General Alfred Beckley established Beckley on a thirty-acre tract in 1838. He named his “paper town”—as neighbors called it in derision—to honor his father, from whom he had inherited vast tracts of land. Initial settlement was almost nonexistent, and by the time the town plat was recorded in 1848, the meandering routes of two turnpikes that intersected at the townsite had compromised the general's intended grid plan. Kanawha Street recalls (both in name and in its wanderings) the Giles, Fayette and Kanawha Turnpike, while Neville Street follows the almost equally tortuous route of the Guyandotte Turnpike. After Raleigh County was formed in 1850, General Beckley shrewdly donated a public square for the courthouse, and the paper town became a real community.
Coal companies bought up property surrounding the city in the late nineteenth century, and by 1905 fifty mines were operating in the vicinity. Beckley became a boomtown; its population increased from 342 in 1900 to 2,161 in 1910. Miners and their families came to town on payday and in 1939 the U.S. Department of Commerce found that Beckley's per capita retail sales were higher than any other city east of the Mississippi River. By the end of the twentieth century, Beckley had overtaken Bluefield as the metropolis of coal country. With a 2000 population of 17,254, and with two of the state's three interstate highways converging nearby, Beckley is a regional transportation, medical, and government center, and West Virginia's eighth-largest city. Much recent development results from federal largesse made available through efforts of the county's favorite son, U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd.
Downtown Beckley is actually uptown—and is known as such—thanks to its location high on a flat plateau with valleys on all sides. What semblance there is of General Beckley's original grid pattern centers, more or less, on the Raleigh County Courthouse, the third built on the original public square. While commercial structures add interest and consistency to the compactly built area, civic, religious, and financial buildings are the real architectural stars. After a disastrous conflagration in 1912, frame structures were forbidden in the business district, and many of the new fireproof buildings were built of locally quarried sandstone of a bright yellowish hue. This stone, often combined with yellow brick, gives the district a warm, colorful palette. Architects from Charleston and Huntington, notably the latter city's Richard M. Bates, especially prolific here in the 1920s, embellished “uptown” with some of its most impressive structures.
With the convergence of the interstate highways at the city's outskirts, Beckley's commerce has moved away from downtown to be closer to the interchanges. Harper Road, which leads westward from downtown to the interstates, is lined with strip malls and fast-food outlets. For a while uptown was in a semimoribund state, but in 1990 Beckley Main Street, part of the Main Street program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was organized to help revitalize the area. A new federal courthouse and IRS complex ( RA3) have helped give a needed boost.
Even though Beckley displays all the aspects of a modern city, it has a good track record in preservation as well. Wildwood, General Beckley's clapboarded log house, is restored and open to the public. At the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, the state's first historic site dedicated to its major industry, visitors can go into a mine that operated for more than a halfcentury. Only in the preservation of its domestic architecture has the city been callous. Many impressive Queen Anne houses that once lined Neville and North and South Kanawha streets were destroyed as the commercial core expanded.
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