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Clarksburg

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Clarksburg, settled soon after the Revolution, honors George Rogers Clark in its name. It became the Harrison County seat in 1785, a year after the county was created. Only two years later, Randolph Academy became the first officially chartered Virginia school west of the Alleghenies. The General Assembly could hardly have refused the honest, eloquent appeal that its fifty-eight petitioners had presented: “The Rays of Science from the university of William and Mary cannot shoot their enlightening Beams amongst us—The intervening Mountains, our distance, and our poverty cut us off.” Clarksburg also became an early center of jurisdiction. Early in 1819, the District Court of the United States for the District of Virginia West of the Allegheny Mountains met for the first time. Judge John George Jackson, brother-in-law to James Madison, presided.

In January 1817, John Scanland, on his way to Ohio from Winchester, came through Clarksburg and observed:

It is situated in a very hilly country, the view from the town is not delightful, because the adjacent country is very mountainous. There is a small stream passing through the town with a nice bridge over it, that adds some beauty to the place. The buildings are not elegant though they are generally comfortable … I think this part of the country will in time be very rich.

Virginia's Northwestern Turnpike arrived from Winchester in 1836 and was completed to Parkersburg two years later. Instead of following Main Street, the turnpike was laid out along the roughly parallel North Back Street, soon renamed Pike Street. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad bypassed Clarksburg on its initial run to the Ohio, but by 1857, the subsidiary Northwestern Virginia Railroad, leading from Grafton to Parkersburg, passed through town. With both a turnpike and a railroad, Clarksburg became a major regional transportation center in the pre–Civil War period, as well as a prize for whichever army held it during the conflict. Union forces won the prize early, and Clarksburg subsequently served as headquarters for the U.S. Army's Department of West Virginia throughout the war. By 1863 more than 7,000 federal troops were stationed in and around the town, which, according to the 1860 census, had a population of only 895.

Captain Charles Leib, assistant quartermaster, had little good to say about Clarksburg. Henry Haymond, in his History of Harrison County, recounted Leib's observations: “The town is laid out irregularly with little regard to taste or beauty. It is a motley collection of rickety frame houses, dirty looking brick dwellings and old stone buildings, some of which are propped up by large pieces of scantling, shattered monuments of the first families of Virginia.” The feeling was mutual; Clarksburg had little regard for the occupying forces, although in general its sympathies lay with the Union cause. The army's corral, where two to three thousand horses and mules were quartered, was a particular bone of contention. In 1861 a Cincinnati paper reported: “Colonel Despard's residence—a beautiful palatial homestead—is situated directly opposite this ‘hostile’ place.” Even Charles Leib, who had selected the site, admitted that the “hideous braying” of the mules disturbed Despard's “morning slumbers.” He attempted a different spin by chastising “nabob” Despard for building his “palatial residence … too near the mule-yard.” The mules, of course, are long gone, but Despard's residence ( HR21) remains as a mute reminder of those noisy times.

After the war, Clarksburg was a serious contender to become the capital of West Virginia. When voters went to the polls to choose a permanent location in 1877, Clarksburg—in competition with Charleston and Martinsburg, because Wheeling was by then out of the running—gained an early lead. When the final tally was announced, Charleston had won. Nathan Goff, Jr., who ran for governor in 1876, was one of Clarksburg's proponents and one of its most progressive citizens. His elegant Second Empire house on West Main Street, begun in 1880, was designed by Philadelphia architects Sloan and Balderston. Goff acted as his own contractor, ordering items that were hard to obtain locally, such as bathroom fixtures, from Philadelphia. The house was completed in 1883, and although it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, it was later demolished.

Clarksburg was on a roll at the end of the nineteenth century. The county's rich coal deposits were being mined, and the city was on its way to becoming a major oil and gas center. With its well-established transportation facilities, it was ripe to become a major jobbing center as well, and Nathan Goff, Jr., now judge of the U.S. Circuit Court, made sure that it did. He owned a tract of land just north of downtown, and in 1898 convinced the B&O to relocate its depot there. Goff sweetened the deal by financing construction of a bridge to carry 4th Street across Elk Creek, providing a direct connection to downtown. Glen Elk, as the area was called, became the venue for huge brick jobbing warehouses, where wholesale supplies were stocked until being shipped to smaller communities throughout Clarksburg's hinterland for retail sales. Glen Elk also became a center of Clarksburg's sizable and growing Italian community.

