This Week in West Virginia History

July 8, 1924: Rock & Roll Pioneer Johnnie Johnson Born in Fairmont

Jul 8, 2020
Rock n’ roll pioneer Johnnie Johnson was born in Fairmont on July 8, 1924.
E-WV, The West Virginia Encyclopedia

Rock n’ roll pioneer Johnnie Johnson was born in Fairmont on July 8, 1924. The son of a coal miner, he started playing piano at age five and grew up listening to big band music and what was known then as hillbilly music. During World War II, he became one of the first 1,500 African-Americans admitted to the Marine Corps.

July 1, 1937: Watoga and Babcock State Parks Opened

Jul 1, 2020
Cabins At Watoga State Park
Steve Shaluta / WV Commerce

On July 1, 1937, Watoga and Babcock state parks were opened to the public and quickly became centerpieces of the fledgling state park system. Both Watoga and Babcock were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC, one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, was designed to put young people to work during the Great Depression.

Watoga, located in Pocahontas County, is West Virginia’s largest state park. Workers at three CCC camps built Watoga’s original cabins, superintendent’s residence, stable, restaurant-administration building, 11-acre lake, horse and foot trails, 14 miles of roads, and swimming pool, all between 1934 and 1937.

e-wv, The West Virginia Encyclopedia

On June 30, 1904, the Kelly Axe and Tool Company acquired 53 acres of land along the Kanawha River on the West End of Charleston. It eventually became home to the world’s largest axe factory.

The company was founded in 1874 by William C. Kelly, who established his first factory in Kentucky before relocating to Indiana and then West Virginia. Kelly was attracted to the Kanawha Valley by the availability of abundant natural gas and good access to river and rail transportation.

June 23, 1944: 103 People Die in State's Deadliest Tornado Outbreak

Jun 23, 2020
e-wv, The West Virginia Encyclopedia

On June 23, 1944, the deadliest tornado outbreak in West Virginia history nearly destroyed the Harrison County community of Shinnston. Sixty-six people died in and around the town, with victims ranging in age from 85 years to only 6 days. Overall, the outbreak killed 103 West Virginians and seriously injured another 430.

e-wv, The West Virginia Encyclopedia

On June 3, 1861, one of the opening acts of the Civil War unfolded in the town of Philippi. At daybreak, the roar of Union cannons shook some 800 slumbering Confederate soldiers from their tents. The routed Confederates made a hasty retreat, derisively remembered as the “Philippi Races.” The brief engagement was the first land battle of the Civil War involving organized troops. And it probably was the first time in history that railroads had been used to bring together troops for battle.

May 28, 1938: NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West Born in Cabin Creek

May 28, 2020
e-wv, The West Virginia Encyclopedia

  Basketball hall of famer Jerry West was born on Cabin Creek in Kanawha County on May 28, 1938. He led East Bank High School to a state basketball championship before going on to rewrite the record books at West Virginia University. As a sophomore, his Mountaineer team finished the regular season ranked first in the nation. In 1959, he took WVU to within two points of a national championship and was named Most Valuable Player of the NCAA Tournament. After his senior season, he won a gold medal in basketball at the 1960 Olympics.

May 26, 1960: Author Phyllis Reynolds Connection to West Virginia Begins

May 26, 2020
e-WV Encyclopedia

Author Phyllis Reynolds’s connection to West Virginia began on May 26, 1960, when she married Rex Naylor and visited places where he had family ties, such as Grafton, Buckhannon, and Preston County.

May 25, 1903: Philanthropist Bernard McDonough Jr. Born in Texas

May 25, 2020
Marietta College

Industrialist and philanthropist Bernard McDonough Jr. was born in Texas on May 25, 1903. His Irish immigrant grandfather had previously settled the family in Clarksburg and later in Belpre, Ohio, near Parkersburg. Young Bernard and his sisters returned to their grandmother in Belpre after the death of their mother.

May 20, 1922: Artist Della Brown Taylor Hardman Born in Charleston

May 20, 2020
Dr. Della Brown Taylor Hardman
e-WV Encyclopedia

Artist Della Brown Taylor Hardman was born in Charleston on May 20, 1922. After graduating from Charleston’s segregated Garnet High School, she attended West Virginia State College (now University) at Institute and Boston University. For 30 years, she was an art professor at West Virginia State.

May 18, 2012: Harshman Named West Virginia's Poet Laureate

May 18, 2020
e-WV Encyclopedia / Cheryl Harshman

On May 18, 2012, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin named Marc Harshman of Wheeling the state poet laureate. He succeeded the late Irene McKinney, who’d served in the post since 1994. Harshman is the ninth person to serve as poet laureate since the position was established in 1927.

