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Potomac Highlands

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Even in a state known as the Mountain State, the Potomac Highlands have more than their share. This eight-county region contains the highest peaks in West Virginia, and the Potomac is only one of many rivers that starts its journey to the sea here. Four of the eight counties were eighteenth-century creations of the Virginia legislature, two date from the midnineteenth century, and two were created after West Virginia became a state. Hampshire, dating from 1754, is the oldest county in what is now West Virginia.

Two antebellum turnpikes that traversed the region in the 1830s and 1840s on their way west to Parkersburg spurred development along their paths. The Northwestern Turnpike, passing through the northern portion of the Highlands, was completed to Romney, the seat of Hampshire County, in 1830 and reached Parkersburg in 1838. The last leg of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, traversing the southern Highlands, was finished between Beverly and Weston in the 1840s.

By the time West Virginia became a state, capitalists were well aware of the potential of the region's timber reserves. J. H. Diss Debar, in designing the state seal, drew a farmer whose left hand supported a woodsman's axe, indicating that although the territory was partly cultivated, it was still being cleared of the original forest. In his 1870 West Virginia Hand-Book and Immigrant's Guide, Debar wrote, “Among the natural elements of wealth abounding in West Virginia, none are so conspicuous, so directly available, and so evenly distributed, as her magnificent forests.” Until railroads penetrated the deep woods, timber could not be marketed, but once tracks were laid in the narrow valleys and hollows, the lumber boom was on.

In 1908 the West Virginia Conservation Commission predicted: “If the 1907 rate of cutting is maintained … the state's timber will be gone in 22 years.” The prophecy proved eerily accurate. In 1909 West Virginia led the nation in lumber production, but by the beginning of the Depression, lumber companies had left a virtual wasteland with their clear cutting operations. Fortunately, by then efforts were already underway to ensure a more prudent approach to timbering operations in the future. As early as 1915, with a 7,200-acre purchase, the U.S. Forest Service began to acquire huge tracts to form the Monongahela National Forest. The purchase area boundary was enlarged rapidly during the Depression, as timber companies sought to rid themselves of property that had become, to them, virtually worthless, and Monongahela's acreage reached 665,900 acres in 1933. By 1990 the forest covered more than 900,000 acres, taking in more than 25 percent of Randolph County, or over 200,000 acres. Percentages are even higher in Tucker County (35 percent), and highest of all in Pocahontas County (53 percent). The George Washington National Forest also takes up huge acreages: 52,000 acres in Hardy County and 48,000 acres in Pendleton County. In addition, some of West Virginia's largest state parks and state forests are in the Highlands.

Coal and lumber companies have also assembled huge tracts in the Highlands. In Randolph County, ten corporations control 27 percent of the land area. Thus federally owned land combined with property held by a few private landowners accounts for 53 percent of the state's largest county. As these statistics suggest, relatively little of the land is cultivated, much less built upon, and there is a limit to what can be developed. Most of the existing building stock is of frame construction.

In recent years, the Potomac Highlands have become a premier recreation area. Blackwater Falls State Park, established in 1953, and Canaan Valley, dating from the 1960s, both in Tucker County, are relatively recent additions to West Virginia's exemplary state park system. At Canaan Valley, a ski resort, private development and construction have covered the wooded slopes that surround the upland valley with wooden chalets and cabins.

The Potomac Highlands are still relatively isolated, but construction of Appalachian Regional Corridor H will soon change the situation dramatically. For the present, this is West Virginia as it ought to be.

Writing Credits

S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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