Manufacturers' Recordnoted the proposed establishment of a new town in what was then Logan County in its May 23, 1891, issue: “W. J. Williamson … and others have, it is reported, purchased 1,200 acres of land in Logan County, and will build a new town to be called Williamson.” The town, on the eastern bank of the Tug Fork River, across from Kentucky, was incorporated in 1892. Ten years later, West Virginia's Episcopal bishop, George W. Peterkin, commented that “Williamson has come into some prominence not only as the county seat, but as the headquarters of one of the Railroad divisions.” As at Bluefield, Princeton, and other division points maintained by the several railroad systems, small coal trains from individual mines were combined here into long freight trains for the long haul transport of coal. By 1924 Williamson's railroad yards, extending alongside U.S. 52 south of town, were the largest on the entire N&W system, as well as the most extensive in West Virginia. They remain one of coal country's most familiar sights.
During its period of greatest building activity—the first several decades of the twentieth century—Williamson depended largely on Huntington, the nearest metropolis, for architectural services. J. B. Stewart and Levi J. Dean designed several houses, Verus T. Ritter provided plans for the high school in 1914, and ten years later the firm of Meanor and Handloser designed the Mountaineer Hotel ( MI3). Hassel T. Hicks established an architecture practice in Williamson after returning from World War I but relocated to Welch in 1924. Nevertheless, his best known building, the 1933 Coal House ( MI1), is in Williamson.
The city's population, like that of the county, has fluctuated over the decades, as coal production in the “Billion Dollar Coal Field,” of which Williamson considers itself the heart, has peaked or dwindled. From a 1930 high of 9,410, Williamson had dropped by 2000 to only 3,414. In the 1990s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a floodwall-levee to protect the city from flooding by the Tug Fork. This on the west and the railroad tracks on the east tightly bind the downtown commercial core into a compact area.
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