20th Century: “We went from BOOM to bust,” Ed Shepard.
By the mid-20th-century McDowell County’s seat had become the capital of North America’s coal energy empire. Welch signified a true land of opportunity to the thousands of Irish, German, Italian and Hungarian immigrants pouring in from Ellis Island and meant economic and social freedom to African Americans traveling from the Carolinas and Virginia. In addition to Welch, immigrants settled in nearby towns such as Anawalt, Bradshaw, Davy, Gary, Iaeger, Keystone, Kimball, Northfolk and War (SEE ON MAP).
During this time railroads and coalmines opened throughout McDowell County making the area one of the richest counties in the nation. Welch became a prosperous city and retail hub and by the late 1950s the population of the county swelled to 100,000 people.
However, after the production boom of World War II, oil began to replace coal in many areas of domestic fuel supply. Mechanization of coal mining reduced the number of laborers needed in coal production. McDowell County’s population peaked in 1950, and began a decline over decades to follow.
In 1960, McDowell County still ranked number one in the United States in total coal production. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy visited Welch by automobile caravan and saw a city whose businesses were struggling due to a growing poverty rate throughout the county. During a speech in Canton, Ohio on September 27, 1960, he stated “McDowell County mines more coal than it ever has in its history, probably more coal than any county in the United States and yet there are more people getting surplus food packages in McDowell County than any county in the United States. The reason is that machines are doing the jobs of men, and we have not been able to find jobs for those men.”
Throughout the 1970s, McDowell County coal continued to be a major source of fuel for the steel and electric power generation industries. As United States steel production declined, however, McDowell County suffered further losses. In 1986, the closure of the US Steel mines in nearby Gary, led to an immediate loss of more than 1,200 jobs. In the following year alone, personal income in McDowell County decreased dramatically by two-thirds. Real estate values also plummeted. Due to a lack of diversity in the economy, miners were forced to abandon their homes in search for new beginnings in other regions of the state and country.
From the 1980s to present day McDowell County has continued to lose a significant number of young residents and families. Many have moved out of state while some have relocated to towns outside of McDowell County in West Virginia. Schools have been consolidated, businesses have closed and the current town of Welch is made up of empty storefronts and boarded up buildings.
In 2001 and 2002 Welch suffered two devastating floods when the Elkhorn Creek and Tug Fork swamped the community beneath several feet of water. The evidence is still seen through the remnants of mud and mold covering the walls of abandoned buildings. However, the back-to-back floods did not diminish the spirit of the residents and neighbors. Former Mayor Martha Moore and the Welch City Council worked to save the historic charm of their city while positioning the community for growth in the future.
In recent years, Welch has attracted the construction of new state and federal prisons, which are creating some sources of economic renewal however the county continues to have a negative growth rate. There are currently only 22,000 people residing in McDowell County; that is nearly 80,000 less than in 1950.