Appalachia and the Ozarks

United States Geography

T he Appalachian Uplands, stretching from New York to Alabama, and the area of the Ozark-Ouachita mountains are separated by some 400 kilometers of land. They are actually two parts of a single physiographic province that have a strong topographic similarity and an unusually close association between topography and human settlement.

Early settlers, when they reached the shores of colonial America, heard tales of a vast range of high mountains to the west. As they moved into those mountains, they discovered that their elevation had been exaggerated. Only in a few small areas do the Appalachians or Ozarks approach the dramatic vistas so common in the West.

Nevertheless, most who concern themselves with such questions would agree that much of the Appalachian and Ozark topography should be called mountainous. Local relief is greater than 500 meters in many areas, and it is sometimes greater than 1,000 meters. Slopes are often steep.

The human geography of Appalachia remains closely intertwined with its topography. Without the mountains, the area would merely be a part of several adjoining areas, such as the Deep South. With them, Appalachia and the Ozarks exist as a distinctive and identifiable American region.


Appalachia is composed of at least three physiographic provinces. These sub-areas are arranged in parallel belts lying roughly northeast-southwest.

The easternmost belt is the Blue Ridge. Composed of ancient Precambrian rocks, this section has been severely eroded, and its highest elevations are currently only a fraction of their former levels. The Piedmont section of the Atlantic southern lowlands bounds the Blue Ridge along Appalachia's eastern side from New York to Alabama.

The Blue Ridge generally increases in elevation and width from north to south. In the south, especially south of Roanoke, Virginia, is the most mountainous part of Appalachia. The changes in elevation from the Piedmont onto the Blue Ridge are usually abrupt and substantial. In Pennsylvania and Virginia, the Blue Ridge is a thin ridge between the Piedmont and the Great Valley to the west; along the North Carolina-Tennessee border, it broadens to a width of nearly 150 kilometers.

To the west of the Blue Ridge, one encounters the ridge and valley section. This is part of the great expanse of sedimentary rock beds that lie between the Blue Ridge and the Rocky Mountains. The eastern edge of these beds has been severely folded and faulted, resulting in a linear topography.

The ridge and valley section averages about 80 kilometers in width. It is occupied by many ridges, usually rising 100 to 200 meters above the separating valleys. Gaps in the ridges are relatively infrequent and usually have been created by rivers that cut across the grain of the area. Several kilometers wide, the valleys provide some of the best farmland in Appalachia. The ridges throughout this section generally are composed of relatively resistant shale and sandstone, and the valleys usually are floored by limestone.

Between the Blue Ridge and the first of the ridges is the Great Valley. Running virtually the entire length of the region, the valley (which is hilly rather than flat in most areas) is historically one of the important routeways in America, and one that has tied the people of Appalachia together more than any other physical feature save the mountains themselves.

The westernmost part of Appalachia is the Appalachian Plateau. The plateau is bounded by a steep scarp (slope) on the east called the Allegheny Front, which was the most significant barrier to western movement in the country east of the Rocky Mountains. The topography of this region has been created largely through stream erosion of the horizontal beds of the interior lowland. Erosion created a rugged, jumbled topography, with narrow stream valleys bordered by steep, sharp ridges. The northern portion of the Allegheny Plateau, in New York and Pennsylvania, has a rounder, gentler appearing landscape. Except for limited areas, level land is scarce. Most communities are forced to squeeze themselves into small level spaces in the stream valleys.

The Ozarks-Ouachita uplands follow a topographic regionalization broadly similar to the Appalachians, with the "grain" now east-west instead of northeast-southwest. The Ouachita Mountains to the south exhibit a series of folded parallel ridges and valleys. They are separated from the Ozarks by the structural trough of the Arkansas River Valley. The Ozarks is an irregular, hilly area of eroded plateaus, much like the Appalachian Plateau section.


Settlers did not push through the Blue Ridge into the Appalachian Highlands until late in the colonial period, 150 years after initial occupation of America's East Coast. The easiest and first-used passageway into the Great Valley and the mountains beyond was in southeast Pennsylvania, where the Blue Ridge is little more than a range of hills. Many Pennsylvanians found the mountain lands to the north and west inhospitable. Consequently, they gradually spread their settlement down the valley into Virginia. They were soon joined by others moving inland from the southern lowlands.

