Early settlers of the Tazewell and Mercer county area were predominately farmers, and followed the traditional pattern of foothills farming that characterized pioneering settlements all along the eastern slope of the Allegheny Mountain Range on the western fringe of the fertile Valley of the Virginias. But that way of life would change dramatically with the large-scale commercial exploitation of the region’s rich mineral and forest resources.
The Norfolk & Western railway drove a line from Radford, Virginia to the eastern Tazewell County town of Pocahontas in 1882, and started hauling out coal the following year. In 1905, the Virginian Railway brought a rail line through Princeton, which sparked coal rail competition through the first half of the 20th Century (the competition ended with the merger of the two railroads in the mid-1950s).
Within a few years of the start of commercial coal mining in the region, huge timber companies emerged throughout the region to take advantage of the region’s incredible forest resources. Unlike coal, the area’s timber resources are renewable.
Several businesses evolved in the Mercer-Tazewell region to provide support services to the rail industry as well as the extractive industries of coal and timber. In addition, some service-based businesses evolved to provide support for the management and the workers and families of the primary industries. The region benefits from a wealth of healthcare facilities and excellent public schools, colleges and a university that enjoy broad-based support.
The region’s incredible natural beauty has always drawn a fair share of tourists into the two-county area, and improved highway connectivity (as well as growing interest in heritage tourism) has stimulated dramatic growth in this part of the economy. Accessibility to broadband communications and affordable utilities are beginning to draw the attention of some urban businesses that are searching for a more rural setting.
Perhaps the region’s most vital resource is its people. While the region has experienced an extended period of economic doldrums, many residents remain as the third and fourth generation of people who literally moved mountains to carve out a civilization in southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. The spirit carried by that diverse and powerful workforce remains intact.