25 Grand Facts About West Virginia

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron / Chloe Effron

John Denver knew a thing or two about the Mountain State when he crooned about its country roads. But there’s a lot more to West Virginia than rural highways and byways—like the first Mother’s Day celebration, a clever town called Mountain, and a resort that’s positively presidential. Read on for a few more fun facts about the state that, for some, is almost heaven.

1. It was originally called “Kanawha.” That name, which honored a Native American tribe, was the one put before voters in 1861 when deciding whether or not to secede from Virginia. By the time legislators finalized the state’s constitution, however, they had opted for a shortened version of “Western Virginia,” a common designation for the territory up to that point.

2. West Virginia’s split from Virginia was, in many ways, a microcosm of the Civil War divide between North and South. Many residents in the state’s rugged western region opposed slavery, and for decades felt ignored by a government they saw as dominated by wealthy plantation owners. After Virginia voted to secede in 1861, delegates called a meeting in the city of Wheeling, and voted to side with the Union and form a separate state. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the order admitting West Virginia into statehood.

3. Anyone looking at a map of West Virginia might wonder about the sliver of land rising north like a radio antenna. How’d that get there, anyway? Chalk it up to Virginia’s overly eager settlers, who in the late 1700s claimed land north along the Ohio River, ignoring Pennsylvania’s borders. In 1779, the two states agreed to a border five degrees west of where the Mason Dixon line ended, and north to the Ohio River. After Virginia ceded its territory west of the river to the U.S. government in 1784, that left just a thin northern panhandle.

4. In 1796, soldiers in Greenbrier County came across animal bones believed to belong to a very large lion. They sent the fossils to Thomas Jefferson, an amateur paleontologist and soon-to-be vice president, who concluded the remains were that of a giant sloth, which he called “Great claw, or Megalonyx.” He presented a paper to the American Philosophical Society and, believing the animal could still be in existence, told Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out along their journey westward. Scientists would eventually credit Jefferson with discovering the giant sloth, and even named the species after him: Megalonyx jeffersonii. In 2008, the skeleton became the official fossil of West Virginia.

5. Following the Civil War, battle-torn Virginia claimed that its new neighbor was responsible for a third of its pre-war debt. West Virginia refused to pay, and the two states squabbled all the way up until 1915, when the U.S. Supreme Court determined that West Virginia, in line with its state constitution, owed $12 million, plus additional interest. Begrudgingly, West Virginia complied, paying off the last of its debt to Virginia in 1939. 

6. In 1928, the Jones family of Peterstown discovered a 34-carat diamond on their property while playing horseshoes. Initially thinking it a large quartz rock, William “Punch” Jones kept the diamond in a cigar box for fourteen years before taking it to a geologist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The Jones Diamond, which was on display at the Smithsonian Institute before the family sold it in 1984, is the largest alluvial diamond ever discovered in North America.

7. Built in 1778, the historic Greenbrier Hotel has hosted more than half of all U.S. Presidents. For more than thirty years, it was also the location of a secret bunker where Congress could operate in the event of a nuclear strike. In 1992, The Washington Post exposed the facility, and today it’s used as a meeting room. 

8. One of the largest family reunions in the world takes place every summer in the town of Flat Top. That’s when around 2500 members of the Lilly clan get together, along with a few hundred non-family members.

9. In the early 20th century, a civil engineer named William Nelson Page took on the big railroad companies to build one of the most successful commercial railways in America. The Virginian line began in the mountains of West Virginia, and eventually extended all the way to the shipping port at Norfolk, Virginia. Railway companies tried to torpedo the project, and officials at the time criticized Page for his time-consuming construction process that insisted on a direct eastward path rather than one that wound through the mountains. But Page had a trump card up his sleeve: the multimillionaire Henry Huttleston Rogers, a former manager at Standard Oil, who secretly funded the project. In 1907, Rogers’s Deepwater line connected with the Tidewater line, creating 443 miles of track that ran from West Virginia coal country straight to the Atlantic Ocean. It became known as “the richest little railway in the world.”

