Industrialization in Appalachia

Industrialization in Appalachia: How capital, resources, and people shaped a region

Industrialization in Appalachia

Industrialization has had a huge impact on the American landscape; perhaps nowhere experienced such resounding change as Appalachia. Prior to industrialization, Appalachia subsisted mainly on family farming. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the amount of land being farmed in the region fell dramatically. Land speculators and businessmen entered the area and began buying parcels of land for various enterprises. Many people outside of Appalachia thought that the region and its people needed this to modernize, or 'catch up' to the rest of the country. Some relied on the reports of travelers and writers that described a "hillbilly" culture to justify this view. Scholars today argue that the industrialization in Appalachia was marked by an exploitation of the region's natural and human resources based on these stereotypes.

In his book Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers, Appalachian historian Ron Eller describes the early stages of industrialization:

"Beginning in the 1870s, northern speculators and outside businessmen carved out huge domains in the rich timberlands and mineral regions of Appalachia. By 1910, outlanders controlled not only the best stands of hardwood timber and the thickest seams of coal but a large percentage of the surface land in the region as well" (1982: xxi).

Appalachia was known for its pristine forests. Timber was the first natural resource sought out by those hoping to become rich from industrialization. Yet industrialization required the modernization of transportation, such as railroads and highways, to enable the extraction of timber, coal, and other resources.

While coal was mined in places like West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, North Carolina's greatest natural resource was its forests. Western North Carolina experienced massive deforestation due to the timber industry beginning in the late 1800s. By the 1910s, substantial forestlands in the Black Mountains were purchased and logged by several northern timber companies. Even state treasures like Mt. Mitchell —the highest point in the eastern United States—were not safe from the lumberman's saw. Yet once citizens and politicians saw the ugliness that deforestation brought upon the landscape, conservation became a serious priority. In 1915, conservation efforts succeeded and Mount Mitchell State Park in Mitchell County became the first protected landscape within the North Carolina State Parks system.

Despite decades of clearcutting, locals were sometimes successful in opposing timber companies' logging operations. This was particularly evident in the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests in western North Carolina. In the 1970s and '80s, locals became concerned when massive clearcutting campaigns threatened these forests. Local people saw these forests as special places because their families had used the woods for centuries, subsisting on the timber, plants, and animals that lived there. They saw the forests as commons and this long legacy of commons use grounded local people in Appalachian forests, which meant they had a stake in the future of the forests.

Industrialization Vocabulary

  • Industrialization
  • De-Industrialization
  • Timber
  • Deforestation
  • Clear cutting
  • Underground mining
  • Surface mining
  • Bituminous coal
  • Company town
  • Tourism
  • Agriculture
  •  Commons
  • Tragedy of the commons
See definitions

Songs of the Railroad

train cars

The railroad has shaped the culture of Appalachia this influence is evident in the railroad songs to come out of the region. The Songs of the Railroad playlist contains a few examples of railroad songs, which can be found in the W.L. Eury Appalachian Collection at Appalachian State University.

Modernization in Central Appalachia: Coal Mining

The value of Appalachia's timber couldn't compare to the wealth of the region's bituminous coal.

"When the storm had passed, what was left was only a shell of what had been before. Suspended halfway between the old society and the new, the mountaineers had lost the independence and self-determination of their ancestors, without becoming full participants in the benefits of the modern world. The vast natural wealth of the region had been swept out of the mountains---into the pockets of outland capitalists and into the expansion of the larger industrial order itself. In return, a deep and lasting depression had settled over the coves." (Eller, 1982, p. 242)

Music of the Common People

The music of the common people was encouraged and promoted at southern labor schools and by union organizers trying to unionize rural workers, Aunt Molly Jackson's song, "I Am a Union Woman," documented the conflict between the mountaineers and coal management. Molly Jackson and other members of her musical family from Harlan Kentucky traveled to New York where they performed for radical supporters with songs of labor militancy performed in traditional styles. They also sang traditional ballads that – in order to accommodate cosmopolitan notions about folk culture, they learned from published folksong collections specifically for that purpose (Williams, 2002, p. 278).

Recording Culture and History

Cultural programs began in the 1930s to document a changing region. Charles Seeger (father of musician and activist Pete Seeger) led a special group of folklorists with instructions to record and preserve folk music across the nation. John A. Lomax, a Texas folklorist who became the head of the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Song in 1933, reinforced Seeger’s efforts. Even after heavy industry began to decrease in Appalachia, the legacies of mining, mills, and farming continued to influence regional culture. 

