The West Virginia slogan, "Almost Heaven," stands these days as a sad, defiant cry against the economic disasters that have struck the state.

In March, by state estimates, the unemployment rate was above 20 percent in nearly a fourth of the counties across the state and above 30 percent in one, McDowell County, where a depression has hit the coal industry.

Like their counterparts throughout the Midwest, the old industrial cities along the Ohio River--Weirton, Wheeling, Parkersburg, Huntington--have been hard hit by a recession that has taken a particular toll among the smokestack industries such as steel, metal fabricating, foundries, and machinery manufacturing.

Production is also down sharply at most of the plants of DuPont and the host of other chemical companies that line the Kanawha River up and down stream from Charleston. As their markets dwindle, portions of the plants have been shut down, some permanently. Even some of the highly trained staff at a major Union Carbide research facility has been unnerved by fear of layoffs.

To the east, many of the lumber mills tied to the timber of private mountain land and that of the Monongahela National Forest have closed or laid off workers. The Pardee & Curtin Lumber Co., for instance, shut its hardwood mill in Webster County for good. The mill, which had 50 employes, was the county's only large private employer outside of coal, and the unemployment rate in the county in March stood at 28.7 percent. But coal is West Virginia's true disaster. It was the collapse a year ago of the metallurgical coal market, and to a lesser extent that for steam coal for electric utilities as well, that turned this state's economy into what arguably can be called the most depressed in the nation.

Nearly 18,000 coal miners have lost their $90- to $100-a-day jobs in the last year and their ranks are still growing. With them have gone thousands of others who were employed by companies that serve the industry with everything from mine roof bolts to Joy loaders.

According to the U.S. Labor Department's figures, the state's unemployment rate in February reached 21 percent, not seasonally adjusted. That was far above the rate for the next highest state, Michigan's 16.5 percent. Moreover, the West Virginia figure was up nearly seven percentage points from February 1982 to February 1983, also by a wide margin the largest increase for any state.

Officials at the West Virginia Department of Employment Security reject the federal figures as invalid. They say their more broadly based estimates indicate the February rate was 14.6 percent, down slightly from 14.9 percent in January. The state officials say the March rate was still lower, 13.6 percent.

But as has been the case nationally, most of the improvement in the rate has been more the result of a shrinking labor force than of higher employment. If the labor force had not shrunk, the rate would still be about 15 percent, even by the state's estimates.

There are a few signs here and there that the slide may have hit bottom. Housing sales are picking up, as is the value of building permits in some parts of the state. Some workers at steel and aluminum plants have been recalled. For most of the unemployed workers, however, a job remains an uncertain prospect for some time in the future.

Meanwhile, the cold statistics of unemployment rates hardly depict the damage to families and individuals that are flowing from the hard times. The safety net of social programs--unemployment benefits, welfare, Medicaid and extensive public and volunteer efforts to distribute free food and clothing--have helped. In some areas they are nearly all that is keeping the economy afloat.

Anxieties and fear take their toll. Welfare authorities say drinking problems abound, and have led to a signficant increase in physical abuse of wives and children. Health problems are going untreated until they become acute and hospital care is needed.

Family assets, particularly cars, are going by the boards as the unemployed owners can't make the payments. Only a few houses or mobile homes have been foreclosed because the lenders know they can't resell them. Some finance companies are letting people keep their mobile homes if they can pay even half the interest due on their loans each month, never mind the principal.

Ernie Moore, vice president of District 29 of the United Mine Workers and a member of the state legislature, is saddened by what has happened to his state and most of all to the miners.

At the District 29 headquarters here--where everyone has taken pay cuts and the workweek cut to four days--Moore says that recently a woman called his wife in tears. Her husband had lost his job at a U.S. Steel Corp. mine and had begun to drink heavily. The couple, in their early 30s, have two children.

"They had lost their trailer and had to move into an apartment in Welch. They were on welfare and they were behind on their utilities," Moore recalls. "Then the physical abuse started.

