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Parkersburg

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In 1773 Robert Thornton staked a tomahawk claim to land at the juncture of the Little Kanawha and Ohio rivers but sold it ten years later to Alexander Parker. The settlement that grew up at the point was first called Newport, but disputes over land ownership retarded initial settlement. In 1807 Christian Schultz, traveling on the Ohio, called it “a small town, containing twelve houses.” Two years later, when the Parker family's title was confirmed, William Robinson, Parker's son-in-law, and George Avery, a surveyor, platted a new town site. Major streets paralleled the Ohio River; shorter ones paralleled the Little Kanawha. Several streets were named for members of the Robinson family, while Avery Street honored the town planner. The town was officially established as Parkersburg in 1810. In 1811 the Robinsons donated land for the Wood County courthouse, a gift they had already contemplated, if the town plan can be taken as evidence. The three courthouses that have successively stood on Court Square have been on axis with 3rd Street, providing a handsome downtown focal point and vista that interrupts the otherwise rigid grid.

In 1845 Henry Howe estimated Parkersburg's population at “about 1,100” and declared it “the most flourishing river village in the state, below Wheeling.” He then told why: “[A] turnpike about 280 miles in length, has lately been finished from Winchester to Parkersburg; and it is contemplated to continue the Baltimore and Ohio rail-road to this place.” The Northwestern Turnpike, to which he referred, had been completed in 1838, and the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike arrived in 1847. These two major roads of antebellum Virginia intersected, not coincidentally, just east of town in front of Oakland ( WD22). James M. Stephenson, Oakland's owner, had been instrumental in securing the turnpikes for Parkersburg.

B&O Railroad Bridge at Parkersburg, photo 1890s

It took the railroad longer than Howe might have expected. The Northwestern Railroad of Virginia, essentially a branch of the Baltimore & Ohio, arrived in 1857 from Grafton. Because it provided a shorter east-west route between the B&O's termini, Baltimore and Cincinnati, than the original line, which went through Wheeling, the Northwestern became in effect the main line of the B&O. It brought prosperity to Parkersburg and helped enable the president of the line, Peter Godwin Van Winkle, to build one of the city's most prodigious mansions ( WD9.5).

Just before the Civil War, Parkersburg became a major oil and gas refinery and shipping point. Even the outbreak of war hardly dampened the growth, as the Wheeling Daily Intelligencerreported in 1863:

A returned visitor from Parkersburg and vicinity tells us that the people in that section of the country have forgotten there is a war in the land. When spoken of it seems to be an item of news to them, it is one of the weird tales of the past.… Oil is their meat and their drink, the sustenance of their lives.… The air is saturated with oil and the very earth is so greasy that a man can hardly get a lease on ten feet of ground that will stick.

Less hyperbolic accounts confirmed this picture. An article titled “The Petroleum Region of America,” published in the April 1865 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, informed readers that “western Virginia's wells” were second only to Pennsylvania's and that “the town of Parkersburg … is the grand headquarters of all oil speculators who visit that region.” The Harper'scorrespondent had also forgotten about the war. When his article was published, the conflict was just ending, and Parkersburg was no longer in western Virginia, but in West Virginia. Moreover, it was no longer a town, but a city, having received its charter in 1863.

The 1860s were indeed heady times. The city actually didparticipate in the war, serving the Union as a major troop transfer point and supply center. The Quartermaster Corps built warehouses, storehouses, stables, and quarters; surviving drawings show their extent and importance. Once the war ended, Parkersburg continued its unprecedented growth. In 1869 the B&O began construction on a trestle carrying the railroad across the Ohio River. When the 7,140-foot span was completed in January 1871, it was the world's longest railroad bridge. By then Parkersburg, with an 1870 population of 5,546—more than twice the figure recorded ten years earlier—was West Virginia's secondlargest city, after Wheeling.

Parkersburg poured a great deal of its oily profits into the building arts. Three major churches, all remaining in almost pristine condition, were completed during the 1870s: Trinity Episcopal ( WD3), St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic ( WD7), and First Baptist ( WD8). Oilmen vied with each other in building impressive mansions along the upper stretches of Juliana and Ann streets overlooking the Ohio River (see WD9). The federal government joined in the building frenzy by constructing a new courthouse–post office in the 1870s. When completed, the Second Empire building, which had cost the staggering sum of $223,059.03, was the largest federal building in the state.

In 1893 two of Parkersburg's most prominent citizens went to the fair—the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago—and returned home with an idea. William N. Chancellor and Lily Irene Jackson helped persuade the city council to purchase a forty-two-acre tract on the city's eastern outskirts for a park. Parkersburg, they had decided, should participate in the City Beautiful movement, a nationwide crusade inspired by memories of the fair's magical “White City.” Over the years, City Park has been expanded and has become an ever more welcome oasis of green as the city has grown around it (see WD20and WD21).

