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Bluefield

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Coal and the Norfolk & Western Railroad gave birth to Bluefield, once the metropolis of southern West Virginia. As coal production increased in the Pocahontas field in the 1880s, the railroad began to need space for shops and a freight yard—the first to repair engines, the second to combine short trains from individual mines into longer, more economical units to transport coal to Norfolk. Higgenbotham Hill in Mercer County, some eight miles southeast of the coalfield, was the highest point on the line, and the railroad selected it because of its potential for a gravity switching operation. By 1889 the N&W had built houses for workers, the Bluefield Inn, and a roundhouse, scale houses, shops, yards, and offices for its Pocahontas Division headquarters. The settlement, known earlier as Summit, was incorporated as Bluefield, named after the fields of native chicory that bloomed throughout the area.

Bluefield soon became the regional supplier to the surrounding coalfields. Jobbing houses, where wholesale goods were stored until needed by company stores, grew up alongside the railroad, as did banks, hardware stores, and building suppliers. In August 1891 Manufacturers Recordtouted the new community:

There are several substantial store buildings in course of erection.… Streets being macadamized, Bluefield Inn … has been enlarged by a large billiard room and quite a number of guests' rooms. The elegant new passenger station is completed … a magnificent structure of native sandstone, of colonial architecture,… the most extensive station on the road west of Lynchburg. Take it all around the Summit City with that magnificent corporation and town builder, the Norfolk & Western Railroad, at the back of it, is about as solid as any of its neighbors, and her people are contented.

The town attracted the services of architects throughout the region and beyond. In 1894 Frank E. Davis of Baltimore provided plans for the first school, the same year that Lynchburg's Edward G. Frye designed a store and office for L. Lazarus and Company. A. P. Gladden, formerly of Grafton, relocated to Bluefield in 1896 and designed a $12,000 opera house, sponsored by “Baltimore capitalists.” The Clarksburg firm of Holmboe and Lafferty established a branch office and designed several stores, houses, and the First Baptist Church, while Roanoke architect Henry H. Huggins designed the First Presbyterian Church. In 1907 the City and Coalfield Directorylisted Holmboe and Lafferty, T. T. Carter, and W. E. and E. L. Shufflebarger as resident architects.

In 1912 Manufacturers Recordreported that the city's Masonic lodge was “having plans prepared by Miller and Mahood [of Roanoke] for office, store and lodge building.” That short notice introduces a man who, more than anyone else, came to be identified with Bluefield and coal country architecture and who almost singlehandedly gave his adopted city an architectural suavity that belied its size and age. Alex B. (Alexander Blount) Mahood (1888–1970), born in Lynchburg, Virginia, was the son of Sallie Lee Mahood, an artist who taught at that city's Randolph-Macon Woman's College. After graduating from Lynchburg's public schools, he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, enrolling in the Chifflot and Duquesne ateliers. He then returned to Virginia and worked as a draftsman in various architecture firms, including Frye and Chesterman, Henry H. Huggins, and Homer M. Miller, all of whom had offices in Roanoke and commissions in Bluefield. As junior partner in the firm of Miller and Mahood, the twenty-four-year-old architect arrived in Bluefield in February 1912 to supervise construction of the Law and Commerce Building ( ME10) and decided to remain. During his early Bluefield years he was associated with Frederick C. Van Dusen. He soon began an independent practice and worked from his penthouse studio atop the Law and Commerce Building until his death in 1970. The Eastern Regional Coal Archives in Bluefield's Craft Memorial Library preserves an almost complete collection of his drawings, along with many specifications and office records.

Mahood's career was paralleled by the architectural partnership of Martin F. Garry and Robert A. Sheffey, which lasted from 1920 until 1941. All participated in Bluefield's building boom of the 1920s. During this heady decade, Bluefield was the commercial center of the nation's greatest nonunion coalfield and, according to the 1920 census, had become West Virginia's seventh-largest city, with a population of 15,282. Mahood's twelve-story West Virginian Hotel ( ME9) epitomized the enthusiasm of the decade. Built in 1923, it is still the tallest building in coal country.

The Great Depression hit Bluefield hard, but a number of WPA construction projects provided relief and employment. World War II brought prosperity again, as the Pocahontas coalfields geared up to meet the nation's (and world's) increased demands for fuel. Postwar prosperity brought a new office building for the railroad ( ME14) and a new municipal parking garage ( ME8) for the city. One of the earliest structures of its kind in the country, the garage was touted as a model for other cities and bolstered Bluefield's claim of having the nation's highest per-capita car ownership. The 1950 census provided further proof of the city's postwar growth, counting a population of 21,506. Bluefield was still the state's seventhlargest city, but the 1950 figure would prove to be the largest ever attained.

Later developments in the two industries that gave birth to Bluefield have adversely affected its economy. Oil and electricity replaced coal as the major sources of power for homes and industries, and in the 1950s the N&W switched from coal- to diesel-powered locomotives. As miners were laid off in the coalfields, company towns began to disappear, eventually eliminating Bluefield's role as a distribution center. Alex Mahood's West Virginia Hotel became a retirement home for senior citizens in the 1970s, and now Beckley, sixty-one miles north of Bluefield and more conveniently located at the intersection of two interstate highways, has become the region's largest urban center.

Bluefield's architectural riches, some of them a bit tarnished now, are still considerable, and a declining population has at least ensured that few of its important structures have been demolished in the last several decades for new construction. Bluefield's 2000 population of 11,451 made it the state's fourteenth-largest municipality.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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