"My wife urged me to try to help, so we invited them to come out to our house to talk about their troubles. They came and the wife said one thing was that they never did anything as a family any more.

"Well, at that the man started crying, and he said they can't afford to do anything and that his wife is always nagging him," Moore says. "My wife and I couldn't sort out everything, and we urged them to get counseling. I think I found some money to help on the utilities.

"You know, these men have been able to give their families most of what they needed and most of what they wanted. Now they can't, and they just can't deal with it. The children can't either. They were used to doing what the other kids did, and now they can't. They keep asking dad for money, he doesn't have any, and he gets aggravated. That can lead to physical abuse," Moore says.

And he adds, at the McDowell Country mental health clinic "the case load is way up."

So is the welfare case load, the number of food stamp and Medicaid recipients and the lines of elderly, poor and unemployed who line up when they can for a free handout of butter, cheese and other food.

In McDowell County, says Betty Jo Jones, area administrator for the state's Department of Human Services, "everything depends on coal." When the mines are shut, there is nothing else.

"First, the miners can get a maximum of $211 a week in unemployment benefits," Jones says. When those run out, they can't qualify for welfare payments if they have many assets beyond a house or mobile home or a car worth less than $1,500. Also depending on their assets, they may qualify for food stamps and Medicaid.

The maximum monthly welfare payment is $254 for a family of five or more. And while living up a hollow in the mountains may be cheaper than living in an urban area, Jones agrees, "I don't see how anybody makes it on $254, even with food stamps."

Other things do help. Some families set up roadside flea markets, trading and buying and selling clothing and other small items. If they have a piece of land, there is usually a garden on it.

And then there is the volunteer help. "There are more people giving things than ever before," says Jones, "even low-income people who didn't before."

In Charleston, the United Way board has set up a regional network of free-food distribution points. Donald Withrow, a fiercely bearded Steelworkers member who is a mechanic at an FMC Corp. chemical plant and a member of the board, is the driving force behind the project.

Withrow, with the help of other union members at the C&P Telephone Co. and other firms, cadges food and money wherever he can. Once each weekend, a large cadre of volunteers turns out at a local warehouse to help sort the food, pack it in boxes and send it on its way by truck. Most of the transportation has come from the U.S. Army Reserve units. "We are creating something this valley will reap for years to come, volunteerism," says Withrow. "It hasn't really been needed for 20 years. Now it is. People will help if you give them a simple, honest system. Maybe I'm prejudiced as hell, but I think the people of West Virginia have just a little bit bigger heart."

The turn in West Virginia's fortunes really began in 1979 following a decade-long economic boom. During the deep recession of 1974-75, unemployment rose, but so did employment. Since September 1979, the slide downward has been unremitting.

Since the fall of 1979, non-agricultural employment has dropped 13.9 percent, from 675,800 to 581,700. Nationally, over the same period, such employment is down only 2.4 percent.

In West Virginia, the number of manufacturing jobs is down a huge 28.2 percent, to 91,700. In non-manufacturing, where 490,000 people are still employed, the decline is much smaller, only 10.6 percent, but much of that drop is concentrated in coal, according to the Department of Employment Security. In coal, the number ofjobs has fallen over 3 1/2 years by more than a third, from 68,800 to 44,700.

Not long ago, about 4,000 of those miners, including some in nearby Virginia, were working for Consolidation Coal Co., a subsidiary of Conoco and now also part of DuPont. Only about 2,000 are at work now, says Eustice Frederick, a senior vice president who is in charge of Consol's southern Appalachian region.

Consol has only 11 mines operating, down from as many as 45, all working the Pocahontas No.3 seam, known as the best metallurgical coal in the world. Its high carbon content makes it ideal for producing coke for use in making steel. There is no shortage of coal or people to mine it, only a dearth of markets.

Australians have captured much of the Japanese market, and the South Africans and the Poles much of that in Europe. Domestically, the market collapsed along with steel.

