History of Clarksburg
by Paul E. Maxwell
(Written c: 1975)
Submitted by Hiram W. Lynch
History of Clarksburg
The rough topographical nature of western Virginia imposed severe
impediments to Clarksburg's early growth which had to be overcome
by arduous labor and native ingenuity. With formidable mountains
blocking direct access to the eastern seaboard it was necessary
to chose a roundabout route following the Braddock Road through
southern Pennsylvania to the Monongahela River, thence up the
Monongahela and West Fork Rivers to Clarksburg.
Until completion of the Northwestern Turnpike in 1838, heavy
materials and many new residents made their entry by this route. It
was the only way by which ornate millwork and furnishings for the
more pretentious homes and public buildings could be transported.
And primitive, as it now seems, it was more comfortable, especially
for women and children, than riding horseback or trekking over
rough mountain trails.
Upon reaching the Monongahela both passengers and freight were
transferred from the. roomy wagons to smaller two wheeled carts
which using the river bed as a roadway, proceeded upstream to their
destination. These rivers in their natural state were non navigable.
Pools of slowly running water ranging in length from a few rods to
several miles alternated with shallow, rocky, rapid flowing shoals
of varying length. Except during time of high water or extremely"
cold weather, these streams served their purpose very well. When
a pool too deep for the carts was encountered t both carts and
oxen were loaded .on log rafts and propelled upstream to the end of
of the pool (by manpower wielding long poles) where shallow water
allowed the oxen to again take over. An occasional pool was too
deep to be negotiated by the carts but too short to make ferrying
feasible. At such places a. makeshift roadway would be dug out of"
the hill: side around the pool. These projects were the first
documented evidence of man made roads anywhere in the upper Monongahela basin.
When a series of small pools and shoals came in close succession
dams were constructed, raising the water level to a point where a
navigable pool sometimes several miles in length was formed. Oxen
drawing the carts to the higher levels served in place" of conventional
locks. These rudimentary engineering projects were the fore runners
of more elaborate navigational facilities constructed in later
years, some of which are still in use. A similar combination of ox
carts and stream beds of the numerous West Fork tributaries converging
in the vicinity of Clarksburg was used for arteries of
communication as the surrounding wilderness was settled and cleared.
Although these shallower tributaries did not require ferrying as
did the larger streams.
Although it took four or five carts to contain the load from
one wagon the reason for changing when the river was reached were
compelling. The wagons were long and heavy with comparatively
small wheels which made them unwieldy on the rock strewn stream
beds. Because of their low road clearance, water above belly deep
to the oxen was deep enough to flood the cargo. The high wheels
of the carts would keep the pay load high and dry long after a
depth was reached where footing for the oxen would have been lost.
A cart's wheel base was zero enabling it to change direction or
turn about on the proverbial dime giving it a maneuverability
possessed by no four wheeled vehicle.
Because of weather vagaries schedules for river-travel were
erratic. High water halted all upstream movement but gave impetus
to that going down. Flat boats carrying cargo rode: the flood as
far as Pittsburgh where they were unloaded and sold for lumber.
Upon reaching Clarksburg, oxen were rested until the next high water
when they, would be loaded on flat boats for the ride back to their
home base and the journey upstream would be repeated.
Around '1825, the Monongahela Navigation Company (a private enterprise)
was chartered and built a series of damson the West Fork
between the Monongehela and Clarksburg, giving a continuous, year
around water way for the flat boats and barges of that time. These
dams, nine in number, had no locks. Which meant laborious portaging
of cargo when transferring from one level to another. To minimize
the toil of these portages, uniquely constructed wagons were loaded
with freight and rolled onto the barges. When a dam was encountered
oxen were used to haul the wagons around the dam for reloading on
other barges and the trip continued. This scheme closely paralleled
the modern piggyback system used by tractor trailers and rail roads.
Live stock to populate the ever increasing farms and compact.
merchandise continued to be brought in over the old Indian trails.
