The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

State Focus: West Virginia

In case one needs more evidence of the fact that West Virginia is defined by its mountains, consider that: it is the most mountainous state east of the Rockies; the state’s nickname is the “Mountain State,” and of the 13 states defined as having Appalachian territory, West Virginia is the only state entirely within this boundary.

This distinctive topography has dominated the state's social and economic history. West Virginia University historian James Alexander Williams cites the incompatibility of the state’s cherished terrain with the needs of the modern industrial economy as the central theme of its history. Playing upon the state’s motto, Mountaineers are Always Free, Williams writes that the mountains come with a price: “Whether or not mountaineers were always free, they were almost always poor. Consequently…they have tried in every age to find their way around, over, under, or through the barriers to economic prosperity that the mountains raised.”

The evolution of mainstream development in the Mountain State is largely a history of land-moving technology, a movement from railroad tunnels and deep mining to the large-scale “cut and fill” of Interstate highways and mountaintop removal mines—as well as site clearing for office parks, shopping centers, and industrial areas. As a poor state, with energy and natural resources, near the nation’s largest metropolitan centers, West Virginia has also been industrialized in places, with major chemical complexes, power plants, and steel mills, most of which are left over earliy 20th century investments made by companies that now concentrate their efforts elsewhere. Partially because it is near the federal arc of Washington DC, and partly through the successful efforts of the state’s notorious pork-barrelist Senator Byrd, West Virginia is home to a number of curious and superlative federal facilities as well.

Here are some unusual and exemplary West Virginia land uses, recently investigated by CLUI field researcher Zelig Kurland, for the Center’s Land Use Database.

Mining Sites

Tygart River Coal Mine
A large and state-of-the-art underground mine that is now closed, Tygart River is owned by Peabody Energy, the nation's largest coal producer. It covers an area of more than 20 square miles, beneath which underground corridors are laid out in a grid pattern. The mine was closed in 1995, and all of its 368 employees were laid off. Many underground mines in central West Virginia have closed recently due largely to changing air quality standards that favor “low-sulphur” coal from western states and southern Appalachia, which burns more cleanly. Coal operations in those regions tend to remove their coal more cheaply using strip-mining techniques instead of tunnels.

Sample Mine
The Arch Coal Company's Sample Mine may be the largest surface mine in West Virginia, with an output of 5.5 million tons of coal annually. This is a “mountaintop removal” mine, the Appalachian equivalent of the open pit and surface mines of the West, that is typical in southern West Virginia. The coal industry increasingly uses dynamite and crane-like earthmoving machines known as draglines to displace dirt from mountaintops and expose the coal seams below. The “fill” is then dumped into adjacent valleys. In the early 1980s, a typical valley fill contained about 250,000 cubic yards of rock and dirt. With the expanded use of draglines and larger trucks, fills can now contain 100 million cubic yards or more.In the West Virginia, more than 300,000 acres of forest have been felled and 470 miles of streams have been buried by mountaintop removal operations.

Industrial Sites

539The Institute Plant. CLUI photo by Zelig Kurland

Institute Plant
One of two major chemical plants operated by Dow Chemical in West Virginia, the Institute plant was originally constructed by the military in 1943 to produce synthetic rubber for the war. In 1947 it was purchased by Union Carbide. The plant site is now owned by Aventis CropScience (which had acquired the French firm Rhone-Poulenc), with Dow Chemical, which merged with Union Carbide in 2001, and the Bayer Corporation as major tenants. Specialty chemicals are produced here for use in industrial applications (such as leather tanning, biocides, coatings) and consumer products (shampoos, carpeting, crayons, garden hose, antifreeze). Just over a decade ago, the plant attracted attention because it also produced methyl isocyanate, the chemical that was accidentally released at Union Carbide's Bhopal, India plant in 1984, killing an estimated 3,800 people.

