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Morgantown

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Morgantown's 2000 population of 26,809 makes it West Virginia's fifth-largest city. West Virginia University's two main campuses are here, and with a student body of 22,000, the school's population is almost as large as the city's. Morgantown's academic face is only one side of a multifaceted personality. The city is also the county seat, and for many years was a center of industry and trade because of its location on the navigable Monongahela River.

Morgantown became the county seat through a fluke. The 1776 act that established Monongalia County directed landholders to select a site for a courthouse, which they did. Unfortunately, the boundary between Virginia and Pennsylvania was in dispute at the time, and when it was eventually determined, an embarrassing discovery was made, which the Virginia General Assembly noted in an act of May 1783: “by the extension of the line called Mason's and Dixon's line, the court-house of Monongalia County has fallen into the state of Pennsylvania.” The situation was corrected in 1783, when court began to be held at the more “conveniently situated” house of Zackquill Morgan, on the Virginia side of the boundary. Two years later, “Morgans-town,” as it was first named, was established on fifty acres of Morgan's land.

Typically, the act of establishment directed trustees to plat the town “into lots of half an acre each, with convenient streets.” Atypically, Morgantown's plan provided for alleys bisecting the blocks. Middle, or Long, Alley runs midway between Front and High streets, the two major north-south thoroughfares. The names of alleys between the shorter east-west streets—Court Alley (or Chancery Row), Kirk Alley, Maiden Alley, and Bumbo Lane—sound as if they belonged in Hogarth's London rather than in frontier Virginia. A double lot at the corner of High and Walnut streets was set aside as the Public Square. The courthouse was built on a lot west of the square, which served as its front yard. All subsequent courthouses have occupied the same site.

Purchasers of lots initially had four years to build “a dwelling-house, eighteen feet square at least, with a brick or stone chimney.” In 1789 the legislature granted “the further space of three years [because] hostilities of the Indian tribes and other causes have prevented [purchasers] from building thereon.” When that extension expired, townsmen received yet a third dispensation. A five-year deferral was granted this time because of “the difficulty of procuring materials.”

Once all the difficulties were overcome, Morgantown grew rapidly. In 1802 Zadok Cramer recorded in his Ohio and Mississippi Navigator. “This is a flourishing town, … contains about 60 dwellings—it may be considered as at the head of the Monongahela navigation.” Thomas Ashe echoed Cramer's enthusiasm in a letter dated 1806, but proved that confusion still reigned on the subject of state boundaries. He gave his return address as “Morgantown, Pennsylvania.”

In addition to its flourishing trade and its transportation-based economy, Morgantown became an early center of learning. On July 6, 1792, Francis Asbury noted that he “discoursed … in the academical church,” and observed that “this building is well designed for a school and church.” Monongalia Academy opened in 1814, followed in 1833 by Woodburn Female Seminary.

Morgantown successfully, if misguidedly, opposed an early proposal to route the B&O through town. In fact, things got rather nasty when a circular was printed declaring that “the screeching locomotives would affect wagon traffic, reduce the price of horse feed, set our haystacks on fire, and frighten to death our hogs and wives.” Instead, the iron horse screeched through Fairmont, sixteen miles southwest. In 1883 The Virginiascalled Morgantown a “substantial and thrifty looking town” but pointedly noted that the lack of a railway was its “one drawback.” The railroad finally arrived in 1886, when a branch line was built to Fairmont. The Wheeling Registeropined that this would extend “the limits of West Virginia. Up till now Morgantown has been more of a part of Pennsylvania than of West Virginia.” Its Pennsylvania orientation continued, however; in 1894, a second rail line, connecting Morgantown to Pittsburgh, was built. As far as is known, neither of the two lines ever frightened any Morgantown wives to death.

The railroads inaugurated a period of prosperity, roughly from 1885 to 1900, that has ever since been known as “The Awakening.” Architecturally, Elmer Forrest Jacobs almost singlehandedly awakened Morgantown. Jacobs (b. 1866) was from a well-connected Preston County family that moved to Morgantown when he was three years old. He entered West Virginia University to study civil engineering, but the dean advised him to pursue architecture, providing special instruction because the school did not offer a degree in the subject. Jacobs joined the office of Pittsburgh architect J. L. Beatty before finishing school. According to James M. Callahan, in his History of West Virginia, Jacobs remained there for five years, gaining “a thorough technical and practical training in the architectural art and science.” He returned to Morgantown in 1894 to establish his own practice, and is said to have designed more than 400 buildings by the early 1900s.

In 1902 Jacobs became the first—and for many years remained the only—West Virginia member of the American Institute of Architects. In 1923 Callahan lauded him as standing “virtually at the head of his profession in this part of West Virginia, as well as being the oldest architect in point of experience and continuous practice at Morgantown.” The local press went even further, declaring that “almost all the architectural beauty of Morgantown [was] due to the skill and progressive ideas of our resident architect.” Jacobs designed primarily in the Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne styles, even after they ceased to be fashionable elsewhere, and a great number of his buildings remain.

In the second decade of the twentieth century, another architect began to challenge Jacobs's virtually monopolistic practice. Carl Reger (1878–1937), an Upshur County native, attended classes at the West Virginia Conference Seminary, now West Virginia Wesleyan College, in Buckhannon. He then worked in several architectural offices before entering the University of Pennsylvania. He left the school after only one year, in 1905, because of eye problems and went to California, where he practiced architecture in Los Angeles and San Diego. He then returned to West Virginia to establish his Morgantown office in 1915. Reger became the first secretary of the West Virginia Chapter of the AIA, organized in 1922. His extensive output included a number of impressive residences, especially in the city's South Park neighborhood.

During the last half of the twentieth century, West Virginia University fueled most of Morgantown's growth. With a huge post–World War II influx of students, administrators realized that the old campus on its hilly site just north of downtown would not be adequate for future expansion. In 1948 the university purchased a large tract of land one mile to the northwest, where it developed its Evansdale and Health Sciences campuses. The areas are conveniently linked by PRT ( ML2), acronym for Personal Rapid Transit, which is generally considered to be the first totally automated, computeroperated transportation system in the world.

Morgantown is well aware of its significant architectural heritage. Practically all the early university buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as are many commercial buildings, while residential South Park is included as a historic district. In 1998 Morgantown was one of five cities across the country to receive a Great American Main Street Award for its successful efforts in restoring and revitalizing its downtown business district.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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