McDowell County, West Virginia

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McDowell County, West Virginia
McDowell County WV Court.jpg
Map of West Virginia highlighting McDowell County
Location in the U.S. state of West Virginia
Map of the United States highlighting West Virginia
West Virginia's location in the U.S.
Founded February 28, 1858
Named for James McDowell[1]
Seat Welch
Largest city Welch
 • Total 535 sq mi (1,386 km2)
 • Land 533 sq mi (1,380 km2)
 • Water 1.4 sq mi (4 km2), 0.3%
Population (est.)
 • (2017) 18,456
 • Density 38/sq mi (15/km2)
Congressional district 3rd
Time zone Eastern: UTC−5/−4

McDowell County is a county in the U.S. state of West Virginia. As of the 2010 census, the population was 22,113.[2] Its county seat is Welch.[3] McDowell county is the southernmost county in the state. It was created in 1858 by the Virginia General Assembly and named for Virginia Governor James McDowell.[4] It became a part of West Virginia in 1863, when several counties seceded from the state of Virginia during the American Civil War.

McDowell County was also home of the famous Rocket Boys, who were from Coalwood.


McDowell County was formed by an act of the Virginia Legislature on February 20, 1858, from what was originally included in Tazewell County, Virginia.[5]

Five years later, the Legislature decided to allow county residents to determine where the county seat should be. They chose Perryville (now called English), which was then the most populated town.[4] "The "Restored Government" commissioners, in October, 1866, located the county seat on a farm near the mouth of Mill Creek, where it remained until it moved to Perryville in 1874."[5] The debate over the location of the county seat continued until 1892. The town of Welch became the county seat.[5]

The county is popularly referred to as the "Free State of McDowell," a name originally coined by a local newspaper editor to refer to the unusual politics and demographics of the area.[6]

McDowell County was nationally known for its prominence in the coal mining industry, setting production records and was a major player in the state's economy. Before the industry's decline beginning in the 1950s, McDowell's population reached nearly 100,000 residents, third highest in the state at that time. It then reduced at a rapid pace in the following decades, setting the highest percentage in the state for population loss with each new census. Younger residents moved out of the county to seek better futures, leaving behind an older and increasingly impoverished population.

Increasing rates of poverty in McDowell County led U.S. President John F. Kennedy to remark in a speech in May 1963:

I don't think any American can be satisfied to find in McDowell County, in West Virginia, 20 or 25 percent of the people of that county out of work, not for 6 weeks or 12 weeks, but for a year, 2, 3, or 4 years.[7]

While some hope for the McDowell mining economy had flourished during the energy crisis of the 1970s, in the next decade the county went from swift decline to collapse. Wildcat strikes in the Appalachian coal fields hindered producers' ability to deliver to buyers. Non-unionized coal production in the western States provided tough competition. The county's coal industry suffered yet again when a major source of demand, the United States steel industry, began its own decline due to competition with foreign steel makers, who employed newer and more efficient steel plants to produce high grade steel at lower prices.

In the 1980s the central Appalachian region lost more than 70,000 coal mining jobs. Between 1981 and 1992, according to the U.S. Department of Energy and the United Mine Workers union, coal mining employment in the state of West Virginia decreased by more than 53%. No county in the Appalachian region was more severely distressed by these losses than McDowell County. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1980, the rate of poverty in McDowell County was 23.5%.

By 1990, the poverty rate in McDowell County had climbed to 37.7%, the highest rate of poverty for any county in West Virginia. 50.3% of all children in McDowell County were living in families below the poverty level, up from 31.2% in 1980. The major losses in McDowell County during this period were the result of the closing of all mines and facilities operated by the United States Steel Corporation, terminating more than 1,200 jobs.

The economic impact of U.S. Steel's departure was particularly dramatic: personal income in the county decreased by 66% in one year. Housing values in even the most prosperous parts of the county plunged to devastatingly low values. Individuals and families who wanted to relocate outside the county were left with little or no equity in their property. Many walked away from their mortgages and simply abandoned their homes to the lenders.

Marijuana crops, drug traffic, fraud, arson, and in one spectacular case at the Bank of Keystone—major white collar crime and embezzlement became factors in the unofficial economy of McDowell. County officials also reported significant increases in the rates of domestic abuse, suicide, and OxyContin abuse.

