Beckley is the county seat and largest town in Raleigh County. It is situated in the central part of the county on a high plateau at an elevation of about 2,400 feet. Located near the intersection of three major highways (Interstates 64 and 77, and U.S. 19), Beckley developed from a small agricultural settlement into a commercial hub for the surrounding West Virginia coalfields and now has an economy based primarily on retail, service, and tourism. Its 2010 population was 17,614.
The town was founded by Gen. Alfred Beckley. He named the town for his father, John Beckley, the first clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives and the first Librarian of Congress. The town of Beckley was established in 1838 by an act of the Virginia General Assembly that authorized Alfred Beckley to lay out a town on 30 acres of his property lying at the 23rd mile marker of the old Bluestone Road. In 1850, Raleigh County was created, and Beckley was named the county seat. Development was slow. During the Civil War both Union and Confederate forces occupied the community, and in 1863 Union troops shelled the town, killing a small girl.
Mining of Raleigh County’s rich bituminous coal deposits began in the 1890s, and a branch of the C&O finally reached Beckley in 1901. The opening of the great Winding Gulf coalfield in 1907, virtually on Beckley’s doorstep, spurred growth. After the Virginian Railway began building a new line in 1908 to the ports of Virginia, coal production doubled and then tripled within a few years.
Development of the coalfields brought an influx of population. The number of inhabitants rose from 342 in 1900 to 2,161 in 1910. Homes, businesses, schools, and churches were built. In 1906, Beckley’s first theater, the Carter Opera House, opened with a production of The Merry Widow. Street paving began in 1916.
Beckley’s fortunes fluctuated with those of the coal industry. While the city suffered less during the Depression of the 1930s than other parts of the state, coal prices declined and mines closed throughout southern West Virginia. World War II brought an increased demand for coal, but after the war shrinking markets and depleted coal seams created new hardships. Construction of the West Virginia Turnpike, completed from Charleston to Beckley and Princeton in the early ’50s, provided an economic boost, and the energy crisis of the 1970s created new demands for coal. Coal production continued to be the mainstay of the region’s economy into the 1980s, when increasing mechanization led to the loss of thousands of mining jobs. Beckley weathered the subsequent economic downturn more successfully than smaller communities. The city’s location at the junction of two interstate highways acted as a magnet for new business investment, and in the 1990s Beckley again became one of the state’s fastest-growing areas.
Beckley is the birthplace of two West Virginia governors, Clarence W. Meadows (1945–49) and Hulett C. Smith (1965–69). It is home to Mountain State University, founded as Beckley College in 1933, with the National Mine Health and Safety Academy and the Appalachian Bible College nearby. The city’s four hospitals are Beckley Appalachian Regional Hospital, Raleigh General Hospital, the Veteran’s Administration Regional Medical Center, and the Jackie Withrow Hospital (formerly Pinecrest State Hospital). Beckley has three radio stations, a public television station, and a daily newspaper, the Register-Herald, with a circulation of 27,737. The area is served by one airline from the Raleigh County Memorial Airport.
The Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine is located at the city’s New River Park, along with the Youth Museum of Southern West Virginia. Tamarack, a showcase for West Virginia arts and crafts, is located at a nearby turnpike exit. Grandview Park and Twin Falls State Park, Lake Stephens, and Winterplace ski resort are nearby. Theatre West Virginia produces two annual outdoor musical dramas at nearby Grandview, Honey in the Rock and Hatfields & McCoys. Wildwood, the home of Gen. Alfred Beckley, has been restored and is now operated as a house museum.
This Article was written by Margo Stafford
Last Revised on February 11, 2013
Klaus, Fran & Pauline Haga. Looking Back: A Pictorial History of Beckley. Beckley: Beckley Main Street, 1991.
Warren, Harlow. Beckley U.S.A. Beckley: 1955.