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Braxton County


Braxton, the central county of West Virginia, was created on January 15, 1836, from Kanawha, Lewis, and Nicholas counties. It is named for Carter Braxton, a Virginia statesman and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The geographic center of West Virginia is located in Braxton County, south of Flatwoods, about five miles southeast of Sutton and four miles west of Centralia, in the Elk River Wildlife Management Area. The first permanent European-American settlers in the county are believed to have been members of the Carpenter family, who settled at the mouth of Holly River in the 1780s.

Braxton’s 516.7 square miles embrace the rolling central highlands of the state at elevations ranging from 760 feet to 2,180 feet. The county seat, Sutton, is named for founder John D. Sutton, who gave one acre of ground in 1836 for a public square. Part of the town was burned on December 29, 1861, by withdrawing Confederate forces during the Civil War.

In addition to Sutton, other municipalities include Gassaway, Burnsville, and Flatwoods. Gassaway is named for Henry Gassaway Davis, a U.S. senator and industrialist. Gassaway was a major division point on Davis’s Coal & Coke Railway, built between Charleston and Elkins in the early 1900s. It remained a railroad freight station until the depot was closed by CSX in 1988. From the early 1900s to the late 1950s, major shops were located at Gassaway for railroad cars and locomotives, and for repairing cabooses. Burnsville is named for John Burns, who operated the first sawmill in that section of the state. Flatwoods is a thriving complex of restaurants, motels, a factory outlet mall, and other businesses on Interstate 79.

Braxton County is bisected by Interstate 79. Four-lane U.S. 19, a busy north-south artery, connects with I-79 near Sutton and carries traffic to the West Virginia Turnpike (Interstate 77-64) at Beckley. Together, these roads funnel thousands of travelers through the county daily.

The principal streams are the Elk, Little Kanawha, Holly, Birch, and Little Birch rivers. The Elk flows for 40 miles through Braxton on its way to Charleston. In 1961, the Army Corps of Engineers completed a dam on Elk River at Sutton, impounding 1,520 surface acres of water at summer pool stage. Another dam was completed on the Little Kanawha River at Burnsville in 1978, impounding 968 acres. These two lakes and associated campgrounds have become popular recreational attractions. Bulltown Historic Area, which is part of the Burnsville Reservoir project, is the site of the massacre of Captain Bull’s band of Delaware Indians by frontiersmen in 1772 and of a Civil War skirmish in 1863. The Bulltown complex includes the 19th-century Cunningham-Skinner farm where Civil War troops camped; a section of the Weston & Gauley Bridge Turnpike; the relocated St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church; and an interpretive center.

Other attractions include the 18,225-acre Elk River Wildlife Management Area, the 12,579-acre Burnsville Lake Wildlife Management Area, and 4-H Camp Holly Gray, which hosts regional horse shows.

Rural Braxton’s population, never high, peaked at 23,973 in 1920 and was still more than 21,000 just prior to World War II. The number of Braxton Countians dropped below 14,000 in the 1970 census, following a decline that began in the 1950s. With the coming of new highways and new businesses, Braxton’s population rose again to 14,468 in 2012 but had declined to 12,447 by 2020.

The county’s economy is founded on wood products, natural gas, conventions and tourism, and, until recent years, coal mining. The largest employers are, respectively, the county school system, Walmart, Central West Virginia Aging Service, Weyerhaeuser Natural Resources, and Go-Mart. In addition, Appalachian Timber Services, Pioneer Division of Coastal Lumber Company, and various sawmills are keeping Braxton’s timbering tradition alive. Medical services also employ many people. Braxton County Memorial Hospital, which opened in 1981, is a member of the WVU Medicine system.

There are six elementary schools, a middle school, and the consolidated Braxton County High School, which opened in 1969. There are public libraries at Sutton, Gassaway, and Burnsville. The county has two banks, City National Bank of West Virginia and Bank of Gassaway. Both have multiple branches in the county. Braxton County Airport, located three miles east of Sutton, has a 4,000-foot lighted runway.

Prominent personalities who were born in Braxton or grew up in the county include Adm. Chester R. Bender (1914–96), former U.S. Coast Guard commandant; Susanne Fisher (1903–91), Metropolitan Opera singer; and Danny Heater, who scored 135 points for Burnsville High School in a basketball game in 1960, setting a national single-game record.

Braxton has several structures on the National Register of Historic Places: the original Sutton High School, Windy Run School at Tesla, Gassaway train depot, the old bridge over the Little Kanawha at Burnsville, and the Cunningham Farmstead. Also on the register are the Sutton Downtown Historic District, the Bulltown Historic Area, which includes a 10-mile stretch of the Weston and Gauley Bridge Turnpike, and Civil War Union Trenches and Confederate Trenches.

Written by Skip Johnson


  1. Sutton, John D. History of Braxton County and Central West Virginia. Parsons: McClain, 1919, Reprint, McClain, 1967.

  2. West Virginia Blue Book. Senate Clerk, State of West Virginia. Charleston, 1997.