Watauga County's own  Arthel “Doc” Watson and his son Merle Watson found international success as recording artists and popularized many traditional Appalachian songs. You can listen to their tale of North Carolina mill life below.

Precious Jewel - Doc Watson

coal tower and train car

Industrialization around the country was literally fuelled by the coal coming out of Appalachia. Due to the extreme demand for coal, mines popped up all over the region. Eller (1982) explains, "Because of the relatively low capital requirements for opening a mine, the number of coal mines in the southern mountains grew in proportion to the rise in market demand. And at times during this period the demand was almost unlimited" (p. 153). The rural location of the mines led to the creation of company towns around the region to house and feed the large workforce.

Historian Robert Straw (2006) explains that,

"From 1880 to 1930, there were over six hundred company towns built in the region, and they outnumbered independent towns by a margin of five to one...At the height of the coal boom in the early years of the twentieth century, 78 percent of all coal miners and their families in Appalachia lived in a company-owned community." (p. 13)

The demand for coal would continue during WWI but by the 1930s overproduction would be widespread and the industry would collapse. This was compounded, much like in the timber industry, by the introduction of technology that required less men and yielded more coal.
Most of the mine and mill owners were coming from outside of the region to take advantage of the natural resources, others came for the region's cultural resources. The settlement and folk school rise of the early 1900s was perpetuated and supported by wealthy individuals, mostly women, from the northeast (Whisnant, 1979, p. 69). The goods being produced at the schools were of high quality yet instructors were brought in from outside the region to teach "authentic and local" handicrafts.

For example, rather than being taught the traditional dances of the region, students were taught the Morris Dance, which was advertised as a local dance but was actually from Cotswold, England (Whisnant, 1979, p. 80). The real problem with these choices comes when it is realized that the settlement and folk schools were founded on the principles of respecting and continuing local culture, or at least those aspects of culture deemed acceptable (Whisnant, 1979, p. 51). During this time individuals claiming an interest in the art of the region would pick and choose what Appalachian cultural items were worth awarding and which were not truly worthy (Whisnant, 1979, p. 206). These persons would police the culture of the region and in turn change the definition of Appalachia.


Avery County: Where? When? What? How?. (1962). Newland, N.C.: Avery County Chamber of Commerce.

Akers, D. G., & Lamberth, B. (Eds.). (2008). Images of Watauga County. Charleston, SC: Arcardia Publishing.

Edward Blackburn Interview, Tape 34, Folder 5, Box 42, Appalachian Oral History Project.

Eller, R. D. (1982). Miners, millhands, and mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Greene, N., & Sheppard, C.S.(2006). Community and Change in the North Carolina Mountains: Oral Histories and Profiles of People From Western Watauga County Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company. 60.

Hardy, M. C. (2005). A Short History of Old Watauga County. Boone, NC: Parkway. 99-137.

Hardy, M. C. (2006). Images of America: Caldwell County. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing. Notes.

Mast, C. A. (1970). History of Watauga County, North Carolina. Boone, N.C.?: The author. 17

McGuinn, D. (2007). The last train from Elkland: Being a brief history of Elkland (present-day Todd), North Carolina, and the surrounding northwestern North Carolina mountain communities, including Bowie (present-day Fleetwood), West Riverside (present-day Brownwood), and Yuma (present-day Deep Gap). Boone, N.C: Bamboo Books.

Olson, T. (1992). Agricultral Themes in Appalachian Folk Songs: The Farmer is the Man who Feeds them All. Journal of the Appalachian Studies Association, 4, 61-65.

Shapiro, H. D. (1978). Appalachia on our mind: The Southern mountains and mountaineers in the American consciousness, 1870-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Straw, Richards. "Appalachian History" in Edwards, G. T., Asbury, J. A. A., & Cox, R. L. eds. (2006). A handbook to Appalachia: An introduction to the region. Knoxville: University

Silver, T. (1978). Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of Highest Peaks in Eastern America. Chapel
Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Whitener et al., A History of Watauga County, North Carolina, 1849-1949 and Appalachian State Teachers College, 48.

Williams, J. A. (2002). Appalachia: A history. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.240-304