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seicer

Mountain State Tours: Bluefield, West Virginia | The Mile High City

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After leaving Hinton, West Virginia at sunset, we departed west and south to Bluefield. The town that is called the “Mile High City” due to its elevation, is located in Mercer County along the border with Virginia and was once a prosperous city founded after the Norfolk and Western Railway (N&W) was completed through the region to connect industrial centers to the burgeoning coal deposits to the north and west.

The importance of coal to the region cannot be understated. For much of the 19th century, Bluefield was nothing more than two large farms and a small settlement that consisted of a mill, church and schoolhouse. The N&W was only completed to what was later called Bluefield in 1883, and the first passenger station in the settlement was nothing more than a discarded railroad car. The settlement, called Summit, was renamed to Bluefield which was reportedly chosen by Mrs. Hattie Hannah for the luxurious growth of chicory and bluegrass in the area. A telegraph office came in 1887 and Bluefield was declared a division point on the N&W.

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The land beneath the region lay the largest and richest bituminous coal deposit in the world. Bituminous coal burns slower, and is therefore more cost effective. The first seam was discovered near Pocahontas, Virginia and was first mined the 1880s, and the first commercial mines opened near Bluefield, Harman, War and Pocahontas in what was called the Pocahontas Coal Field that helped drive the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and fuel the U.S. and British navies during World War I and II.

In 1888, the N&W constructed a formal passenger station at Bluefield, along with a roundhouse and shops. The location of the yards was important as it was the top of the mainline once the N&W was extended to Columbus, Ohio from Norfolk, Virginia. With an elevation of 2,557 feet, and a properly graded yard, it permitted gravity switching from either direction.

The burgeoning demand for the bituminous coal led to a boom in the local economy, bringing with it emigrant European workers. Bluefield was known as the city “that sprang up overnight” and was incorporated in 1889.

The first building boom for Bluefield came in 1894 when many notable structures were completed along Princeton Avenue. The crowning achievement came in 1923 when the West Virginia Hotel was completed. The twelve-story Renaissance Revival tower, set amongst the rising hill behind it, dramatically changed the cityscape of Bluefield.

Bramwell, to the north, featured more millionaire’s per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Bluefield was home to the most automobiles per capita in the nation, which experienced the first traffic jams at rush hour.

Post-Depression, Bluefield prospered with the fortunes of the Pocahontas Coal Field. By 1950, Bluefield reached 21,560 residents.

But alas, the coal boom was not sustained. With the mechanization of coal production and the decline in coal reserves in general, employment throughout the Pocahontas Coal Field declined. And with a decline in employment, residents begin to leave. Today, Bluefield’s population barely tops 10,000 and the depopulation trend does not appear to be ceasing.

The tour of Bluefield focuses solely on downtown. There were very few out walking that day, but granted it was overcast and a Sunday, it was not expected that many would be outside. We started at the Flat Top National Bank, which was organized in 1903. This two-story modern structure was built in 1970 at Raleigh and Federal Street, with some classical interpretations similar to the Lincoln Center.

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The Municipal Parking Garage on Scott Street was built as a four-story structure in 1947 with Art Moderne detailing. It was an early example of Flat Plate Concrete construction with mushroom capitols, and is the second oldest municipal parking garage in the state. An addition was completed in 1964.

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A northward view of Bland Street.

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A view of Bland Street looking south towards Raleigh Street.

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601 Bland Street, South Central Educational Development, Inc.

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The Hawley Building on Bland Street is home to East River Arts and was built in 1922 by W.P. Hawley, a prominent local citizen who served on numerous local boards.

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The Bluefield Chamber of Commerce Building, at Bland and Federal Streets, was built in 1965. It is a modern, triangular glazed brick structure. A small triangular garden contains a 1976 Bicentennial time capsule.

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A view of Raleigh Street.

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The Elizabeth Kee Federal Building and Post Office on Federal Street was built in 1911 and is a three-story blond brick Second Renaissance Revival structure. It was renamed in the 1960s for Elizabeth Kee, West Virginia’s first woman U.S. Representative.

The court was not built for ten years after a congressional seat had been established in the city in 1901.

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The First National Bank of Bluefield, at 500 Federal Street, was built in 1970 as a two-story modern building on the former site of Mrs. Parker’s boarding house. The structure has a marble veneer and aluminum and glass infill panes.

