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South Charleston

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This geographically challenged industrial community (it is actually located west-northwest of Charleston rather than to its south) is West Virginia's eleventh-largest city, with a 2000 population of 13,390. It dates from 1906, when former governor William MacCorkle and others formed the Kanawha Land Company and purchased 1,797 acres for a town site on the southern bank of the Kanawha. Two years later, Manufacturers Recordobserved that “where only a year ago there were merely fields of grain and meadows, there are now nearly 100 substantial houses.” Between 1909 and 1913, a streetcar connecting the community to Charleston and the opening of a major chemical plant spurred further growth.

It took World War I to put South Charleston on the map. In April 1917, the U.S. Navy selected the Charleston area over 100 competing locales nationwide as the site of a navy armor plant and projectile factory, known collectively as the Naval Ordnance Plant. A 200-plus-acre tract was purchased at the western edge of South Charleston, and construction commenced in October.

The government also provided housing. In 1918 the Labor Department selected the New York firm of Godley, Haskell and Sedgewick as architects, with James L. Greenleaf, also of New York, as town planner and engineer for this aspect of the project. Another New York firm, Willis-Egelhof Company, won the contract to erect eighty-five houses, all of terra-cotta covered with stucco, to accommodate 118 families. The sixteen-acre enclave, named Armor Park, was located west of the plant on the southern bank of the Kanawha. The November 1918 issue of Architectural Forumlauded the development as having “received the most careful study and adjustment, that it might, on the one hand, conform to local preferences and habits of living, and, on the other, show the local habit the better way of a combined utility and architectural quality and distinction.” Designed to house “higher grades of the mechanical and clerical forces,” Armor Park was an impressive accomplishment, but a quarter-century later, the 1941 WPA-sponsored guide to West Virginia denigrated the complex, then “occupied by civilians,” as “rows of two-story stucco houses lining several concrete avenues.” The development was demolished in the 1990s to make way for a shopping mall.

South Charleston received its independent charter in 1917, and though the armor plant closed temporarily in 1922, the city welcomed another major industry in 1925 when the Carbide and Carbon Chemicals Company opened its operations. A year later, the company purchased twenty-two-acre Blaine Island as a site for its plant. Now organized as Union Carbide Corporation, this industrial giant has continued to expand its operations and facilities, which include a campus-like technical center overlooking the city from a hill to the south.

In World War II the armor plant, which the National Youth Administration had commandeered during the Depression, was reactivated. To accommodate this second influx of workers, new housing developments were established at Montrose and at Rock Lake Village, both on hills to the south of the city's commercial and industrial area. In 1955 the armor plant closed for good, but many of its huge warehouses survive as part of the Charleston Ordnance Center, an industrial park located near the center of town between MacCorkle Avenue and I-64.

More than any other municipality in Capital Center, South Charleston was responsible for Kanawha Valley's designation as “Magic Valley,” and its industrial growth continues. It may come as a surprise then, that the major point of historical interest is not one of the newest, but one of the oldest, landmarks in West Virginia, the South Charleston Mound ( KA16).

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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