Brief History of Beckley, W. Va. (1943)

By Charles Hodel


The putting together of this short story of Beckley was undertaken at the request of a Pittsburgh concern, which intended to incorporate it in a publication representative of all of West Virginia. Being anxious that Beckley enjoy the publicity value thus promised, I complied at once. But space limitations, occasioned by the wartime paper shortage, prevented its use.

Subsequently it was given space, serially, in The Sunday Register, and is here reprinted to make it available in a better form to such persons as may be interested.

I must acknowledge helpful criticism of my efforts by Winton A. Riffe. He is far more competent than I to turn out a comprehensive account of the trials and errors, struggles and successes, of Beckley and its environs. It is my fervent hope that he shall, before long find time to do so. Beckley and Raleigh county should be so memorialized in more detailed fashion. —The Author

Beckley began in 1838—but not as a county seat.

Most of the area that is now Raleigh county was then a part of Fayette county, Virginia. The county of Raleigh, with Beckley as its seat, was carved out of Fayette in 1850. In the same year part of what had previously been Logan, became Wyoming county. But it did not all remain Wyoming. The part that is now Slab Fork district of Raleigh county withdrew, to become part of Raleigh, in 1872.

But we are rapidly getting ahead of our story. Beckley was first given being by an Act of the General Assembly of Virginia at the instance of the founder, General Alfred Beckley, twelve years before it became a county seat. It was not so named for the General himself. In his memoirs it is recorded that the new town was called Beckley for his “honored father,” John Beckley, first clerk and librarian of the Congress of the United States. John Beckley was also one of the original patentees of the Moore & Beckley grant of 170,038 acres of land in this section. And it was the son’s interest in the development of that land which brought him from an army post in Pittsburgh to what is now southern West Virginia, in 1837.

“Wildwood,” the house in which the original Beckley Beckleys lived, was of logs. It was built on an eminence in the southeast part of the present city of Beckley. It was succeeded, in 1874, by a more commodious frame dwelling which still stands and is occupied as a residence.

In the beginning, and for many years, Beckley was hardly even a village—just a cross-roads spot where one was to grow. General Beckley recites that he was frequently twitted by friends concerning his “paper town.” A somnolent backwoods village did catch on.

When it became a county seat in 1850 General Beckley, in his own words, “conveyed to the people of Raleigh county their present beautiful court house plat of two acres as well as one-half the building lots of his town, provided the people would establish the seat of justice in and at the town of Beckley forever.” The first court house was erected and a beginning was made in the keeping of county records—again largely by General Beckley.

In the days when executions of convicted criminals were carried out in the county seats, Beckley experienced one hanging—that of William I. Martin, for wife murder, on October 3, 1890.

But between the date of the city’s founding and the turn of the century the only incidents that really disturbed its calm uneventfulness were the Civil War skirmishes in the neighborhood, and the fact that its people and those of the country ’round about were much divided in their allegiances—whether to the North or to the South. Even families were divided.

This was further complicated by the fact that first one side and than the other was in possession of Beckley during the bloody years of the internecine war. In later years the people came to pride themselves on the fact that Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley, who both attained the Presidency, had been given hospitality (even though grudgingly) during the war, as junior officers of the Federal army. The “Davis cottages,” which stood on Main Street until 1918, were pre-empted as headquarters for the Union forces.

Said John Beckley (son of Alfred) in his record of that period. “They were years of constant uneasiness, worry, fear, anxiety, trial, hope, and disappointment for all noncombatants, as we were, here on debatable ground between the armies—one day the Federal army in possession of the country—the next day the Confederate army in possession of the country—and this state of things continued throughout the entire struggle.”

The second year of the war saw separate statehood come to West Virginia, and Beckley’s civil allegiance was transferred from Richmond to Wheeling, the new state’s first capital.

The years 1872-73 brought to Beckley—then for a season called Raleigh Court House—the first stirrings of economic progress. The former year saw the framing of a new constitution for the state, to get set for the rapid development of resources that its chief men saw coming; the latter the opening of the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad—its completion from the eastern seaboard to the Ohio river.

Though the “iron horse” could get within but ten miles of Beckley, that proximity marked a great step forward for the community. Instead of wagoners having to haul produce and merchandise over rutted trails all the way to and from Marmet and Malden, on the Great Kanawha river, the haul was reduced to the ten miles to Prince station—up and down Bat-off mountain.