Then, late in the 18th century, people began settling the valleys and coves of the surrounding highlands. The land they chose was poor in comparison with areas farther west. Its ruggedness, coupled with the cool upland climate, rendered most of the region unacceptable for the plantation economy. Only in some of the broader lowlands did a few sizable plantations develop.

When American settlers came to this area in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the region provided adequate settlement potential for smaller farms. About 10 to 20 hectares of cleared land was all a farmer could handle. Such plots were available in the stream valleys. The forests teemed with game, wood was plentiful, and animals could graze in the woods and mountain pastures. By the standards of the time, this was reasonably good land, and a farming population soon occupied the mountains.

Much of the region gradually grew more isolated and separate from other areas. As flatter, richer agricultural land to the west was opened and grain production was mechanized, the small Appalachian farm became increasingly marginal economically. Even famous pathways through the region, such as the Cumberland Gap at the western tip of Virginia and the Wilderness Road from there to the Bluegrass Basin of Kentucky, were, in fact, winding and difficult.

East-west travel between the northeastern seaboard and the Great Lakes area followed the route of the Mohawk Corridor and the flat lakeshore of Lake Ontario, thus avoiding the northern Appalachian uplands. There was no easy passage at all across the southern Appalachians. Major railroad lines skirted the area.

Appalachia, particularly southern Appalachia, was slow to develop any substantial urban pattern. In part, it shared with the rest of the South an emphasis on agriculture that continued well after other regions of the country had begun their rush toward manufacturing and urban living. Also, the products of Appalachia were few, and the demand for the goods and services of cities was limited. Added to this was the paucity of transportation.

One major result of the lack of both plantations and urban development was that few new migrants were added to the early settlers. These people tended to stay where they were, and, as time passed, their attachment to family, community, and land grew. This regional immobility led to the development of a cultural distinctiveness uncommon in the rest of the United States. Appalachia became increasingly unusual by simply remaining the same.

Appalachia's people are relatively poor. In some areas, especially eastern Kentucky, Appalachia's major coal-producing area, much of the blame for the area's poverty can be attributed to a great decline in the regional demand for labor as coal mining was mechanized in the 1940s.

The region's people are conservative in attitude. Many of America's most conservative Protestant churches trace their roots to Appalachia. Others are found where mountain people have moved and taken their religion with them. Politically, most elected officials are decidedly conservative, although strands of rural populism are found. The area's provincialism is bred of the strong bonds of family and community formed in relative isolation, which tie their members together and lessen their association with others.

The southern portion of the area is the most clearly Appalachian, and the one that most Americans recognize as Appalachia. But much of what has been said here about the region's residents fits the Ozarks and the Appalachian region to the north as well.

The northern Appalachians are far less clearly associated with the broader region. Certainly they share the mountainous topography, and some of the early developmental problems created by steep slopes were also common. But poverty is far less evident than it is farther south. Also, more recent immigrants followed the early northwestern European settlers into the area. This is especially true in Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia, where coal mining attracted many East European migrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many cultural patterns in the northern Appalachians, with religion a notable example, are not at all the same as those of the southern highlands. Fundamentalist churches are less common; in many counties, especially in Pennsylvania, Catholics and members of various Eastern Orthodox churches are in the majority.

Transportation within the northern Appalachians soon became far better than that in the southern Appalachians, in part because the mountains were less continuous and lower and, thus, more easily breached. Also, as the upper Midwest boomed, the northern Appalachians became the center of the continent's major belt of commercial and manufacturing growth. Transport lines connecting the eastern and western portions of the manufacturing core region soon ribboned through the mountains. The economic consequence of this was far more development within the northern Appalachian area, especially in central and western Pennsylvania and New York, as compared to the southern Appalachians.


The national image of Appalachia is unquestionably rural. In some ways, this is valid. The urban percentage for the region is only about half the national average. A majority of the population is classified as either rural or rural nonfarm residents (people who live in rural areas but have urban occupations). However, Appalachia's high rural density is not supported by a large-scale, commercial agricultural system. Rather, small farms and minerals dependency (primarily coal) are the keys to this dense population.

Appalachia is America's primary region for owner-operated farms, with Kentucky and West Virginia leading the country in that category. Without any important commercial crop in Appalachia, there was little early growth of farm tenancy, and that pattern has remained.

