Photo courtesy of West Virginia Division of Tourism Capitol 2005. Charleston, WV

 

Capitol City ~ Charleston, West Virginia

 

Wild and Untamed Frontier

After the revolutionary war, pioneers began making their way out from the early settlements. Many slowly migrated into the western part of Virginia. A virtual wilderness, the land had to be tamed and made suitable for inhabitants.  Capitalizing on its many resources made Charleston an important part of Virginia and West Virginia history. Today, Charleston is the largest city in the state, the state capital.

Charleston's history is rich and vibrant, going back more than 200 years. The Bullitt family was deeded 1,250 acres of land near the mouth of the Elk River in 1774.  The land was later sold to Col. George Clendenin in 1786. The first permanent settlement, Fort Lee, was built in 1788 by Col. Clendenin and his company of Virginia Rangers. This structure occupied the area that is now the intersection of Brooks Street and Kanawha Boulevard. Historical conjecture indicates that Charleston is named after Col. Clendenin's father, Charles. Charles Town was later shortened to Charleston to avoid confusion with another Charleston Town in present day West Virginia

Six years later, the Virginia General Assembly officially established Charleston. On the 40 acres that made up the town in 1794, 35 people inhabited seven houses.

Charleston is part of Kanawha County. The origin of the word Kanawha (pronounced KAN-A-WA) comes from a West Indian Arawak word for dugout.  In fact, a two-story jail was the first county structure ever built. The first floor literally dug into the bank of the Kanawha River.

Daniel Boone, who was commissioned a lieutenant colonel of the Kanawha County militia, was elected to serve in 1791 in the Virginia House of Delegates. As told in historical accounts, Boone walked all the way to Richmond.

Early Industrial Boom

By the early 1800s, salt brines were discovered along the Kanawha River and the first salt well was drilled in 1806. This created a prosperous time and great economic growth for the area. By 1808, 1,250 pounds of salt were being produced a day. An area adjacent to Charleston, Kanawha Salines, now Malden, would become the top salt producer in the world. In 1818, Kanawha Salt Company, first trust in United States, went into operation.

Captain James Wilson, while drilling for salt, would strike the first natural gas well in 1815. It was drilled at the site that is now the junction of Brooks Street and Kanawha Boulevard (near the present-day state capitol complex.)

In 1817, coal was first discovered and gradually became used as the fuel for the salt works.

 

West Virginia Becomes a State

The town would continue to grow until the Civil War began in 1861. The state of Virginia seceded from the Union, and Charleston was divided between Union and Confederate loyalty. On September 13, 1862, the Battle of Charleston was fought. Although the Confederate Army was victorious, occupation of the city was short-lived. Union troops returned just six weeks later and stayed through the end of the war. By the time the Civil War ended, the salt industry in Kanawha Valley was virtually gone.

The Northern hold on Charleston and most of the western part of Virginia created an even larger problem. Virginia already had seceded from the Union, but the western part was under Union control. The issue of statehood was raised.

So amid the tumultuous Civil War, West Virginia officially became a state through Presidential Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln declared the northwestern portion of Virginia to be returned to the Union, and on June 20, 1863, West Virginia became the 35th state.
 

Deciding on a Permanent Capital

Although the state now existed, settling on a state capital location proved to be difficult.  For several years, the capital of West Virginia intermittently traveled between Wheeling and Charleston. In 1877, however, state citizens voted on the final location of their capital. Charleston was chosen and eight years later, the first capitol building was opened.

After a fire in 1921, a hastily built structure was opened but burned down in 1927. However, a Capitol Building Commission, created by the Legislature in 1921, authorized construction of the present capitol. Architect Cass Gilbert designed the buff limestone structure that was to have a final cost of just under $10 million. After the three stages of construction were completed, Governor William G. Conley dedicated the capitol on June 20, 1932.

 

The Early 1900s

Charleston was now the center for state government. Natural resources, such as coal and gas, along with railroad expansion also contributed to a prosperous time.  New industries, such as chemical, glass, timber and steel migrated to the state, attracted by the area's natural resources. There was a huge amount of new construction in Charleston.  A number of those buildings, including churches and office buildings, still stand in the heart of downtown along and bordering Capitol Street.

Hamilton & Bailey Saloon on Kanawha St., circa 1920

 

Mid Century Progress

            During World War II, the first and largest synthetic rubber plant in the U.S. opened near Charleston, providing vital products to the war effort. After the war ended, Charleston was on the brink of some significant construction. One of the first during this period was Yeager Airport, which was perhaps one of the most phenomenal engineering accomplishments of its time. Built in 1947, the construction encompassed clearing 360 acres on three mountaintops moving more than nine million cubic yards of earth.

In 1959, the Charleston Civic Center opened its door. It stands today, totally renovated and providing the largest meeting and exhibit space available in the Charleston area.

            In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway
Act. Charleston became part of that system in the 1960s when three major interstate systems—I-64, I-77 and I-79 were constructed, all converging in the heart of Charleston. These roads provide convenient access to Midwestern, Eastern and Southern cities. Charleston is within a day's drive of 60 percent of the U.S. population.
 

80s and 90s

            In 1983, the Charleston Town Center Mall opened its doors. It was the largest urban mall east of the Mississippi River, boasting three stories of shops and eateries. Downtown revitalization began in earnest in the 1980s as well. Funds were set aside for streetscaping and many small businesses began to open. Today, Capitol Street, Hale Street, and other bordering streets are an eclectic mixture of restaurants, shops, businesses and services that is many call the centerpiece of downtown.

            The new Robert C. Byrd Federal Building, Haddad Riverfront Park and Capitol Market are just a few new developments that have helped growth in the downtown area during the 1990s. Charleston also became known as one of the premiere healthcare spots in the state. Along with ambitious thinking, plans for even new entertainment and business venues kept Charleston moving along at a steady pace.

            Many festivals and events were also incorporated into the calendar, including Multifest, Vandalia Festival and the already popular Sternwheel Regatta, which was founded in 1970, provided a festive atmosphere for residents to enjoy.   

 

The Next 100 YearsDowntown Charleston skyline

The new millennium will see many projects completed and fresh ideas on the horizon. Charleston's newest downtown addition is the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of WV. It brings a new home for the West Virginia Symphony, a planetarium, exhibits, discovery museum and more.

Charleston is a cultural Mecca for the state and offers a wide variety of urban amenities, entertainment, shopping, and more. Future enhancements and improvements are expected along with a determination to keep Charleston as the model city for all of West Virginia.