In 1817 John Scanland traveled through the area that become Preston County and recorded his impressions in his journal:
Through a mountainous and broken country, very little prospect here, to invite the industrious farmer, to settle in this lonesome part of the World. Came to Cheat River. Here is some better looking land, but tis very broken. Came to the small village called Kingwood in Mongahalia [ sic] Cty. Some good land here, but is hilly—people appear to live poorly in this part, have small plantations, and indifferent buildings, generally cabbins—the town is newly settled, have no good buildings in it, people inclined to dissipation—the manners of the people in town as well as country, appear to be characteristic of those who are called Mountaineers.
A year later Preston County was formed from Monongalia to its west and named for James P. Preston, then governor of Virginia. “The small village called Kingwood” was declared the county seat.
Charles Lanman, writing in 1856, claimed that the Cheat River, which Scanland noted, derived its name “from the fact that its waters are so clear, and at the same time so dark, as to deceive the stranger in regard to its depths when crossing its fording places.” Surprisingly, Scanland did not mention the German settlement, which almost everyone else did. Established late in the eighteenth century near present-day Aurora, it remained an isolated agricultural community until the 1830s, when the Northwestern Turnpike passed through. In the 1850s, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad traversed the county on a parallel east-west track several miles north of the turnpike. Because of the exceedingly difficult terrain, the railroad's engineers accomplished some of their most remarkable feats in Preston County. One tunnel was so long that an adjacent community, Tunnelton, is named for it, while the Cheat River, or Tray Run, Viaduct was depicted on West Virginia's state seal.
Preston County's 1860 population of 13,312 ranked it sixth in population among the fifty Virginia counties that would soon constitute the new state of West Virginia. Ties to northern markets and access to northern cities influenced its decision to oppose Virginia's secession, and a number of citizens played vital roles in forming the new state. At the end of the nineteenth century, vacationers flocked to the county's cool highlands, and both Aurora and Terra Alta developed as summer railroad resorts.
Railroads also transported timber and coal during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Along with coalfields came company camps and towns. As an attempt to alleviate the deplorable living conditions that ensued in some of them, the federal government established the nation's first subsistence homestead project at Arthurdale. Depending on one's views of Eleanor Roosevelt, the project was a boon or a boondoggle. Today it remains the most important, least changed, and most intact of the three homestead settlement projects in the state. Preston's 2000 population was 29,334, a slight decline from the 1950 peak of 31,399.
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