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McDowell County, West Virginia facts for kids

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McDowell County
McDowell County Courthouse in Welch
McDowell County Courthouse in Welch
Free State of McDowell
Map of West Virginia highlighting McDowell County
Location within the U.S. state of West Virginia
Map of the United States highlighting West Virginia
West Virginia's location within the U.S.
Country  United States
State  West Virginia
Founded February 28, 1858
Named for James McDowell
Seat Welch
Largest city Welch
 • Total 535 sq mi (1,390 km2)
 • Land 533 sq mi (1,380 km2)
 • Water 1.4 sq mi (4 km2)  0.3%%
 • Total 19,111
 • Density 35.72/sq mi (13.792/km2)
Demonym(s) McDowellian (Colloquial)
Time zone UTC−5 (Eastern)
 • Summer (DST) UTC−4 (EDT)
Congressional district 3rd
Children of miners wash jars for home canning. Southern Coal Corporation, Bradshaw Mine, Bradshaw, McDowell County... - NARA - 541043
A coal miners house and family, 1946.

McDowell County is a county in the U.S. state of West Virginia. As of the 2010 census, the population was 22,113. Its county seat is Welch. McDowell County is the southernmost county in the state. It was created in 1858 by the Virginia General Assembly and named for Virginia Governor James McDowell. It became a part of West Virginia in 1863, when several counties seceded from the state of Virginia during the American Civil War. McDowell Country is located in the Cumberland Mountains, part of the Appalachia region.

Due mostly to a decline in employment in the coal mining industry, McDowell County's population has decreased from almost 100,000 in 1950 to less than 20,000 in 2020. The people of McDowell Country are among the unhealthiest of any county in the U.S. with high rates of poverty and a life expectancy well below the U.S. average. After a long history of supporting Democrats in Presidential elections, the county has voted strongly Republican since 2012.


McDowell County was formed by an act of the Virginia Legislature on February 20, 1858, from what was originally included in Tazewell County, Virginia.

Five years later, the Legislature decided to allow county residents to determine where the county seat should be. They chose Perryville (now called English), which was then the most populated town."The "Restored Government" commissioners, in October, 1866, located the county seat on a farm near the mouth of Mill Creek, where it remained until it moved to Perryville in 1874." The debate over the location of the county seat continued until 1892. The town of Welch became the county seat.

The county is popularly referred to as the "Free State of McDowell," a name originally coined by a local newspaper editor to refer to the unusual politics and demographics of the area.

McDowell County was nationally known for its prominence in the coal mining industry, setting production records and was a major player in the state's economy. Before the industry's decline beginning in the 1950s, McDowell's population reached nearly 100,000 residents, third highest in the state at that time. It then reduced at a rapid pace in the following decades, setting the highest percentage in the state for population loss with each new census. Younger residents moved out of the county to seek better futures, leaving behind an older and increasingly impoverished population.

Increasing rates of poverty in McDowell County led U.S. President John F. Kennedy to remark in a speech in May 1963:

I don't think any American can be satisfied to find in McDowell County, in West Virginia, 20 or 25 percent of the people of that county out of work, not for 6 weeks or 12 weeks, but for a year, 2, 3, or 4 years.

While some hope for the McDowell mining economy had flourished during the energy crisis of the 1970s, in the next decade the county went from swift decline to collapse. Wildcat strikes in the Appalachian coal fields hindered producers' ability to deliver to buyers. Non-unionized coal production in the western States provided tough competition. The county's coal industry suffered yet again when a major source of demand, the United States steel industry, began its own decline due to competition with foreign steel makers, who employed newer and more efficient steel plants to produce high grade steel at lower prices.

In the 1980s the central Appalachian region lost more than 70,000 coal mining jobs. Between 1981 and 1992, according to the U.S. Department of Energy and the United Mine Workers union, coal mining employment in the state of West Virginia decreased by more than 53%. No county in the Appalachian region was more severely distressed by these losses than McDowell County. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1980, the rate of poverty in McDowell County was 23.5%.

By 1990, the poverty rate in McDowell County had climbed to 37.7%, the highest rate of poverty for any county in West Virginia. 50.3% of all children in McDowell County were living in families below the poverty level, up from 31.2% in 1980. The major losses in McDowell County during this period were the result of the closing of all mines and facilities operated by the United States Steel Corporation, terminating more than 1,200 jobs.

