HUNTINGTON — In 1869, rail tycoon Collis P. Huntington, who played a successful — and highly profitable — role in construction of the long-dreamed-of Transcontinental Railroad, came to the rescue of the all-but-bankrupt Chesapeake & Ohio.
The little railroad desperately needed new capital to rebuild the damage it had suffered during the Civil War and push its tracks westward from Richmond, Virginia, to the Ohio River, where passengers and cargo could readily be transferred between the railroad and the riverboats that traveled the Ohio.
The C&O’s board of directors turned for help to Huntington, who made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. He said he would gladly supply the new funds needed — if he was made the railroad’s president. The board quickly agreed.
Huntington, his brother-in-law Delos W. Emmons and a handful of C&O officials then traveled over the mountains and across the then-new state of West Virginia to personally inspect the proposed route to the Ohio. Arriving at the river, Huntington picked out a mostly vacant tract of farmland along the river, just downstream from the mouth of the Guyandotte River. There he set about building a new town that would be the C&O’s western terminus. Not surprisingly, the new town was named for Huntington.
At Huntington’s direction, Emmons purchased 21 farms totaling 5,000 acres as the site of the new town. Huntington then hired noted Boston engineer Rufus Cook to design a town plan that featured a geometric gridwork of broad avenues and intersecting cross streets, all consecutively numbered so addresses could easily be found.
On Feb. 27, 1871, the West Virginia Legislature approved an act officially incorporating the City of Huntington. Thus, this year finds the city celebrating the 150th anniversary of its birth.
In May of that year, the U.S. Post Office officially recognized the new town and that December saw Peter Cline Buffington elected Huntington’s first mayor. The community grew rapidly and by the early 1890s had a population of more than 10,000. In 1887, after considerable controversy, the seat of Cabell County was moved from Barboursville to Huntington.
In selecting a site for his new town, Collis P. Huntington chose well. The community prospered as a gateway to the coalfields of southern West Virginia. Coal flowed to market via Huntington, and manufactured goods traveled the other direction, a two-way traffic that spawned thousands of jobs in the river city. In addition to its role as a transportation hub and a center of retail and wholesale trade, Huntington attracted manufacturers that produced a broad array of products, including rail cars, steel, glass, china, brick, stoves, furniture and even church pews.
Black laborers played a major role in constructing the C&O and many stayed on in Huntington to help build some of the city’s first buildings. In the 1870s, the Rev. Nelson Barnett walked from Buckingham County, Virginia, to Huntington. Arriving, he found a booming town that clearly needed workers. He returned to Virginia and brought back a wagonload of men to work for the C&O. Most of their names are lost to history, but we know that one was James Woodson, the father of Carter G. Woodson.
A graduate of Huntington’s Black high school, Douglass High, the younger Woodson went on to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard University. He is nationally recognized as the “Father of Black History,” yet he long went virtually unremembered and acknowledged in Huntington. Fortunately, that has changed dramatically.
Today, a handsome statue of the famed Black educator stands at the Carter G. Woodson Memorial Apartments. In a sense, it’s a statue that honors not just one man but the many Black residents who helped build Huntington into the community we know today.
The school that would grow to become Marshall University was born in a log cabin on the hill where Old Main would later be built. It was already 30 years old before Collis P. Huntington picked out the site for his new city. Over the decades, the histories of Marshall and Huntington have been inextricably intertwined and the two have proved to be partners in the growth and development of the community and region.
Marshall sports teams are a source of deep-rooted community pride. And the 1970 plane crash that claimed the lives of all 75 aboard — Marshall football players, their coaches, a number of loyal fans and the flight crew — forged a bond between the campus and the community that will never be broken.
For many years, Marshall was little more than a sleepy little teachers college. Today, it’s an economic powerhouse. Its transformation started in 1961 when it gained university status, but what really sealed the deal came in 1978 when the Marshall Medical School welcomed its first class of future doctors.
