(An article for the Charleston Gazette Mail by Rick Steelhammer on Nov. 3, 2013)
The opening scene in Charleston’s West Side story was not a pretty one, according to presenters taking part in a recent program titled “Historic Glenwood: A Window on the West Side” at Mary C. Snow Elementary School. The development of the land fronting the Kanawha River and backed by steep hills just west of the Kanawha’s confluence with the Elk River began in the 1840’s and 1850’s, with the creation of five plantations that relied on the labor of more than 70 slaves.
Until late in the 19th century, “everything west of the Elk River was the country” to townspeople living east of the Elk in Charleston, a community of only 1,520 people in 1860, according to Billy Joe Peyton, chairman of the history department at West Virginia University. That perception began to change after barrel-maker Adam Littlepage developed a 1,200 acre farm around his massive, still-standing 1845 vintage stone mansion facing the Parkersburg Turnpike (now Washington Street West) near Kanawha Two Mile. At about the same time that Littlepage was organizing his plantation, lawyer and magistrate William Gillison was establishing a 200-acre plantation on a neighboring tract. In 1848, James Carr, a native of Ireland, established his Edgewood estate in the vicinity of present-day Edgewood Drive and the Edgewood Country Club. Seven years later, physician Spicer Patrick carved out his Forest Hill plantation on 410 acres of land not far from the West Side street and bridge that bear his name. In 1857, George W. Summers II bought the 366-acre Glenwood estate and mansion house that James Laidley built five years earlier, and further developed it as a plantation.
According to 1860 census records, Summers had 14 slaves, Littlepage 9, Patrick 22, and Carr 21. Gillison owned six slaves himself, and with others, co-owned 59 more who had apparently been put to work elsewhere. “Charleston at that time was a southern town,” run in no small part by influential salt makers and southern roots,” said Robert Maslowski, a retired Army Corps of Engineers archeologist, now on the faculty of Marshall University’s graduate humanities program. “Nearly all of the elite in Charleston, even those in some of the more modest homes, had house slaves.”
Although slaves had been used to process salt in the Malden area east of Charleston for decades, it wasn’t until a suspension bridge was built over the Elk in 1852 that it became practical for the five businessmen-turned-farmers to establish plantations west of town and commute to offices in the city. Maslowski said the five West Side plantations were laid out in a manner that allowed each owner to have about 150 acres of prime bottom land on the flats along the Kanawha River, with the rest of their properties extending northward into the West Side hills.
While both Summers and Patrick owned slaves, both also opposed secession from the United States as delegates to Virginia’s secession convention in 1861. In fact, Summers, a lawyer, four-term member of Virginia’s House of Delegates and two-term congressman prior to the Civil War, spoke in favor of the gradual emancipation of slaves as early as the 1830’s, yet kept several of his own slaves until the end of the war.
Summers’ political balancing act caught the attention of newly elected Republican administration in Washington. In early 1861, in a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward posed the idea of appointing Summers to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court to help secure support from southern-state Union loyalists. During the war, Summers remained at his Glenwood estate, where he apparently kept a low political profile.
A neighbor, Harley Hunt, who bought the neighboring Gillison farm, was also a slave owner as well as an apparent supporter of the Union cause. According to an oral history of one of his former slaves, Nan Stewart, recorded during the 1930’s as part of a New Deal writers’ project, Hunt hid in the woods “for seven days and seven nights” after southern soldiers occupied Charleston in 1862.
According to Stewart’s account of slave life on the West Side, unearthed by Peyton, slaves at the Hunt plantation had Saturday afternoons off, and tended their own garden plots, sometimes hoeing them by moonlight, to earn cash. As a child at the Hunt plantation, Stewart was required to sew, piece quilts, and clean brass. “But most of the time,” she said, “I sat with the old ladies and lit their pipes and toted them water in gourds, and gathered the turkey eggs and guinea eggs,” which sold for ten cents per dozen.
In September 1862, at the end of the Battle of Charleston, Stewart and several of her family members escaped to freedom by following Col. Joseph Lightburn’s Union force out of the Kanawha valley and into Ohio via an Ohio River ford at Buffington Island near Ravenswood.