It was about 20 years after the coming of the railroad before the opening of Raleigh county’s first coal mine at Royal. The output had to be carried across New river in buckets on an aerial cable, to be dumped into railroad cars on the opposite side. There began to be a more general awareness of coal deposits throughout the county.

Virgin timber abounded on all the hills and in the valleys. In every direction from Beckley, the plateau on which it stands was covered with wooded verdure. But until modern means of transport appeared, all of that in the immediate neighborhood of Beckley was but a nuisance to the pioneers. The coming of the first railroad, even though it only skirted the county, brought to the owners of wooded land a realization of its commercial value.

The first big timbering operation on the highlands around Beckley was that of J. R. Beaty. He built a tram-road into the back country from Grandview, hauled logs to the break of the New river gorge, skidded them down to the river, and ferried them across to a switch near Quinnimont, where they were loaded on railroad cars.

Later the movement was reversed; the logs were brought to Raleigh, sawed there; and the finished lumber went out to market over the Piney branch.

The year 1880 saw the birth of Beckley’s first newspaper. Volume one, number one, of the Raleigh County Index made its appearance on June 22. It was a modest little publication, as befitted its field. The community leaders were proud of it, however, because they saw in it a means of consolidating the people of the area and of promoting the general welfare that had not theretofore existed.

The chief families of the town then were the Beckleys, the Hulls, the Princes, the Davises, the Ellisons, the McGinnises, and the Shumates. Descendants of all of them still live here and hold honorable positions in the community.

Now and then a new enterprise was established. There was an accession of resident traders, dentists, surveyors, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and preachers. The life of the average man became a little easier and more refined.

A decade of gradual progress brought the building of a new brick court house in 1890, replacing an earlier, though much smaller, brick structure, on the square dedicated by the town’s founder. A few years before a stone jail had been put up across Heber street on the corner of its intersection with Prince.

(The present court house, which also comprises the county jail, is the fourth in line. The first was of logs, the second of home-made bricks, also the third, while the present beautiful building is of native stone.)

The first great step toward the building of a city came with the bridging of New river at Prince and the construction of the Piney branch of the C. & O. railway—not to Beckley, quite, but only to Raleigh at first. That job was finished in 1901. Its construction had given work at good pay to many a strapping youth of the town and country-side. Some saved their money and with it paid their way through professional schools, to return with their specialized educations as doctors or lawyers or dentists.

By 1904 the railroad was extended to Mabscott, and then beyond to Surveyor and Lester, with plans to continue on into Wyoming county.

The railroad’s penetration of the immediate Beckley area brought a period of relatively rapid progress. There followed at once the more aggressive cutting of timber and the establishment of large sawing and planing mills. Coal mines were also opened along the new branch line of the railroad.

Capital with which to finance these developments was not available locally, but it poured in from the East and North. As small holders sold their timber and coal, comparative wealth become their portion.

This prospect had brought the organization, in 1899, of the town’s first bank, the Bank of Raleigh, headed by John McCreery, lawyer and landholder, with I. C. Prince as vice president. Some of its original capital however, came from Hinton, which had enjoyed the prosperity brought by the railroad for many years before it flowered fully in Beckley.

In the year 1900 the town’s second newspaper, the Raleigh Herald, was established, along with an increasing number of retail enterprises.

There came a period of real estate speculation. The more venturesome put their money into the erection of the first substantial business buildings. There began an influx of new people.

Out in the county this speculative era had started earlier, though it didn’t meet the eye so plainly. With the approach of the railroads, options on coal and timber lands were much sought after. Small holdings were bought up and consolidated into big boundaries to attract the necessary capital for large-scale development.

Perhaps the cleverest and most active of the men thus engaged was Azel Ford. He came to Raleigh county from western New York, having married a lady who fell heir to land not far from where the Glade creek dam of Beckley Water Company is now located. There he established a farm. He was far ahead of his neighbors in sensing the value of the lands they owned.

He secured options and with a brief case full of them visited some wealthy men in Philadelphia. They became interested, bought the first batch of them and asked for more.

Thenceforward, for some years, Ford made it his business to option and buy for his principals, with handsome profits to himself. He moved his family to Beckley, into the then finest house in the county. (It still stands on Neville street.) And he became almost a legendary figure among the rural people.

