As any good West Virginian knows, our state was born of the Civil War, officially joining the Union on June 20, 1863. Our historic break with Richmond is a point of pride and the reason we become so indignant when non-West Virginians still seem to regard us as just another part of the Old Dominion.
The whole business started at the First Wheeling Convention in May of 1861 at Washington Hall when delegates from 27 western counties of Virginia met to decide what to do about their state’s decision to leave the Union and join the Confederacy.
Opposed to secession for a variety of reasons, they chose to create a new, loyal state of Virginia at the Second Wheeling Convention in June, 1861, and unanimously elected Francis Pierpont from Marion County as governor of this “Restored Government of Virginia.” His office was at the Custom House in Wheeling, where the Constitutional Convention was convened in November 1861.
Congress was presented with the new constitution and proposal for the state of West Virginia in 1862. The bill passed the U.S. Senate in July 1862, and the House of Representatives in December 1862. With the urging of Pierpont, President Lincoln signed the bill on December 31, 1862, and West Virginia officially entered into the Union on June 20, 1863. For his efforts, Pierpont would become known as the “Father of West Virginia” and Wheeling as the birth-place of the new state.
Arthur I. Boreman was inaugurated the first West Virginia governor, with the capital remaining in Wheeling, while Pierpont continued as governor of the state of Virginia in the new capital at Alexandria.
Boreman’s office was located in the Linsly building on 15th and Eoff Streets in Wheeling, the first of five capitols located in two competing capital cities. Two of the capitol buildings would be located in Wheeling and three in Charleston, with each city twice named the capital. Confused? Let’s sort it all out.
- Wheeling was the first seat of government (or capital city) from June 20, 1863 to April 1, 1870
- Charleston was the capital from April 1, 1870 to May 21, 1875
- Wheeling took the crown again from May 21, 1875 to May 1, 1885
- And Charleston wrested it back on May 1, 1885 and kept it permanently thereafter
- That’s the short story of the capitals, but what about the capitols?
The Linsly building in Wheeling was leased by the state government, but despite repeated warnings from Governor Boreman, the legislature failed to take action to find a permanent location.
Finally, in 1869, a State House Company was formed and a site for the permanent capitol was selected in Charleston. The block fronting on Capitol Street, between Lee and Washington Streets was chosen.
The Kanawha river packet boat, “Mountain Boy,” was chartered by the citizens of Charleston to bring people and objects of the State government, to Charleston. And so began the saga of the “Floating Capital.”
Decked out with flags, bunting, and banners, the “Mountain Boy” left the Wheeling wharf on March 28, 1870. She was met by an enthusiastic crowd at Charleston that included a company of artillery, government officials, members of secret orders, school children, and a brass band.
The people of the north soon began to complain about having to travel the difficult passage to Charleston by stage or boat as no train went that way. On January 18, 1875, a bill was introduced in the legislature “to remove the seat of government temporarily to Wheeling.” With Wheeling’s promise to build a suitable capitol, the bill passed.
To be designed by architect J. S. Fairfax, the cornerstone for the new building was laid in September 1875. Meanwhile, the angry citizens of Charleston sued to stop the move, and the legal battle was on.
Despite the injunctions and appeals, Wheeling hired the river steamer “Emma Graham” to ship the government back to town. When she arrived at the Charleston wharf on May 21, 1875, the draymen who were packing the government papers onto the boat were arrested for violating the injunction and writs were served on state officials, who boarded the steamer anyway, leaving the papers of government behind. At Parkersburg, the State officials were transferred to the steamer “Chesapeake,” bound for Wheeling. The “Chesapeake” arrived at Wheeling on May 23rd.
Since the new capitol wasn’t yet built, the state government again set up in the familiar old Linsly Institute building, which had served as the Capitol from 1863 to 1870. There they waited in empty offices for the Supreme Court to settle the legal issues.
The Court decided for Wheeling and the official papers were packed on two barges, and the steamer “Iron Valley,” and shipped to Wheeling. A Charleston newspaper called the decision a “coup,” and the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer called Charleston a “one-horse town.”
The new Wheeling capitol building would not be ready until December 4, 1876.
But the citizens of the state (outside of Wheeling at least) were still not happy. The “floating capital” had become a source of embarrassment. In 1877, the state legislature took on the task of deciding on a permanent capital (and capitol) for West Virginia.
The legislature decided to let the people decide. A vote was to be taken, with Wheeling notably omitted from the ballot. The choices were Charleston, Martinsburg, and Clarksburg. Charleston received the most votes and the governor declared it the permanent capital. Notably, the voting in Ohio County, where Wheeling is located, went against Charleston by a count of 3,358 to 218.
A new building was erected in Charleston on the same site as the second capitol. The papers and officials were again packed on riverboats (these included, once again, the “Chesapeake,” the “Bell Prince,” and a barge) and shipped back to Charleston on May 2, 1885.
Wheeling’s newspapers echoed the city’s rancor.
“The capital of West Virginia is Charleston,” The Wheeling Intelligencer headline proclaimed, “beautifully situated on the picturesque Kanawha. The State House sails to-day on the commodious steamer Chesapeake.
There has been considerable talk about the thorough manner in which the State House has been dismantled. Some surprise has been expressed that the doors were left, and it is frequently remarked that the city should be grateful that her building is left…
Hereafter the State House is the City Hall. The city probably gains more substantial good than she loses.”
On January 23, 1921, the fourth state capitol building was completely gutted by fire. A temporary capitol building (derisively known as the “pasteboard capitol”) was erected in just 42 days and by 1923, the legislature had approved funding for a new capitol building to be constructed in Charleston.
New York architect Cass Gilbert was selected to design the new building, the current capitol of West Virginia, which has remained at anchor since 1932, with only its beautiful golden dome sometimes appearing to float on the Kanawha River fog.
Peyton, Billy Joe, “West Virginia and the Floating Capital,” Lunch With Books presentation at the Ohio County Public Library, July 31, 2012.