Charleston is the capital and largest city of the State of West Virginia. It is located at the confluence of the Elk and Kanawha Rivers in Kanawha County. As of the 2010 Census, it had a population of 51,400, while its metropolitan area had 304,214. New definitions from February 28, 2013 placed the population at 240,000. The metropolitan area is the second-largest in West Virginia behind the Huntington Metro Area. Charleston is the county seat of Kanawha County. It is the least populated state capital that is also the most populated city within the state.
Early industries important to Charleston included salt and the first natural gas well. Later, coal became central to economic prosperity in the city and the surrounding area. Today, trade, utilities, government, medicine, and education play central roles in the city's economy.
The first permanent settlement, Ft. Lee, was built in 1788. In 1791, Daniel Boone was a member of the Kanawha County Assembly.
Charleston is the home of the West Virginia Power (formerly the Charleston Alley Cats and the Charleston Wheelers) minor league baseball team, the West Virginia Wild minor league basketball team, and the annual Charleston Distance Run. Yeager Airport and the University of Charleston are also located in the city.
The city also contains public parks, such as Cato Park and Coonskin Park, and the Kanawha State Forest, a large public state park that sustains a pool, camping sites, several biking/walking trails, picnic areas, as well as several shelters provided for recreational use.
After the American Revolutionary War, pioneers began making their way out from the early settlements. Many slowly migrated into the western part of Virginia. Capitalizing on its many resources made Charleston an important part of Virginia and West Virginia history. Today, Charleston is the largest city in the state and the state capital.
Charleston's history goes back to the 18th century. Thomas Bullitt was deeded of land near the mouth of the Elk River in 1773. It was inherited by his brother, Cuthbert Bullitt, upon his death in 1782, and sold to Col. George Clendenin in 1786. The first permanent settlement, Fort Lee, was built in 1787 by Col. Savannah Clendenin and his company of Virginia Rangers. This structure occupied the area that is now the intersection of Brooks Street and Kanawha Boulevard. Historical conjecture indicates that Charleston is named after Col. Clendenin's father, Charles. Charles Town was later shortened to Charleston to avoid confusion with another Charles Town in eastern West Virginia, which was named after George Washington's brother Charles.
Six years later, the Virginia General Assembly officially established Charleston. On the that made up the town in 1794, 35 people inhabited seven houses.
Charleston is part of Kanawha County. The origin of the word Kanawha (pronounced "KA-NAW"), "Ka(h)nawha", derives from the region's Iroquois dialects meaning "water way" or "Canoe Way" implying the metaphor, "transport way", in the local language. It was and is the name of the river that flows past Charleston. The grammar of the "hard H" sound soon dropped out as new arrivals of various European languages developed West Virginia. The phrase has been a matter of Register (sociolinguistics). In fact, a two-story jail was the first county structure ever built, with the first floor literally dug into the bank of the Kanawha River.
Daniel Boone, who was commissioned a lieutenant colonel of the Kanawha County militia, was elected to serve in 1791 in the Virginia House of Delegates. As told in historical accounts, Boone walked all the way to Richmond.
By the early 19th century, salt brines were discovered along the Kanawha River and the first salt well was drilled in 1806. This created a prosperous time and great economic growth for the area. By 1808, 1,250 pounds of salt were being produced a day. An area adjacent to Charleston, Kanawha Salines, now Malden, would become the top salt producer in the world. In 1818, Kanawha Salt Company, first trust in United States, went into operation.
Captain James Wilson, while drilling for salt, struck the first natural gas well in 1815. It was drilled at the site that is now the junction of Brooks Street and Kanawha Boulevard (near the present-day state capitol complex.) In 1817, coal was first discovered and gradually became used as the fuel for the salt works. The Kanawha salt industry declined in importance after 1861, until the advent of World War I brought a demand for chemical products. The chemicals needed were chlorine and sodium hydroxide, which could be made from salt brine.
The town continued to grow until the Civil War began in 1861. The state of Virginia seceded from the Union, and Charleston was divided between Union and Confederate loyalty. On September 13, 1862, the Union and Confederate Armies met in the Battle of Charleston. Although the Confederate States Army was victorious, occupation of the city was short-lived. Union troops returned just six weeks later and stayed through the end of the war.
The Northern hold on Charleston and most of the western part of Virginia created an even larger problem. Virginia already had seceded from the Union, but the western part was under Union control. The issue of statehood was raised. So amid the tumultuous Civil War, West Virginia officially became a state through Presidential Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln declared the northwestern portion of Virginia to be returned to the Union, and on June 20, 1863, West Virginia became the 35th state.
In addition to the issue of slavery, West Virginia was also driven to separate from Virginia for economic reasons. The heavy industries in the North, particularly the steel business of the upper Ohio River region, were dependent on the coal available from western Virginia mines. Federalized military units were dispatched from Ohio to western Virginia early in the war to secure access to the coal mines and transportation resources.
