"And Wyoming and McDowell counties are the only coal counties left that have no four-lane roads," Altizer added.
McDowell County has a 9.4 percent unemployment rate and total employment of 7,210, according to last month's West Virginia Economic Survey.
In November, McDowell County's per capita income was $25,614, compared to $32,042 for the state of West Virginia and $39,937 for the United States.
Between November 2011 and November 2012, coal production dropped further -- from 11.7 million tons to 10.5 million tons.
Raamie Barker, senior adviser to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said McDowell County was where the "slide away from coal began, the first place that it began. Similar conditions spread to other areas.
"When old downtown sections in places like Welch see a decline of the population, retail businesses suffer as a result of people moving away to get jobs in other coal mining areas or other areas of the country. ... They also began to run out of marketable coal. I don't know if that is the only factor."
Barker remembers when the State Department asked him to host Tony Blair, who would soon be Great Britain's prime minister, on a trip to McDowell County. Blair grew up in Durham, an industrial and mining town in northern England, which he later represented in the House of Commons.
Barker brought Blair to Davy, a mining town just northwest of Welch, in 1986.
"There must have been a dozen coal tipples. Back then, houses were already boarded up, businesses were boarded up. I remember seeing four or five young men just loafing around, sort of a sad commentary. They don't have anything to do. Just standing around as part of the blight.
"It had a profound effect on Tony Blair," Barker said. "It was a reminder how we really have to do everything we can to prepare for the eventual changes in the coalfields because of the markets and production.
"We also have to do everything we can to make coal strong as a viable industry, and keep it strong as long as we can. It is hard in that geography to attract other types of factories and industries that other places in the country can attract very easily because their geography is flat. It is a reminder you have to work hard," Barker said.
The latest state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training statistics rank McDowell County eighth in mining employment (with 1,206 miners) and tenth in coal production (4.3 million tons). Boone County was first in both categories, with 3,894 miners producing 20.9 million tons.
McDowell County's four largest producers are XMV Inc., Bluestone Coal Group, Extra Energy Inc. and Brook Run Mining Co.
In 2009, Jim Justice, who owns The Greenbrier resort, sold Bluestone Coal to Mechel OAO, a Moscow-based company that operates mines, metal refineries and power plants in Russia, Romania, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Kazakhstan.
Webster, Boone, Logan and Nicholas counties have the most unmined coal reserves left, ranging from 3.4 billion to 3.6 million tons each. McDowell County has 1.6 billion tons of reserves, according to the West Virginia Coal Association.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said, "McDowell County is a special place in West Virginia with such a proud history of tough hard work and perseverance. It's those very things that will build up McDowell County again."
Rockefeller said he has worked to help connect all McDowell County's schools to the internet to give students "educational experiences that open them up to a world of opportunity.
He said he believes local residents, state and federal officials and organizations like Reconnecting McDowell can help "bring new opportunities for jobs, a highly trained workforce and an education that looks to the future."
Barker said, "Welch was a bustling place. But when you are tied to one industry like that, this going to be the result. It should remind us not to let that happen again. We must try to do something to turn it around."
Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjny...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.