Time consumed in making the trip by either route was from many days
to several weeks, requiring stops for rest and refreshment. To
cater these modest needs of comfort settlements sprang up at convenient
intervals. Once those modes of travel had been superseded most of•
these settlements vanished but a few remain as permanent communities.
In view of the hard ships and inconveniences they endured it is
small wonder that Clarksburgers were exasperated by the lethargic
movement of Congress to construct a federal highway from the eastern
seaboard through this part of Virginia, to country beyond the Ohio.
by Paul E. Maxwell
(Written c: 1975)
Submitted by Hiram W. Lynch
Finally, in 1838 the road was completed generally along the routes
that had been anticipated and the flow of traffic began. Freight
wagons carrying sorely needed merchandise to the Ohio country and
returning with farm produce the east was crying for. Drovers with
cattle, sheep, hogs and even turkeys for coastal markets. By stage
coach, travelers could reach Washington in some what less than a
week and Baltimore was only one day further, Westward a two day
journey brought one to the Ohio River where luxury steam boats (the
most comfortable mode of travel known at that time made regularly
scheduled, frequent trips on the Ohio and Mississippi between New
Orleans and Pittsburgh. Traffic on the West Fork and Monongehela
dwindled to a mere trickle before county sponsored connecting roads
afforded an overland route to southern Pennsylvania.
No roadway ever constructed in West Virginia or probably the
entire country ever had a more profound impact on the region it served
than the Northwestern turnpike. And Clarksburg was the greatest
beneficiary of all. In a few short years its population increased
by two fold, making it the state's third largest city with promise
of soon becoming first. Another boon the Turnpike brought was the
Irish and one can't envision what Clarksburg would have been with~
out them. This was the time Irish immigrants were coming to America.
in hordes. Thousands of them found homes in the larger cities but
labor shortage for public work brought hundreds to Virginia to work
on the turnpike. Chopping their way month after month through forbidding
mountains, found them strangers in a strange. land but when
Harrison County was reached, they found a new Emerald Isle. Some
jumped ship immediately and settled down to stay, others returned
when the road was completed to join them. Those who farmed found
that the soil would grow Irish potatoes equal to any from the Old
Sod. Those who were business inclined found ample opportunity in
this flourishing atmosphere and prospered. This was Clarksburg’s
first infusion of foreigners which was to continue over the years.
They were welcomed, assimilated and could contribute enormously to the
cosmopolitan quality of today’s population. .
This lucrative field opened up by the turnpike soon-caught envious
eyes of the railroads whose attitude seemed to be, anything'
highways could do they could do better. Stiffly opposed by those
who lived on the turnpike, through almost endless right of way
litigation and intimidation of workers by physical force, the
Baltimore and Ohio began construction of a line closely following
the turnpike route from Baltimore to points in Ohio and westward.
Construction of the rail road brought another surge of Irish immigrants,
who following the pattern of their predecessors, chose the
town as their new home. To this day, if one probes under the surface
of Clarksburg's east end he will find more than little of
At the beginning of the Civil War the rail road had reached
Clarksburg, where its progress was halted until the war was over.
This again was a fortunate turn for the city. Due to its strategic
location and rail head facilities, the Federal Government established
a large army supply depot here for storing and issue to the numerous
army units in what is now the state. This brought new prosperity
as well as its share of woes.
Although the base was under army control the work was performed
by civilian, contract labor and for the greater part, they were a
rough lot. For the duration of their stay, Clarksburg may have
justified its detractors title as an undesirable place to live.
As a precautionary measure, both Lowndes and Pinnickinnick Hills
had been fortified and manned by local militiamen, to repel possible
invaders, who fortunately never came. Time after time, especially
on pay day nights, detachments of these militiamen were called upon
by the local police to help maintain order.
With war's end construction on the rail road was resumed and
before 1870 it was completed to Parkersburg. Even with insecure
track and imperfect rolling stock, travel between the two cities
was reduced in time from two days to a few hours. Later, as the
road bed was improved and other equipment upgraded, travel time
was further reduced to a scheduled two hours to Parkersburg and
proportionately to eastern points.
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