Industry and commerce are very different things today than they were in the latter part of the 1800’s. The ways we get our energy and the types of technology we work with are completely different creatures than they were over a hundred years ago, and just as the industry of that time shaped cities, those same cities today have to grapple with new realities. Detroit, known to us as “Motor City” was “Stove City” before that—it produced most of the nation’s wood and coal cooking and heating stoves in the later nineteenth century, and the coal required to fuel those stoves as well as to fuel the forges that produced their iron largely came from West Virginia’s coalfields.
While these coalfields were scattered across the southwestern portion of the state, their administrative center quickly became Princeton, the county seat of Mercer County. Later, much of the coal-related business would move north to Beckley, but at the onset of the heyday of West Virginian coal industry, Princeton was the hub for all things coal. The city’s dramatic rise to riches and challenges in a post-coal world demonstrate the quiet—and sometimes not-so-quiet—resolve of its people.
Some of Princeton’s rise to prosperity was a degree of luck: the British geologist Dr. David T. Ansted and his colleague, the Virginian civil engineer William Nelson Page, surveyed the region and set about developing its railroad infrastructure for the purpose of moving coal to the east coast for sale. Although Page eventually made his home in the town of Ansted (named for his friend the geologist), many of his railroad innovations—short-line railroads used to remove coal from remote fields not yet reached by major rail line—benefited Princeton directly.
Located closer to many of the southwestern fields than either Beckley or Ansted, Princeton, while remote from Roanoke, Richmond, and other major cities, was in as good a position as any community to become the epicenter of coal business.
Mr. Page—or “Colonel Page,” as he was fondly known, although only a major—was called “the idea man from Ansted,” and he appears to have lived up to that daunting name, bringing various business as well as engineering innovations to the production and transportation of coal, as well as to how the industry around it was managed. Much like Roanoke, it became a city defined by its railroads and the rise and fall of their importance to trade. For years, coal managed through Princeton went to coal docks in Norfolk, Virginia, and elsewhere, including to fuel the mighty forges and factories of Detroit. Indeed, the Rust Belt cities of the Midwest were fueled by the coal of West Virginia, and much of the reason for the location of so many factories in the Midwest was due to the relatively nearby supply of coal.
Coal and railroads alike provided good jobs, and those in Princeton (as opposed to the coalfields) were even better jobs since they were mostly administrative and technical positions. The divisional headquarters for the Virginian Railway was in Princeton with its roundhouses and machine shops, composing one of the finest railroad service yards of the region and bringing prosperity. Stately homes were built—not just in Princeton itself but in neighboring Bramwell, which once boasted the highest number of millionaires per capita in the entire United States—and apparently the first American woman to purchase a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume in the country.
The wealth of the region allowed for impressive civic buildings and a bustling commercial zone downtown where fine suits and hats could be found for men of means. In face, the first flashy dresser of the area was none other than old Colonel Page himself, who was known to ride his bicycle around the grounds of his estate—a gentleman’s pursuit of the later 1800’s—and to show up in town in dapper suits and sporting an impressive mustache. As long as the coal business was booming—which was well through the 1970’s and into the 1980’s—there were high-paying jobs, and many sons followed their fathers and grandfathers into the coal mines, secure with a job and good wages for life.
However, as the demand for coal changed in the 1980’s and even more through the 1990’s and 2000’s, these jobs were becoming scarce. Less coal was “run,” or produced, and more and more mechanization automated the dangerous work of mining. Those same men’s stores offering the latest suits over time either closed or lingered on with fewer customers visiting less frequently. Other businesses suffered as well, and clearly a future beyond coal had to come about for Princeton’s continued success.
Thus the Princeton Renaissance Project, a broad and ambitious arts-based project, was born. There has always been a lot of creativity in this region, from bluegrass and gospel musicians to writers to visual artists, and Lewisburg, West Virginia, about an hour to the northeast has prospered noticeably via the arts and tourism. While ambitious, the goals Princeton has set out are not only possible but very noble. The Princeton Renaissance seeks to make the entire city, and the downtown especially, viable for renewed business interest, and already there are signs of success.
The most evident sign to date is the vibrant murals spanning a vast array of subject matter found downtown. From a salute to veterans to whimsical cartoons, the old buildings of downtown are enlivened by these murals, a clear sign of the creative nature of the city and its citizens. These murals cause people to look up and to consider the impressive architecture around them in more detail: many buildings such as the court house and old post office (which now serves as a library) exhibit brilliant turn-of-the-century Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and modern architecture, including fine stonework. A number of the commercial buildings downtown also express the wealth of the period in which they were erected by way of their façades.
What Princeton has seemingly realized is that it has the extant infrastructure, including a seriously intricate and rich architectural heritage downtown, and that’s really the key building block for any economy: you have to have the physical place to build upon further.
But growth has come about in other ways as well: there is a major and relatively new soccer facility for youth soccer in the region capable of hosting high school as well as youth travel games, and with its interstate highway access as well as rail, Princeton should be attractive for industry.
Yet industry these days will not be seeking a location based on its raw materials nearly as much as based on transport routes and, even more perhaps, what the community can offer workers. Companies and their employees now expect good schools, ample recreational opportunities (which Princeton has—not just soccer but a bounty of outdoor opportunities for camping, hunting, whitewater rafting, and more nearby), plus the arts.
So in that sense, what the Princeton Renaissance is spearheading is essential, but it is also crucial to the retention and exploration of many native arts traditions, such as bluegrass music or the unique, often harrowing, but pithy literature of West Virginia such as Breece D’J Pancake’s short stories. Taking its name from an actual road called “Possum Hollow Road,” there is even the band Possum Holler Glee Club based in the region. The creativity, as witnessed in the bright murals on buildings’ sides here, is pretty much endless. Princeton looks forward, but with its eyes also fixed firmly on its past and its region’s deep and providing culture.
SEE MORE MIKE WALKER “PRINCETON’S CREATIVE RENAISSANCE” PHOTOS HERE