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Huntington: Dreamers helped city grow and prosper

Jun. 13, 2013 @ 02:55 PM

Huntington was named for Col­lis P. Huntington, who founded Huntington in 1870 as the western terminus for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway on the land west of the mouth of the Guyandotte River at the Ohio River. The fertile land, it seemed to Huntington, was ripe for growing a city bustling with industry and commerce. His vision became a thriving reality.

Collis Potter Huntington (1821-1900)

Collis P. Huntington never lived in Huntington, but without him the city wouldn’t exist. Huntington was a dreamer. Not a head-in-the-clouds type of dreamer, mind you, but one who always had both his big feet solidly planted on the ground. Born in Connecticut, he left school at age 14 and became a Yankee peddler, traveling the coun­tryside, selling whatever he could at the various farms he came to. Eventually he opened a general store in partnership with one of his brothers. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, Hun­tington didn’t just dream about joining the gold rush, he sold his half interest in the store to his brother, packed up and headed west. In California he became a rich man, not by mining gold but by min- ing the miners – selling them the supplies they needed.

When Congress called for construction of a great transcontinental railroad, Huntington didn’t just dream about that historic project. He made sure the Central Pacific, the railroad he and his partners organized, was awarded the contract to construct the western half of the new rail line. On May 10, 1869, a golden spike was driven at Promontory, Utah, linking the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, which had built the line’s eastern half.  

That same year Huntington sent to Oneonta, N.Y., for Delos W. Emmons, his brother-in-law. Huntington wanted Emmons to accompany him on an exploring trip westward across the then-new state of West Virginia. Their journey would take them along the route proposed for the tracks of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. Left all but bankrupt in the wake of the damages it had suffered during the Civil War, the C&O desperately needed capital to rebuild and expand. The railroad’s board of directors turned to Huntington for help. He agreed to supply the money that was required — and, in the process, installed himself as the C&O’s president.

It was on this 1869 trip that Huntington first glimpsed an attractive tract of farmland along the Ohio River and dreamed about establishing there a new city, one teeming with business and industry. Huntington’s choice of a site for his new city proved a good one. From its founding as the western terminus of the C&O, his new town prospered. And in the decades since its founding in 1871, the city of Huntington has continued to grow and prosper because it’s been home to so many men and women who, like the town’s founder, have dreamed big dreams — and then shown themselves willing to work hard to make those dreams a reality.

This article offers brief glimpses of just a few of those dreamers.

Bradley W. Foster (1834-1922)

Bradley W. Foster, a native of Maine, married Mary Lenora Huntington, a niece of Collis P. Huntington, in 1868 and three years later, the couple moved to Huntington, becoming two of the new town’s first residents.

On arriving, Foster opened what was likely the city’s first hardware store. That modest venture ultimately evolved into the Foster-Thornburg Hardware Company, a major wholesale firm. In addition to running his hardware firm, Foster was president of the Huntington Land Co., one of the founders of the First National Bank, a member of Huntington City Council and one of the organizers of the Huntington Board of Trade, an early organization that evolved into what today is the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Foster and his wife Mary had no children. She died first and on his death he left $800,000 to build, maintain and operate a home for older unmarried women and widows. Over the years the Foster Memorial Home for Aged Women, erected on Madison Avenue in West Huntington, sheltered thousands of local women. But times change. And beginning in the 1980s, the Foster Foundation’s board began talking about the growing need for adequate housing for all seniors, not just women. The result was construction of the Woodlands, a sprawling retirement community on 5th Street Road.

Rufus Switzer (1855-1947)

Rufus Switzer came to Huntington to practice law in 1891 and immediately involved himself in politics, winning election to City Council. He was elected mayor in 1909.

The year before Switzer became mayor the city had purchased a tract of land along Four Pole Creek as the site for an incinerator. Not surprisingly, some of the site’s neighbors objected and a real donnybrook ensued. As mayor, Switzer settled the matter by declaring that the purchased property would become a park — the city’s first ever. Although Switzer was the driving force behind the park, it was named Ritter Park when businessman C.L. Ritter donated two tracts of land that significantly enlarged it.

On Switzer’s death, his will established a perpetual trust, directing that two-thirds of the annual net income from the trust go “for the use and maintenance of an art gallery, historical museum and cultural center” and the remaining third go for “the study, research and treatment of human disease.” Switzer’s bequest was literally the lifeblood of the Huntington Museum of Art in the museum’s formative years. And the Huntington Clinical Foundation, formed to carry out the terms of Switzer’s will, has distributed thousands of dollars each year to projects in the medical and health care field.

A popular park, a thriving museum, a healthier community — that’s the legacy of Rufus Switzer.

Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950)

Carter Godwin Woodson, widely acknowledged as the father of Black History Month, was born in Virginia to parents who were former slaves. The family moved to Huntington in 1893 after Carter and his brother Robert had migrated to West Virginia to work in the coal mines.

Woodson entered Douglass High School in Huntington when he was 19 and completed the four-year curriculum in two years, graduating in 1896. He went on to study at Berea College in Kentucky, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, and returned to Huntington as principal of Douglass in 1900.

In 1903, he taught in the Philippines; during 1906-07 he traveled around the world, studied at the Sorbonne, and returned to continue his education at the University of Chicago and at Harvard, receiving a doctorate from Harvard in 1912. Living and working in Washington, D.C., he became a nationally known author, publisher and educator and in 1926 founded Negro History Week — the forerunner of today’s Black History Month.

Perhaps because his years in Huntington were brief, the community was slow to recognize Woodson’s important legacy. But in recent years, the Carter G. Woodson Memorial Foundation has done much to focus attention on his life and work.

Herman P. Dean (1897-1978)

Herman P. Dean packed several lifetimes of experiences into his busy eight decades.

A businessman, Dean owned Huntington’s former Standard Printing & Publishing Co. as well as other firms. A newspaperman, he published the weekly Wayne County News. A church and civic leader, he taught Sunday School at Huntington’s Central Christian Church for 30 years and generously supported a long list of charitable endeavors. A world traveler, he visited not just familiar tourist spots but also such remote regions as the Canadian Yukon, where he even lived with the Eskimos for two years.

Dean loved hunting, fishing and collecting guns. He spent a lifetime amassing his collection of antique firearms and then presented it to the Huntington Museum of Art for future generations to admire and enjoy.

In the final years of his life, Dean liked to point out that he no longer owned a single gun. What he didn’t donate to the Huntington Museum of Art, he gave to other institutions or friends. Giving them away, he said, was just as much fun as collecting them.

J.H. Long (1863-1958)

In his day, newspaperman Joseph Harvey Long was considered the dean of West Virginia newspaper publishers. A Pennsylvania native, he moved to Wheeling in 1881 to become a printer at a newspaper there. Moving to Huntington in 1893, he purchased the Herald, which he sold in 1895 when he acquired the Advertiser.

For a number of years, the afternoon Advertiser slugged it out with the morning Herald-Dispatch, owned by Dave Gideon. In 1924, Col. Long (the title was strictly honorary) bought a corner lot at 5th Avenue and 10th Street and erected a new building for his paper. Not be outdone, the Herald-Dispatch built a new home just a few doors down. Shortly thereafter, the two rival newspapers declared a truce and merged as the Huntington Publishing Co., with Long as chairman and Gideon as president. The mechanical and business operations were combined while the two news staffs operated independently.

Although his ruling passion was newspapering, Long was active in many fields. From 1916 until 1921, he was Huntington’s postmaster. President of the Huntington Chamber of Commerce from 1936 to 1941, he served on the board of directors of the Ohio Valley Bus Co., First Huntington National Bank, Huntington-Ohio Bridge Co., Huntington Symphony Orchestra Association, and Morris Memorial Hospital. An ardent Democrat, Long was a respected voice in local and state political circles.

 Joan Edwards (1918-2006)

Joan Edwards was born in London and arrived in New Orleans at the age of 4. By age 11, she was singing on a New Orleans radio station, the start of a promising musical career. While singing at Pittsburgh’s William Penn Hotel, she met James F. Edwards of Huntington, owner of the National Mattress Company, whom she married in 1937.

When Jimmy Edwards died in 1991, his will called for multi-million-dollar bequests to a number of community projects in Huntington. As his widow, Joan Edward not only carried out those bequests but went on to donate millions more from her own money. Overall, the two donated more than $65 million to Marshall University and the Huntington community.

Marshall’s Joan C. Edwards Stadium is the only NCAA Division I stadium named after a woman. Marshall’s medical school and performing arts center also are named in her honor. She spent the last few days of her life receiving treatment and care in the Edwards Comprehensive Cancer Center she helped to create at Cabell Huntington Hospital.

In Huntington, Joan Edwards found the roots and the home she didn’t have as a child. “You might say I was an orphan,” she once said. “My formal school was in New Orleans, but my roots weren’t second- or third-generation deep. Jimmy had family here, and he wanted to leave something behind. I want to continue what he started.”

James E. Casto was a reporter, editor and columnist with the Herald-Dispatch for more than 40 years before he retired in 2004. He’s the author of a number of books on local and regonal history. His latest book is “Legendary Locals of Huntington West Virginia” (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99), which offers brief profiles of more than 150 individuals, past and present, who have made a memorable impact on the community.