South Charleston Plant
The other major Dow plant is the South Charleston Plant. Opened in 1925 by the Union Carbide Corporation, this plant was a successor to Carbide's Clendenin, WV plant, which opened in 1920 and was the company's first commercial ethylene plant. In 1927, Carbide purchased Blaine Island, then 80 acres of melon patches and beach recreation, to accommodate an expansion of the plant. Most of the plant is now owned by Dow Chemical, which merged with Union Carbide in 2001. More than 500 different chemicals and plastics are made here, including polyvinyl acetate (used for automotive moldings and chewing gum) and fluids.

John Amos Power Plant
According to the plant's owner, American Electric Power, this 2,900 megawatt plant burns five million tons of coal per year, which “equates to roughly 500 coal mining jobs,” and can power two million homes. Unit 3, completed in 1973, was the first 1,300 megawatt power plant in the United States. As of 1998, the plant was ranked among electrical utility facilities by the EPA as the second-highest producer of emissions in the nation (second to the Bowan Steam Electric Generating Plant in Bartow, GA).

Moorefield Poultry Processing Plant
The more than 1,800 workers in this plant slaughter, process, and pack one million pounds of meat per day (1.7 million chickens per week). The plants capacity was doubled in 1993 by WLR Foods Inc., which later merged with Pilgrims Pride to become the second-largest U.S. poultry producer. Chicken from this 265,000 square foot facility is used domestically by fast-food chains and shipped overseas to 64 countries, including China and Jamaica. During the 1990s, the size of the poultry industry in West Virginia tripled, making it the biggest agricultural crop in the state. Chickens are raised on contract by hundreds of farmers throughout the Potomac Valley; typical chicken houses contain 20,000-30,000 birds. The industry generates about 155,000 tons of chicken droppings per year, and 2,000 tons of carcasses from chickens that die before butchering.

Federal Sites

540The largest steerable antenna, at Green Bank. CLUI photo by Zelig Kurland

Green Bank National Radio Astronomy Observatory
Green Bank is an extensive and historic radio astronomy site, with numerous large dish antennas. One of the three major facilities for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, along with the Very Large Array near Socorro, New Mexico, and a group of ten dishes distributed from the Virgin Islands to Hawaii known as the Very Long Baseline Array. The Green Bank Telescope, the largest fully-steerable radio telescope in the world, was dedicated in 2000 and replaces a 300-foot telescope that collapsed in 1988. Facilities also include the Tatel Telescope, used in 1960 for the first-ever Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Headquarters for the NRAO is in nearby Charlottesville, Virginia.

Sugar Grove Naval Communications Center
Sugar Grove is a secretive military communications center, with a two-story underground facility, operated primarily by the Navy. One function may be to monitor microwave communications for the National Security Agency. It is located within the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000 square mile zone established by the FCC in 1958 so that this facility--and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank --could operate in an area with little radio disturbance.

541Relocated Congressional briefing room at the Greenbrier. CLUI photo by Zelig Kurland

Greenbrier Government Relocation Facility
Planned by the Eisenhower Administration and completed in 1961, this formerly secret underground bunker was designed to house members of Congress and their staffs during (and after) nuclear attack and is located below the Greenbrier Resort Hotel. Construction of a new hotel wing and expansion of its golf course served as cover for the bunker's construction. Portions of the bunker, including an exhibit hall and two lecture halls (intended for use by the houses of Congress) were used by the hotel. The blast door leading to these areas, which can withstand a modest nuclear blast 15-30 miles away, was concealed by what hotel guests were told was an “expansion joint.” In 1992, the bunker's cover was blown by a Washington Post reporter tipped by sources who saw the bunker as outdated and unrealistic. The Greenbrier Resort Hotel now gives tours of the 112,544-square-foot facility to hotel guests and the public.

Morgantown Engineering Technical Center
A fossil fuel R&D lab, set up in coal country, operated by the Department of Energy. One of two government owned fossil energy labs in the country (the other is the Pittsburgh Energy Technology Center in Pennsylvania), which are now merged into one entity, the National Energy Technology Laboratory. The Morgantown center employs around 300 people on a 131 acre site.