Waitman T. Willey
e-WV Encyclopedia / WV State Archives (WVSA)

On May 13, 1861, political leaders, mostly from northwestern Virginia, gathered in Wheeling to address Virginia’s recent secession from the Union. At the start of the Civil War in April, delegates to the Virginia secession convention in Richmond had voted to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. However, the measure wouldn’t become official until voters approved it later in May.

May 12, 1942: Mine Explosion Kills 56 in Osage

May 12, 2020
e-WV Encyclopedia / Library of Congress

On May 12, 1942, a worker in the Christopher No. 3 mine at Osage—just outside Morgantown—left a ventilation door open, and methane accumulated in a dusty area of the mine. At 2:25 in the afternoon, an electric arc from machinery set off an explosion that coursed through three sections of the mine, killing 53 men, destroying ventilation equipment, and causing roof falls. Three others later suffocated in the noxious ‘‘afterdamp’’ gasses. Several miners managed to reach safety through a return airway.

May 11, 1909: Wheeling Filmmaker Ellis Dungan Born in Ohio

May 11, 2020
e-WV Encyclopedia / Wheeling News-Register and Goldenseal

Wheeling filmmaker Ellis Dungan was born on May 11, 1909, in nearby Barton, Ohio. He eventually hitchhiked across the United States several times, studied photography in Paris, and attended the University of Southern California’s film school. 

e-WV Encyclopedia

Activist and physician Martin Delany was born a free African-American at Charles Town in Jefferson County on May 6, 1812. When Delany was 10, his family had to flee Charles Town for violating a Virginia law that forbid educating blacks. They settled in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and Delany eventually moved on to Pittsburgh, where he became a medical assistant.

May 5, 1923: Fire Destroys Luna Park in Charleston

May 5, 2020
Luna-Park
e-WV Encyclopedia

On May 5, 1923, an accidental fire started by welders destroyed most of Luna Park on Charleston’s West Side. The seven-acre amusement park had been built in 1912 on a former three-hole golf course.

May 4, 1887: W.Va. Legislature Elects Charles Faulkner Jr. to the Senate

May 4, 2020
Charles Faulkner Jr.
e-WV Encyclopedia

On May 4, 1887, the West Virginia Legislature pulled its support from incumbent U.S. Senator Johnson Camden and elected Charles Faulkner Jr. of Martinsburg to the Senate. At the time, U.S. senators were chosen by state legislatures.

April 29, 1999: Labor Leader Dan Maroney Dies in Charleston

Apr 29, 2020
e-WV Encyclopedia / West Virginia & Regional History Collection

Labor leader Dan Maroney died in Charleston on April 29, 1999, at age 77. A native of Cabin Creek in Kanawha County, he attended East Bank High School; Beckley College, which later became Mountain State University; and Morris Harvey College, which is now the University of Charleston.

April 28, 1913: Peace Returns to West Virginia Coalfields

Apr 28, 2020

On April 28, 1913, coal operators and United Mine Workers of America accepted a new contract ending the yearlong Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike in Kanawha County. It was the bloodiest strike of the West Virginia Mine Wars. The settlement was known as the “Hatfield Contract” because it was practically dictated to both sides by new governor Henry Hatfield.

April 27, 1978: Willow Island Disaster Leaves 51 Men Dead

Apr 27, 2020
e-WV, The West Virginia Encyclopedia
WV Division of Tourism, David Fattaleh

On April 27, 1978, a disaster at Willow Island in Pleasants County left 51 men dead.

The workers were building a cooling tower at the Monongahela Power Company’s Pleasants Power Station. They were working on scaffolding 168 feet above the ground when it plunged to the ground. Most of the 51 victims were local construction workers. One unfortunate family lost four of five sons, a brother, two brothers-in-law, and three nephews.

April 24, 2001: Civil Rights Leader Leon Sullivan Dies at 78

Apr 24, 2020
e-wv, The West Virginia Encyclopedia

Civil rights leader Leon Sullivan died on April 24, 2001, at age 78. The Charleston native graduated from Garnet High School and West Virginia State College before being trained in the ministry at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. In 1950, he became minister of Philadelphia’s Zion Baptist Church. During his 38 years at Zion Baptist, the church grew into one of the nation’s largest congregations.