The economic impact of U.S. Steel's departure was particularly dramatic: personal income in the county decreased by 66% in one year. Housing values in even the most prosperous parts of the county plunged to devastatingly low values. Individuals and families who wanted to relocate outside the county were left with little or no equity in their property. Many walked away from their mortgages and simply abandoned their homes to the lenders.

By 2001 suffering major losses of tax revenue, McDowell County public schools had fallen into physical decay and high rates of academic failure. Enrollments declined, more than half of the children lived in poverty. The West Virginia Department of Education intervened in December, 2001, by taking over the county system, instituting emergency funding and reorganization. The state effectively repaired or closed several school buildings, and launched construction of crucial new facilities. The consolidation of former schools into new locations, however, created new problems of busing students longer distances over narrow, winding mountain roads. New programs of teacher training aided local educators in addressing issues of multi-generational poverty in McDowell County families. Often the school system had to work at educating and stimulating hope in two or more generations at a time. With the help of the state, the county school system has now returned to self-governance.

In 2001 and 2002, horrific floods leveled many of the small towns within this county. Over 10 inches (250 mm) of rain fell during a period of 12 hours in many areas. Many towns were completely demolished by the violent flow of water which was channeled by the mountains and surrounding hills. Over forty people died, or were declared dead after being listed as missing for over a year.

In response to these economic and natural disasters, the churches of the region organized missions to support individuals and families in need. The largest nondenominational agency in the area, The Community Crossing, Inc (formerly known as McDowell Mission), each year hosts and organizes numerous mission work teams from many parts of the United States. Another Christian relief and development agency, Mustard Seeds and Mountains, hosts work teams in the eastern quadrant of McDowell County in order to help local families with home repair. Kingdom First Missions is a Christian organization distributing food, clothing, shoes, and basic necessities to families in need. They are also hosting work teams for home repair and community clean-up projects. Kingdom First Missions

Various citizens groups and public officials have worked diligently at proposals for the rebuilding of the McDowell County economy. In recent years the county has developed profitable landfills, has lobbied for the construction of two major prisons, and has courted tourism related to popular new off-road vehicle trails through the mountains. North of the City of Welch a massive mountain-top removal site is being developed as an industrial park. That site is also the designed location for the intersection of two proposed regional highways: The Coalfields Expressway, and the King Coal Highway. The Norfolk Southern railroad corporation is bringing new construction to McDowell County enlarging the tunnels and upgrading the capacity of its main rail line between Norfolk, Virginia and the Midwest. To date, however, the largest private employer in the county was the Walmart at Big Four. It closed permanently in late January 2016. It has been reported that 140 people lost their jobs.

McDowell County is considered as one of the core counties in Appalachia on which the national War on Poverty focused, a national effort started during President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration.

The town of Coalwood was the hometown of Homer Hickam, a NASA engineer whose life, starting from his teenage years, was documented in Rocket Boys, which was later made into the film October Sky.


McDowell County, the southernmost county in West Virginia, is located at 37°22′N 81°39′W / 37.37°N 81.65°W / 37.37; -81.65. It is bordered by Tazewell County, Virginia, to the south; Buchanan County, Virginia, to the west; Mingo County to the northwest; Wyoming County to the north; and Mercer County to the east. The Appalachian Mountains determine most of the borders of the county.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 535 square miles (1,390 km2), of which 533 square miles (1,380 km2) is land and 1.4 square miles (3.6 km2) (0.3%) is water. The county is roughly in the shape of a semi circle, with the border following the mountains around the county.


Historical population
Census Pop.
1860 1,535
1870 1,952 27.2%
1880 3,074 57.5%
1890 7,300 137.5%
1900 18,747 156.8%
1910 47,856 155.3%
1920 68,571 43.3%
1930 90,479 31.9%
1940 94,354 4.3%
1950 98,887 4.8%
1960 71,359 −27.8%
1970 50,666 −29.0%
1980 49,899 −1.5%
1990 35,233 −29.4%
2000 27,329 −22.4%
2010 22,113 −19.1%
2020 19,111 −13.6%
U.S. Decennial Census
1790–1960 1900–1990
1990–2000 2010–2019