10. Built in the late 19th century, the Weston State Hospital building is the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in America, and second only to the Kremlin on a global scale. It operated as a mental institution until 1994, when it closed down. It’s now run by a company offering haunted tours and known as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum—a name that mental health advocates are none too thrilled with.

11. Marshall University, located in Huntington, is named for Chief Justice John Marshall, a Western Virginia native who presided over the Aaron Burr treason trial in 1807. 

12. The New River, which runs through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, is actually one of the world’s oldest rivers (second only to the Nile, according to some experts). And unlike most rivers like it, the New River flows south to north, on account of it predating the mountains that surround it.

13. At more than 3000 feet long, the New River Gorge Bridge, located in Fayette County, is the longest steel-span bridge in the Western hemisphere. It’s also one of the highest bridges in the country, making it a magnet for BASE jumpers, who flock to it every third Saturday in October —the one day of the year when they’re allowed to jump.

14. West Virginia’s politicians had a hard time settling on a capital city early on. Wheeling, the original capital, was deemed too remote, so in 1870 the government moved to centrally located Charleston. But Charleston, many legislators complained, didn’t have suitable restaurants, hotels, or transportation. So in 1875 everything shifted back to Wheeling. The debate continued, and in 1877 the government decided to put the matter before voters—who chose Charleston. In 1885, West Virginia’s government moved to Charleston for a second and final time.

15. In 1949, residents of Mole Hill, West Virginia, changed the name of their town to “Mountain.” Get it?

16. In 1985, West Virginia University center Georgeann Wells became the first woman to dunk in a college basketball game. Because the feat wasn’t caught on tape, many were suspicious of the claim. So three games later, Wells did it again—this time with the cameras rolling.

17. At 485 feet high and with a dish that spans 2.3 acres, the Green Bank Telescope, located in southeastern West Virginia, is the largest fully steerable telescope in the world.

18. Located in West Virginia’s northern panhandle, the city of Weirton borders Ohio on its western edge, and Pennsylvania on its eastern edge, making it the only city in America that sits in one state, but touches two other state borders.

19. The last surviving U.S. World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, lived on a farm near Charleston until his death in 2011, at 110 years old. Buckles had lied about his age when he enlisted as a 16-year-old, and spent the duration of the war as an ambulance driver on the Western front. When asked how it felt to be last of the nearly 5 million American soldiers who fought in the conflict, Buckles said, “I knew there’d be only one someday. I didn’t think it would be me.”

20. West Virginia’s oldest and youngest governor are the same person. In 1956, 34-year-old Cecil Underwood, a former high school teacher, was elected to the position. Because of term limits in the state constitution, he was unable to run for reelection. So he bided his time, and 40 years later was elected for a second term, at age 74.

21. Harper’s Ferry, located at the eastern edge of the state, played a critical role in starting the Civil War thanks to John Brown’s raid. Things were no less contentious within the town's borders during the war. In four years, it changed hands eight times.

22. West Virginians often refer to their state as “Almost Heaven,” in reference to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which name-checks the Mountain State. The phrase even used to appear on state license plates. So beloved is Denver’s ode to rural life that in 2014 it became the official song of West Virginia.

23. Point Pleasant, West Virginia, is home to a storefront museum dedicated to a humanoid creature known as the Mothman. Like the Jersey Devil, the Mothman—who supposedly has glowing red eyes and wings—was sighted several times during the '60s, cementing its status as a local legend. The town also boasts a Mothman statue, and throws a yearly festival dedicated to the beast.

24. West Virginia’s caves are home to some odd and interesting rock formations—and some odd and interesting humans, too. In 1971, spelunker Bob Addis climbed atop a stalagmite in Lost World Caverns near Lewisburg, and didn’t come down for 16 days. With the help of his “bucket man” (for food, water, and you-know-what), Addis set the world record for stalagmite sitting. 

25. The first Mother’s Day celebration took place in 1908 in Grafton, West Virginia. The founder, Anna Jarvis, started it in honor of her own recently deceased mother, and meant it to be a humble day of remembrance. After the holiday became a commercial juggernaut, Jarvis spent the rest of her life protesting, filing lawsuits, and altogether trying to bring Mother’s Day back to its roots.