This four-county area lies in the Upper Kanawha Valley, with West Virginia's capital city, Charleston, at its heart. Historically, economically, industrially, and architecturally, this is one of West Virginia's most important regions. The Kanawha River, the state's major inland waterway, is a continuation of the New River, which changes its name after the Gauley River flows into it at Gauley Bridge in Fayette County. From earliest times the river was a major commercial and transportation route. Salt, the first major product it carried, became the mainstay of the valley's economy soon after the area was settled, and it continued as such until the Civil War. The industry was centered at Kanawha Salines (now Malden), but many early entrepreneurs chose to live downstream (and, more important, upwind) in Charleston, away from the noise, dirt, and odors the operations engendered. Malden, along with a string of other small towns on both banks of the Kanawha upstream from Charleston, including Cedar Grove, East Bank, and Pratt, still maintain evidence of their past in a smattering of early houses and churches. South and west, downstream from Charleston, the Kanawha valley's industrial nature predominates. Many river towns here experienced their greatest growth because of World War I.
Charleston's architectural resources are commensurate with its role as West Virginia's capital city. Although established late in the eighteenth century, Charleston grew slowly during its first fifty years, but once it was designated the state capital (even more important, once it secured that designation against rival Wheeling the second time around), the city grew rapidly. Charleston has numerous commercial blocks dating from the late nineteenth century and a wealth of financial institutions housed in impressive structures. The city also contains the full range of domestic architectural styles popular from the mid-nineteenth century onward. South Hills, West Virginia's premier example of an upper-class residential suburb, lies just across the river from downtown. Many South Hills mansions enjoy views of the West Virginia State Capitol, Charleston's architectural cynosure. Magnificently sited on the northern bank of the Kanawha, this undisputed masterpiece by Cass Gilbert has been perfectly maintained and preserved since its completion in September 1932. It stands as the state's major architectural symbol and one of its proudest achievements.
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