After the war, a period of land speculation took place on the West Side. Twenty-three year old entrepreneur and West Point alumnus John Brisben Walker arrived in Charleston in 1870, fresh from a brief hitch as a military observer with the Chinese army. Walker was the sin-in-law of David Hunter Strother of Martinsburg, who wrote and illustrated for Harpers Monthly magazine under the pen name Porte Crayon. Soon after coming to Charleston, Walker founded a weekly newspaper, the Charleston Herald, and hired Strother to serve as its editor.
With local financial backers, Walker bought 110 acres from the Carr family, developers of the Edgewood plantation, for $33,000. Walker’s land stretched from present-day Washington Street West to the Kanawha River, bound on the east by the Elk River and on the west by Delaware Avenue. Walker’s plan was to sell residential lots along a grid of streets and avenues named after states and West Virginia counties. To make his housing development more accessible, he built a second bridge over the Elk River near Virginia Street, which opened in 1873.
But Walker’s plan went bust during the Panic of 1873, an economic crisis triggered by a number of bank failures and the bankruptcies of the railroads they financed. Walker went on to buy and revitalize Cosmopolitan magazine, which he sold to the Hearst publishing chain for a fortune in 1905.
Completion of a railroad bridge across the Elk near Spring Street in 1882 spurred industrial development on the West Side, which in turn sparked a homebuilding boom. By the 1890’s, factories, sawmills, and clay mines were being developed on the west side of the Elk River. The fast-growing area was incorporated as Elk City, with a population of about 2,000, in 1891, but was annexed into Charleston in 1895.
Peyton said development of a streetcar line connecting downtown Charleston to the West Side in the early 1900’s helped maintain the momentum for commercial and residential growth. In 1905, the Kelly Axe and Co. opened what is now the Patrick Street Plaza, employing up to 1,000 workers during its heyday.
Edgewood Park amusement park was built at what was the end of the streetcar line in 1906, but was demolished by a fire several years after opening, and replaced in 1912 by nearby Luna Park, which drew crowds of up to 15,000 people a day, according to Peyton. Remnants of the five plantations that were at the forefront of West Side development can still be seen at several locations.
Glenwood mansion at 800 Orchard St., built in 1852 for Charleston lawyer, salt maker and newspaper publisher James Laidley and sold to Summers in 1857, has been restored and is owned by the Historic Glenwood Foundation. The Littlepage Stone Mansion at 1809 Washington Street West, built in 1845 and sold to Adam Littlepage for use as a plantation house in 1848, is now owned by the Charleston Housing Authority, which used it as an office complex for many years.
Street names such as Orchard Street, Red Oak Street, Beech Avenue and Garden Street were all named for features found on the plantations, according to Maslowski. But the West Side’s oldest occupied site may be the rock shelter that can be seen along Edgewood Drive, a short distance uphill from Washington Street West. While the cavern-like sandstone overhang once sheltered waiting trolley riders in the early 20th century, it also housed the West Side’s earliest inhabitants – American Indians whose artifacts found at the site date back to 7,000 B.C., Maslowski said.
Following presentations by Peyton and Maslowski, Elizabeth Campbell of Marshall’s graduate school recorded oral history recollections of growing up on the West Side made by several members of the audience. “Our West Side was the area between Hunt Avenue, Patrick Street, Kanawha Boulevard and the trestle,” said Ralph Miller. “Whites lived on the east side of the trestle. For those living on the west side of the trestle,” Miller said, “parents called their kids in when the streetlights came on. We weren’t allowed to go past the trestle at night or on weekends, and we couldn’t go past Patrick Street without an adult.”
“It’s important to understand our history,” said the Rev. Matthew J. Watts, President and CEO of HOPE Community Development Corporation. “We’re still dealing with the consequences of West Side that was first developed as a slave plantation.” Watts observed that the land now occupied by the new Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School, which hosted the program on the West Side’s history, was once part of the Spicer Patrick plantation. The forefathers of those who now live on the West Side, Watts said, “may have come here in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now. By working together to revitalize the West Side,” he said, “we all have the opportunity to honor our ancestors.”
“Historic Glenwood: A Window on the West Side – History of the West Side’s Development” was presented through the Glenwood project, and Marshall University graduate humanities program designed to engage the public in the rich history of the Glenwood Estate and the communities surrounding it. The program was presented with financial assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.