It is ironic that West Virginia became a state – 150 years ago today – at a time when the rest of the United States was tearing itself apart in a bloody civil war.
Long ignored by the rich, slaveholding landowners of antebellum Virginia who controlled the state’s General Assembly, influential residents in the western counties used the Civil War to put the region on the path to statehood.
And when Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, over the staunch objections of many citizens from the western region, those citizens formed a loyal government of Virginia, the precursor to the state of West Virginia.
Following two years of political maneuvering, President Abraham Lincoln signed the proclamation making West Virginia a state on April 20, 1863. And, on June 20, 1863, the state of West Virginia became the 35th state of the Union. Arthur I. Boreman of Parkersburg was its first governor.
West Virginia may have been a child of the Civil War, but the state’s mountainous and isolated landscape shaped the identity of its people. It created the rugged individuals who carved a life from hardscrabble farms and later worked shifts in the dark and dangerous mines. And in doing so, it created a love by residents for their home that is seen in few other states.
In the years following the Civil War, out-of-state interests discovered our abundant natural resources. They may have created thousands of jobs, but they left scars on both the land and the people.
Despite, the hardships, West Virginians have always loved their state. For years, because of a lack of employment opportunities, people have been forced to leave these borders to find work elsewhere. But no matter where they go – earlier, to the factories in Ohio or Detroit, and more recently, to the growing economies of southern states, West Virginia is always the place they call home. They come back whenever they are able – hunting seasons, family reunions or funerals. And when they retire, many return as fast as they can.
Things are changing. Slowly but surely, the state’s economy has become more diverse than in previous years, making West Virginia workers less vulnerable to the boom-and-bust nature of the extraction industries. We have seen that here with Public Debt and Hino Motors. The Toyota plant in Buffalo employs several hundred workers and the Interstate 79 corridor between Clarksburg and Fairmont is home to many cutting-edge technological companies that also employ hundreds of residents. Environmental awareness has helped preserve the state’s rugged beauty, and led to regulations allowing tourism to become a major economic factor in itself. And the many fine colleges and universities within our borders offer students the opportunity for a good education that opens the doors to a future of opportunity.
Unfortunately, there are many problems, some unique to West Virginia and some the same facing other states. The unemployment rate is higher than in many of the surrounding states. Young people, often highly educated, are still forced to leave the state to find work. Many communities are dealing with a serious and growing drug problem. And despite being an outdoor wonderland enjoyed by visitors from other states, far too many of our own residents lead unhealthy lifestyles and die too young because of easily-preventable illnesses.
Today, we look back with pride at a state and its people who, often armed with little more than perseverance and optimism, have endured and thrived during the past 150 years. With that same optimism, we believe the best is yet to come for West Virginia and its people.
Montani Semper Liberi – Mountaineers are always free.