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. 

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17 Things to Know About René Descartes
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The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

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8 Arresting Facts About Scotland Yard
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Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Depicted in fiction for well over a century as the world's premier police force, Scotland Yard might be the most famous banner for law enforcement in history. Though the name itself is officially a term for the location of the London Metropolitan Police headquarters, it’s taken on a colloquial use to describe the collective brain trust of that station’s patrolmen and detectives. Here’s what we’ve deduced about the past, present, and future of this historic—and sometimes controversial—institution.

1. IT GOT ITS NAME FROM A TRICKY BIT OF GEOGRAPHY.

London didn’t have a formal police force until 1829, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel arranged for a squad to replace the fractured system of watchmen, street patrols, and the River Police. Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne were tasked with organizing the force: Mayne’s house at 4 Whitehall Place opened to an adjacent courtyard that had once been a medieval palace that hosted Scottish royalty while they were in London. This “Great Scotland Yard,” which was also reportedly the name of the street behind the building, became synonymous with Rowan and Mayne’s efforts to create a new era in law enforcement.

2. CHARLES DICKENS TAGGED ALONG ON PATROLS.

Author Charles Dickens poses for a photo
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

The renowned author of Great Expectations and other literary classics wasn’t a policeman, but he did perform the 19th-century equivalent of a ride-along. Dickens was friends with Charles Frederick Field, a Scotland Yard inspector, and their relationship led to Dickens occasionally accompanying patrolmen on their nightly rounds. He even based a character in his novel Bleak House on Fields.

3. THERE WERE DIRTY COPS AMONG THE RANKS IN THOSE EARLY DAYS.

For all of the public acceptance of Scotland Yard—Londoners were initially wary of the plainclothes cops walking among them—the squad suffered a sensational blow to its image in 1877. Known as the “Turf Fraud Scandal” or the “Trial of the Detectives,” the controversy erupted after a Parisian socialite named Madame de Goncourt was conned by two men named Harry Benson and William Kurr. Scotland Yard inspector Nathaniel Druscovich was dispatched to Amsterdam to capture a fleeing Benson while others pursued Kurr. The men proved surprisingly elusive, which prompted suspicion among Scotland Yard officials. When the two con men were finally arrested, they explained that an inspector named John Meiklejohn was taking bribes in exchange for tipping off Kurr to police activity. Two other policemen were implicated; the three each received two years in prison. The high-profile breach led to a reorganization, with the Yard inserting detectives into a new Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to help minimize misconduct.

4. THEY HELPED PIONEER FINGERPRINTING.

A Scotland Yard employee examines fingerprints
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At one time, the science of fingerprinting was more of a theory than anything that could be put into practice. Most police forces instead relied on anthropometry, a system created by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, which used 11 body measurements taken by calipers to provide a unique physical identity for an individual. While fingerprinting was beginning to take off in India in the late 1800s, the English-speaking world didn’t adopt the forensic technique of lifting and matching prints until 1901, when Sir Edward Henry, then the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, instituted the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau. In 1902, a billiard ball thief was convicted based on a fingerprint he left on a windowsill. In 1904, a Yard detective demonstrated the efficacy of fingerprinting at the St. Louis World’s Fair, helping spread the new science to American law enforcement officials.

5. THEIR PATROL OFFICERS DIDN’T CARRY GUNS UNTIL 1994.

The uniformed police officers who wander London’s streets with an eye on keeping the peace were unarmed for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1994 that select patrol officers were permitted to carry guns, a policy shift that stemmed from increased assaults on police. The addition of firearms was limited to armed response cars intended to be dispatched to high-risk calls; previously, officers were instructed to keep their weapons in a lockbox inside their vehicles. Today, 90 percent of Metropolitan police officers go on duty without a gun, a policy largely maintained in response to a relatively low number of guns carried by civilians. Less than four in 100 British citizens own a firearm.

6. THEY HAVE A SQUAD OF “SUPER RECOGNIZERS.”

A surveillance camera is posted in London
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

With surveillance cameras dotting London, facial recognition for identifying criminal suspects is in high demand. But no software can outperform Scotland Yard’s team of “super recognizers,” who are recruited for their ability to match a face to a name based on their own memory. These officers are hired by administering a facial recognition test first implemented by Harvard in 2009. Those in the top percentile have an uncanny ability to retain facial feature details and are often dispatched to cull out known criminals like pickpockets at public gatherings. One such specialist, Constable Gary Collins, identified 180 people out of 4000 while examining footage of the 2011 London riots. Software was able to identify exactly one.

7. THEY KEEP A SECRET CRIME MUSEUM HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC.

Housed across two floors at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London is the Black Museum, a macabre cavalcade of evidence from nearly 150 years of investigative work. Established in 1875, the collection houses body parts (gallstones that failed to dissolve in acid along with the rest of a murder victim) and seemingly innocuous items that take on sinister connotations: A set of pots and pans that once belonged to Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen and were used to boil human flesh. It’s closed to the public, though visiting law enforcement and sometimes celebrities can secure an invite: Laurel and Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have toured its inventory. A sample of the collection went on display at the Museum of London in 2015.  

8. YOU COULD LIVE THERE ONE DAY.

The former New Scotland Yard building at 10 Broadway
Jack Taylor, AFP/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Police have changed locations several times over the years. It was situated at its original location of 4 Whitehall Place from 1829 to 1890, then housed in a large Victorian building on the Victoria Embankment from 1890 until 1967. That’s when the operation was moved to a 600,000 square-foot building at 10 Broadway in Westminster: a famous revolving sign announced a New Scotland Yard was taking up residence. In 2014, the building was sold to investors from Abu Dhabi for $580 million: London cited operating expenses and budget cuts as the reasons for the sale. The buyers plan to mount a residential housing project in the spot. Scotland Yard staff moved to a trimmed-down facility at the Curtis Green Building in Westminster and within walking distance of the Houses of Parliament.   

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