The average farm in Appalachia contains only about 40 hectares. Furthermore, the rugged topography, poor soil, and short growing season in much of the region have resulted in a limited amount of available cropland and a greater relative emphasis on pasturage and livestock. Because fields are small and scattered in the valleys, the efficient use of large farm machinery is nearly impossible. The net result of all this is that farm incomes are low. A great many of the region's farmers turn to part-time jobs to provide supplementary income that will allow them to remain on the farms.

The type of agriculture found in most of the region is called general farming; that is, no discernible product or combination of products dominates the farm economy. Extensive animal husbandry is the most common and probably best agricultural use of the steep slopes. A number of crops, such as tobacco, apples, tomatoes, and cabbage, are locally important in some valley areas, with small plots of tobacco being the most common cash crop in the southern Appalachians. Corn is the region's leading row crop, but it is normally used on the farm for animal fodder.

There are important exceptions to this pattern of semi-marginal agriculture. The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, for example, was early called the breadbasket of Virginia. Competition from wheat grown in the fertile grasslands of the Deep South and Great Plains forced the valley out of the national wheat market in the late 19th century. Although winter wheat is still grown, hay and corn for fodder and apples are now the valley's major crops, with turkey-raising also locally important. Dairying and apple production are important in the many valleys of central Pennsylvania. The Tennessee Valley is also a substantial agricultural district, with fodder crops and livestock most important.

Over much of Appalachia, farming's chief partner is coal. Almost all of the Allegheny Plateau is underlain with a vast series of bituminous coal beds that together comprise the world's largest such coal district. The coal seams have been exposed by the same streams that have, through their erosive activity, created the rugged topography of the plateau.

The coal of Appalachia became important shortly after the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. It was the development of new types of coke-burning iron and steel furnaces that created this demand, because coke is processed from bituminous coal. The thick coal seams of southwestern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia provided the fuel for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to rise to its status of Steel City during this period. As the nation turned to electrical power in the 20th century, coal from Appalachia provided fuel for electric-generating facilities along much of the East Coast and in the interior manufacturing core.

After the better part of a century of growth, the coal industry fell into a period of decline beginning in the 1950s. Production dropped as petroleum and natural gas replaced coal as major fuel sources. Between 1950 and 1960, many coal counties lost a full one-quarter of their population. The resulting economic depression, blending with the poverty common to Appalachia, created areas of particularly severe problems.

Today, growing power demands, coupled with continuing concern over the availability and cost of petroleum supplies and the safety of nuclear power, have reemphasized the need for coal in electric power generation. New generating plants use huge quantities of locally mined coal to produce electricity, much of which is transmitted to areas outside the region. Nearly 100 million tons of Appalachian coal is exported annually.

Appalachian coal is mined in several different ways. Underground or shaft mining was used first and is still quite important, especially in the northern parts of the region. Modern underground mining techniques--huge mobile drills and continuous mining machines that rip the coal out of the seams and then deposit it on conveyor belts for the trip to the surface--mean that tons of coal per minute can be removed from a seam.

Surface or strip mining, which is far less expensive if the coal seams are near the surface, has increased greatly in importance. In the central region (primarily eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, and southern West Virginia), where the most important producing section is today, large machines remove the rocks along a slope above a coal seam and then simply lift off the uncovered coal. Extraction along several seams on a slope by this method creates a peculiar, stepped appearance that looks from a distance like a series of increasingly smaller boxes piled on top of one another.

About half of the coal mined in Kentucky and most mined in Ohio and Alabama is from strip mine lands, while most of the coal from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia--and two-thirds of that from Appalachia as a whole--is from shaft mines.

The first important coal field in Appalachia was not the bituminous fields of the plateau. Their exploitation was preceded by operations in the anthracite field at the northern tip of the ridge and valley in Pennsylvania. Anthracite is a much harder, smokeless coal that was important in home heating. Anthracite was also a major fuel for ore smelting until techniques to produce coke from bituminous coal were developed in the 1860s. The decline in use of coal for heating, coupled with the lack of alternative uses for anthracite, led to an economic depression in the anthracite belt. Although substantial anthracite reserves remain, production today is minimal.

Coal has been a mixed blessing to the people of Appalachia. It has long been the economic mainstay for large parts of the region and has employed, either directly or indirectly, hundreds of thousands of workers. Still, tens of thousands have died in mine-related accidents. Black lung, the result of many years of breathing too much coal dust, has affected countless others. The recent recovery of production in response to increased market demands has been accomplished mainly by greater mechanization. Most mineral rights are held by corporations that obtained them early and at low prices. While a number of Appalachian states have either initiated or increased surcharges on coal mined in their state, coal taxes remain low, and most coal profits leave the region.

