Appalachian Economic Development

People outside the United States may well have heard of Appalachia but not know much about it. It’s come to be the name of the mountainous part of the eastern U.S. These are real mountains, not high, at their highest about 6,000 feet, or 2,000 meters. They are nonetheless rugged. They can be described as the skeletal remains of mountains once as high as the Himalayas. 

In the U.S., Appalachia runs at a southwest to northeast angle for more than a thousand miles. It includes North Alabama and North Georgia, the eastern half of Tennessee, the western third of North Carolina, eastern Kentucky, west and northwest Virginia, all of West Virginia, a chunk of southeastern Ohio, and a big chunk of Pennsylvania, and on up into New York. Most of it remains lightly populated and quite rural. The base population is stable, largely descended from Scotch-irish and Germans who began settling the region several decades before the American Revolution. The Indian wars in Appalachia were fierce. The southern Appalachians was the Cherokee homeland before they were forced out on the infamous Trail of Tears in the late 1830s.

The region is characterized by religious fundamentalism, social conservatism, and tends strongly to be politically conservative, a pattern broken somewhat by college towns and a number of resorts. Historically, the region was different from the rest of the South, being a region of small farms and with relatively few slaves before the Civil War. Much of the region was loyal to the Union during that war, resulting in vicious guerrilla conflicts in many areas. West Virginia went with the Union, and seceded from Virginia because Virginia seceded from the Union, becoming a state in 1863.

The passionate fighting during the Civil War left a legacy of violence, including a few murderous family feuds, such as those between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Industrialization left most of the region behind, although coal mining became a major industry in West Virginia and other areas in the mountains. There was a great deal of violence in the coal fields between unions and the coal companies, a radical tendency long since gone from the region.

The relative isolation of Appalachia continued well into the 20th century. It was often among the last areas to get infrastructure like highways, bridges and electrification. Stereotypes emerged that remain persistent. Despite cable TV and the internet being available, and it being the 21st century in Appalachia too, people who live in the mountains are often stereotyped as stupid, violent, inbred and uneducated hillbillies. The stereotype persists in literature, films and television programs.

It’s a big area, 200,000 square miles and perhaps 20 million people. Some of it is breathtakingly beautiful.

Why do I write about it? Part of my family settled in the Virginia mountains 250 years ago. They are still there. The family graveyard has the bones of many generations of my ancestors. It sits on a hillside overlooking a river valley, and it’s a pretty, if melancholy place, with foxes and crows and deer visiting far more often than people. Something keeps me rooted there, even though it’s been years since I was there. Appalachia seems to do that to its people.

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