When the state of Virginia voted to secede from the United States during the Civil War (1861-65), the people of the rugged and mountainous western region of the state opposed the decision and organized to form their own state, West Virginia, in support of the Union. Congress granted statehood to West Virginia on June 20, 1863. The West Virginia town of Harpers Ferry was the site of John Brown’s ill-fated 1859 raid on the federal armory there. Although Brown’s plan to arm a large-scale revolt of enslaved people with weapons from the armory ultimately failed. Brown was hanged, the raid did succeed in inflaming white Southern fears of rebellions and increased the mounting tension between North and South prior to the Civil War.
Today, West Virginia is a major coal-producing state, supplying 15 percent of the nation’s coal. The New River Gorge Bridge near Fayetteville is the longest steel arch bridge in the world. Every October, the town hosts a Bridge Day celebration when the road is closed to traffic and individuals are allowed to parachute and bungee jump off the bridge; the event attracts close to 100,000 participants and spectators each year. Famous West Virginia natives include actor Don Knotts, gymnast Mary Lou Retton and test pilot Chuck Yeager.
Date of Statehood: June 20, 1863
Population: 1,852,994 (2010)
Size: 24,230 square miles
Nickname(s): Mountain State
Motto: Montani Semper Liberi (“Mountaineers Are Always Free”)
Tree: Sugar Maple
- Between 250 and 150 B.C., the Adena people built what is known as Grave Creek Mound in Marshall County. Now standing 62 feet tall with a 240-foot diameter, it is the largest conical burial mound in the United States. In 1838, two men dug their way into the mound, exposing a burial chamber with skeletons and jewelry.
- The Greenbrier, a luxurious resort in the Allegheny Mountains in White Sulphur Springs, was used at the outset of World War II to house diplomats from Germany, Italy and Japan until American diplomats detained overseas could be returned home safely in exchange. In 1942, the U.S. Army purchased the hotel and converted it into a hospital where, over the course of four years, more than 24,000 soldiers were treated.
- In 1942, West Virginia enacted a law that required students and teachers to salute the American flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. When Walter Barnette, a Jehovah’s Witness, refused to do so on the grounds that it contradicted his religious beliefs, he was expelled from school. On June 14, 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that forcing individuals to salute the flag was a violation of their freedom of speech and religion.
- Two apple varieties originated in West Virginia: the Grimes Golden apple, discovered on a farm near Wellsburg in the early 19th century; and the Golden Delicious apple, found on a farm in Clay County in the early 20th century. In 1995, the Golden Delicious apple was designated the official state fruit of West Virginia.
- New River Gorge Bridge, with a span of 1,700 feet, is the longest steel arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere. Every third Saturday in October the Fayetteville bridge hosts a festival that includes hundreds of BASE jumpers plunging 876 feet into the river below.