Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Mountaineers Always Free!

Mountaineers Always Free!
Many states in the US tout the wild pure beauty their mountains to naturalists and tourists. Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and West Virginia have been called “The Switzerland of America.”

But only West Virginia is named “The Mountain State.” Why?

According to the West Virginia page on the website, West Virginia boasts “the highest mean altitude east of the Mississippi River” and features the “largest single natural scenic and outdoor recreational area in the eastern United States; the Allegheny Highlands.”
Forests cover over “eighty percent” of West Virginia; that means “over 110,000 square miles of hardwood forest, wind-swept mountains and photo-perfect valley landscapes.”

Free though these Mountaineers may be in spirit, while longing for those country roads to take them home, true freedom means being able to earn a living and enjoy mobility.

That got me wondering what made the most dramatic impact on West Virginian’s quality of material life: rural electrification or highway development.

One brought electric light, appliances, and machinery into rural homes and farms.

The other allowed ordinary citizens access to the world outside their hollows or county seats—and easier access to markets and jobs.

The push for more electricity and safe, paved roads heated up in the 1930s.

According to the 1940 Yearbook of Agriculture, in 1935 the government had questioned “50,000 rural West Virginians” and discovered “a large market eager for electricity.” However, by June 30, 1939, only 15% of farms had electricity (Beall, Robert, “Rural Electrification,” p. 802.). Commercial power companies acted to fill this need—and promote expanded electric service. In 1940 at WVU’s Jackson Mill 4-H Camp they built a large facility to demonstrate the ways and means of “farm electrification.” (Long, Scot E. "Rural Electrification." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 29 October 2010. Web. 08 July 2015). Since then it has been used to educate the public on the history of this movement. I have visited this building many times and always came away amazed. Today, several regional electric associations/cooperatives and two major power companies, the Appalachian Power Company and Allegheny Power provide electricity throughout the state. (Long, Scot E. "Rural Electrification." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 29 October 2010. Web. 08 July 2015).
Imagine mountaineers without access to modern refrigeration, milking machines, electric pumps, and all the electronic gadgets and wonders that we all take for granted today.

But what about the roads?

Tom Wolfe referenced the state’s highways when describing a weary Las Vegas gambler who had eyes “like two poached eggs engraved with a road map of West Virginia.” ( “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t hear you! Too noisy) Las Vegas!!!!” The Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby; Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1963, 1965, found in eBook (eISBN9781429961035: April 2011), p.14.)

Wolfe (and the old gambler) obviously needed to find a quiet country road.  

By the end of the 20th century, the West Virginia Division of Highways had “more than 4,800 employees” that implemented “the planning, engineering, construction, and maintenance of more than 35,000 miles of state highways, 549 miles of interstate highways, 1,818 miles of national highways, 6,800 bridges, five national byways, 14 scenic byways, and eight backways [sic].”  ( Peyton, Billy Joe "Highway Development." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 26 July 2012. Web. 08 July 2015.)  

Thirty-seven thousand miles running up, down, and around the “I can’t look” curves covering 27,500 (unforested) sq mi plus 110,000 sq mi of forested mountains—arguably the most challenging terrain in the nation! Just ask anyone who has driven in the Mountain State to nominate a likely country road as a candidate for white-knuckle driving and passionate appeals to their deity of choice. Check out to see what some have posted.  

Always Free? Yep, just hit one of those roads and let your heart sing.