Set in a broad bowl-shaped valley at the confluence of the Jackson River and Dunlap Creek, Covington is visually dominated by the huge Westvaco (AL13) processing facilities that lie just outside its boundaries. Covington's roots reach back to 1818, when real estate speculators and brothers Samuel and James Merry platted a one-hundred-and-twenty-lot rectangular town grid that today forms the nucleus of the downtown. Since 1822, Covington has also served as the seat of Alleghany County.
Viewed from its earliest era as a potentially vital transportation link in the westward expansion of settlement and industry, Covington became a major inland port only after the Civil War. The merging of two regional rail networks at Covington in the 1870s, linking the James River and its port of Richmond with the Ohio River and the Mississippi River beyond, initiated a growth spurt in the town. Capitalists eager to exploit the abundant mineral and timber resources of the region flooded into Covington. Between 1890 and 1900 Covington's population expanded from 700 to 3,000, and nearly doubled again by 1920. Iron furnaces, tanneries, machine shops, planing mills, and the pulpwood processing plant of Westvaco generated this growth. A commercial district, punctuated by public buildings and churches, developed along Main Street. Dominated by two- and three-story masonry buildings, the commercial downtown was complemented by a nearby railroad depot and railroad-oriented businesses. Although the buildings are stylistically similar to those in many communities of its vintage, one Covington-specific detail is the widespread adoption of pebble-dash stucco as an exterior treatment. This material was used in the early decades of the twentieth century for new construction and to resurface older buildings. Along Main Street, reproduction “Covington” street lamps (replicas of c. 1900 standards) were installed in 1989 as part of the community's ongoing downtown revitalization efforts. Interstate 64, constructed in the 1960s, passes just to the south of Covington, which has inevitably caused a shift in the town's growth and commercial activity toward the highway.
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