Clay County, formed in 1858, was named for Henry Clay. Its 1860 population was 1,787, and after gradual increases, a peak of 15,206 was realized in 1940. By 2000, after intervening decades of modest ups and downs, the figure had declined to 10,330. The county's rough terrain prevented early settlement and hindered development of its natural resources. Not until the 1890s, when the Coal and Coke Railroad arrived, were its timber and coal reserves exported. Current mining operations in Clay County are largely surface works.
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