Tonight, Virginia Tech opens its football season.
Against West Virginia.
This is such a big deal that it’s been a dozen years since the two teams met. Bad blood and all that. That’s another reason why when the two teams play tonight, they won’t be doing it on either team’s home field — but on the neutral turf of FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.
For most of our readers, Virginia Tech is the home team. For some that’s a matter of pride; for others mere proximity. Ultimately, though, it’s the result of politics — politics from 154 years ago. Had those politics gone another way, we might today be celebrating West Virginia as the home team, and the country between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Alleghanies would look very different.
That’s because back in the 1860s, some proposals for the new state of West Virginia called for its boundaries to take in everything west of the Blue Ridge.
Had that happened, Roanoke today would be in West Virginia.
So would Blacksburg, which means when Virginia created Virginia Tech in 1872 it wouldn’t have gone there.
That also means we wouldn’t have James Madison University, Radford University or the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, either. Maybe West Virginia would have established state schools there. Or maybe not.
Roanoke would have still sprung up as a railroad town, but there wouldn’t have been a Virginia Tech around to rescue the Hotel Roanoke when it closed. There wouldn’t be a Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg. And there wouldn’t be a Virginia Tech Carilion Medical School and Research Institute in Roanoke. If you can imagine the Roanoke and New River valleys without any Virginia Tech presence, then you can imagine what Roanoke, West Virginia, might have been like.
See? Politics really does matter. (So does Tech.)
Everyone knows the basic reasons why West Virginia separated from the rest of the state. The east-west conflict in Virginia had been going on for a long time, with people in the western mountains feeling ignored by an eastern-dominated state government in Richmond (much like now, actually, just with more geography). Virginia’s decision to secede from the Union finally brought things to the breaking point, quite literally.
In 1860, Virginia’s most populous city was Richmond. Petersburg was second, Norfolk was third. Wheeling was fourth, but not by much. If you think Roanoke feels estranged from Richmond today, think how Wheeling felt in 1860. It was way out there, and up there to the northwest, more economically and culturally aligned with Ohio and Pennsylvania than with the state it was actually in.
Business leaders in Wheeling had fought a long-running battle with the state government in Richmond. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was a big deal for Wheeling, but what Wheeling saw as economic development the General Assembly saw as an economic threat. Richmond didn’t want railroads delivering products to the port at Baltimore; it wanted railroads delivering them to Virginia ports. It took ten years before the General Assembly finally gave permission for the B&O to be built.
When the Civil War broke out, Wheeling leaders saw a chance to be rid of Richmond once and for all. They basically wanted their own state — a small state that would have only included about half of modern-day West Virginia.
Politicians in the Kanawha Valley around Charleston were just as eager to get out from under Richmond’s yoke, but they had no intention of trading domination by Richmond for domination by Wheeling. They wanted a big state, the better to dilute Wheeling’s influence.
The most ambitious proposal called for the new state to take in everything west of the Blue Ridge, plus some counties in what today we’d call Northern Virginia — and were then occasionally under Union control.
That’s the Roanoke, West Virginia, scenario — or, in the language of the times, the Big Lick, West Virginia, scenario.
What followed were a series of proposals and counter-proposals and maps changing more often than the route for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. One proposal would have taken Alleghany, Bath and Highland into the new state, along with the six counties in far Southwest Virginia that today we consider “the coalfields.” Another would have added Craig and Giles to West Virginia. Still another would have put everything from Botetourt County north to the Potomac River in the new state.
Some politicians were concerned with creating a culturally homogenous state of mountain counties. Others were concerned about weird-looking panhandles. Another group of politicians was concerned about the bottom line. They figured — correctly — that someday they might have to assume some of Virginia’s debt for any counties it took in. Everything from Alleghany County south was left out because Virginia had invested in railroads and canals and West Virginia didn’t want to get stuck with those bills. The Shenandoah Valley was considered appealing because topography directed its farm markets toward the B&O Railroad at Harper’s Ferry, but ultimately those counties were rejected as being too Southern in outlook.
The only exceptions were two valley counties in what today we call the West Virginia Panhandle — Jefferson and Berkley, just north of Winchester. The B&O ran through those counties and Wheeling was adamant that it didn’t want to allow them to stay under the nefarious influence of a Richmond-based government. The new state simply had to have those two counties. In theory there were referendums in both counties on whether to join, but they were was a war on and the results were marred by what we might gently call “irregularities.” West Virginia decided to add them anyway. By then Congress had already approved West Virginia’s admission as the 35th state, so technically it was changing the map after the fact. Oops. After the war, Virginia went to court to get those two counties back — and lost. The U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-3 in favor of West Virginia.
Sometimes college football rivals play for a symbolic trophy. Indiana and Purdue play for the right to hold “the old oaken bucket.” If West Virginia were in a sporting mood, the winner of tonight’s game would get to claim Jefferson and Berkley counties.
Or, if you’re really a gambler, everything west of the Blue Ridge.