There’s a lot to love about this capital city nestled in the heart of Appalachia—small town charm in an urban setting, a deep appreciation of the arts, even a thriving sports life. And like any great Southern town, Charleston, West Virginia, has plenty of stories to tell. Some you’ve heard, others maybe not. Either way, here are five things you might not know about Charleston.
- The state capitol burned down. Twice.
The Victorian Capitol burned in 1921, setting off ammunition stored in the top floor of the building
In 1877 the good people of West Virginia voted Charleston as the capital and took to planning a capitol building. The stunning Victorian capitol was completed in 1885. Sadly, on the afternoon of January 3, 1921, a stenographer spotted smoke coming from the attic. By the time the fire department arrived, the capitol was engulfed in flames.
To add to the chaos surrounding the burning building, ammunition from the state police had been stored on the top floor. The heat set off the ammunition, and spectators, having no idea what was happening, fled for cover. Amidst the confusion, two men stole a fire truck, but after a short joyride through town, both were apprehended. At the end of a long and eventful day, the Victorian capitol was gone.
As a quick replacement while a new building was planned, the city built a wooden structure to serve as the capitol. Sadly, it suffered the same fate as its predecessor, burning to the ground in 1927. Thankfully, the new capitol was already under construction, with its completion in 1932.
- It’s a city built on salt
Salt brines were discovered along the banks of the Kanawha River, boosting the valley to the leading salt producer in the United States in the early 1800’s (photo courtesy of Doug Wallick)
When most people think of West Virginia, they think of coal. And for good reason. Coal mining played a leading role in expanding the state’s economy. But in Charleston, it was salt that kicked it off.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, salt brines were discovered along the Kanawha River. By 1806, the first salt well had been established. Two short years later, the Kanawha valley was producing 1,250 pounds of salt daily, making it one of the top salt producers worldwide. While coal and chemical production later took over industrial endeavors in the area, some, such as the family behind J. Q. Dickinson Salt Works in nearby Malden, are continuing the centuries-old tradition.
- They paved the way in bricks
One odd claim to fame in Charleston is the first brick street in the United States—Summers Street, laid by Mordecai Levi in 1870. Pictured is nearby Capitol Street, with its brick sidewalks and century-old shops. (Photo by Richie Diesterheft)
Back when the streets of Charleston—and most of America—were still dirt (mud, mostly), a Charleston man had a novel idea. On October 23, 1870, Mordecai Levi laid the first pieces of brick pavement on Summers Street, between Kanawha and Virginia Streets. As nothing quite like it had been done before, Charleston had the first brick street in the United States. Some (just about anyone you happen to ask in Charleston) argue it was the first of its kind worldwide.
- It was named for Charles, but not that Charles
Charleston, West Virginia, is named for Charles Clendenin, father of George Clendenin, who built Fort Lee at a site near today’s downtown Charleston. Pictured is a replica of Fort Randolph at Point Pleasant, WV. (Photo by Kevin Myers)
In the mid-1700’s settlers began moving into western Virginia territory. In 1773, Thomas Bullitt was given 1,250 acres for his service during the French and Indian War. Upon his death in 1778, Cuthbert Bullitt, Thomas’s brother, inherited the land and later sold it to Colonel George Clendenin in 1786. Clendenin established Fort Lee there to protect the Kanawha Valley from Indian raids. By 1794, other settlers had come to the area, and Virginia established the city of Charleston, named for Clendenin’s own father.
But Charleston isn’t to be confused with Charles Town, West Virginia. Charles Town was founded by Charles Washington, younger brother to General George Washington.
- America’s favorite breakfast buffet was born right here
Charleston is also the birthplace of Shoney’s Restaurants. Pictured is founder Alex Schoenbaum in front of his first restaurant, originally named The Parkette Drive-In. (Photo courtesy of J. Preisler)
Maybe this one’s a bit less historically significant, but it is significant nonetheless.
In 1947, Alex Schoenbaum—“Shoney” among friends—opened a drive-in diner known as The Parkette next to his father’s bowling alley in Charleston. The success of the Parkette led to other locations and a franchise agreement with Big Boy Restaurants. By 1954, he had five locations and held a contest to name the franchises. That year the drive-ins became Shoney’s. The company split with Big Boy in the 1980’s and introduced the iconic Shoney’s Bear.
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