updated 7/15/2008 7:02:40 PM ET 2008-07-15T23:02:40

Almost heaven—that’s what the song says about West Virginia. And indeed some things are looking up for this state, whose people have never lost their sense of hope or their affection for the hills and mountains that make this the most unhorizontal state in the nation. But West Virginia has had more than its share of tragedy and heartbreak. It was born out of the tragedy of the Civil War, when 55 mountain counties with few slaves seceded from Virginia, and it has made its living most of the years since on that cruelest of minerals, coal. West Virginia is laced with coal: there are coal seams in 53 of its 55 counties, and production even today, after many mines have closed, in 26. Coal kept the sons of large mountaineer families here for much of the 20th century, men who would otherwise have left for big cities; coal brought immigrants in, a few from odd corners of Europe, but more from adjacent areas of the South where the local farming economies were stagnant when West Virginia’s coal economy was booming. Coal and local rock salt and brines brought the large concentration of chemical plants 50 years ago to the Kanawha Valley around Charleston; it built steel mills and glass factories in the panhandle and the Monongahela River valley, not far south of Pittsburgh.

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But coal did not build a self-sustaining economy. When America was beleaguered abroad, demand for coal increased and energy prices rose, and West Virginia boomed, during World War II (the state reached its all-time population peak of 2 million in 1950) and the oil shocks of the 1970s. Coal changed the state’s politics too. West Virginia’s heritage from the Civil War days was Republican, though some counties tilted toward the Confederacy and the Democrats. But after John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers organized most of the West Virginia mines, the coal country shifted toward the New Deal Democrats, and West Virginia for more than half a century was one of the most Democratic states, deserting the national ticket only in Republican landslide years (1956, 1972, 1984) until George W. Bush carried it in 2000; its legislature has been controlled by Democrats since 1930. But neither Democratic administrations nor the pensions and medical benefits the UMW negotiated for retired miners were able to provide the economic growth to keep thousands of West Virginians from leaving their mountains to find work elsewhere—now more often south on I-77 to the booming Carolinas or over U.S. 33 to Columbus than farther north to the Great Lakes industrial cities. As underground miners were replaced by strip-mining machines, coal tonnage went way up but coal mine employment dropped from 22% of the state’s work force in 1950 to 10% in 1980 and only 4% in the late 1990s; coal mines employed 126,000 West Virginians in 1948, 63,000 in 1978, 13,500 in 2002. The state’s population, 2.0 million in 1950 and 1.95 million in 1980, fell to 1.8 million in 2000—the largest decrease over that period, absolutely and in percentage terms, of any state. Of the state’s 55 counties, 38 had fewer people in 2006 than they did in 1950, 76% and 53% fewer in coal-mining McDowell and Logan Counties; the only big population increases over that half-century have been in the eastern panhandle, the university town of Morgantown and several Ohio River counties. In the 2000 Census, West Virginia ranked 50th among states in household income, 50th in median value of housing (but first in percentage of home ownership), 48th in percentage of adults with a high school diploma and second in percentage living in poverty. Still, West Virginians have a strong attachment to this unique state, where the accent sounds Southern and the early 20th century factories and houses look Northern, where the landscape is rural and the economy industrial.

In the 1990s West Virginia was on the rebound, only to be threatened at the end of the decade with economic disaster. Population increased during the decade and the number of jobs rose by 8%. Unemployment since 2000 has been only slightly above and often below the national average, down to 4.5% in April 2007. Government has played a role. Senator Robert Byrd, as both chairman and ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, achieved his career goal of channeling $1 billion of federal projects into West Virginia, and more. Forest products are replacing coal in rural counties, health care is growing as everywhere and telemarketing is growing as well. West Virginia has finally completed its interstate highway network and in a computer age it is no longer isolated. Still, West Virginia is losing young people. Even during the growing 1990s the number of people aged 25 to 34 fell by 33,000, while the number of those under 18 plunged by 41,000; from 2000 to 2006, more people died than were born in West Virginia. The state’s median age rose to 38.9, the highest in the nation, even above Florida’s. Young people in close-packed Huntington and Wheeling are moving across the Ohio River to more spread-out subdivisions in Ohio.

One threat to West Virginia’s economy came in October 1999 when, in a case brought by environmental groups, federal judge Charles Haden ruled that mountaintop mining violates federal environmental laws. Far fewer miners are needed for this work than in underground mining, but the pay is good and the jobs highly valued in counties which, in some cases, have half as many people as they did 50 years ago. Mining companies said that Judge Haden’s decision would end coal mining in West Virginia. Senator Byrd threatened to overturn the decision in an appropriations bill; Bill Clinton said he would veto any such bill, and the provision was dropped. But the issue became important—arguably crucial—in the 2000 presidential race. In April 2000 the Clinton administration came out against a ban on mountaintop mining, but for stricter regulation; Al Gore was caught in the middle between environmentalists who supported it and West Virginia’s all-Democratic congressional delegation which opposed it. George W. Bush, spotting an opening quickly, came out in favor of mountaintop mining and called for increased federal support of clean coal technology; he said that the Clinton administration “fears coal” and managed to mention coal in one of the presidential debates. Bush’s support of coal and his opposition to gun control enabled him to carry West Virginia 52%-46%—a stunning upset in a state that hadn’t voted for a Republican in an open presidential race since 1928. Its five electoral votes were crucial: Without them, it would not have mattered who won Florida. The environmental stands which helped Gore in large East and West Coast states proved fatal to his candidacy in West Virginia. In April 2001, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Judge Haden and ruled that under the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, West Virginia’s mining standards superseded federal standards.

As president, George W. Bush was attentive to coal. He got Congress to spend $2 billion on clean coal technology and from March 2002 to December 2003 slapped import quotas to help the steel industry, still a major coal user. All this helped Bush in the 2004 election. Democratic nominee John Kerry had voted against Byrd’s amendment to save mountaintop mining and for air pollution control bills which would have cut coal usage by something like 40%. Democrats who regarded Bush’s victory here in 2000 as a fluke made West Virginia a target state. They hoped that economic dissatisfaction would give Kerry a victory. But by September 2004 it was apparent that Bush was well ahead, and West Virginia slipped off both candidates’ target list. Bush ended up winning 46 of 55 counties on his way to a 56%-43% victory, and Republicans won surprise victories in races for secretary of state and state Supreme Court. Most West Virginia voters continue to identify as Democrats, but Bush’s victory raises the question of whether West Virginia is going to follow other mountain states like Kentucky and Tennessee and become predominantly Republican.

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