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Charles Town

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Charles Washington, George's youngest full brother, established Charles Town in January 1787 on eighty acres taken from his extensive land holdings. In an unusual clause, the Virginia legislature let him plat the half-acre lots “in such manner as he may judge best.” In addition to naming the town for himself, Charles named north-south streets after members of the family, again including himself, and designated the main east-west thoroughfare Washington Street. Liberty Street to its north and Congress Street to its south reflect the patriotic spirit of the times. Compass designations preceding street names come from their bearing to the central intersection, George and Washington streets. Washington had hopes that a new county would soon be formed from eastern Berkeley County and that his town would become its seat of justice. Consequently, he intended to donate four corner lots at the central intersection for public buildings. His death in 1799 predated Jefferson County's formation by two years, but his son carried out his wishes.

The 1800 petition to form Jefferson County described Charles Town as “a handsome and flourishing town, situate[d] at the crossing of the principle [ sic] roads of the Valley.” Early in its history, Charles Town became known for its gentility. Anne Royall, normally the most caustic of reporters, agreed. In fact she was almost stymied after her 1827 visit, which she discussed in her Black Book: “Having formed an unfavorable opinion of Virginia, generally, I never was more disappointed. When we compare the taste and refined manners of this little town, or that of Harper's Ferry, with the City of Richmond … the people of Virginia will blush for their Capital.”

Charles Town, whose allegiance was with the Confederate cause, changed hands a number of times during the Civil War. From July 1861 to March 1865, eighteen engagements occurred in the town or nearby, taking their toll on people and buildings. David H. Cockrill and Son, who proclaimed themselves “Architects & Builders,” advertised in the local newspaper in 1868: “Having stood to their posts in the Confederate army during the four years struggle which it so manfully encountered, they have located in their native county, where their services are offered in building up the waste places, and in carrying out practical reconstruction.” The firm was soon called upon to rebuild the county courthouse.

By the end of the nineteenth century, development centered in north Charles Town, thanks to the Charles Town Mining, Manufacturing, and Improvement Company. A typical “New South boom” enterprise, the company laid out lots and built a large hotel, the Powhatan, to attract visitors and potential investors. As was also typical, the boom was short lived. In 1900 the impressive Queen Anne Style hotel was converted into the Powhatan College for Young Women. North Charles Town was incorporated as the separate town of Ranson in 1910.

The Washington, D.C., firm of A. B. Mullett and Company obtained many, if not most, of Charles Town's important turn-of-the-century architectural commissions, at least according to citations from Manufacturers Record. Alfred B. Mullett, formerly Supervising Architect of the Treasury, died in 1890, but his sons Thomas and Frederick continued the firm's practice. Thomas is credited with most of the design work, and, judging from his known commissions, designed in a straightforward manner unusual for the times.

During the twentieth century, Charles Town became a center of the lower Valley of Virginia's burgeoning apple industry, with Ransom the center for canning and packing. The Charles Town Race Track, a logical extension of the area's long-established passion for horse racing, also helped the economy, especially after the state legalized pari-mutuel betting in 1933.

Although the outskirts now show a great deal of recent development, over the years the older sections of Charles Town have retained their small-town ambience. Population figures reveal that growth, while steady, has been blissfully slow. In 1820 the population stood at just over 1,000; in 1910, at 2,662; and in 2000, at 2,907. The 1941 WPA guide summarized Charles Town as “a tranquil southern town, steeped in tradition and proudly conscious of an aristocratic lineage.… It remains aloof from the soot of industry and is a purely residential community.” With allowances for modest increases and attendant traffic since then, that assessment still applies.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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