Sunday, November 2, 2014

Where the Potomac meets the Shenandoah

The first time I visited West Virginia was in the winter of 1986.  It was a fraternity ski trip to Snowshoe Mountain.  I hadn't planned on going but the guy who had organized the bus trip left all the liquor behind, so two of us took turns driving my Ford Ranger up to the Appalachians with a back end full of booze.

We didn't hit snow until well into Virginia.  I had hoped we had caught up to the bus long before that point, but no sign of it on the road.   Being from Florida, I wasn't dressed for the occasion, as the temperature had plummeted well below freezing.  I bought some tire chains in a small town in West Virginia, where I also bought thermal underwear, thick gloves, wool socks and a knit cap from a friendly lady in a general store.  She threw in the knit cap for free.  Neither of us could quite figure out how to put the chains on the tires.  A group of three or four high school kids noticed our dilemma and helped us out.

Eventually, we got up to the mountain much to the delight of our fellow fraternity brothers and little sisters.  I had never been on skis before, and looked like the abominable snow man after my first run, covered in snow from head to foot.  I never really got the hang of it, but it was pretty nice sitting in the hot tub afterward.

West Virginia made an indelible impression on my mind.  A few years later I found myself working for the National Park Service in Washington, DC, and my first project was checking the measurements of drawings for one of the buildings being restored in downtown Harpers Ferry, which the NPS managed.  It was also winter, but much less pleasant.  My hands quickly became numb as you can't wear gloves and jot down measurements at the same time.  I would warm my hands on a hot cup of coffee at a diner built from an old train cargo trailer.  They had a pretty good sloppy joe as well.

This was how I learned the history of the state, from John Brown's raid, to the secession from Virginia, to Senator Byrd who always found ways to pump federal money into his home state, including the designation of Harpers Ferry as a National Historical Park.  The town sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, serving as a US Armory and Arsenal since the early 19th century.

John Brown decided to make a stand against slavery here, leading 21 men on a raid of the arsenal in 1859, further setting in motion the wheels of a confrontation he started in Kansas a few years before.  Brown's raid came to a fiery ending, resulting in his death by hanging, thereby making him a martyr for the abolitionist cause.  The old engine house, where he and his raiding force holed up, is memorialized today as "John Brown's Fort."

When the southern states seceded in 1860-61, West Virginia chose to remain in the Union.  It was easy enough to cleave this part from the rest of the state because of the natural border in the Appalachian Mountains.  Kentucky, which had also once been part of Virginia, likewise chose to remain in the Union, helping to secure the new territory from Southern aggression.  Statehood was eventually granted in 1863, when it seemed the United States had the Civil War in hand.

The mountains proved to be the lifeblood of the state, as they were rich in minerals and relatively easy to exploit.  Saltpeter and limestone gave way to coal as the main source of mineral wealth, literally fueling the state and the country.   This brought in the industrialists and the railroads, notably the Rockefellers, who invested heavily in the state.

Despite all this new found wealth, the state's residents didn't appear to profit from it.  The Appalachian area in particular, where rural towns remained as poor as they ever were before.  Photographs by Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott and Walker Evans captured both the dignity and despair during the Depression era, which lingered in the state far longer than other parts of the country.

These depressed coal towns would figure heavily into the American imagination, including the recent set of teen novels by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, which featured two representatives from a coal mining district not much unlike those you would have found in West Virginia during the Depression era.  Sadly though, Collins had projected this situation into the future.

Fortunately for West Virginia, the state has been well represented in Congress since WWII, notably Senators Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, who have pumped federal money into the state.  This made the state reliably Democratic for decades, but ever since Reagan, a new conservatism has emerged that threatens to make the state solid Republican in this year's midterms.  Times change and coal no longer figures quite so heavily into West Virginia politics.  Neither does it seem do government contracts.

The state relies more and more on tourism, and for good reason.  There is much to see and do in West Virginia.  It is no longer second cousin to Virginia.

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