By 2001 suffering major losses of tax revenue, McDowell County public schools had fallen into physical decay and high rates of academic failure. Enrollments declined, more than half of the children lived in poverty. The West Virginia Department of Education intervened in December, 2001, by taking over the county system, instituting emergency funding and reorganization. The state effectively repaired or closed several school buildings, and launched construction of crucial new facilities. The consolidation of former schools into new locations, however, created new problems of busing students longer distances over narrow, winding mountain roads. New programs of teacher training aided local educators in addressing issues of multi-generational poverty in McDowell County families. Often the school system had to work at educating and stimulating hope in two or more generations at a time. With the help of the state, the county school system has now returned to self-governance.

In 2001 and 2002, horrific floods leveled many of the small towns within this county. Over 10 inches (250 mm) of rain fell during a period of 12 hours in many areas. Many towns were completely demolished by the violent flow of water which was channeled by the mountains and surrounding hills. Over forty people died, or were declared dead after being listed as missing for over a year.

In response to these economic and natural disasters, the churches of the region organized missions to support individuals and families in need. The largest nondenominational agency in the area, The Community Crossing, Inc (formerly known as McDowell Mission), each year hosts and organizes numerous mission work teams from many parts of the United States. Another Christian relief and development agency, Mustard Seeds and Mountains, hosts work teams in the eastern quadrant of McDowell County in order to help local families with home repair. Kingdom First Missions is a Christian organization distributing food, clothing, shoes, and basic necessities to families in need. They are also hosting work teams for home repair and community clean-up projects. Kingdom First Missions

Various citizens groups and public officials have worked diligently at proposals for the rebuilding of the McDowell County economy. In recent years the county has developed profitable landfills, has lobbied for the construction of two major prisons, and has courted tourism related to popular new off-road vehicle trails through the mountains. North of the City of Welch a massive mountain-top removal site is being developed as an industrial park. That site is also the designed location for the intersection of two proposed regional highways: The Coalfields Expressway, and the King Coal Highway. The Norfolk Southern railroad corporation is bringing new construction to McDowell County enlarging the tunnels and upgrading the capacity of its main rail line between Norfolk, Virginia and the Midwest. To date, however, the largest private employer in the county was the Walmart at Big Four. It closed permanently in late January 2016. It has been reported that 140 people lost their jobs.

McDowell County is considered as one of the core counties in Appalachia on which the national War on Poverty focused, a national effort started during President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration.

The town of Coalwood was the hometown of Homer Hickam, a NASA engineer whose life, starting from his teenage years, was documented in Rocket Boys, which was later made into the film October Sky.


McDowell County, the southernmost county in West Virginia, is located at 37°22′N 81°39′W / 37.37°N 81.65°W / 37.37; -81.65Coordinates: 37°22′N 81°39′W / 37.37°N 81.65°W / 37.37; -81.65. It is bordered by Tazewell County, Virginia, to the south; Buchanan County, Virginia, to the west; Mingo County to the northwest; Wyoming County to the north; and Mercer County to the east. The Appalachian Mountains determine most of the borders of the county.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 535 square miles (1,390 km2), of which 533 square miles (1,380 km2) is land and 1.4 square miles (3.6 km2) (0.3%) is water.[8] The county is roughly in the shape of a semi circle, with the border following the mountains around the county.


Historical population
Census Pop.
Est. 201718,456[9]−16.5%
U.S. Decennial Census[10]
1790–1960[11] 1900–1990[12]
1990–2000[13] 2010–2015[2]

2010 census[edit]

As of the 2010 United States Census, there were 22,113 people, 9,176 households, and 6,196 families residing in the county.[14] The population density was 41.5 inhabitants per square mile (16.0/km2). There were 11,322 housing units at an average density of 21.2 per square mile (8.2/km2).[15] The racial makeup of the county was 89.1% white, 9.5% black or African American, 0.2% American Indian, 0.1% Asian, 0.0% from other races, and 1.1% from two or more races. Those of Hispanic or Latino origin made up 0.4% of the population.[14] The largest ancestry groups were:13.7% Irish, 12.0% German, 11.5% English, 8.0% American, 2.8% Sub-Saharan African, 2.7% Italian, 2.0% Dutch, 1.1% Scotch-Irish [16]