Ford’s perspicacity in the 1880s formed the basis of what is now the Beaver Coal Corporation. His work of rounding up the lands comprised in its holdings was finished in 1891, but he continued as local agent through a number of subsequent years.

An incidental item of interest is the fact that in those times, because of an early prejudice against big corporations, there was a West Virginia law forbidding any individual or corporation to own more than 10,000 acres of land. The result was that Ford’s eastern principals organized several land holding corporations. When the law limiting ownership of acreage was repealed in 1901, their holdings were consolidated in the Beaver Coal Company, now Beaver Coal Corporation.

Eleven coal mining companies or “lessees” are operating 20 mines on its lands. The business clears through an office building maintained in Beckley.

Beaver Coal Corporation has contributed in many ways to the progress of Beckley. Its officials have always supported forward-looking civic and cultural movements.

As land values climbed it was found that the early surveyors, lacking the precision instruments of later times, had erred in many instances. As a consequence the circuit court was clogged for many years with contests over boundaries.

These but served to whet appetites for land, and other large holdings were brought together.

Many of the newcomers to Beckley, however, labored under the delusion that the community had no permanency—that the timber and coal would soon be gone—that they must “make hay while the sun shines,” then return with their wealth from whence they came, to enjoy lives of ease and luxury.

That attitude resulted in the building of merely temporary homes and business houses of flimsy frame construction, lending to the town for a time the atmosphere of many earlier “boom” towns of the West.

But among them were also men of broader, more forthright and far-seeing vision and purpose. One such was Samuel Dixon, then head of The New River Company, with its chief offices in the neighboring town of Mount Hope.

Taking advantage of the coming of the Piney branch, he at last brought shining steel rails to Beckley, by building from “Beckley Junction” to Cranberry the Piney River & Paint Creek railroad. Along this “branch of a branch” he opened three coal mines and established the towns of Sprague (virtually a part of Beckley), Skelton, and Cranberry. The residents of these towns, employed at their respective mines, brought to Beckley much of its early retail prosperity.

Came also, soon afterwards, the completion of the Virginian railway, “from Deepwater to tidewater,” in 1909. It pierced Raleigh county from end to end, and brought the projection of new railroad branches—its own from Mullens up Winding Gulf creek to Pemberton and Fireco—and that of the C. & O. from Raleigh down the same stream to Stonecoal Junction. Still later tracks were also laid by the Virginian up Stonecoal creek from the junction. Here was vigorous railroad competition for the coal lying in the mountains towering over the creeks followed by the roadbeds.

This Virginian chapter began with the opening of temporary offices in Beckley in 1902 by John Kee, today Representative in Congress of the Fifth West Virginia district, then acting as rights-of-way agent for the railroad company. Incidentally the railroad, the next year, erected one of the original substantial buildings in Beckley, long known as the “Deep water building,” and since converted into an apartment house.

The same year saw the beginning of the most momentous civil suit ever brought in the local courts. It involved the purposes of both the C. & O. and Virginian to carry their lines south of Lester, across Jennys Gap, and was known as the “Jennys Gap tunnel case.” It was a battle royal of giants.

Though the C. & O. had driven the tunnel and had carried the grade for its road far beyond, into Wyoming county, the Virginian won. Its trains have been running through the tunnel for 40 years.

Meantime Beckley enjoyed much growth, though of a somewhat flimsy nature as heretofore indicated. From a few hundred people at the turn of the century, the town grew to a population of 2,161 by count of the census of 1910.

In 1907 a municipal charter was secured from the legislature and Beckley’s first city government instituted. Three years earlier an electric power generating plant had been installed for lighting the city, and as an adjunct the Beckley Electric Light & Power Company also laid down the beginnings of a water system. In 1910 an issue of bonds was ratified by the citizens, and the next year the city lifted a part of itself out of the mud by putting down brick paving on the principal streets.

In April, 1912, came the “blessing in disguise” that was inevitable from the nature of much of Beckley’s faulty and haphazard construction. Four blocks of its business district was swept by fire. Permanent structures, during the next few years, replaced the “fire traps” that had given way before the big blaze.

The town gave way to the city. Better churches, modern school buildings, and more substantial homes were built on every hand, as confidence grew.

