Situated on a level, curving terrace high above the New River, just downstream from its confluence with the Greenbrier, Hinton has an urbanity that contrasts sharply with the steep, forested mountains surrounding it. It is compact in the manner of European towns, containing solid blocks of buildings lining brickpaved streets arranged in a grid pattern. Bennett R. Dunn, civil engineer for Colis P. Huntington's Central Land Company, a subsidiary of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company, devised the 1873–1874 town plan, which incorporates convenient east-west alleys bisecting the rectangular blocks.
Before the railroad's arrival, the Hinton and Ballangee (or Ballengee) families owned the land on which the city is sited. The railroad purchased the site for a division terminal in 1871, the same year the act establishing Summers County directed that its “county seat … shall be at the mouth of Greenbrier River.” Hinton's dual role as railroad terminal and county seat dates from its establishment. Development proceeded rapidly, and Episcopal bishop George W. Peterkin, who visited in 1882, declared “the town seemed quite a city.”
Hinton grew steadily from the 1870s until 1930, when it achieved a population of 6,654. The city's architectural character was established during these years, and although Frank Pierce Milburn (1868–1926), a well-known southern architect, designed the Summers County Courthouse and Hotel McCreery, most of the architects of Hinton's buildings hailed from Charleston or Huntington. Hinton's consistent scale and middle-class solidity, however, are more important than its individual buildings. Although there are examples of Second Empire, American Foursquare, and Georgian Revival styles, most of the houses are simple, two-story frame structures with little pretension to stylistic identity. A notable feature is the great number of front porches, often of two stories.
Hinton's “civic center,” overlooking the New River, occupies a three-acre block of the original town plat that the C&O donated to the county in 1873. South of the courthouse, Bennett Dunn's grid pattern intersects with streets laid out on a different grid for a rival early town, Avis, which is now part of Hinton. Here, in a small triangular park formed by the intersecting grids, is the Confederate monument, a metal statue of a soldier standing on a base embellished with a bust of Robert E. Lee. The monument also memorializes the “Noble Women of the Confederacy,” who, according to the inscription, “suffered more and lost as much, with less lory, than the Confederate Soldier.”
In 1941 the WPA's West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain Statedeclared that Hinton's citizens were more familiar with “the schedule, running time and past records” of the C&O “than with the arrangement of furniture in their own parlors. They honor the grizzled engineer and the weather-beaten brakeman above all men.” Engineers and brakemen have all but disappeared in recent years, and Hinton's 2000 population of 2,880 is less than half the number counted seventy years earlier. Along with cutbacks in the coal and lumber industries, which also played a vital role in Hinton's economy, reduction of the railroad's labor force was a blow from which the city has never recovered. Hinton now focuses its renewal efforts on preserving and promoting its railroad heritage, though much remains to be accomplished.
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