Of the 9,176 households, 28.7% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 48.1% were married couples living together, 13.9% had a female householder with no husband present, 32.5% were non-families, and 28.8% of all households were made up of individuals. The average household size was 2.36 and the average family size was 2.86. The median age was 43.8 years.[14]

The median income for a household in the county was $22,154 and the median income for a family was $28,413. Males had a median income of $31,229 versus $26,776 for females. The per capita income for the county was $12,955. About 27.5% of families and 32.6% of the population were below the poverty line, including 44.3% of those under age 18 and 20.1% of those age 65 or over.[17]

Life expectancy[edit]

Of 3,142 counties in the United States in 2013, McDowell County ranked 3,142 in the life expectancy of both male and female residents. Males in McDowell County lived an average of 63.5 years and females lived an average of 71.5 years compared to the national average for life expectancy of 76.5 for males and 81.2 for females. Moreover, the average life expectancy in McDowell County declined by 3.2 years for males and 4.1 years for females between 1985 and 2013 compared to a national average for the same period of an increased life span of 5.5 years for men and 3.1 years for women. High rates of smoking and obesity and a low level of physical activity appear to be contributing factors to the declining life expectancy for both sexes.[18]

Drug-induced deaths[edit]

In 2015, McDowell County had the highest rate of drug-induced deaths of any county in the United States, with 141 deaths per 100,000 people. (The rate for the United States as a whole was 14.7 per 100,000 people.[19]) Neighboring Wyoming County had the second highest rate.[20]


McDowell County’s political history is typical of West Virginia as a whole. The power of industrial and mining political systems turned it strongly towards the Republican Party between 1890 and 1932 – being strongly Republican enough to even support William Howard Taft during the divided 1912 presidential election.[21] Unionization of its predominant coal mining workforce during the New Deal made the county powerfully Democratic between 1935 and 2005: no Republican in this period except Richard Nixon against the strongly leftist George McGovern won forty percent of the county’s vote. – so that over the past three presidential elections swings to the Republican Party have averaged third percentage points and Democratic votes have reached levels historically more typical of unionist, traditionally Republican counties like Grant.

Presidential elections results
Presidential elections results[22]
Year Republican Democratic Third parties
2016 74.1% 4,629 23.0% 1,438 2.9% 179
2012 64.0% 3,959 34.1% 2,109 1.9% 120
2008 44.8% 2,882 53.3% 3,430 1.8% 118
2004 37.8% 2,762 61.7% 4,501 0.5% 36
2000 32.2% 2,348 66.3% 4,845 1.5% 110
1996 18.9% 1,550 73.0% 5,989 8.2% 669
1992 19.8% 1,941 71.8% 7,019 8.4% 821
1988 25.4% 2,463 74.2% 7,204 0.5% 47
1984 33.3% 4,284 66.3% 8,546 0.4% 53
1980 27.7% 3,862 70.4% 9,822 1.9% 259
1976 28.0% 4,107 72.0% 10,557
1972 56.8% 8,942 43.2% 6,811
1968 21.2% 4,020 67.8% 12,842 11.0% 2,075
1964 17.0% 3,684 83.1% 18,046
1960 25.2% 6,555 74.8% 19,501
1956 39.8% 11,138 60.2% 16,865
1952 30.2% 10,663 69.8% 24,657
1948 30.8% 9,687 68.5% 21,545 0.8% 240
1944 36.4% 11,023 63.7% 19,300
1940 36.3% 13,906 63.7% 24,449
1936 28.1% 9,975 71.8% 25,471 0.1% 35
1932 56.4% 16,069 43.4% 12,365 0.3% 80
1928 64.0% 14,810 35.9% 8,294 0.1% 31
1924 63.0% 12,422 28.2% 5,561 8.9% 1,749
1920 70.6% 12,198 29.3% 5,068 0.1% 16
1916 65.6% 7,086 34.2% 3,692 0.2% 20
1912 46.5% 4,341 26.8% 2,497 26.7% 2,489


