Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 804-805
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Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920
Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920. By Ronald L. Lewis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Pp. xv+348; illustrations, tables, notes/references, bibliography, index. $18.95.
In the late nineteenth century, as the outside world began to notice West Virginia's valuable store of natural resources, a local newspaper declared, "We must have railroads. . . . We must help our people out of the woods." In Transforming the Appalachian Countryside, Ronald L. Lewis tells the distressing story of just how the people were helped out of the woods, and how the woods were then helped out of West Virginia. When most people think of extractive industries and West Virginia, they think of coal. But the timber industry preceded mining in many parts of the state, and, together with railroads, gave mountaineers a glimpse of the industrial transformation ahead. In 1880 at least two-thirds of West Virginia was still covered in ancient hardwood forest. By the 1920s, not only had the entire state been deforested, but "entire ecological systems had been destroyed, the backcountry had been tied to the market system, independent farmers had become wage hands, and the political system had been transformed into a mechanism for the protection of capital" (p. 9). Lewis skillfully weaves together the many intricate strands that compose this story, examining social, technological, legal, political, labor, and environmental issues. Transforming the Appalachian Countryside is an excellent study that helps us understand the complex interdependency that developed at the turn of the century between railroads, the timber industry, local elites, outside investors, politicians, the courts, the national market, and West Virginia mountaineers.
Lewis tells this story without painting a simplistic portrait of poor helpless mountaineers battling the evil empire of industrial capitalism. Drawing on the work of such Appalachian scholars as Wilma Dunaway, Kenneth Noe, and Robert McKenzie in describing West Virginia on the eve of industrialization, he shows that there existed no preindustrial idyllic world of subsistence farming in a rosy communal and egalitarian society. Still, whatever [End Page 804] type of world did exist in the mountains before the whistle of the locomotive sounded was turned upside down by an incredibly wasteful, exploitative, and irresponsible industrial development at the turn of the century.
The narrative is most critical in its descriptions of how the industry devastated the environment. "Removal of the virgin forest in West Virginia is a story of monumental waste even in a state whose history was forged by a natural resource extraction economy," Lewis writes (p. 263). The forests of the state only began to recover during the New Deal era, when the federal government increased conservation efforts through reforestation, fire prevention, and stream revitalization. By this time, of course, the timber industry had already packed up and left the deforested state for more lucrative fields. There was also a human cost to timber removal. By means both fair and foul, railroad and timber companies obtained much of the state's land, exacerbated agricultural decline in the region, and effectively forced mountaineers into wage labor. The industrialists were abetted, moreover, by politicians and a state legal system that, after 1890, favored industrial development over traditional agrarian interests.
Lewis describes in detail the technological and labor issues associated with timbering. Large-scale deforestation was only possible with railroads and steam-powered equipment, and the rugged mountainous terrain of West Virginia required "ingenious adaptations" of machinery. One small criticism is that Lewis occasionally depicts technology as something autonomous, particularly when discussing railroads. Even though he discusses the complex actions, motives, and interdependency of a host of actors involved in the story of industrial development in West Virginia, it was railroads that "created an elaborate system for exporting lumber and linking the natural resource periphery with the national markets" (p. 209) and that "facilitated the complete deforestation of West Virginia" (p. 80).