April 22, 2011: Old-Time and Bluegrass Musician Hazel Dickens Dies

Apr 22, 2020

Musician Hazel Dickens died in Washington, D.C., on April 22, 2011, at age 75. Oftentimes called the "Voice of West Virginia," Appalachian music matriarch Hazel Dickens was a pioneer of old-time and bluegrass music, known for preserving the traditional vocal styles of West Virginia

April 21, 1936: President Roosevelt Establishes Jefferson National Forest

Apr 21, 2020
Wikimedia Commons / Brian M. Powell

On April 21, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Jefferson National Forest, located primarily in southwest Virginia and southeast West Virginia. It covers more than 18,000 acres in Monroe County, is part of the New River Valley and New Castle Ranger Districts, and is accessible from State Routes 15, 17, and 20. Oak-pine forests cover the forest lands, which range in elevation from 2,000 to 3,600 feet.

April 20, 1939: Poet Laureate Irene McKinney Born in Belington

Apr 20, 2020
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Poet Irene McKinney was born in Belington in Barbour County on April 20, 1939. She earned degrees from West Virginia Wesleyan College and West Virginia University and, in 1976, published her first book of poems, The Girl with the Stone in Her Lap. She served as director of creative writing at West Virginia Wesleyan and, in 1984, published another poetry collection entitled The Wasps and the Blue Hexagon.  The next year, she won a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and other prestigious honors.

April 17, 1861: Virginia Politicians Vote to Secede from the Union

Apr 17, 2020
Frank Leslie / wikimedia Commons / user: Btphelps

On April 17, 1861, Virginia politicians voted to secede from the Union. The move came just days after the Civil War had erupted at Fort Sumter and after President Abraham Lincoln had called for 75,000 volunteers. For months, Virginia and other states in the Upper South had refused to join the new Confederate States of America. But, Lincoln’s call for volunteers tipped the balance.

April 15, 1861: President Lincoln Calls for Volunteer Troops

Apr 15, 2020
BotMultichillT / wikimedia Commons

On April 15, 1861, three days after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteer troops. At the time, the U.S. Army had only about 16,000 soldiers. While most historians point to Fort Sumter as the beginning of the war, some suggest the war didn’t really begin until Lincoln’s call for troops. His action spurred four of the “holdout” states—Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas—to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy.

Observation tower at Droop Mountain State Park overlooking the Greenbrier River valley.
Chad Matlick / WVPB

On April 14, 1928, the West Virginia Fish and Game Commission purchased Droop Mountain Battlefield in Pocahontas County. Three months later, Droop Mountain was dedicated as West Virginia’s first state park. In November 1863, one of the most important Civil War battles in West Virginia occurred at Droop Mountain, when Union forces repulsed one of the last major Confederate advances into West Virginia.

e-wv, The West Virginia Encyclopedia

Attorney and presidential candidate John W. Davis was born in Clarksburg on April 13, 1873. The Democrat launched his political career in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1899, and was elected to Congress in 1911. He resigned shortly into his second term to become U.S. solicitor general and later served as President Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to England.

April 10, 1932: Striptease Artist Blaze Starr Born in Wayne County

Apr 10, 2020
e-wv, The West Virginia Encyclopedia

On April 10, 1932, striptease artist Blaze Starr was born in Wayne County as Fanny Belle Fleming. At age 14, she left home for Logan, where she worked at a drive-in. After catching a bus to Washington, her life soon changed in unexpected ways.

A date took her to a burlesque club in Baltimore. She bragged to the owner that she could do a better job than his current dancers. Renamed Blaze Starr, she became the star attraction at Sol Goodman’s Two O’ Clock Club.

April 8, 1951: C-47 Transport Plane Crashes Near Kanawha Airport

Apr 8, 2020
Pictured is a U.S. Air Force Douglas C-47 Skytrain of the 167th Fighter Squadron, West Virginia Air National Guard. The 167th flew the C-47 from 1947 to 1958.
USAF

On April 8, 1951, a C-47 transport plane crashed near Charleston’s Kanawha Airport, which is now Yeager Airport, killing 21 members of the Air National Guard. They were on their way to Charleston for the funeral of fellow Guardsmen Major Woodford Sutherland. Sutherland had been killed in a freak training accident in Florida in which his parked P-51D Mustang was hit by another plane.

April 7, 1981: Poet Roy Lee Harmon Dies at 80

Apr 7, 2020
Roy Lee Harmon
West Virginia Division of Culture and History

Poet Roy Lee Harmon died on April 7, 1981, at age 80. The founder of the West Virginia Poetry Society, Harmon was born in Boone County, grew up in Danville, and graduated from Scott District School. He attended Morris Harvey College, which is now the University of Charleston, before becoming a reporter and eventually city editor for the Raleigh Register newspaper in Beckley.

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