When will coal pick up again? Frederick isn't sure. Officials at U.S. Steel, which operates a number of large mines in the area, have told union leaders those mines should reopen in either the third or fourth quarter of this year.

As in any state, even one as depressed economically as this one, there are some brighter spots.

Charleston, the capital, has a mixture of government, trade, service and industrial jobs and has not been nearly as hurt as most other parts of the state. A new $150 million shopping mall at the edge of downtown is on the way. This Town Center will include a performance center that will seat 12,000. Across the street from Town Center, a new Marriott Hotel opened a few months ago.

Similarly, outside Huntington, a major new regional shopping mall opened not long ago, though in one stroke it wreaked havoc with downtown Huntington stores.

Meanwhile, construction of new or expanded facilities is under way at several ski resorts in the mountains. At Snowshoe, atop Cheat Mountain in Pocahontas County, close to $50 million worth of new ski lifts, condominium units, private homes and other facilities will be added to the tax rolls in the year ending this July, according to tax assessor Dolan Irvine.

As a result, Snowshoe, which costs the county little in the way of services, will boost the county's tax base by nearly 20 percent in a single year. In addition, peak winter employment at the area is close to 1,000, with about half the jobs held by people from the county.

And in the state's eastern panhandle, from which several thousand residents commute daily from Jefferson and Berkeley counties to work in the Washington area, the recession has been much less severe. In Charles Town and Jefferson County, the March unemployment rate was 5.7 percent, by far the lowest rate in the state. Berkeley County and Martinsburg had a 9.6 percent rate, still one of only nine counties in which the rate was below double-digit range.

William N. Shearer, chairman of the Kanawha Banking & Trust Co. in Charleston, thinks the state capital will prosper again, and that it will be "the key to the economic future of the state.

"I'm bullish on Charleston. It's the center of government, and it's becoming a medical center for the state, too. And now that the law has been changed to allow banks to expand through bank holding companies, it can become a larger financial center as well," declares the KB&T chairman, who recently gave the go-ahead on a $27 million new headquarters building for the bank.

Moore says loan losses at his bank are up only slightly, with only about 3 percent past due. "Our collectors are on the phone more," he adds, "but that's our job." The loans that have been written off generally have been larger commercial loans, not personal loans.

Unlike some states in which older industries are shrinking, West Virginia is making no bold claims about how new high-technology industries will arrive to take up the slack. There are no well-known university research centers around which such industries might cluster. Nor is there a large pool of highly educated workers to fill jobs in them. West Virginia ranks near the bottom among all states in terms of the proportion of the population who are high school graduates.

Despite spending immense--for West Virginia--amounts of money on highway projects, many parts of the state are still remote and can be reached only over narrow roads that twist along narrow stream valleys or lift across a ridge.

For all the difficulty of traversing the state, it is centrally located relative to a large part of the populous Northeast and Midwest. As the state's network of interstate and Appalachian Regional highways moves forward, warehouses are springing up in Charleston to serve as distribution centers for a much larger region, according to Shearer.

Historically, West Virginia's economic growth was tied to development of the Ohio and Kanawha river valleys, with their ease of transportation, and to coal. The northern panhandle, including Wheeling and Weirton, is of a piece with neighboring Pennsylvania and Ohio--and in just as much economic trouble.

Several thousand jobs remain at stake at National Steel Corp.'s Weirton Steel division, where employes will vote soon on whether to buy the plant and try to make it profitable by accepting about a 20 percent cut in pay and benefits.

At the DuPont chemical plant in Belle outside Charleston, plant manager Robert Porter says that since the beginning of last year, employment has shrunk by about 150, to 1,550, entirely through attrition. Now about 15 more face layoffs.

