Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Grand Facts About West Virginia

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

John Denver knew a thing or two about the Mountain State when he crooned about its country roads. But there’s a lot more to West Virginia than rural highways and byways—like the first Mother’s Day celebration, a clever town called Mountain, and a resort that’s positively presidential. Read on for a few more fun facts about the state that, for some, is almost heaven.

1. It was originally called “Kanawha.” That name, which honored a Native American tribe, was the one put before voters in 1861 when deciding whether or not to secede from Virginia. By the time legislators finalized the state’s constitution, however, they had opted for a shortened version of “Western Virginia,” a common designation for the territory up to that point.

2. West Virginia’s split from Virginia was, in many ways, a microcosm of the Civil War divide between North and South. Many residents in the state’s rugged western region opposed slavery, and for decades felt ignored by a government they saw as dominated by wealthy plantation owners. After Virginia voted to secede in 1861, delegates called a meeting in the city of Wheeling, and voted to side with the Union and form a separate state. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the order admitting West Virginia into statehood.

3. Anyone looking at a map of West Virginia might wonder about the sliver of land rising north like a radio antenna. How’d that get there, anyway? Chalk it up to Virginia’s overly eager settlers, who in the late 1700s claimed land north along the Ohio River, ignoring Pennsylvania’s borders. In 1779, the two states agreed to a border five degrees west of where the Mason Dixon line ended, and north to the Ohio River. After Virginia ceded its territory west of the river to the U.S. government in 1784, that left just a thin northern panhandle.

4. In 1796, soldiers in Greenbrier County came across animal bones believed to belong to a very large lion. They sent the fossils to Thomas Jefferson, an amateur paleontologist and soon-to-be vice president, who concluded the remains were that of a giant sloth, which he called “Great claw, or Megalonyx.” He presented a paper to the American Philosophical Society and, believing the animal could still be in existence, told Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out along their journey westward. Scientists would eventually credit Jefferson with discovering the giant sloth, and even named the species after him: Megalonyx jeffersonii. In 2008, the skeleton became the official fossil of West Virginia.

5. Following the Civil War, battle-torn Virginia claimed that its new neighbor was responsible for a third of its pre-war debt. West Virginia refused to pay, and the two states squabbled all the way up until 1915, when the U.S. Supreme Court determined that West Virginia, in line with its state constitution, owed $12 million, plus additional interest. Begrudgingly, West Virginia complied, paying off the last of its debt to Virginia in 1939. 

6. In 1928, the Jones family of Peterstown discovered a 34-carat diamond on their property while playing horseshoes. Initially thinking it a large quartz rock, William “Punch” Jones kept the diamond in a cigar box for fourteen years before taking it to a geologist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The Jones Diamond, which was on display at the Smithsonian Institute before the family sold it in 1984, is the largest alluvial diamond ever discovered in North America.

7. Built in 1778, the historic Greenbrier Hotel has hosted more than half of all U.S. Presidents. For more than thirty years, it was also the location of a secret bunker where Congress could operate in the event of a nuclear strike. In 1992, The Washington Post exposed the facility, and today it’s used as a meeting room. 

8. One of the largest family reunions in the world takes place every summer in the town of Flat Top. That’s when around 2500 members of the Lilly clan get together, along with a few hundred non-family members.

9. In the early 20th century, a civil engineer named William Nelson Page took on the big railroad companies to build one of the most successful commercial railways in America. The Virginian line began in the mountains of West Virginia, and eventually extended all the way to the shipping port at Norfolk, Virginia. Railway companies tried to torpedo the project, and officials at the time criticized Page for his time-consuming construction process that insisted on a direct eastward path rather than one that wound through the mountains. But Page had a trump card up his sleeve: the multimillionaire Henry Huttleston Rogers, a former manager at Standard Oil, who secretly funded the project. In 1907, Rogers’s Deepwater line connected with the Tidewater line, creating 443 miles of track that ran from West Virginia coal country straight to the Atlantic Ocean. It became known as “the richest little railway in the world.”

