With a land area of 667 square miles, Fayette ranks as the sixth largest of West Virginia's fifty-five counties. It was formed in 1831 from portions of adjoining Kanawha, Greenbrier, Nicholas, and Logan counties and was named to honor the Marquis de Lafayette. Four years later, Joseph Martin wrote in A New and Comprehensive Gazetteer of Virginia, and the District of Columbiathat “the mountains in this county are innumerable,” and that the New River traversing it was “no where navigable [being] exceedingly rapid and precipitous.” With an 1840 population of 3,924, the county was still sparsely settled when Henry Howe described it in 1845 as “one of the wildest and most picturesque regions of the state.”
Fayette County's extensive coal reserves were tapped relatively early, thanks to the C&O Railway, which traversed the county in 1873. In 1888 Fayette produced more than 1.5 million tons of coal, the first West Virginia county to exceed the million-ton mark. The Virginian Railway completed its line, beginning at Deep Water on the Kanawha River, through to Norfolk, Virginia, in 1909, facilitating the opening of mines in the western part of the county.
In the 1930s during the Depression the Fine Arts Section of the U.S. Treasury, the department then responsible for federal construction, sponsored art in several Fayette County post offices. The Oak Hill post office contains a bas-relief titled Colonial Mail Rider, while buildings in Fayetteville and Mount Hope display murals depicting coal mining activities.
Fayette County achieved its peak coal production in 1940 with 12.4 million tons. Ten years later, the county achieved its peak population, when the 1950 census counted 82,443. In subsequent decades, Fayette's population decline paralleled its decline in coal production. The 2000 census counted 47,579. Many coal towns in the New River Gorge and on its slopes have virtually disappeared, and the main streets of once prosperous regional commercial centers on the plains above are lined with vacant stores. Nature has now reclaimed much of the land formerly laid waste by mining operations, and man is helping in the process. The New River Gorge National River, established in 1978 to protect fifty-three miles of the river, now encompasses 62,000 acres, mostly in Fayette County, though portions extend into Raleigh and Summers counties. In addition to protecting the natural and scenic resources of the gorge, the National Park Service is preserving and restoring remnants of its historic architecture as well.
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