In other mining activities, the Tri-State district in the Ozarks, where the borders of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri meet, has long been a major area of lead mining. Southeastern Missouri, outside Appalachia, has produced lead for over 250 years, and surface mines there remain America's most important. Missouri has supplied most of the lead ever mined in the United States and currently produces more than three-quarters of the total national production.

The first oil well in the United States was drilled in northern Pennsylvania in 1859, and that state led the country in production through most of the 19th century. Today, the area supplies only a small part of the nation's crude oil needs, but it remains an important producer of high-quality oils and lubricants.

Finally, southeastern Tennessee is the most important remaining area of zinc production in the United States. In addition, several mines around Ducktown, Tennessee, near the North Carolina and Georgia borders, are the only major copper producers east of the Mississippi River.


Like coal, Appalachia's rivers have been a mixed blessing to the region. Some of the streams have been important transportation routeways, and water power was used by the earliest gristmills and sawmills. These rivers also had a darker side, for they frequently flooded their narrow valleys during periods of heavy rain. The southern highlands are the moistest area of the country east of the Pacific coast.

Out of a desire to control one of these rivers, the Tennessee, the largest and perhaps most successful regional development plan in American history was implemented. In the 1930s, a plan was conceived to harness the river and to use it to improve the economic conditions of the entire Tennessee Valley. As a result, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was first given the charge to develop the Tennessee River for navigation. Today, a three-meter barge channel exists as far upstream as Knoxville, Tennessee.

Most of the other activities of the TVA can be viewed as logical extensions of the initial commitment. Navigation development included the construction or purchase of a series of dams to guarantee stream flow and reduce flooding. As long as the dams were there, it was natural to include water-power facilities with them. Today, most of the more than 30 dams controlled by the TVA on the Tennessee and Kentucky Rivers have power-generating facilities. About 80 percent of the electricity produced at TVA facilities comes from thermal plants, including 10 that burn coal, and several nuclear-powered facilities. The TVA uses nearly 50 million tons of coal annually and is Appalachia's largest coal user.

The inexpensive electricity attracted to the valley a few industries that are heavy users of power, including a large aluminum-processing facility south of Knoxville. The country's first atomic research facility was placed at Oak Ridge, west of Knoxville, partly because of the availability of large amounts of power there. Knoxville, Chattanooga, and the Tri-Cities of Bristol, Johnson City, and Kingsport are all substantial manufacturing centers. The TVA also became a principal developer and producer of artificial fertilizers, another heavy power-consuming industry.

Above the dams, the TVA initiated a major program to help valley farmers control erosion at the farm. The goal was to hold part of the floodwaters at the farm and to slow the rate at which the lakes were filling with silt.

In addition to the water itself, the Authority owned 520,000 hectares of land along parts of the rivers. Major public recreation areas were developed on some of this land, and the area is now a substantial recreation facility.

In 1965, Congress passed the Appalachian Redevelopment Act, which created the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Responsible for an area that extends from New York to Alabama, the commission has spent several billion dollars in a program to improve the region's economy. Its primary thrust is to improve highways in Appalachia in the hope that this will decrease isolation and encourage manufacturers to locate in the region.

An additional government activity, the Arkansas River Navigation System constructed during the 1960s and 1970s and dedicated in 1971, established a three-meter navigation canal up the Arkansas River from its confluence with the Mississippi River to Catoosa, Oklahoma, just downstream from Tulsa. The result has been an increase in barge traffic and the production of hydroelectric power from the many dams constructed to stabilize the river's flow.

What of the region's future? Certainly Appalachia and the Ozarks are not likely to become part of America's Manufacturing Core, and few in these regions really want that. Still, there is a sense of change. Parts of the southern highlands in Georgia, the Carolinas, and Tennessee have witnessed a boom in recreational and second-home construction. Havens for the well-to-do are found in North Carolina, Virginia, and the Ozarks and Ouachita Mountains. The long-term pattern of out-migration from the region, while not ended entirely, has been reduced, and the gap between per capita income levels in the regions and the United States has narrowed. Economically, perhaps the worst is over.

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Source: U.S. Department of State