Major General Adam Stephen platted a town on Tuscarora Creek in 1773, the year after Berkeley County was formed, and named it for Thomas Martin, nephew of Lord Fairfax. Stephen planned the town to be the county seat, donating the acre of land on which the courthouse was built and providing stone for its construction, all before the town was officially established. In May 1775, Philip Vickers Fithian passed through and remarked that Martinsburg “is yet in its infancy. Two Years ago the spot was high Woods—There are now perhaps thirty Houses, they have already built a Prison of Stone & strong—And are now making a Courthouse of no inconsiderable Size & Eligance [ sic].”
Fithian was an astute observer. The first courthouse, an impressive accomplishment for its time and place, was the largest and westernmost example of a type associated almost exclusively with Tidewater Virginia. As shown in a woodcut in Henry Howe's 1845 Historical Collections of Virginia, it had a five-bay arcade and a hipped roof flanked by chimneys at each end, features that made it analogous to earlier examples such as the courthouses in Hanover County (c. 1753) and King William County (second quarter of the eighteenth century). Like the Tidewater examples, Berkeley's courthouse was T-shaped, but, unlike them, it was built of stone rather than brick. It stood until the mid-1850s, when the present courthouse, which may incorporate portions of the building within its own much-altered walls, replaced it.
The Virginia General Assembly officially established Martinsburg in October 1778. The town plan, unusual in colonial Virginia, relates to Pennsylvania models. Four corner lots at the central intersection of King and Queen streets were set back and reduced in size, providing space for a town square. The courthouse infringes on the northwest corner, but the square can still be traced on the other three corners, where later buildings still comply with the original setbacks. Another unusual feature of the plan is alternating broad and narrow streets. Although the intersection of King and Queen streets was intended as the center of town, streets are divided and named as north, south, east, and west from the intersection of Queen and Burke streets, one block to the north.
From its inception, Martinsburg has had an industrial character. Tuscarora Creek, flowing along its northern and eastern boundaries, provided sites and waterpower for early mills, and the town became the Eastern Panhandle's leading commercial center. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad came to town in 1842, paralleling the meandering course of Tuscarora Creek. By the end of the decade, the B&O had built shops and engine houses.
One of the B&O engineers was John H. B. Latrobe, son of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe. He designed one of the line's most imposing structures, the Colonnade Bridge, which carried the railroad across East Burke Street and Tuscarora Creek on massive stone pillars finished as Doric columns. Unfortunately, it stood for only twenty years. Confederate troops under General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson's command destroyed it and other railroad facilities on June 20, 1861. In March 1862, after Martinsburg changed hands once again, a Union soldier from Indiana, identified as “Prock” in correspondence published in the Vincennes Western Sun, reported on the damage wrought on “this sesesh town”: “The rebels have left their mark here—forty-four locomotives stand on the tracks here—all a perfect wreck; a fine bridge, some 300 feet long, built on sixteen stone pillars, formerly a splendid structure, is now a heap of rubbish.”
Much of the city likewise lay in ruins, but Prock saw beyond the destruction to make a number of observations:
King and Queen streets are the two great thoroughfares, in fact are the only finished streets in the city.… There is a splendid cemetery near the town, and occupying the only spot of ground from which a view of the entire place can be obtained. Stone is the principal building material. Faulkner's residence on Queen Street is altogether the most handsome one in the city, and the surroundings exhibit a display of good taste, neatness and ‘style’ that I have not seen equalled in Virginia.
Although Prock described Martinsburg as secessionist, its loyalties during the Civil War were divided. David Hunter Strother recalled that the Home Guard, organized by citizens who did not know which side to join, “kept their headquarters at the courthouse, sat up nights, [and] arrested each other and everybody else they found prowling about.” Two nineteenth-century houses also illustrate the divided sentiments. Confederate spy Belle Boyd was from Martinsburg, and the house where she lived as a girl is now the Berkeley County Historical Society's headquarters ( BE12). Less well known is the smaller house at 325 East Burke Street ( BE15) where Mary Miller—as staunch a Unionist as Belle was a rebel—lived.
Martinsburg's 1860 population was 3,364, and when West Virginia was established in 1863, it was the second-largest city, after Wheeling, in the state. Recovery after the war was slow but sure. Reconstruction of the railroad shops began in 1866, and gasworks and waterworks were installed in the 1870s. George D. Whitson, who would become the city's leading architect, apparently began his practice during the same decade.
Electricity, installed in 1890, helped inaugurate a boom in the city's western and southern suburbs. Textile mills were established, an electric streetcar line went into operation, and handsome residences were built along South Queen and West King streets. By 1910 the city's population stood at 10,698, but Martinsburg now ranked only sixth among the state's cities.
During the twentieth century, Martinsburg continued as the Eastern Panhandle's leading industrial and commercial center. In recent decades, however, shopping malls easily reached from Interstate 81, which passes immediately west of the city on its north-south run, have taken business away from downtown. Suburbs that now sprawl over the once rural landscape outside the city limits have caused Martinsburg's population, which peaked in 1950 at 15,621, to remain almost static. In 2000, with a population of 14,972, it ranked as West Virginia's tenth-largest city.
All things considered, it is remarkable how much remains from 1862, when Prock saw Martinsburg. King and Queen streets are still the “great thoroughfares,” Green Hill Cemetery ( BE16) still provides a beautiful view, and the onetime Faulkner residence, Boydville ( BE5) is still considered by many to be the handsomest house in the city. Unfortunately, in a misguided attempt at preservation, all too many of Martinsburg's older brick buildings have been sandblasted in recent years, and any number now show scars from this heavy-handed treatment.
Martinsburg displays an egalitarian mien. No one section predominates, nor does one particular residential area hold unchallenged sway above the others. Houses and commercial structures mingle comfortably with institutional buildings and industrial complexes.
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