Porter says the number of jobs at the plant, which was first built in 1926 to make ammonia from coal gas, will continue to go down. Today, the Belle plant, which once employed nearly 5,000 workers, still produces about half of DuPont's line of agricultural chemicals with raw materials from outside West Virginia. Its location makes it a good distribution point for the farm markets in the Southeast and in the Midwest.

For the plant to survive, Porter has had to oversee a fierce cost-cutting campaign that literally has involved tearing down part of the facility. "I can't wait for the economy to make the recovery for me, and one of the things you do is, if you have excess, you get rid of it," he declares.

Since the state's economy soured, governments at all levels have felt a pinch, too. Spending has been cut and new state taxes were passed to close a budget gap of more than $90 million, with most of the revenue coming from higher income taxes on people with above-average incomes. At the local level, the squeeze has sometimes been severe.

In Webster Springs, county seat of Webster County, where the unemployment rate in March was 28.7 percent, mayor R. J. Jorishie has watched the city's revenue-sharing money drop and the disappearance of some federal jobs money that was helping pay the police.

"Without revenue sharing, these towns can't exist," Jorishie declares. This coming fiscal year, spending will be lower for several things, with the big saving being elimination of the $10,000-a-year job held by the mayor's secretary. The secretary does not know where she can find another job when this one ends next month.

But the town has accumulated enough money over the last three years to pay its share of a new $440,000 swimming pool to be built this summer in a park at the edge of town. Most of the money will come from federal and state grants.

The pool is badly needed, Jorishie says, because there is no other recreation in the area for the county's 12,000 people. "We don't have a theater or anything else. In an area of unemployment, the young people don't have anything to do but drink and steal," he says.

Jim Mattingly, manager of Cutlips furniture and hardware store, a business operated for years by his wife's grandfather, is wondering what will happen when the miners' unemployment benefits run out. "If it hadn't been for that, and welfare, Social Security and the UMW retirement, we'd all be closed down," he says.

Mattingly, who does much of his business on credit, says he doesn't sell his accounts receiveable to a bank or finance companies. "That way I can carry you for a year without a payment if I need to," he explains. "I add the 1 1/2 percent per month service charge, of course. Right now I've got a lot of people I'm carrying.

"These folks live high on the hog when they are working. I'll get paid when they get back to work. Almost all of them pay their debts when they can," Mattingly says. So far this year he has lost about $3,000 when eight customers declared bankruptcy.

One of the reasons that the economic decline in West Virginia has been so steep likely is the fact that many of those who have lost their jobs were indeed making high wages in their industrial jobs when they were working. Average weekly earnings in coal mining in March were $557.69. In December, the average employes in the primary metals industries was even higher at $573.75. In chemicals, weekly pay averaged $518.75 at year's end.

Unemployment benefits for about 20,000 workers expired last year and many more will drop off the rolls when the latest 10-week federal extension of benefits begins to run out for some as early as next month. At the Employment Security office here, job service supervisor Helen Johnson says, "Some of these people are just desperate. They are coming to us losing their cars and homes, and they will take any $3.35 minimum wage job they can get.

"Of course, people used to be reluctant to hire miners because they knew they would go back to the mines," Johnson explains. "It's different now because the mines have been down so long, and some of the miners are looking for something they can stay with."

At the other end of the Employment Security building, where claims for benefits are filed, Gillis Cornette was waiting. Until last year, he was a mine foreman for the PG&H Coal Co. in Cabin Creek. Now his benefits are nearly gone and he has no hope of being called back to work. "I don't look for the company to last," he says in a gentle voice. "They cut back prices until they are just about giving it away."

Cornette's Beckley home is paid for, but his savings are just about gone. Neither he nor his wife, who had not worked before, can find even a minimum wage job. A son will be graduated from high school shortly. "About the only thing we can see for him is the military.

"Just about every classification in the world is out there walking the street lookin'. I'm 48 and I'm taking a lot of steps backward. Assets? They say sell 'em, but they don't want to buy them.

"What'll I do? I don't know," he says with a small smile and a shake of his head. "I just don't know."