In the late nineteenth century—about the same time Appalachia was “discovered” by urban journalists who told stories of “a strange land and a peculiar people”— Central Appalachia became an important source of the coal and timber that would build the modern American economy. Outside investors and local entrepreneurs bought up much of the land and mineral rights in the region. Heavy logging almost entirely cleared Appalachia of its native trees, and mining jobs grew dramatically in the early 1900s. Countless families migrated to Central Appalachia, many from other parts of the South and from as far away as Europe. Local people, who had survived mostly on agriculture and regional trade, left their farms for work in the mines. These families crowded into the company towns built to house them.
Coal mining provided jobs for many, but often under difficult conditions. Unions began to organize to improve wages and working conditions in the mines, and a series of historic labor struggles took place in Central Appalachia. The bust of the Great Depression gave way to the boom of World War II. But coal companies increasingly turned to technology and other cost-cutting measures, and in 1950 made a historic agreement with the United Mine Workers of America that raised wages and benefits for miners but rapidly increased mechanization. Surface mining became a more prevalent and destructive form of coal extraction. These trends led to declines in coal employment, and the massive out-migration of millions of people from Central Appalachia in the middle part of the twentieth century, most often for factory work in places like Ohio and Michigan.