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Eastern Panhandle

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From colonial times this gently rolling area provided easy passage for explorers and pioneers. Of its three counties, Jefferson and Berkeley constitute the lower, or northern, limits of the Valley of Virginia, one of the nation's major paths of early migration. Morgan County, to the west, has a more mountainous terrain. For those who decided to stay instead of continuing on, fertile limestone soil provided all that was needed to survive and prosper. Not surprisingly, this is where the state's first settlers—some from Virginia's Tidewater to the east, others from Pennsylvania to the north—put down roots. In the mideighteenth century, colonists poured into the region, bringing their individual building traditions with them. Controversies between colonial Virginia's government and Lord Fairfax, whose Northern Neck Proprietary encompassed the area, clouded initial land titles but did not prevent settlement.

Among those who came were members of the Washington family. George's brother Samuel built Harewood ( JE10), one of the state's finest Georgian mansions, by 1770. Later Washington family mansions record the progression from limestone to brick construction and from solid Georgian proportions to the attenuated Federal style of the early nineteenth century.

Wheat was the region's first main agricultural product, but by the end of the eighteenth century, apple production predominated. Berkeley County's Apple Pie Ridge (see BE35), which acquired its name in the eighteenth century, accommodates houses that show how profitable this intensively laborious culture was for those who worked hard or who had others to work for them.

Early settlement was not altogether hard labor. In the western reaches of the panhandle, in today's Morgan County, the Washingtons and friends found time to play at Bath, also known as Berkeley Springs, one of the nation's earliest spas. Although none of its hastily constructed early buildings survives, Berkeley Springs still has the tempo and flavor of a small resort. The springs, in public ownership since 1776 and now a small state park ( MR1), were one of the country's first instances of property reserved for public benefit.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad traversed the Eastern Panhandle in the 1830s and 1840s, establishing major shops in Martinsburg. On occasion, B&O engineers branched out from their “day jobs” to lend their talents to the neighborhood. Albert Fink, better known for his patented Fink truss, a seminal improvement in iron bridge construction, designed a new courthouse ( BE1) for Berkeley County in the 1850s.

The U.S. Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, established in the late eighteenth century, reached its zenith in the 1850s. Illustrations of the all-but-vanished complex show an ensemble of utilitarian brick structures, many with distinct stepped gables that formed something of an architectural leitmotif. Area builders began to emulate the features, and a number of houses in the neighborhood display them. Harpers Ferry is now remembered for one man. In 1859 John Brown attempted to seize arms stored there as the first step in a grandiose plan to free America from slavery.

The Eastern Panhandle saw more action during the Civil War than any other part of the state, not solely because of the federal presence at Harpers Ferry. The B&O was the prize both armies sought to capture and control. The nation's only east-west rail link, it became known as “President Lincoln's Lifeline.” The railroad and the towns alongside it changed hands many times, and only toward war's end did the Union finally secure them.

In June 1863, before federal control became certain, West Virginia joined the Union. Jefferson and Berkeley counties were not initially included within the new state's boundaries. Instead, resident voters were given the choice of remaining in Virginia or joining the new state. The governor, realizing how important the B&O was to the Union, summarily announced that the results showed a preference for West Virginia. Consequently, he declared Jefferson and Berkeley counties part of the state in November 1863.

A year later, James E. Taylor, an illustrator for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, accompanied Union general Philip Sheridan during his Shenandoah Valley campaign. Although Taylor was a firsthand witness to the horrors of war, he found time to draw and comment on towns and farms, leaving a priceless record of the region's early architecture. His work was published in 1989 under the title With Sheridan up the Shenandoah Valley in 1864.

After recovering from the war, the Eastern Panhandle continued to depend on agriculture for its economic well-being. Throughout most of the twentieth century, impressive manors and farm buildings presided over fields and pastures, while small villages continued to serve as regional trading centers.

During the last two decades of the twentieth century, however, the region experienced uncontrolled growth, and the pattern is likely to continue in the twenty-first century. Improved transportation coupled with relatively low costs of living have drawn the panhandle into the seemingly endless orbit of ever-expanding Washington, D.C. Jefferson and Berkeley counties are now included in the statistical boundaries of the National Capital Metropolitan Region. They and Morgan County are three of only five of West Virginia's fifty-five counties that showed consistent population increases during the half century between 1950 and 2000. Land is currently more profitable when sold in quarter-acre parcels than when plowed and planted in crops. Consequently, mini-mansions now sprout where wheat and apple trees once grew. Although preservation efforts, especially with regard to individual structures, are mildly encouraging, much remains to be accomplished if the traditional character of the region is to survive. John Brown, on his way to the gallows in 1859, is said to have remarked: “This is a beautiful countryside. I never had time to notice it before.” It is still beautiful, but notice it soon.

Writing Credits

S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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