionalism in the northern coalfields, which had a larger pre-industrial population and well established towns and cities.

The founders of West Virginia may have had some concern for geographical unity, but the state they created in 1863 had two panhandles and sprawled over more geographic area than its relatively modest acreage would suggest. The Eastern Panhandle retained strong social and economic ties with eastern Virginia, and in recent years has experienced the suburbanization of the Washington- Baltimore corridor. The affinities of the Northern Panhandle and the upper Monongahela Valley were related to the Midwest and Pittsburgh. In the corridors of the Upper Kanawha, Teays, and lower Ohio River valleys, the affinities were more intrinsically influenced by government services, chemicals, special metals, and transportation industries.

Written by Howard G. Adkins