Saturday, November 17, 2007

Benign Betrayal: Pocahontas County 1890-1910

Although I often search the Web for references to Pocahontas County, I found this interesting article by chance. Benign Betrayal: Capitalist Intervention in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, 1890-1910 by John Hennen was published in West Virginia History, Volume 50 (1991), pp. 46-62, and is freely available on the West Virginia Division of Culture and History Web site.

Current Pocahontas County politics also center on land use, development, and outside interests profiting at the expense of the local people and environment. I think anyone interested in these issues would find some insights in this analysis.

...Timbering, the basis for an economic boom in Pocahontas between 1890 and 1910, changed dramatically as large-scale investment penetrated the county. Before the 1890s, the market for sawed lumber in the mountains was primarily local. The technology of lumbering was simple, costs were minimal, and the amount of timber cut had little environmental impact. Small-scale family operations were profitable because there was little competition from large companies and outside capital. While the timber industry was on the verge of great growth and prosperity, the boom eluded the small operators who lacked developmental capital.

By the early 1900s, small timbering operations in Pocahontas County were supplanted by systematic, well-integrated operations in areas of the county opened up by new rail systems. Previously unexploited areas were reached by developers eager to supply the industrial northeast. Thousands of mountaineers gravitated to the timber camps to work for cash wages, signifying the first major form of non-agricultural work in the mountains. Lumbermen who had spent a generation in the Pennsylvania forests migrated to Pocahontas, and its population almost doubled in ten years. As the timber industry grew, the mountaineers became less oriented to the traditional, personalized economy and more dependent on the demands and fluctuations of the national marketplace. By the 1920s, the boom in the county was over, and the virgin timber gone, leaving a clearcut wasteland, devastated by poor logging practices, flooding, and fires....

...Those who questioned the prudence of rapid capitalist intervention did so at the risk of being cast as obstacles to progress. "The people," wrote James Murray Mason in the 1884 report of the West Virginia Tax Commission, "have been educated to believe that our immediate development must be obtained at any cost and regardless of sacrifices; the public mind has been saturated with an idea that progress means one railroad where there is no railroad, and two railroads where there is only one." The report continued, "the question is whether this vast wealth shall belong to persons who live here and are permanently identified with the future of West Virginia, . . . or pass into the hands of people who care nothing for our state except to pocket the treasures which lie buried in our hills."


Rebecca said...

This is key to Pocahontas County's history.

What a great blog!

I grew up in Lobelia (actually right at the base of Droop Mountain), and have just moved back to the Greenbrier Valley.

I missed the geology most of all.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Welcome back, Rebecca! Thanks for the complement.

We're wondering if you're related to Cappy, who used to work at Denmar Hospital. Did you go to school in Hillsboro?

Rebecca said...


Yes, and yes (sometimes).

I sent you an email earlier today.