IRS Martinsburg Computing Center
The Internal Revenue Service's National Computer Center was dedicated in 1961. Data from taxes filed at the IRS's ten regional service centers is transmitted over secure phone lines to the center, which maintains IRS “master” files and electronically examines returns for tax fraud.

FBI Fingerprint Data Center
The FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System Data Center is the world's largest storehouse of fingerprints; its database includes the fingerprints of more than 43 million Americans. On an average day, 40,000 sets of prints--including those of suspects in custody and of applicants for casino, day-care, and federal jobs--are searched against the database. Matches are made by computer, and then verified by examiners, who are required to evaluate at least 30 sets of prints an hour. Each month, about 8,000 fugitives are identified by the center.

Alderson Federal Prison Camp
Opened in 1927, Alderson was the first Federal women's prison in the United States. Famous inmates at Alderson have included Billie Holiday, Tokyo Rose, Axis Sally and would-be Gerald Ford assassins Sara Jane Moore and Squeakie Fromme. The original design was a horseshoe-shaped configuration of 14 cottages.

Transportation Sites

542New River Gorge Bridge. CLUI photo by Zelig Kurland

New River Gorge Bridge
The last link in Appalachian Corridor L, completed in 1977, this 876 foot tall bridge, which weighs 88 million pounds, is the world's largest single arch steel span and the second-highest bridge in the United States. (The Royal Gorge Bridge over the Arkansas River in Colorado is higher.) It eliminated the 40-minute drive through mountain roads formerly required to cross the New River. On the third Saturday each October ("Bridge Day"), the bridge is open to pedestrians and it is legal to parachute from the bridge deck to the river below.

Personal Rapid Transit System
Designed to demonstrate the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) concept: an extensive network of guideways and small vehicles that would carry passengers, on-demand, directly to their chosen destination. First opened for service in 1975, the PRT's five stations connect the West Virginia University main campus with two suburban campuses and Morgantown's central business district. The distance between the two end stations is about 3.6 miles, and each car seats eight passengers. Riders press a button to specify their destination when they enter a station, and then wait for the next car to their destination. Each station is “off-line,” meaning that it can be bypassed by cars travelling to other stations.

543The former highway tunnel entrance, now used for access to a long, narrow disaster training facility. CLUI photo by Zelig Kurland

544Inside the tunnel, a Boston “T” railway car and other tools and props. CLUI photo by Zelig Kurland

Memorial Tunnel/Center for National Response
The tunnel opened in 1954 as part of the West Virginia turnpike, a two-lane road that required the movement of 30 million cubic yards of earth. In 1987, the tunnel was bypassed by an "open cut" that displaced earth from a 371 foot cut in the mountain to a 311 foot deep fill in the adjacent valley (which replaced the bridge that had projected from the south entrance to the tunnel). This cut moved 10 million cubic yards of earth, and yielded about 300,000 tons of coal from the mountain. Since being bypassed, the tunnel has become an unusual testing and training facility. From 1993-95, fires were set in the tunnel to test ventilation designs for Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel project. Starting in 2000, it has been used by the Center for National Response to train local, state, federal, and military response units. Sets have been constructed within the tunnel, including a post-blast rubble area, a subway station, illicit drug laboratories, and a highway incident scene.

And Finally one last Curious Cultural Site

545The Hare Krishna’s Palace of Gold. CLUI photo by Zelig Kurland

New Vrindaban and Prabhupada's Palace of Gold
The New Vrindaban community was founded in 1968 as part of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) founded by Srila Prabhupada. It is a spiritual center and pilgrimage site for Hare Krishnas and other Hindus and, along with the nearby Palace of Gold, a tourist attraction for everyone else. The mughal-style palace was built from 1973-79 by unskilled Krishna devotees, who used “do-it-yourself” books to guide the construction of the palace's marble inlaid walls and ceilings, crystal chandeliers, teakwood furniture, and stained glass windows. The community center grounds include a man-made pond, statues, guest cottages, a health food store, a snack bar, and an organic garden; a schedule of festivals is maintained on the community's web site.