West Virginia is nothing if not a dual-natured state. On one hand, it was during the “War between the States” that a dedicated, wily few decided to form a new free-leaning state – finally wresting unsuspecting Eastern Panhandle slavery-leaning counties from the Old Dominion by hook or by crook to secure the railroads heading west.
On the other, it is the state where, in 1898, an African-American attorney, J.R. Clifford, successfully argued before the West Virginia Supreme Court on behalf of an African-American teacher, Carrie Williams, that racial discrimination was illegal – the first such ruling in United States’ history.
There are bucolic pastures and leisurely flowing rivers along with sharply descending and precipitous cliffs. Even its name, “West Virginia” is somewhat duplicitous. The word “west” suggests a forward-thinking state, yet its name retains the colonial heritage of Virginia.
The state’s motto “Montani semper liberi” or “Mountaineers Are Always Free” could also indicate dual meaning. Upon the state’s formation, were mountaineers free from something or free to do something? I prefer the latter. You may fight to become free from something, yet find yourself in a predicament you didn’t anticipate.
Aspiring to be free to do something opens up possibilities. That aspiration, the dream to do something other than what had come before, to break with comfortable traditions and a way of life, the jump into the future in the midst of a Civil War, speaks volumes about the state.
From my front porch I can hear those lonesome trains, and reflect upon what they represent. A state cut within and from the mountains, forging a future for itself that is still being realized.
Many made sacrifices for the state – the price for which is lost in the mists of time.
One only needs to take a deep breath in the mountain air, in that mist, to be fortified by the little-known – and the renowned – who leapt feet first onto a path of their own choosing in hopes of building a new life for themselves as well as everyone else who has come to call West Virginia home.
— Cynthia Gayton is the owner of Steam at Harpers Ferry, a gallery with a retro/futuristic steampunk aesthetic.