A case study on the impact of population decline


David M. Shribman

DRY FORK, W.V. — There’s nobody here.

Well almost nobody. This unincorporated community is in a magnificent corner of the world, garlanded by mountains, picturesque farms planted along the road, eight miles from not one but two ski areas and a state park that describes itself as a conference center and resort. Mostly the sounds here are of deep silences.

Some 1,085 people live here today. In 1900 — when loggers toiled amid the densely forested hills, a lumber mill sat on Red Creek, the community had its own railroad, and coal mines operated nearby — Dry Fork had a population of 3,224.

This is a fortunate part of the state, endowed with stunning beauty, a growing tourist industry and many advantages, including a median family income 10 percent higher than the rest of West Virginia and a rate of higher education double the state figure. And yet the population has fallen by two-thirds since the days when workers — the gandy dancers, as the men who worked the rails were called, or the pick-and-shovel men who dug for coal, or the logging crews from Pennsylvania and Nova Scotia who employed skidding tongs and peaveys to harvest the trees — filled the silences with their grunts. They extracted wood and coal from the area and sent the profits to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Cleveland.  

That is the West Virginia story.

That story’s latest chapter is of fresh decline. Newly released Census Bureau data shows that West Virginia suffered the largest population decline in the country, a drop of nearly 60,000 people, or 3.2 percent in the decade between 2010 and 2020. It is one of seven states that will lose a congressional seat in next year’s midterm elections.



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