Although the state now existed, settling on a state capital location proved to be difficult. For several years, the capital of West Virginia intermittently traveled between Wheeling and Charleston. In 1877, however, state citizens voted on the final location of their capital. Charleston received 41, 243 votes, Clarksburg received 29,442 and Martinsburg received 8,046. Wheeling was not an available option for voting. Charleston was chosen and eight years later, the first capitol building was opened.
After a fire in 1921, a hastily built structure was opened but burned down in 1927. However, a Capitol Building Commission, created by the Legislature in 1921, authorized construction of the present capitol. Architect Cass Gilbert designed the buff Indiana limestone structure, in the Italian Renaissance style, that was to have a final cost of just under $10 million. After the three stages of construction were completed, Governor William G. Conley dedicated the West Virginia State Capitol on June 20, 1932.
Development in the 1900s
Charleston was now the center for state government. Natural resources, such as coal and natural gas, along with railroad expansion also contributed to growth. New industries, such as chemical, glass, timber and steel migrated to the state, attracted by the area's natural resources. There was a huge amount of new construction in Charleston. A number of those buildings, including churches and office buildings, still stand in the heart of downtown along and bordering Capitol Street.
During World War II, the first and largest styrene-butadiene plant in the U.S. opened in nearby Institute, providing a replacement for rubber to the war effort. After the war ended, Charleston was on the brink of some significant construction. One of the first during this period was Kanawha Airport (now Yeager Airport, named after General Chuck Yeager), which was perhaps one of the most phenomenal engineering accomplishments of its time. Built in 1947, the construction encompassed clearing on three mountaintops moving more than nine million cubic yards of earth.
In 1959, the Charleston Civic Center opened its doors. It stands today, totally renovated and providing the largest meeting and exhibit space available in West Virginia.
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act. Charleston became part of that system in the 1960s when three major interstate systems—I-64, I-77 and I-79 were constructed, all converging in the heart of Charleston. These roads provide convenient access to Midwestern, Northeastern and Southern cities. Charleston is within a day's drive of 60 percent of the U.S. population.
In 1983, the Charleston Town Center opened its doors downtown. It was the largest urban-based mall east of the Mississippi River, featuring three stories of shops and eateries. Downtown revitalization began in earnest in the late 1980s as well. Funds were set aside for streetscaping as Capitol and Quarrier Streets saw new building facades, trees along the streets, and brick walkways installed. For a time, the opening of the Charleston Town Center Mall had a somewhat negative impact on the main streets of downtown Charleston, as many businesses closed and relocated into the mall. For a while, the downtown business district (outside of the mall) had a "ghost town" feel to it which took several years to turn around. Today, Capitol Street, Hale Street, and other bordering streets are an eclectic mixture of restaurants, shops, businesses and services that many call the centerpiece of downtown.
The new Robert C. Byrd Federal Building, Haddad Riverfront Park and Capitol Market are just a few new developments that have helped growth in the downtown area during the 1990s. Charleston also became known as one of the premiere healthcare spots in the state. Along with ambitious thinking, plans for even new entertainment and business venues kept Charleston moving along at a steady pace.
In 1983, WV Public Radio launched a live-performance radio program statewide called Mountain Stage. What began as a live, monthly state-wide broadcast went on to national distribution in 1986. Now in its 26th season, Mountain Stage with Larry Groce records 26 two-hour programs each year, mostly at the Culture Center Theater in Charleston, and is heard on over 100 radio stations through National Public Radio and around the world on the Voice of America satellite service.
2003 marked the opening of the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences. The center includes The Maier Foundation Performance Hall, The Walker Theatre, The Avampato Discovery Museum and an art museum. Also on site is The ElectricSky Theater, which is a 175-seat combination planetarium and dome-screen cinema. Movies shown at the theatre include educational large format (70 mm) presentations, and are often seen in similar Omnimax theatres. Planetarium shows are staged as a combination of pre-recorded and live presentations.
Many festivals and events were also incorporated into the calendar, including Multifest, Vandalia Festival, a 4 July celebration with fireworks at Haddad Riverfront Park, and the already popular Sternwheel Regatta, which was founded in 1970, provided a festive atmosphere for residents to enjoy. In 2005 FestivALL Charleston was established and has grown into a ten day festival offering a variety of performances, events and exhibits in music, dance, theatre, visual arts and other entertainments.
Charleston West Virginia has one central agency for its economic development efforts, the Charleston Area Alliance. The Alliance works with local public officials and the private sector to build the economy of the region and revitalize its downtown. Charleston contains a historic district referred to as the East End. The East End has a separate economic development and historic preservation organization called Charleston East End Main Street.