McDowell County, West Virginia

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McDowell County is a county located in the U.S. state of West Virginia. As of 2000, the population was 27,329. Its county seat is Welch[1]. McDowell county is the southern-most county in the state, geographically. It was created in 1858 by the Virginia General Assembly and named for Virginia Governor James McDowell. It became a part of West Virginia in 1863, when several counties seceded from the state of Virginia during the American Civil War. McDowell County was also home of the famous Rocket Boys, who were from Coalwood.



McDowell County was formed from parts of Tazewell County, Virginia on February 20, 1858. It was named after James McDowell, a member of Congress and Governor of Virginia. For many years McDowell County was nicknamed the "Free state of McDowell" due to the independent spirit of its people and the relative isolation of its government. McDowell mountaineers led lives happily unencumbered by the power-brokers of Richmond. Their anti-slavery sympathies would lead McDowell County to rejoin the Union when the counties of West Virginia were signed into statehood by President Abraham Lincoln on June 20, 1863.

McDowell County was nationally known for its prominence in the coal mining industry, setting records for coal production and was a major player in the state's economy. Before the industry's decline that began in the 1950s, McDowell's population was almost at 100,000 residents, third highest in the state in 1950, then declined at a rapid pace in the following decades, setting the highest percentage in the state for population loss with each new census, as younger residents moved out of the county to seek better futures, leaving behind an older and increasingly impoverished population.

Through the 1960s and 1970s the demand for the county's metallurgical coal remained high. McDowell continued to lead the United States in total coal production. Increased mechanization of coal production had reduced the number of laborers employed, but miners enjoyed quality pay under improving conditions negotiated by the United Mine Workers.

While some hope for the McDowell mining economy had flourished during the energy crisis of the 1970s, in the next decade the county went from painful decline to heartbreaking collapse. Wildcat strikes in the Appalachian coal fields hindered producers in their ability to deliver to buyers. Non-unionized coal production in the western United States provided tough competition. Steel production in the United States—a major source of demand for McDowell County coal—declined, due to competition with foreign steel makers who employed newer and more efficient steel plants to produce high grade steel at lower prices.

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