The First World War didn’t greatly touch Beckley—just coming out of its swaddling clothes. True, the city had its share of young men going to war, either as volunteers or by operation of the draft law. And there was feverish buying of silk shirts with the high wages paid by the mines out in the county for getting out the coal that was discovered to be “navy standard,” and which sold for prices that would be shocking even in this other day of peak demand.

But convenient transport for general intercourse with the people of the mining towns and the outside world was still lacking. In 19 months from the beginning of America’s participation the war was over. Beckley did not “get the play” nor feel the impact that came to older, more advanced, communities.

But two of its soldiers—Opie Dobyns and Bruce McK. Noble—were direct fatal casualties of the war. [Note: A descendant of Opie Dobyns writes that Dobyns was from Bedford, Virginia, rather than Beckley, West Virginia, and census records do show him living in Bedford County, Virginia.]

An aftermath that brought it somewhat closer than the actual conflict itself, was the sending here in the spring of 1919 of a regiment of veterans of the famous Rainbow Division to preserve order in the face of a threatened strike of coal miners. The troops were encamped in a field that is now bisected by Burgess street. During the weeks the soldiers were here Beckley householders vied with each other in entertaining the men at meals, and to get firsthand accounts of the final days of the war and the occupation of the German Rhineland.

Beckley’s biggest surge of wild, material prosperity came in the post-war years of the early ’20s, with the automobile coming into general use, and with the building of roads that gave ready access to neighbors in its own and adjoining counties. The city had now reached a population of 4,149.

Road-building bonds had been approved and issued by the people of the four central magisterial districts in 1916, and a local grading and paving program had been carried out. But it speedily became apparent that highway construction by magisterial districts or counties would never provide the integrated and connected system that would serve all the people best.

Hence, by amendment of the West Virginia constitution, it was provided that the state should issue bonds in the millions for first connecting all county seats and for building other important lateral roads. With that the state took over all road construction. Despite the fact that much of the local work was found to have gone for naught, the state program proved wise. Broader and better aligned highways brought truck and bus transportation, and finally it did become convenient to get in and out of Beckley—either personally or with the commodities of the market place.

Real estate, particularly that of the city’s business district, took a leap to higher values. Development and marketing of outlying subdivisions for homeseekers tumbled over one another seeking prospects and making sales. Men were heard to say that the round of buying and selling required them to think in tens and hundreds of thousands where they had been accustomed to thinking merely in thousands.

The national pause in business and development in 1921-22 and the Florida real estate collapse that followed in 1924, with general repercussions, touched Beckley not at all.

However, conservatism prevailed, and in the latter ’20s the local boom leveled off; so that Beckley headed into the Great Depression from a less precipitous speculative peak than most sections of the United States. In consequence the city weathered the depression without a bank failure, and indeed, without a major business failure of any sort.

Considering the toll of business casualties in other American cities, large and small, during the early ’30s, Beckley’s experience marked it more than ever as a substantial and well-rooted business center, with a genuine excuse for existence.

It was during the latter ’20s, too, that there came into use by one of the newspapers as its own slogan for Beckley, the line “Beckley—Smoke1ess Coal Capital.” (The same slogan has since been adopted by the Beckley Chamber of Commerce, and is now in general use.)

Some years earlier the boundaries of the low volatile, or smokeless, coal measures of southern West Virginia had been pretty well prospected and established. No one had ever thought to map the whole area, to set apart or “isolate” it, so to speak. That was done by the newspaper in connection with the preparation of a “Smokeless Coal Edition.”

And lo, it was found that Beckley occupied almost the exact geographical center! Being also the largest city of the “Smokeless Coal Empire,” and the one with best prospects for continued growth, what more logical than that it be designated the capital?

The circumstance brought to many of its citizens a new conception of Beckley’s advantageous situation—a new vision of a future with still greater possibilities. Indeed it was seen that Beckley must be dominant in the large area between Bluefield and Charleston. Men took new courage. Paved streets were pushed out in every direction, many costly homes were built. City government and public service facilities were widely expanded. Both established and new-coming retail and wholesale enterprises reached farther and farther afield for business. The trading territory was thus greatly extended, and Beckley kept on growing in wealth and high standing with its neighbors.

