WELCH, W.Va. -- For more than a generation after World War II, local stores, cars and people packed the streets in downtown Welch, just above the Tug River's banks.
Today, the main streets in Welch are bleak, lined with vacant restaurants and stores.
A few downtown businesses are still open, including the Douglas Mortuary, BWS Barber Shop and a lawyer's office.
McDowell County, once the largest coal-producing county in the United States, has produced more coal than any other county in West Virginia's history over the years. But last year, it ranked 10th among West Virginia's 30 coal-producing counties.
Nearby coal towns -- like Keystone, Northfork, Elkhorn and Maybeury -- suffer from the same problems as Welch.
"The first economic drop came about 1958, with mine mechanization. Many people left to work in car factories in Ohio and Michigan," said Dennis C. Altizer, McDowell County's assessor since 1991.
Continuous mining machines sparked the first wave of mechanization in Appalachia's coal mines, cutting jobs from the old pick-and-shovel days.
During the next generation, underground longwall mining and the rise of strip mining -- in Central Appalachia and western states like Wyoming -- increased productivity, further cutting the number of working miners.
"There were 100,000 people in McDowell County in 1950. Today, there are about 22,000 residents," Altizer said.
From 2000 to 2010, McDowell County's population dropped by nearly 20 percent, from 27,329 people to 22,064 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"It is so sad we are losing so much population. Half of our homes are on homestead exemption, which lowers property taxes for people who are over 65 or disabled," Altizer said during a recent interview in the McDowell County Courthouse.
Today, Altizer said, most income to county residents come from coal and natural gas jobs, or from checks retired people receive -- Social Security, black lung, the Veterans Administration and United Mine Workers.
"The monthly West Virginia Economic Survey prepared by Workforce West Virginia recently reported there were about 6,000 people working in the county, many of them with government jobs or fast-food jobs. We have an older population today. And there are not new jobs here," Altizer said.
"Coal and gas are keeping us going. Today, we are the third largest producer of gas in the state. Geomet has 150 gas wells," Altizer said. "Gas severance taxes, used for economic development, brought us $1.3 million a few months ago."
"Most homes were built in the 1920s and 1930s. No new housing were getting built. But the Council of Southern Mountains built some homes recently," added Altizer, a former schoolteacher, UMW field representative and area coordinator for U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller.
Three prison facilities provide nearly 500 other jobs.
The recently opened Federal Correctional Institution, four miles north of Welch, houses 1,280 federal prisoners and employs more than 320. The Welch Facility (the old McDowell County Jail) and Stevens Correctional Center house 430 prisoners and employ 150 people.
Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said, "The figures are alarming, the statistics downright disheartening, but they don't show the whole picture, and certainly not what's in the hearts and minds of so many families and individuals in the county.
"The core consensus I witness with every visit and phone call is that far from throwing in the towel, people are working to reconnect and rebuild. They want to stay and have family who would come home."
Rahall believes "Appalachia and rural America share many of the same challenges, but also the same values and the subsequent opportunities those values generate that are now manifesting themselves in McDowell County.
"It's incumbent on all levels of government and the private sector to do their part in helping chart the county's future. But we all need to take a lesson or two from McDowell's experience, learn from it and apply it to other regions more proactively, before the alarm bells ring out. We ought to do it for families, small business and for the good of the nation. After all, our nation is only as strong as its weakest link."
The McDowell County school system also has its problems.
"The state took over our county school system 11 years ago. We are on our fourth superintendent since then. There is no easy fix." Altizer said. "We have been economically depressed for so long.