By Brian Jewell
It’s a big year for history buffs in West Virginia: June 20 will mark the 150th anniversary of the state’s independence from Virginia. Locals will celebrate with events in both the capital city of Charleston and at the first capitol in Wheeling. But you don’t have to plan a last-minute trip to enjoy a piece of the state’s history.
From pre-Civil War days to the golden age of industry and transportation, West Virginia has a century and a half of heritage to be discovered. A trip through this mountainous state gives visitors doses of both history and beauty.
In the eastern reaches of West Virginia, Harpers Ferry preserves pre-Civil War history. Groups can learn all about the state’s early days by visiting West Virginia Independence Hall in Wheeling. In the central part of the state, Droop Mountain Battlefield is the site of the state’s last major Civil War battle.
History-minded travelers can also learn about work at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine and relive the heyday of train travel on the Cass Scenic Railroad.
Birthplace of West Virginia
Today, Charleston is the capital of West Virginia. But the state got its political start at the Wheeling Custom House, which was built as the federal government’s offices for the western district of Virginia. As the building opened around the time the Civil War began, it became a center of heated debate about the issues of the day and served as the location of the constitutional convention that led to the creation of West Virginia as an independent state in 1863.
The custom house served as the seat of the new state’s government for several years. Today, it is known as West Virginia Independence Hall. A full restoration of the building has highlighted its distinctive architecture and period decorations. Groups can tour the building and its accompanying museum, and see a film that covers the story of West Virginia’s independence. Costumed interpreters are available with advance arrangement.
Confluence of History
In the extreme eastern reaches of the state where West Virginia borders Virginia and Maryland, the town of Harpers Ferry has played an extraordinary role in state and national history.
In the early 19th century, the U.S. Armory and Arsenal made the small town an important industrial center where locals manufactured more than 600,000 weapons for the military. In 1959, the armory became the target of John Brown, the abolitionist whose raid on Harpers Ferry would be one of the early precursors to the Civil War. Control of the fort changed hands several times during the war, including during an 1862 campaign led by Stonewall Jackson.
Today, the area’s significant history is preserved at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Groups can visit exhibits in the park’s museum, see buildings in the historic village, take a tour of the battlefield and explore the natural areas to be found at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
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