In 1880, ancient-growth forest still covered two-thirds of West
Virginia, but by the 1920s lumbermen had denuded the entire region.
Ronald Lewis explores the transformation in these mountain counties
precipitated by deforestation. As the only state that lies entirely
within the Appalachian region, West
Virginia provides an ideal site for studying the broader social
impact of deforestation in Appalachia, the South, and the eastern
Most of West Virginia was still dominated by a backcountry economy
when the industrial transition began. In short order, however,
railroads linked remote mountain settlements directly to
national markets, hauling away forest products and returning with
manufactured goods and modern ideas. Workers from the countryside
and abroad swelled new mill towns, and merchants ventured into
the mountains to fulfill the needs of the growing population. To
protect their massive investments, capitalists increasingly
extended control over the state's legal and political systems.
Eventually, though, even ardent supporters of industrialization had
reason to contemplate the consequences of unregulated exploitation.
Once the timber was gone, the mills closed and the railroads pulled
up their tracks, leaving behind an environmental disaster and a new
class of marginalized rural poor to confront the worst depression
in American history.