As the med school has grown in size and scope, it has sparked multimillion-dollar expansions at Cabell Huntington Hospital, St. Mary’s Medical Center and the Hershel “Woody” Williams VA Medical Center. Huntington now has medical facilities and services that would be the envy of many communities far larger in size.
Organized in June 1872, the First Congregational Church is said to be the city’s oldest church. Huntington today is home to more than 130 congregations, representing virtually every faith. That includes seven congregations located in a six-block stretch of downtown 5th Avenue.
One by one, much-loved pieces of Huntington fell in place. In 1901, steel tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie provided the city $25,000 to build the Huntington Public Library. When his original gift proved inadequate, he added an extra $10,000 and the library opened in 1902. In 1913, Ritter Park was fashioned from land originally intended for use as a city incinerator. Huntington’s handsome City Hall was completed in 1915. And the grand Keith-Albee Theater welcomed its first audience in 1928.
Flooding was long a major problem in Huntington. Serious floods occurred in 1884 and 1913, but the worst occurred Jan. 28, 1937, when the river inundated much of Huntington. The river crested at a record 69.45 feet, more than 19 feet above flood stage. Following the disastrous flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed an 11-mile floodwall to protect the city from future floods. Unfortunately, the wall also prompted the city to forget its historic ties with the river. That was corrected in 1984 with the opening of the David W. Harris Riverfront Park.
Huntington has had its ups and downs over the years. The city boomed during the 1920s. But the good times came to an abrupt end when the stock market crashed in October 1929. Of the 11 banks operating in Huntington in the 1920s, only two survived the Great Depression. It took the outbreak of World War II to put Huntington, like the rest of America, back to work. The city’s factories shifted to war production and operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
With the war’s end, the 1950s proved to be a decade of remarkable growth and achievement for Huntington, the city’s zenith, some would argue. The 1950s saw construction of Tri-State Airport, the Huntington Museum of Art, Cabell Huntington Hospital and Veterans Memorial Field House.
In the decades following, Huntington saw many factories close, businesses slump and jobs disappear. Part of the decline stemmed from sweeping cutbacks in coal mine employment as automation took hold in the surrounding coalfields, and part was attributable to the same “rust belt” phenomenon experienced by so many of the nation’s other cities. Some felt the 1950s decision to route Interstate 64 outside Huntington was a mistake, and the later building of Huntington Mall at Barboursville clearly hurt downtown business.
The city’s economic woes were reflected in a dramatic population decline. Huntington lost nearly 35,000 residents from 1950 to 2000, leaving a population of 51,475. Today, the city’s population has dipped well below 50,000. Some residents simply moved to growing suburban areas outside the city, but many left the region, seeking better opportunities elsewhere.
In 1993, more than 600 employees lost their jobs when the Owens Brockway glass container plant, a fixture in the city for 80 years, closed. Stung by that closing, nearly 1,000 concerned residents braved a snowstorm to attend a public forum focusing on the city’s future. From that meeting was born a new public-private partnership, dubbed Our Jobs, Our Children, Our Future. As part of that economic development effort, the closed Owens plant was purchased and turned into an industrial park. And the same public-private partnership attracted more than 2,000 jobs in information services, establishing telemarketing and market research as important elements in the Huntington economy.
Pullman Square, a downtown complex combining entertainment, dining and retailers, opened in 2004 and proved a powerful magnet attracting people to the downtown.
Like many other communities, Huntington has been hit hard by the illegal drug problem. But working together, the city, the university and the medical community have created a number of truly revolutionary programs that are recording impressive success — generating a decline in overdoses, an increase in referrals to treatment and a reduction in drug-related crime.
In 2017, Huntington bested more than 350 other towns to claim the title of “America’s Best Community” when it was named the $3 million grand prize winner in a nationwide competition. Huntington garnered the prize after spending three years crafting an ambitious redevelopment plan for the city, the Huntington Innovation Project.
The project is broken into four parts, three of which are devoted to specific neighborhoods — the West End, Fairfield and Highlawn. The fourth part is aimed at helping bring high-speed broadband to the Huntington region.
Huntington is a city with a proud past — and an exciting future.