Depression did not fail to slow up the pulse of trade and enterprise. Unemployment was rife here as everywhere else. Federal government relief measures came to the rescue, and the under the aegis of that necessity a number of public improvement projects were being carried out.

Outstanding among them was construction of the Beckley-Mount Hope Municipal Airport. Work was carried forward during the critical period from November, 1933, to November, 1935; but it never became a finished project, though $140,000 in relief funds was expended thereon. After the lapse of a year and a half, in May, 1937, the airport was opened to traffic and has been the center of Raleigh and Fayette county aviation activities since that time.

The depression period also witnessed the establishment of Beckley College. It opened its doors to its first students in the fall of 1933, in rented quarters; but has since acquired its own home and is even now looking farther ahead to a campus site where greater facilities can be provided.

The population of Beckley meanwhile jumped to 9,357 in 1930. The figure was disappointing at the time because it fell short of the 10,000, or more, needed to attract consideration in big business circles. Mabscott had refused to join in a larger combined city. But by 1940 a further increase to 12,852 was noted; and there was talk of 25,000 by 1950.

In an extended history of Beckley a complete chapter should be devoted to the centennial celebration of 1938. It was well organized and amply financed, and carried out with inspiring pomp and pageantry, recalling at once the struggles and the pleasurable interludes of the pioneers.

Wm. Robt. Campbell, a great grandson of the founder, acted as general chairman of the Centennial Commission. Miss Betty M. Jordan, a great great granddaughter, was queen of the centennial celebration. In her court were princesses from all sections of Raleigh county.

The celebration carried through most of the last week in June, the loveliest time of the year on the plateau that gives Beckley its setting. All summer there is much of the atmosphere of a summer resort. The city’s average altitude of 2,540 feet gives to summer nights and mornings a cool freshness that imparts new life and vitality to weary men and women who have to endure the heat of lower levels. A night or two in Beckley acts as an elixir that soothes their frazzled nerves and restores them to new vigor.

The year 1939 brought Beckley its own radio station, WJLS—another means by which the city has carved out its own sphere of influence; for the Beckley station’s listening zone roughly blankets the city’s trading area.

In the same year came the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the Beckley chamber of commerce, and the retirement of its first secretary, William A. James. He had come on from his former home in Richmond, Va., to hold the struggling organization together, soon after its formation in the fall of 1919, and he had succeeded admirably. Unique was his position in Masonry during those years, in that though a resident of the daughter state, he was retained as an officer of the Grand Lodge of Virginia, and must needs go, periodically, to fill his place at important meetings.

During the same period came also the formation of service clubs, and of social and cultural organizations, though one, the Beckley Woman’s Clubs, antedates the chamber of commerce by ten years.

Establishment of the city’s first park on a 9-acre tract in its eastern outskirts, came in 1940.

Along with constant increase in population and wealth have come many of the other attributes of a city. Their gradual acquisition is also part of Beckley’s history, but cannot be portrayed in detail within the scope here allotted.

World War II, particularly since Pearl Harbor, has been brought home to Beckley with a harder jolt than the first—perhaps because improved transport and communications leave no escape for any part of the world. Wit the country at large being called upon for more men for the armed services—and for the auxiliaries, male and female—a greater proportion of Beckley’s young people have responded. There is more of rationing. More is being asked for war relief agencies.

One after another these demands are being met. It has been the pride of Beckley through the years that its citizens never shirk a call to public duty. And there is a ready response to every call for furthering the war effort.

The history of a community, as of a nation or an individual, is like a jewel of many facets. In this chronicle many interesting sidelights have necessarily had to be passed by. It is confined largely to the strictly material aspects of Beckley’s development—from an idea in the mind of a pioneer to its present eminence.

Much of what Beckley now is, and how regarded by its happy and prosperous residents, is well told in “A Toast to Beckley,” recently gotten off by Mrs. Marcia Kimball who had moved to the city from Malden, a suburb of Boston. As Mrs. Kimball put it:

Two years ago we reached this goal—
The city that thrives on Smokeless Coal;
On these hills and mountains high,
Pointing upward to the sky,
We found a place to live, and learn
Of hearts as warm as the coal they burn.

Generosity, kindness—all its own,
A heartier welcome never known,
So here’s to Beckley—her smokeless fires,
May she always have her heart’s desires.
To people here so grand and true,
All good luck and a God-Bless-You!

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