I recently delved into the Pocahontas County census data to see the changes in the population over the years. I was very curious to know what residential capacity our county has had over the last 200 years – so that I could better understand what population growth could mean to our county.
From time to time, I hear a voice of concern from some of the current residents that our population might grow too much and that could have negative effects on the county.
The numbers reveal a lot of interesting anecdotal thoughts. First and foremost, it is hard to imagine there were twice as many residents in Pocahontas County in 1920 than there are today. And, because of that, it seems reasonable to assume Pocahontas County does have the capacity to welcome a trend of growing population if that were to be a reality in the future.
As most know, Pocahontas County has been experiencing a drop in population every time a decadal census is conducted. This causes much concern from many economic angles and according to the Appalachian Regional Commission, Poca- hontas County remains in the “At Risk” designated economic status meaning that Pocahontas County as a whole is moderately distressed but Pocahontas County currently has zero formally distressed areas inside the county. In comparison, our neighboring county, Greenbrier, was in a “transitional” status but is now back to “at risk” for 2023 with three distressed areas inside the county. Nicholas and Webster counties are both “distressed” counties as a whole for 2023 which is the most economically depressed ARC status.
Pocahontas County’s low ratio of population to land of about eight people per square mile continues to drop in population. Those in the realm of economic development for the well being of our communities want to see our population stabilize at a place that puts our county into the ARC transitional model and even out of any level of distress in the future. Nearly all counties in the ARC coverage area of 11 states (WV is the only state of these 11 that is included in its entirety) are in a distress level. Few are in the “competitive” or “attainment” stage which is essentially out of a distressed status. Visit ARC.gov to learn more about how ARC works to improve life in Appalachia.
I share this information to establish a context for data and it is a lot to digest. I have always been in the camp that Pocahontas County has room to re-grow our residential population and after looking into the numbers, I believe we do have capacity to grow the population and to improve the overall economic status of Pocahontas County and its residents.
No, we do not want to be like New York City, but yes, we want to maintain our rural nature and authentic culture while striving to improve the quality of life for our residents.
So, what do the numbers show us?
The population grew every decade from 1830 through 1920 which was the highest decadal census recorded population of just over 15,000 residents – double the 2020 population. The population began to decline each decade from 1930 until 1980 when it grew over 1970 by 1,100 residents. Much of that growth is credited to the VEPCO dam project in Bath County, Virginia, which is now the pump storage hydro electric generating power plant for Dominion Power. During the 1980s – the decade I was in middle and high school and college – the school population also grew and those years had the largest high school graduating classes on record. So it is true that more jobs and more residents are directly relational to school–student population.
The 1900 and the 1970 census were also the closest populations to our current 2020 census for Pocahontas County.
The population skyrocketed between 1900 and 1910 when the logging era took root and railroads were built.
My maternal grandparents were part of this migration to Marlinton moving here in the 1910-1920 decades, my grandfather from Parsons, as a boy with his family; and my grandmother came to Marlinton from Churchville, Virginia as a young lady to take a job at the Bank of Marlinton.
The population really plummeted from 1950 to 1970 meaning that more people were moving away than moving into Pocahontas County. Presumably moving to metropolitan areas. My parents would have fallen into these decades when, as young adults, they could have moved away but chose to make Pocahontas County their home and raise a family.
There are many more factors that can explain fluctuations in the population census and mine are just a skim of factors. But, I believe, based on the census numbers, that our county does have capacity to grow and sustain a larger population of residents. To what level is unknown, but steady growth combined with planning and natural organic development our communities will also build capacity.
I am confident that our communities can meet the demands and benefits that an increased population can bring.
With the efforts of the Broadband Council, County Commission, Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation, business investment and small business growth, a positive trend of increasing the number of permanent residents means more tax base, increased student population, improved economic environment for businesses and jobs and overall an improved quality of life for our residents and communities. Economic development through tourism is a part of this formula.
Population by decade:
Official Census numbers