West Virginia's fifth-oldest county was formed in 1778 as a Virginia county, with land taken from Montgomery and Botetourt counties to the east. Even though its area has subsequently been reduced as new jurisdictions have been carved from its territory, Greenbrier County remains the state's second largest, encompassing 1,022.8 square miles.
The county is one of West Virginia's most fertile and pastoral regions and was one of the earliest trans-Allegheny areas settled by Virginians. On July 6, 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker, intrepid explorer and land speculator, recorded in his Journal of an Expedition in the Spring of the Year 1750 (1888):
The low grounds on [the Greenbrier River] are of very little value, but on the Branches are very good in many places. We got to a large creek, which affords a great deal of very good land, and it is chiefly bought. We kept up the creek four miles and camped. There are some inhabitants on the Branches of the Green Bryer, but we missed their plantation.
Although land was claimed early, settlement was sparse until the threat of Indian attack diminished before the Revolution. By the late eighteenth century, log houses had been augmented by substantial stone houses, and as the nineteenth century progressed, imposing brick mansions, seats of prosperous plantations, began to dot the rolling landscape. The county's several mineral springs developed in the nineteenth century as luxury resorts, and by the 1830s were theplaces for aristocratic southern families, especially those with marriageable daughters, “to see and be seen.”
A different Greenbrier emerged after the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway traversed the county in 1873. Opening rich timber reserves, the railroad and its branch lines spurred growth in heretofore unsettled regions. Ronceverte was established as the county's major terminal and railhead, while Rainelle, at the county's extreme western edge, claimed to be the world's largest sawmill operation early in the twentieth century. The heady lumber and railroad days are now history, and Interstate 64 has replaced the railroad as the main transportation route through the county.
Greenbrier County's antebellum agricultural economy was plantation-oriented, and its 1840 population of 8,659 included 1,214 slaves. Population growth was steady for most of the next hundred years or so, peaking in 1950 at 39,295. The 2000 population was 34,453.
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