Formed in 1856 from Lee, Scott, and Russell counties, Wise County was named in honor of Henry Alexander Wise, governor of Virginia from 1856 to 1860. Consisting of a series of ridges, hollows, steep gorges, and plateaus, the county remained sparsely populated from the earliest Scots-Irish settlements during the late eighteenth century to the 1890s when the expanding timber, coal, and railroad industries caused a great influx of people to the area. The 1890 census for Wise County recorded a population of 9,345 residents, most of them farmers. Within ten years the population had more than doubled. Towns such as Big Stone Gap, Pound, Coeburn, and Norton were founded during this period, providing services to coal miners and wealthy industrialists alike. Small mining company towns such as Stonega, Derby, Roda, and Imboden were built in remote locations in the northern half of the county by some of the twelve coal companies operating in Wise County by 1900. Rows of modest houses, perhaps a church and a school, and the ubiquitous company store were often the only social and commercial centers for hundreds of families in the county's remote coalfields.
Coal mining dominated the economy in the first decades of the twentieth century, but its decline after World War II was largely responsible for the large out-migration of residents that continued until 1970. Wise County was greatly scarred by the exploitation of its timber and coal resources, though stringent land reclamation laws and reforestation in the past few decades have softened the impact of the treeless and gutted mountainsides.
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