Buchanan County is known for its almost impenetrable mountainous and rugged terrain. Most of the county's habitable land is found in narrow valleys created by winding rivers and creeks. Hemmed in by high mountain slopes, residents sometimes have competed with the railroad, highway, and creek to find a reasonably level place on which to build their houses and businesses. Named for James Buchanan, fifteenth president of the United States, the county was formed in 1858 from parts of neighboring Tazewell and Russell counties. Although exploration of the area dates to the 1750s, the county remained largely unsettled until after the American Revolution and sparsely populated until the 1930s when the development of coal mines brought newcomers to the area. Investors began to speculate in Buchanan coal lands as early as 1887, but commercial mining proved impractical until the completion of a standard-gauge Norfolk and Western Railway spur line in 1931, and that year the county's first coal mine was established. In the 1930s hundreds of men and their families swarmed into the area to work the mines, doubling the county's population in less than a decade.
After the 1973–1974 oil crisis and subsequent coal boom, Buchanan County became one of the wealthiest counties in Virginia, producing more than 40 percent of the state's coal output. Land prices in Buchanan soared, making house sites practically unavailable to the average family; hence mobile homes became ubiquitous throughout the county. The coal industry still dominates the county's economy. Prominently displayed on the grounds of the Buchanan County Courthouse is a lifelike bronze statue by Utah artist Gary Prazen of a typical coal miner, giving a human face to the occupation that demands so much of its workers.
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