It’s a rainy day here in Charleston, West Virginia’s capitol city and its largest. The gray skies and wet streets do nothing to lessen the glimmer of the golden dome of the state capitol building, and it shines, visible from all over the city.
Across the plaza lies the West Virginia State Museum, containing in it the entire story of the region, from native peoples to colonists, statehood, and the industries that have driven its growth. I enter, thankful to be warm and dry… and I am blown away. The museum is almost Disney-esque, with exhibits of animatronic historic figures, themed exhibits, and voices speaking the stories I am seeing. This state isn’t just about coal mining and conservatism; it is about what fundamental rights belong to people, and the role that government plays in the protection of those. The story of West Virginia is not what I was expecting.
The West Virginia Capitol
Until the Civil War, West Virginia was part of Virginia. It was largely made up of poorer people than the rest of the state; the mountainous terrain made large plantations nearly impossible. Like many states with such a sharp divide, a secessionist movement began, due in part to a property requirement for suffrage passed in 1829, and in other part to the West Virginians’ feelings of being ignored by the state government in Richmond. Few roads crossed the mountainous western portion of the state, and education was severely limited. However, forming a separate state was not something that could really happen. Getting a popular referendum to pass was impossible due to population discrepancies between Virginia and its western cousin.
When the Civil War broke out and Virginia seceded, it took West Virginia with it. However, while slavery was practiced in West Virginia, it wasn’t as large of an issue to West Virginians. Nevertheless, more than 20,000 West Virginians joined the Confederate Army.
For leaders of West Virginia’s secessionist movement, this was their chance. As Virginia was not part of the Union, and neither it nor the other southern states would participate in congressional issues, West Virginia’s leaders applied for statehood in the North. After several popular referenda and ratification by Congress, West Virginia was admitted into the Union in 1863 as the 35th state, and as a slave state. West Virginia then supplied forces to the northern armies, more than 32,000 soldiers serving, more than fought for the Confederacy.
A floor in the museum with different wood for each county. Amazing!
In 1871, the Supreme Court heard the case Virginia vs West Virginia, which questioned the legality of West Virginia controlling the counties east of the mountains in the eastern panhandle, which had been annexed to give the Union control over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The court ruled in favor of West Virginia, and the legality of the state seceding hasn’t been questioned since.
Making my way through the museum, watching and listening to this story unfold, I am also greeted with other artifacts from the state’s storied past. In one room is Daniel Boone’s rifle; another holds the noose used to hang John Brown, leader of an abolitionist raid on Harper’s Ferry that has been viewed as one of the sparks of the Civil War. Another exhibit speaks of West Virginia’s famous coal industry. Each exhibit brings the state to life, and I am able to glean understanding what made – and continues to make – West Virginia unique.
An exhibit in the West Virginia State Museum
I exit back into the drizzle, and make my way into the capitol building. The rotunda is closed, sadly, but I peek into the House of Delegates chamber. The Senate is closed currently, as they are in the process of impeaching their entire Supreme Court for budget mismanagement and graft. (These trials are ongoing, both at the state senate level and federal charges for the Chief Justice. I wish more media outlets would talk about this, at it is news of a monumental proportion, being described by some as a Republican power grab, by others as recognition of a longstanding problem, and by others as just one more example of why government should never be trusted. The security guard I speak with outside the chamber leans toward the second option, but my driver definitely falls into the last group.) Regardless, the building is almost as beautiful on the inside as the outside.
The dome gleams against the backdrop of West Virginia’s stunning mountains as I make my way back through downtown. Built on the banks of the Kanawha River, downtown Charleston is easy to walk if weather permits, and filled with some surprisingly good food, although the state itself doesn’t seem to have a recognizable cuisine. I opt for pizza at Pies and Pints, a local chain, and am pleasantly surprised.
West Virginia has a truly fascinating history, and Charleston is the place to go to experience it. I learned so much about what makes this state special, and with that, another bridge between California writer and West Virginian was built.
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