Raleigh County, formed in 1850 from Fayette County, was named for Sir Walter. In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, it had a population of only 3,367. The county's early economy was agricultural, but toward the end of the nineteenth century entrepreneurs began to exploit its tremendous timber and coal reserves. The Chesapeake & Ohio's arrival in southern West Virginia in the 1870s had little effect on Raleigh, as the railroad traversed the New River Gorge on the north, or Fayette County, side of the river. The county's only coal mine operating in 1893 shipped its product in bucketloads across the New River to the railroad. In 1901 a thirteen-mile spur was run to the mining community of Raleigh, adjacent to Beckley, the county seat. The Virginian Railway entered the county in 1906 and by 1909 had completed its line to Norfolk, Virginia.
Once its transportation system was in place, Raleigh County burgeoned. Its population more than doubled in the first decade of the twentieth century, growing from 12,436 in 1900 to 25,633 in 1910. In 1925, the peak year of coal production, 10,426 men were employed in the industry. Population growth continued throughout the first half of the century, and in 1950, with a figure of 96,273, Raleigh was the state's fourth most populous county. Much of the population lived in company towns and camps, few of which survived to the end of the twentieth century. In 2000 Raleigh County still maintained its relative position as West Virginia's fourth most populous county, though in actual numbers the population had decreased from its 1950 high to a figure of 79,220.
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