In 1888 Captain Isaiah Arnold Welch, geologist, explorer, and pioneer developer of West Virginia's southern coalfields, paid a dollar an acre, throwing in his sorrel mare to seal the bargain, for a 100-acre tract at the confluence of Tug River and Elkhorn Creek. In 1891 the Norfolk & Western Railway reached his property, and a year later the settlement that had grown at the site was declared the McDowell County seat. The town of Welch was incorporated in 1894, and construction was begun on the courthouse. Welch soon became a major civic, commercial, banking, and entertainment center for the rapidly developing coalfields.
Landon C. Bell, one of many lawyers who helped settle the area's notoriously confused property titles for the coal companies, described Welch in the winter of 1903 as having “about twelve hundred inhabitants [with] scarcely enough room to expand any more.” He was wrong. After the narrow, level valley was filled, houses were built on the surrounding slopes, and many a miner earned extra income by building foundations, locally termed “rock work.” Years later, in his 1954 autobiography, Southsider, Bell recalled that often “the foundation for a house built on the steep mountainside cost more than the entire structure erected upon the foundation, and the foundation wall from the earth to the joists for the first floor—was often higher than the wall of the largest and highest-pitched room.”
Architects from near and far designed Welch's buildings. A Philadelphia firm designed the McDowell County National Bank ( MD10), established in 1900 as a branch of the Bank of Bramwell. Hassel Thomas Hicks (1895–1952), a 1918 graduate of Virginia Military Institute, moved to Welch from Williamson in 1924 and became the city's leading architect during the prosperous 1920s. Eleven years later, in responding to a questionnaire that his alma mater has retained in its alumni files, Hicks noted that he had designed “many fine buildings … not only in Welch but covering a radius of 100 miles … from the mining tipple to the stately columns of memorials.” Having graduated with a degree in engineering, he felt “that the development of an architect from an engineer is my greatest accomplishment.” Clio Angel Vecellio, a native of nearby Keystone who received his bachelor's degree in architecture in 1933 from Catholic University, worked as Hicks's assistant. Bluefield's prolific Alex B. Mahood had his share of Welch commissions, including a number of structures described below. The local firm of Greene and Stowe, general contractors, built most of Welch's most important buildings.
Along with the rest of the country, Welch suffered during the Depression, but by 1941, according to the WPA guide to the state, things were back to normal: “On Saturday nights thousands of coal miners from dozens of operations descend upon the town to shop and find amusement.” The guide also noted that “narrow streets provide a traffic problem, and except for the pleasantly suburban residential area, Welch is a congested town, so much so that it has been called ‘Little New York’ by the New York Times.” To alleviate the congestion, in 1941 Welch built what is reputedly the country's first municipally owned and operated parking garage ( MD15).
Welch continued to grow after World War II, reaching a peak population of 6,603 in 1950. At the same time, the Norfolk & Western Railroad's decision to reroute its main line along a gentler grade to the east contributed to the town's subsequent decline. Welch's population has since followed the same pattern as that of all of coal country. The 2000 population was only 2,683. Many buildings are empty or decaying, and many have burned in recent years. One of the most tragic losses was the McDowell County Memorial Building. A 1920–1921 remodeling (by Alex B. Mahood) of an 1898 school building, and said to have been the nation's first World War I Memorial Building, it burned in April 1979.
Although Welch is no longer the center of activity it once was, it retains a number of structures dating from when it was the most important city in the state's most important coal county. The compact downtown was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 as the Welch Commercial Historic District.
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