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Fairmont

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Fairmont, strategically situated on the Monongahela River, was established by the Virginia General Assembly on January 19, 1820, as Middletown. The name reflected its location between Clarksburg to the south and Morgantown to the north. The community had grown sufficiently to be declared the seat of justice when Marion County was formed in 1842. A year later, it was incorporated as Fairmont, and in 1845 Henry Howe counted five stores, two churches, “and about 70 dwellings.” Howe also took note of Palatine, a separate town on the opposite bank of the river, which he called “a new and flourishing village.”

In 1852 the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad crossed the Monongahela River upstream from Fairmont on an iron bridge 650 feet long and almost 40 feet above the low water mark. Metal parts for the Fink truss bridge, a landmark in early American engineering, were fabricated at the railroad's Mount Clare shops in Baltimore, then sent on the railroad to the site. Painted light green, the structure was—at a cost of $138,200—the most expensive bridge on the entire line. It was destroyed during the Civil War, but the original piers remain to support the fourth bridge at the crossing. B&O engineers also designed and built a 560-foot suspension bridge to carry pedestrian and carriage traffic across the Monongahela between Fairmont and Palatine. In 1855 Eli Bowen applauded the bridge in his whimsically titled Rambles in the Path of the Steam Horse, but he gave a devastatingly unflattering view of Fairmont:

Nature has done her part to beautify Fairmont; art has exerted her utmost to disfigure it. Save the suspension bridge, I did not see a single other erection that was not abominable. It has the look of a town grown old in its infancy. Such an array of broken windows and tumble down porches … and blackened shanties never before huddled together in a single locality.

Fairmont served as a Union supply center during the Civil War, and although it suffered only one Confederate raid, that was devastating enough. Rebel troops destroyed the railroad bridge, raided the home of Francis Pierpont (then in Wheeling serving as governor under the Restored Government of Virginia) and took several hundred prisoners. Immediately after the war, Fairmont took a leading role in training teachers for the new state's public schools. Its normal school, the first in the state, was chartered in 1865 and soon started operating from a downtown building. By the 1890s, officials acquired property for the college on Fairmont Avenue in West Fairmont, then just outside the town limits.

In 1899 Fairmont, Palatine, and West Fairmont agreed to a charter forming the city of Fairmont, and the next year's census counted 5,665 inhabitants in the new municipality. The new Fairmont inaugurated the new century with an imposing new courthouse ( MA1). Because other county communities, particularly Mannington, protested the huge expenditure, demolition of the old building was begun under cloak of darkness.

In June 1906, Ohio Architecttook notice of the city's growth: “Fairmont was but a village ten years ago. Through the enterprise of her people in utilizing their environment by building industries and developing coal, its growth has been little less than phenomenal.” That pronouncement was part of an article devoted to the work of Fairmont's first architect of note, Andrew C. Lyons. According to the journal, Lyons began his career in 1888 in the office of S. Munsch, “an old established architect” in Pittsburgh. Three years later, he opened his own office in Fairmont. Lyons formed a partnership with Munsch in 1894 and for a while divided his time between Fairmont and Pittsburgh. After Munsch's death, he continued his practice in Fairmont and opened a branch office in Elkins.

Among Lyons's buildings illustrated in Ohio Architectwere the still-standing Jacobs-Hutchinson Block and the adjoining George M. Jacobs Building ( MA4). The greater part of his work seems to have been domestic, and the magazine illustrated a number of Queen Anne mansions, most now gone. One was the residence of J. E. Watson, which the article described as “the finest home in the town.” It should have been, as the Watsons were the wealthiest of the city's coal families. In 1910 Watson began construction of an even grander mansion, High Gate ( MA12). For a while High Gate had a rival in Fairmont. Sonnencroft, the twenty-eight-room mansion of another coal magnate, C. E. Hutchinson, was built in 1914 from designs by the Clarksburg firm of Holmboe and Lafferty, who “drew the plans from photographs of Inverness Castle.” Its fitting name, meaning “home of sons,” referred to the fact that the family had eight sons. Located in the former Palatine area of Fairmont, the house was abandoned after Hutchinson's death, and in 1941 the WPA guide reported that it “has been unoccupied since 1934.” It was subsequently demolished, and the Fairmont East High School now stands on the site.

Unfortunately, Sonnencroft's fate has been paralleled all too often in recent decades. But if Fairmont has lost much of its overall urban ambience, a number of individually important structures remain to give a sense of its historic character. Along with that of the county, Fairmont's population peaked in 1950. The figure of 29,346 obtained then contrasts with the 2000 figure of 19,097.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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