Princeton was chartered in 1837, and by 1845 contained about a dozen houses. Retreating Confederate troops burned the village during the Civil War, leaving only a few vestiges of its earliest history. During the latter part of the nineteenth century other towns vied for the honor of becoming the Mercer county seat, but none succeeded for long. In one election, Princeton's 150 registered voters cast 818 ballots and, remarkably, no fraud was ever proved.
In April 1909 Manufacturers Recordreported that Princeton had suddenly changed “from a sleepy, unprogressive old-time agricultural town … into … a wide-awake railroad city.” Indeed, 1909 was an important year in Princeton's history. The town was incorporated as a city that year, and the Virginian Railway completed its line from Deep Water in Fayette County to Norfolk, a distance of 446 miles. The Virginian's tracks were specifically engineered and graded so that the run from Princeton to Norfolk was almost entirely downhill. This enabled numerous small coal trains to be combined at the Princeton yards into phenomenally long ones for the eastward run and necessitated huge railyards.
With the railroad, Princeton's population doubled from a 1910 figure of 3,027 to a 1920 count of 6,224. But while Princeton grew with the railroad, it did so in an unorthodox, extruded fashion. Yards and shops were located on level lands far east of the courthouse, in an area since denominated East Princeton. A new commercial center, downtown, grew up around the railroad depot, while the older commercial area around the courthouse square became known as uptown.
In recent years the Mercer Mall, midway between Princeton and Bluefield, has superseded both earlier centers of retail trade. The Virginian Railway merged with the Norfolk & Western in 1959 and no longer plays a role in Princeton's economic life. With modest ups and downs in ensuing decades, the city's population was 6,347 in 2000.
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