2010 census

As of the 2010 United States Census, there were 22,113 people, 9,176 households, and 6,196 families residing in the county. The population density was 41.5 inhabitants per square mile (16.0/km2). There were 11,322 housing units at an average density of 21.2 per square mile (8.2/km2). The racial makeup of the county was 89.1% white, 9.5% black or African American, 0.2% American Indian, 0.1% Asian, 0.0% from other races, and 1.1% from two or more races. Those of Hispanic or Latino origin made up 0.4% of the population. The largest ancestry groups were: 13.7% Irish, 12.0% German, 11.5% English, 8.0% American, 2.8% Sub-Saharan African, 2.7% Italian, 2.0% Dutch, 1.1% Scotch-Irish

Of the 9,176 households, 28.7% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 48.1% were married couples living together, 13.9% had a female householder with no husband present, 32.5% were non-families, and 28.8% of all households were made up of individuals. The average household size was 2.36 and the average family size was 2.86. The median age was 43.8 years.

The median income for a household in the county was $22,154 and the median income for a family was $28,413. Males had a median income of $31,229 versus $26,776 for females. The per capita income for the county was $12,955. About 27.5% of families and 32.6% of the population were below the poverty line, including 44.3% of those under age 18 and 20.1% of those age 65 or over.

Life expectancy

Of 3,142 counties in the United States in 2013, McDowell County ranked last in the life expectancy of both male and female residents. Males in McDowell County lived an average of 63.5 years and females lived an average of 71.5 years compared to the national average for life expectancy of 76.5 for males and 81.2 for females. Moreover, the average life expectancy in McDowell County declined by 3.2 years for males and 4.1 years for females between 1985 and 2013 compared to a national average for the same period of an increased life span of 5.5 years for men and 3.1 years for women. High rates of smoking and obesity and a low level of physical activity appear to be contributing factors to the declining life expectancy for both sexes.

In 2020, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranked McDowell County as 55th of 55 counties in West Virginia in "health outcomes," as measured by length and quality of life.


Major highways

  • US 52.svg U.S. Route 52
  • WV-16.svg West Virginia Route 16
  • WV-80.svg West Virginia Route 80
  • WV-83.svg West Virginia Route 83
  • WV-103.svg West Virginia Route 103
  • WV-161.svg West Virginia Route 161
  • WV-635.svg West Virginia Route 635

The West Virginia Division of Highways is currently trying to construct new highways, such as U.S. Route 121, known as the Coalfields Expressway.


The county also had one airport, Welch Municipal Airport, which is now closed indefinitely.




Census-designated places

Unincorporated communities


Coalwood, WV
Coalwood, home of the 'Rocket Boys," who experimented with home-made rockets in the 1950s, the subject of the movie October Sky.

The county has been classified as a "food desert" by the USDA. In 2017, there were two full-sized grocery stores serving the county's 535 square miles. The county's only Walmart Supercenter, the county's largest employer, closed in 2016.

Financial services remain scant in the area. In 1999, The First National Bank of Keystone, the only bank then located in the coal town of Keystone and the town's major employer at the time, was closed by the FDIC due to fraud. Management had been falsifying the bank's financial statements by booking income from loans the bank did not own, giving the appearance that the bank was generating large profits when it was in fact insolvent. At the height of the scandal, executives buried large volumes of documents in a trench in an attempt to conceal the fraud from the bank's accounting firm and from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.


In 2020 McDowell was the third poorest county in the U.S. (out of 3,143 counties) with a median household income of 26,072 dollars. The percentage of the population living in poverty was estimated at 31.8 percent. This compares with a median household income of 67,521 dollars and a poverty rate of 11.4 percent in the U.S. as a whole.


McDowell County Schools operates the county's public K-12 education system of 7 elementary schools, 2 middle schools, and 2 public high schools in McDowell County including Mount View High School, and River View High School. The county also has a private school, Twinbranch Pentecostal Christian Academy which is located in Twinbranch.

McDowell County Schools were under state control as a 'take-over' county from 2001 to 2013. Some medical services have been brought onsite into schools to reduce student absenteeism among families with only one car, and personal items such as sneakers and backpacks are now made available to students. A mixed use, multistory building in Welch aimed at reducing the housing shortage for teachers is scheduled to open in 2020.

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See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Condado de McDowell (Virginia Occidental) para niños

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