Elkins had a propitious—and preposterous—beginning. In the summer of 1888, two buckboards carried former U.S. Senator and Mrs. Henry Gassaway Davis, along with their son-in-law and daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Benton Elkins, several children, and two coachmen to the site of the future town. The two men were looking for a place to establish a rail center for the West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railroad, which Davis had founded in 1881. The line, then wending its way south from Mineral County, where it connected with the B&O, traversed vast tracts of coal and timber reserves, most of which Davis and Elkins owned. Davis selected a level site on the Tygart Valley River near Beverly, then the county seat, and began assembling land in September 1888. He named the place for his son-in-law, as the Tucker County town he had established farther north on the railroad in 1883 preempted using his own name.
The railroad arrived late in 1889, and Elkins became a boomtown. On April 11, 1891, Manufacturers Recordreported that the town “now has over 100 dwelling houses, with a population of about 800, which is increasing daily … The West Virginia Central Co. has erected a roundhouse and machine shop here, both large and substantial brick buildings … and contemplate the erection of a handsome passenger depot.” The Recordalso noted that Elkins's house, named Halliehurst after his wife Hallie (Senator Davis's daughter), was “a roomy castle of most massive and elegant proportions” and added, “On the hill adjoining Senator Davis is erecting a dwelling almost as large as that of Mr. Elkins, and Mr. Kerens, of St. Louis, is grading the next hill for a similar residence.”
The town had a split personality from its inception. Its founders and their friends built mansions, primarily to use as summer residences, on the surrounding heights, giving hope that it might become a major resort, perhaps a West Virginia Newport. In this development, a pinnacle of sorts was almost achieved in 1893 when Manufacturers Recordreported that former President Benjamin Harrison would build a summer residence in Elkins. Stephen Elkins, who had been secretary of war in Harrison's cabinet, was undoubtedly behind the idea. Although a site was selected, Harrison's proposed retreat in the West Virginia hills remained only a castle in the air.
Meanwhile, down below, the community was developing more mundanely as a rail center where blue-collar laborers and their families lived, worked, played, and prayed. Extensive rail yards served as marshaling points where short-haul coal- and timber-laden trains were combined into larger units for longer runs across the country. Soon two other elements, county government and academe, were added to the mix.
By 1910 Elkins had a population of 5,210. It continued to grow steadily, if modestly, throughout most of the twentieth century, reaching its peak in 1980 with a figure of 8,536. The 2000 figure showed a decline to 7,032. The railroad no longer plays a role in Elkins, but Davis and Elkins College continues to grow in enrollment and in stature.
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