Clarksburg's first architect of note was Charles Lewis Hickman (b. 1848), a Harrison County native who worked first as a carpenter, then, in 1871, became a contractor and builder. In 1885, about the time he began to study architecture, he assisted in building Clarksburg's then new U.S. Courthouse and Post Office. He opened his own office in 1889.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, as Clarksburg continued to offer numerous commissions, other architects joined Hickman. A. P. Gladden, who counted the 1908–1910 parish house for Christ Episcopal Church ( HR8) among his works, was, like Hickman, a builder as well as an architect. Edward J. Wood (1863–1925), born near Clarksburg, worked with Giesey and Faris in Wheeling until 1900. He returned to Clarksburg that year and practiced in the city until his death. A charter member of the West Virginia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Wood helped secure passage of a state architectural registration law. By 1923 his son, Carleton C. Wood, had become a partner in the firm, which became Edward J. Wood and Son. Carleton Wood had enrolled in 1914 in Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he completed a two-year course in architecture.

Holmboe and Lafferty was another architecture partnership. Ernest Holmboe, born in Denmark, graduated from the Chicago Art and Polytechnic Institute and opened his Clarksburg office with R. C. Lafferty, formerly of Wheeling, in 1901. They branched out from Clarksburg to establish a second office in Bluefield and obtained commissions throughout the state until they dissolved the firm in 1920. Lafferty subsequently went to New York, while Holmboe, who remained in West Virginia, formed the architectural partnership of Holmboe and Pogue.

Even with an impressive pool of local talent, Clarksburg has often given its most important commissions to out-of-town or out-of-state architects. The Columbus, Ohio, firm of Yost and Packard designed the no-longer-standing Traders Hotel (1894), while Wheeling architect Millard F. Giesey obtained the commission for the city's high school (1895), later renamed the Towers School and recently demolished. Nathan Goff, Jr., whose house was by a Philadelphia firm, selected Charleston architect Harrison Albright to design his Waldo Hotel ( HR2), built in 1900–1904 close to the 4th Street Bridge, leading to the railroad depot and Glen Elk. Later in the decade, Goff chose the Washington, D.C., firm of Milburn, Heister and Company to plan the Goff Building ( HR13). Wyatt and Nolting, of Baltimore, were responsible for the Union National Bank ( HR14; 1911–1913), built on the site of the Traders Hotel.

The first several decades of the twentieth century continued as heady times for Clarksburg. Coal production increased as Italians, primarily from Calabria, came to work the mines, bringing their families with them. Immaculate Conception Church ( HR22) stands as an enduring monument to the influence of the city's large Roman Catholic population. Glassmaking, a natural concomitant to a copious supply of natural gas, became a major industry. At the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, Clarksburg's Master Marble Company's exhibit of 5 million marbles earned a spot in Ripley's “Believe It or Not!” cartoon series. By the 1940s, owing primarily to the output of the Akro Agate Company, Clarksburg could claim to produce about 60 percent of the world's supply of toy marbles.

In 1941, according to the WPA guide to the state, Clarksburg's sidewalks were “so crowded with cattlemen, farmers, miners, and their families that there is hardly room for movement.” In 1950 Clarksburg's population peaked at 32,014, making it the state's fourth-largest city. But from the middle of the twentieth century, every subsequent census marked a decline. In 1979 Interstate 79 was finished from Clarksburg to Charleston, or rather from nearby Bridgeport to Charleston. Clarksburg tried to attract the commerce it saw leaving the city by constructing an expressway from the interstate todowntown. Of course, the new road has made going fromdowntown just as easy. In 2000, Clarksburg's population had dropped to 16,743, the lowest figure recorded in seventy years, ranking the city ninth largest in the state.

Perhaps surprisingly, considering these population trends, recent decades have witnessed a flurry of building activity, particularly downtown. Marcel Breuer's 1975 ClarksburgHarrison Public Library ( HR4) is the only West Virginia commission of this internationally famous designer. In the 1990s, the Arlington, Virginia, architecture firm HLM designed a new Municipal Building ( HR13).

Unfortunately, Clarksburg's constricted site and rugged terrain mean that new construction often necessitates the destruction of older buildings. Still, much of its architectural legacy remains. Clarksburg is at its best over Labor Day weekend, when it hosts the annual West Virginia Italian Festival. Crowds line Pike Street for the parade, Main Street becomes a pedestrian promenade, and downtown thrives once again.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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