10. Built in the late 19th century, the Weston State Hospital building is the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in America, and second only to the Kremlin on a global scale. It operated as a mental institution until 1994, when it closed down. It’s now run by a company offering haunted tours and known as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum—a name that mental health advocates are none too thrilled with.

11. Marshall University, located in Huntington, is named for Chief Justice John Marshall, a Western Virginia native who presided over the Aaron Burr treason trial in 1807. 

12. The New River, which runs through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, is actually one of the world’s oldest rivers (second only to the Nile, according to some experts). And unlike most rivers like it, the New River flows south to north, on account of it predating the mountains that surround it.

13. At more than 3000 feet long, the New River Gorge Bridge, located in Fayette County, is the longest steel-span bridge in the Western hemisphere. It’s also one of the highest bridges in the country, making it a magnet for BASE jumpers, who flock to it every third Saturday in October —the one day of the year when they’re allowed to jump.

14. West Virginia’s politicians had a hard time settling on a capital city early on. Wheeling, the original capital, was deemed too remote, so in 1870 the government moved to centrally located Charleston. But Charleston, many legislators complained, didn’t have suitable restaurants, hotels, or transportation. So in 1875 everything shifted back to Wheeling. The debate continued, and in 1877 the government decided to put the matter before voters—who chose Charleston. In 1885, West Virginia’s government moved to Charleston for a second and final time.

15. In 1949, residents of Mole Hill, West Virginia, changed the name of their town to “Mountain.” Get it?

16. In 1985, West Virginia University center Georgeann Wells became the first woman to dunk in a college basketball game. Because the feat wasn’t caught on tape, many were suspicious of the claim. So three games later, Wells did it again—this time with the cameras rolling.

17. At 485 feet high and with a dish that spans 2.3 acres, the Green Bank Telescope, located in southeastern West Virginia, is the largest fully steerable telescope in the world.

18. Located in West Virginia’s northern panhandle, the city of Weirton borders Ohio on its western edge, and Pennsylvania on its eastern edge, making it the only city in America that sits in one state, but touches two other state borders.

19. The last surviving U.S. World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, lived on a farm near Charleston until his death in 2011, at 110 years old. Buckles had lied about his age when he enlisted as a 16-year-old, and spent the duration of the war as an ambulance driver on the Western front. When asked how it felt to be last of the nearly 5 million American soldiers who fought in the conflict, Buckles said, “I knew there’d be only one someday. I didn’t think it would be me.”

20. West Virginia’s oldest and youngest governor are the same person. In 1956, 34-year-old Cecil Underwood, a former high school teacher, was elected to the position. Because of term limits in the state constitution, he was unable to run for reelection. So he bided his time, and 40 years later was elected for a second term, at age 74.

21. Harper’s Ferry, located at the eastern edge of the state, played a critical role in starting the Civil War thanks to John Brown’s raid. Things were no less contentious within the town's borders during the war. In four years, it changed hands eight times.

22. West Virginians often refer to their state as “Almost Heaven,” in reference to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which name-checks the Mountain State. The phrase even used to appear on state license plates. So beloved is Denver’s ode to rural life that in 2014 it became the official song of West Virginia.

23. Point Pleasant, West Virginia, is home to a storefront museum dedicated to a humanoid creature known as the Mothman. Like the Jersey Devil, the Mothman—who supposedly has glowing red eyes and wings—was sighted several times during the '60s, cementing its status as a local legend. The town also boasts a Mothman statue, and throws a yearly festival dedicated to the beast.

24. West Virginia’s caves are home to some odd and interesting rock formations—and some odd and interesting humans, too. In 1971, spelunker Bob Addis climbed atop a stalagmite in Lost World Caverns near Lewisburg, and didn’t come down for 16 days. With the help of his “bucket man” (for food, water, and you-know-what), Addis set the world record for stalagmite sitting. 

25. The first Mother’s Day celebration took place in 1908 in Grafton, West Virginia. The founder, Anna Jarvis, started it in honor of her own recently deceased mother, and meant it to be a humble day of remembrance. After the holiday became a commercial juggernaut, Jarvis spent the rest of her life protesting, filing lawsuits, and altogether trying to bring Mother’s Day back to its roots. 

A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


More from mental floss studios