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The General Telephone Building, located along Bland Street, was built in 1965 and is visible to the left. It is a four-story brick structure with a tower, designed in the International/Modern style.

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The Appalachian Power Company Building, at 704 Bland Street, was built in 1923 as a six-story Classical Revival building and named the Bailey Building. In 1938, the Appalachian Power Company purchased the building and remodeled it into an Art Deco structure at a cost of $800,000.

The exterior featured a neon sign that hung vertically over four stories, added during the 1939 remodel. The interior featured intricate Art Deco detailing. The structure was home to not only the Appalachian Power Company, but to the Pocahontas Operators Association and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. Today, it is home to the Bluefield State College Research and Development Corporation.

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The Coal and Coke Building, located at 218 Federal Street, was completed in 1906. The eight-story Chicago Commercial building was built by Patrick J. Kelly, founder of Bluefield Brewing Company and president of the National Armature Company.

It was originally known as the Kelly & Moyer Building and later housed a Montgomery Ward’s department store.

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The Commercial Bank Building was completed in 1922 at 401 Federal Street. The seven-story brick building is designed in the Second Renaissance Revival style and is located directly adjacent to the West Virginia Hotel.

At one point, prominent West Virginia architect Alex B. Mahood was president of the bank. It was later home to Wheat First Securities.

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The Law and Commerce Building, at Federal and Raleigh Street, was built in 1913 as a six-story Neo-Classical brick structure. It was remodeled in 1918.

The first floor contains stone pilasters and a frieze with storefronts in between. The main entrance features a projecting balcony supported by Doric columns. The structure once housed the Western Union office, Thurnton’s Department Store and Waters Jewelers.

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The growth of Bluefield in the late 1800s and early 1900s necessitated the construction of a city building. The first bond issued for a city building was in 1889 for $25,000 to purchase a lot from Sudduth and Tyler. In 1892, a lot was secured at the corner of Bland and Ramsey and a red brick structure was built by Murrell and Wilson.

Public approval for the issuance of bonds occurred on June 23, 1923 for a larger municipal building, and a contract was awarded soon after to Wilbur T. Mills, an architect from Columbus, Ohio, and Garry and Sheffy, local architects who were associates of Mills. The old city building was demolished in October, with construction on the new facility beginning in March 1924 under the contractor H.A. Lucas of Bluefield. The cornerstone was installed on November 13 in a event that was led by the Grand Lodge A.F. and A.M. of West Virginia. Mayor William H. Thomas presided over the event, which included a speech by Rev. Samuel W. Moore of the Bluefield Presbyterian Church.

The new city building opened on the weekend of March 29, 1925, although it was officially opened to the public on March 14, 1925.

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The Peery Building along Federal Street was built was first built in 1919 to house an institution that was established in 1902 by Dr. Thomas Peery, a prominent Bluefield optometrist. The building was designed by notable Bluefield architect Alex Mahood. Every office had an exterior window, and the building has two entrances on two streets, each at a different level. Gargoyles capped the structure.

From 1954 to 1977, the Peery Building served as Bluefield’s Sanitarium Hospital.

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Ramsey School along Ramsey Street was constructed in 1925 and is a large brick Romanesque Revival structure. The building features a four-story facade on the east side, a five-story central tower and a four-story west wing.

Ramsey School is the city’s oldest school, dating back to 1889 when Miss Nannie George accepted the position as the school’s first principal. Ramsey was home to the city’s board of education. It is notable for hosting Will Rogers as a guest for a production on their stage at one point, who quipped that the best thing about Bluefield was that if he got tired while walking around the city, he could just lean up against it. The school is also notable for being listed on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for having entrances on seven different levels.

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The West Virginia Hotel, at Federal and Scott Streets, was constructed in 1923. The twelve-story Second Renaissance Revival structure is the tallest building in the city and was built during a time of prosperity for the region.

Constructed with ashlar limestone in the form of a classical column, the hotel one of the state’s finest and most elegant hotels and was the scene of many political and social events throughout its lifespan. In 1977, it became a home for the elderly.

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Next up on the Mountain State Tours series is Beckley and Charleston.

Further Reading

a. Bluefield, West Virginia: http://urbanup.net/cities/west-virginia/bluefield-west-virginia/

Edited by seicer
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