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Charleston, the capital of West Virginia and the state’s biggest city, is situated on the Kanawha River at the mouth of Elk River, at an elevation ranging from 597 to 1,167 feet. It is the county seat of Kanawha County.

Evidence of early prehistoric people was once widespread in the area, particularly in the forms of burial mounds. However, most of these mounds and other prehistoric features were destroyed by modern development.

In 1771, hunters John Yeager, George Strader, and 16-year-old Simon Kenton set up camp near the mouth of the Elk. They trapped in the area until 1773, when they were attacked by Indians. Kenton and Strader escaped, but Yeager was killed. In 1775, Thomas Bullitt surveyed a 1,030-acre tract that encompassed much of present downtown Charleston. Bullitt had been awarded the land for service in the French and Indian War.

The first settlers arrived in April 1788 and built Fort Lee by the Kanawha River near the present downtown. Their leader was George Clendenin. In December 1794, the Virginia General Assembly designated a 40-acre tract of Clendenin’s land a town. Originally known as Charlestown for Clendenin’s father, Charles, the name later was shortened to Charleston. Daniel Boone was among the early residents, serving as a Kanawha County delegate in the Virginia General Assembly in 1791.

The local salt industry helped to build Charleston’s early economy. Elisha Brooks is credited with building the first salt furnace in 1797. Eventually, salt works dotted the south side of the river in what is now Charleston’s Kanawha City neighborhood, and upstream on both sides of the river. Other industries grew to serve the salt business, including the construction of flatboats and the making of barrels.

Local families enriched by the salt industry include such prominent names as the Dickinsons, Shrewsburys, Ruffners, Noyeses, Brookses, Donnallys, and others, for whom many of Charleston’s streets are named. Salt maker Daniel Ruffner built Charleston’s oldest standing building, Holly Grove.

The salt furnaces were labor intensive. Many enslaved men labored in the industry, making Kanawha County an exception to the fact that Western Virginia had relatively few slaves. In 1850, there were as many as 1,500 slaves at the salt works, owned by the salt barons or leased from other owners.

The first steamboat arrived in 1820. Those elegant river queens opened up the sleepy little village to the sophisticated society of big cities along the Ohio River. The James River & Kanawha Turnpike, linking Charleston with Tidewater Virginia along the route of present U.S. 60, was completed in the 1820s.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the ease of river access to Union-held Ohio and the difficulty of traveling overland to Old Virginia doomed Confederate attempts to secure the Kanawha Valley. After the brief Battle of Scary Creek, west of Charleston, the Yankees occupied the valley. On September 13, 1862, the last real attempt to return Charleston to the South resulted in a hard-fought battle and hasty retreat by the federal troops. But the Confederates could not hold the town and fell back on October 29, never to return. At the beginning of the war, Charleston was a Virginia town with much sentiment for the Southern cause. The city produced Col. George S. Patton and the Kanawha Riflemen, who were among the best soldiers in the Confederate Army. (Patton was the grandfather of Gen. George S. Patton of World War II.) The Civil War in Charleston led to bitter divisions as many clung to Virginia while others took the Union side.

After the Civil War, a group of influential Democratic politicians, many of them ex-Confederates, was successful in having the capital of the new state of West Virginia moved from Wheeling to Charleston on March 28, 1870. In 1875, political rivalry between Charleston and Wheeling resulted in moving the capital back to Wheeling. The government was returned to Charleston after a statewide referendum, and in 1885 it was there to stay. A beautiful Victorian capitol, located in the city’s downtown, went up in flames in January 1921. Government leaders engaged architect Cass Gilbert to design the present Italian Renaissance-style building. Dedicated in 1932, it remains Charleston’s great landmark.

The arrival of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in 1873 on the south side of the Kanawha River, and the 1884 completion of the Kanawha & Ohio (later Kanawha & Michigan and then New York Central) on the north side, linked Charleston with the growing national rail network. The first bridge across the Kanawha was built in Charleston in 1891. An era of growth and wealth ensued, as numerous industries located near the resources and transportation. In the first half of the 20th century, the city served as a mercantile and banking center for the rich coalfields of the southern part of the state. Between 1880 and 1930, the city’s population grew from 4,192 to 60,408. By the end of World War II, Charleston was a powerhouse of industrial might, with local firms including Union Carbide, DuPont, Libbey-Owens-Ford, Owens-Illinois, True Temper, and others.

Kanawha Airport (now Yeager Airport) opened in 1947, adjacent to Coonskin Park, a 1,000-acre recreation area. Completed in the 1970s, Interstates 64, 77, and 79 intersect in Charleston. The Charleston Area Medical Center, created in 1972 by consolidating the community’s major hospitals, provides a full range of hospital care for southern West Virginia and, by affiliating with other health care facilities across the state, has become one of West Virginia’s largest employers.

Charleston undertook an urban renewal program beginning in the 1960s. The plan was criticized by some for the displacement of minority neighborhoods, particularly in the Triangle District, and occasional insensitivity to historic areas. After this mass demolition of buildings, it took many years for these sections of town to bounce back, and a number of vacant lots still exist from this time. Town Center Mall, which opened in 1983, kept the retail tax base within city limits, and the old Capitol Street shopping district was later renovated for offices and restaurants.

Since 1935, the city has been home to the University of Charleston (formerly Morris Harvey College). Municipal Auditorium, a landmark art moderne structure built in 1939, continues as a cornerstone of the city’s culture and entertainment community. The huge Civic Center brings sports events, concerts, and other large shows to town. The Culture Center opened on the State Capitol Complex in 1976. It is home to the state archives and museum and the Mountain Stage radio program. It also hosts the annual Vandalia Gathering. The magnificent Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences opened in 2003. The center, home to the West Virginia Symphony, features an art museum as well as science exhibits and a planetarium. The Charleston Ballet has been part of the community since 1956. Across town, the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse added another architectural monument to the city in 1998.

From 1971 to 2009, thousands attended the annual Sternwheel Regatta, celebrating the city’s long river history. In 2022, the event returned to enthusiastic crowds. In 2004, the city began hosting FestivALL, a series of art and music street fairs held throughout the year, as well as a regular ArtWalk.

Charleston has lost population in recent decades. The number of Charlestonians peaked at 85,796 in 1960 and had fallen to 48,864 in 2020, including an 8.5 percent decline since 2000. Much of this was due to significantly declining employment in the Kanawha Valley’s chemical industry as well as the out-migration trend that has affected much of West Virginia. Nonetheless, Charleston remains West Virginia’s center of government and business, whose people see it as a beautiful, vibrant city with a future.

This Article was written by Richard A. Andre

Last Revised on September 29, 2023

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Cite This Article

Andre, Richard A. "Charleston." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 29 September 2023. Web. 20 April 2024.

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