Position Name
Commissioner Gordon Lambert
Commissioner Cecil Patterson
Commissioner, President Harold McBride
Prosecuting Attorney Ed Kornish
Sheriff Martin West
County Assessor Dennis Altizer
County Clerk Donald Hicks
Circuit Clerk Francine Spencer


McDowell County Schools operates the county's public K-12 education system of 7 elementary schools, 2 middle schools, and 2 public high schools in McDowell County including Mount View High School, and River View High School. The county also has a private school, Welch Nazarene Christian Academy, which currently has 37 students enrolled.[23] The current superintendent of schools is Nelson Spencer.

McDowell County Schools were under state control as a 'take-over' county from 2001 to 2013.[24]


Major highways[edit]

The West Virginia Division of Highways is currently trying to construct new highways, such as U.S. Route 121, known as the Coalfields Expressway.[25]


The county also had one airport, Welch Municipal Airport, which is now closed indefinitely.




Census-designated places[edit]

Unincorporated communities[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "West Virginia Counties". West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Archived from the original on September 23, 2001. Retrieved July 23, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b "State & County QuickFacts". United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on July 14, 2011. Retrieved January 10, 2014. 
  3. ^ "Find a County". National Association of Counties. Archived from the original on May 31, 2011. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  4. ^ a b Lewis, Virgil (1889). History of West Virginia. Philadelphia, PA: Hubbard Brothers, Publishers. p. 728. 
  5. ^ a b c Byrne, George (1915). 1915 Handbook of West Virginia. Charleston, WV: Lovett Printing Company. p. 88. 
  6. ^ Deaner, Larry Scott (2004). [Home in the McDowell County Coalfields: The African-American Population of Keystone, West Virginia Home in the McDowell County Coalfields: The African-American Population of Keystone, West Virginia] Check |url= value (help) (M.S., Geography thesis). Ohio University. Retrieved March 20, 2011. 
  7. ^ Kennedy, John F. (1964). Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1963. Best Books on, 1964. p. 366. 
  8. ^ "2010 Census Gazetteer Files". United States Census Bureau. August 22, 2012. Retrieved July 30, 2015. 
  9. ^ "Population and Housing Unit Estimates". Retrieved Apr 7, 2018. 
  10. ^ "U.S. Decennial Census". United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on May 12, 2015. Retrieved January 10, 2014. 
  11. ^ "Historical Census Browser". University of Virginia Library. Retrieved January 10, 2014. 
  12. ^ "Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved January 10, 2014. 
  13. ^ "Census 2000 PHC-T-4. Ranking Tables for Counties: 1990 and 2000" (PDF). United States Census Bureau. Retrieved January 10, 2014. 
  14. ^ a b c "DP-1 Profile of General Population and Housing Characteristics: 2010 Demographic Profile Data". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved 2016-04-03. 
  15. ^ "Population, Housing Units, Area, and Density: 2010 - County". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved 2016-04-03. 
  16. ^ "DP02 SELECTED SOCIAL CHARACTERISTICS IN THE UNITED STATES – 2006-2010 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved 2016-04-03. 
  17. ^ "DP03 SELECTED ECONOMIC CHARACTERISTICS – 2006-2010 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved 2016-04-03. 
  18. ^ "McDowell County, West Virginia",, accessed 12 Jan 2017.
  19. ^ "Increases in Drug and Opioid Overdose Deaths — United States, 2000–2014". Retrieved 2018-03-27. 
  20. ^ "Underlying Cause of Death, 1999-2015 Results". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved January 11, 2017. 
  21. ^ Menendez, Albert J.; The Geography of Presidential Elections in the United States, 1868-2004, pp. 334-337 ISBN 0786422173
  22. ^ Leip, David. "Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections". Retrieved 2018-03-27. 
  23. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-06-21. Retrieved 2011-09-01. 
  24. ^ Mays, Mackenzie (May 8, 2013). "McDowell regains school control after 12 years". Charleston Gazette. Retrieved August 17, 2013. 
  25. ^ "Coalfields Expressway". Coalfields Expressway Authority. Retrieved August 31, 2011. 

External links[edit]