Point Pleasant occupies a level promontory extending northward from the Kanawha River's confluence with the Ohio. The site was important commercially from the earliest days of exploration because it provided a natural transfer point for pioneers and goods. When Fort Blair burned in 1775, it was replaced with Fort Randolph, just to the north. Here, in 1777, Shawnee Indian Chief Cornstalk was treacherously murdered.
In 1792 Thomas Lewis, Sr., brother of the hero of the Battle of Point Pleasant, established two ferries, one across the Ohio, one across the Kanawha. Two years later, by act of December 19, 1794, Point Pleasant became the first town established by the Commonwealth of Virginia on its long Ohio River shoreline. The act noted that the 200-acre tract owned by Lewis was “already laid off into lots and streets.” Although it was not unusual for a settlement to be platted before its official establishment, it was practically unheard of to set aside so much land for a town. The forty-acre tract belonging to George Clendenin, which formed the nucleus of Charleston, upstream on the Kanawha and created by the same 1794 act, was far more normal. Obviously, Point Pleasant's founders had high expectations.
In spite of its pivotal site, the optimism that attended its birth, and its longevity, Point Pleasant has remained a small town, now city, throughout the years. Because of its prominent location, nearly every Ohio River voyager who left a written record mentioned the settlement. Some counted its houses, some degraded it, and many offered hypotheses about why it never seemed to flourish. Among the earliest observers was French navigator General Georges Henri Victor Collot, who wrote in 1796 that “the town consists only of fifteen or twenty wretched log-houses, inhabited by forty or fifty poor inhabitants.” Collot noted that the site was “unprovided with spring-water,” which he felt contributed to the “state of languor and weakness.” Two years later, Tarleton Bates observed that “a town is laid out but a very few houses perhaps 8 or 10 dwellings only.” Instead of worrying about water, Bates “got 2 gallons of whiskey … & proceeded 4 miles to breakfast at Gallipolis.” Thomas Ashe, reporting during an 1806 trip down the Ohio, was perhaps the most derogatory of all: “It contains about forty houses frame and log, and has not the aspect of ever being much augmented. The few disconsolate inhabitants who go up and down, or lie under trees, have a dejected appearance, and exhibit the ravage of disease in every feature, and the tremor of the ague in every step.”
Henry Clay, who liked the site better than the town, pronounced Point Pleasant to be like “a beautiful woman clad in rags.” In 1845 Henry Howe counted “1 Episcopalian and 1 Presbyterian church, 3 mercantile stores, 1 steam flour, and 1 steam saw-mill, 2 tanneries, and about 50 dwellings.” He also mentioned that the popular explanation for the lack of development was that the “place was cursed” for the murder of Cornstalk.
In 1882 The Virginias, a journal dedicated to the industrial development of Virginia and West Virginia, opined that things might improve with a new appellation. The journal suggested “Kanawha-mouth, a name not as long as Point Pleasant.” After observing that it could “become the leading town in this state” in a few years, the article concluded that “the curse of ‘Cornstalk,’ pronounced on Point Pleasant a hundred years ago, is being dispelled.” Fortunately, no one took the suggested name, which is actually just as long as Point Pleasant, seriously.
The community's history during the twentieth century continued the pattern of ups and downs. In the first decade, thanks to the efforts of a determined member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a large obelisk was erected to commemorate the Battle of Point Pleasant. A year or two later, the town's oldest building, the Mansion House, was restored, in one of West Virginia's earliest instances of conscious historic preservation. In 1928 the Silver Bridge, the first highway bridge crossing the Ohio at Point Pleasant, opened with great fanfare. Nine years later the disastrous 1937 Ohio River flood covered 90 percent of Point Pleasant. After another devastating flood in 1945, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a floodwall, completed in 1951, to protect the city against future inundations. An easily drawn implication is that frequent flooding of the city's low-lying site had been a major reason for its lack of growth over the years. On December 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge collapsed, taking with it forty-six lives. Although investigations determined that a design flaw was the culprit, once again Cornstalk's curse was invoked.
For the last half-century, Point Pleasant's population has hovered around 5,000. The 2000 figure was 4,637, down from the 1970 high of 6,122. Even with, or perhaps because of, its modest growth over the years, Point Pleasant presents an attractive picture of small-town America. For the most part, its citizens have depended on architectural services from individuals and firms in larger cities up and down the Ohio and from Charleston, fifty-six miles upstream on the Kanawha. The exception is a sophisticated little Neo-Gothic church by master architect Ralph Adams Cram.
In 1985 the Point Pleasant Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The commercial core, near the southern end of the district, is followed by civic and ecclesiastical structures, then a residential neighborhood to the north. Listings below begin at the Point and proceed northward. However, because Main Street is one way in the opposite direction—from north to south—between 3rd and 6th streets, the suggested progression can properly be experienced only on foot.
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