In the 1890s, Cincinnati architects William R. Brown and Charles C. Crapsey, assisted by local architect Richard Adair, prepared plans for a new city hall. The building was completed in 1897, and for eighty years its strong Romanesque presence, dominated by a prominent tower on the corner of 5th and Market streets, made it one of downtown's landmarks. City Hall was not the only Parkersburg building born on an Ohio drawing board. Architects from Canton, Cincinnati, and especially Columbus designed many of its most prominent buildings during the 1890s. Even the city's first native-born architect of note, H. Rus Warne (1872–1954), trained in Ohio at the University of Cincinnati. After college, Warne studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and then in Rome. Parkersburg's 1897 Odd Fellows Lodge ( WD6) is said to be his first building, but his hometown stint was brief. He left for Charleston in 1902 to become one of the state's leading architects, establishing a firm that continues in active practice today.

Parkersburg continued to grow as a major industrial center in the early twentieth century. The Parkersburg Rig and Reel Company, manufacturers of oil field equipment, expanded the city's involvement with oil throughout the country. Company executives who stayed home built a number of mansions along Washington Avenue ( WD15WD19). Several newly founded companies dealt directly with the building arts. The Parkersburg Artificial Stone Company began in 1903 and, according to a 1907 advertisement, could produce 600 square feet of stone per day. By 1911, according to the West Virginia Mantel Company's catalog number 10, builders and homeowners could select from forty-seven different mantels, all with elaborate coal grates.

By then, if not before, Parkersburg had its own architectural fraternity. Among the earliest members, listed in the 1914 Polk's Directory, were Richard H. Adair (who assisted in the design of City Hall), William J. Alexander, William Howe Patton, and Theodore T. Sansbury, Jr. According to a historical marker in Julia-Ann Square ( WD9), Adair and Patton designed a number of residences there. The 1921 edition of the directory added H. W. Schneider, who claimed in a full-page advertisement that he had twenty years of experience as an architect and builder and that “fine residences [were] a specialty.” In 1938, following the Depression, Polk'slisted only three architects: William T. Miller, Charles J. Ross, and the redoubtable Theodore T. Sansbury, no longer calling himself “Junior.”

While Parkersburg's artificial stones and mantels were sold locally and regionally, the city soon could boast a building product with a far broader market. In its May 29, 1930, issue, Manufacturers Recordannounced that “the only Vitrolite plant in the United States is … located in the city, the product of this plant being used all over the world.” Vitrolite, the LibbeyOwens-Ford Company's trademark name for structural glass, was actually produced just north of Parkersburg, in Vienna. Formed by fusion at high temperatures, Vitrolite was fabricated at first mostly in black and white, but was later produced in a variety of colors. According to the 1941 WPA guide to West Virginia, the “flint-like substance resembling marble [was] used for store fronts, interior walls and decorations, table tops, and ornamental bric-a-brac.” Architects of gasoline stations, bus depots, and “Main Street” shop fronts throughout the nation specified Vitrolite in their commissions. Although glass, it could be bent and often was, providing the perfect material for Streamline Moderne designs. Vitrolite, along with the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company's Carrara Glass, dominated the early-twentieth-century American market for structural glass.

Another important Parkersburg industry was American Viscose, which Manufacturers Recorddescribed in 1930 as one of the biggest rayon plants in the United States. Between 1927 and the mid-1940s, the company was the city's largest employer. It ceased operations in 1975.

After World War II, the area's industrial base continued to expand. In 1945 E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company purchased a portion of the huge tract of Ohio River land that George Washington had once owned south of the city. Three years later, the company began manufacturing nylon. At one time, the plant was the world's only producer of Teflon. General Electric joined the list of area manufacturers and continues to produce plastics at its large plant north of the city.

Parkersburg's population peaked in 1960 with a figure of 44,797. During the late 1960s and 1970s, downtown began to decline, as shopping malls proliferated on the city's outskirts. Along with municipalities throughout the country, the city attempted to bring people back downtown through misguided, federally sponsored programs under the rubric of urban renewal. Parkersburg's, as drastic as any in West Virginia, wreaked havoc. Rows of commercial buildings, many with Vitrolite shopfronts, came down, as did City Hall and the Wood County Jail. Even the monumental Wood County Courthouse ( WD1) was threatened, but wiser heads prevailed in time to save it from the wrecking ball. In subsequent decades, new construction has healed some of the scars, but the truly urban context that once prevailed has yet to be restored. Fortunately, the impressive residential neighborhoods that border downtown were left unscathed. In 2000, with a population of 33,000, Parkersburg was the state's third most populous city.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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