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Sistersville

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The name Wells occurs time and again in any discussion of Sistersville. Charles Wells was one of the first settlers in the area and a major progenitor. In 1815 sisters Sarah and Delilah Wells, eighteenth and nineteenth of his twenty-two children, had a town platted on land they inherited from their father. The Ohio River shoreline at the townsite faced a long and deep stretch of water, making for a good landing and enabling a ferry to operate year round.

The original town plat was a square grid with four streets running parallel to the river and four crossing at right angles. Because the sisters hoped their town would become the county seat of the newly created Tyler County, the grid deviated from the norm at the central intersection of Main and Diamond streets. Here a “diamond”-shaped lot (actually a square lot set at a 45-degree angle to the grid, with streets surrounding it) was platted as a courthouse square. But before a courthouse could be built on the lot, Middlebourne secured the designation of county seat, and the diamond remained vacant for more than seventy-five years. Nor did Main Street become the prime commercial street that was intended. Instead, it became a residential avenue, while parallel Wells Street, a block to the southeast, assumed the commercial role. The town grew slowly and steadily until 1892, when the Sistersville Oil Field opened, creating an overnight boomtown. Crews hastily erected shanties to accommodate the influx of oil workers and their followers in areas designated “Coney Island,” “Happy Hollow,” and “Sleepy Hollow.” Some workers lodged in houseboats moored alongside the riverbank. The rush brought saloons and prostitution, and Sistersville soon acquired a reputation that would have made Sarah and Delilah blanch. Oil wells were sunk throughout the town, as evidenced by an 1898 bird's-eye view that shows derricks sprouting in almost every yard. As the liquid gold continued to flow, members of the Wells family and others built fine houses from their profits. In 1897 a new city building was erected on the lot originally reserved for the county courthouse. A Pittsburgh architect furnished the plans, but most of Sistersville's boom-era buildings of any consequence were designed by William B. O'Neil and built by either him or John Rea, both from Ohio.

Within a decade or so, the boom was spent, though the 1941 WPA guide to West Virginia reported that oil derricks still stood in backyards and formed “additional hazards on the local golf course.” Most of the shanties have disappeared, but more substantial structures dating from Sistersville's heyday remain. Beveled leaded glass was a popular architectural flourish when the town was on a roll, and refracted rays of light shining through elaborate fanlights and side lights lend a special magic to a nighttime stroll, especially along South Main Street. With a 2000 population of 1,588, Sistersville is Tyler County's largest municipality.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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